13 April 2017
Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:
“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”
Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4
For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.
A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:
A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”
Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.
We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.
To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.
In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.
The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.
Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.
If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.
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15 March 2014
Homo sapiens is the genocidal species. I have long had it on my mind to write about this. I have the idea incorporated in an unpublished manuscript, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day, so I will give a brief exposition here. What does it mean to say that Homo sapiens is the genocidal species (or, if you prefer, a genocidal animal)?
Early human history is a source of controversy that exceeds the controversy over the scientific issues at stake. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. Controversies over human origins are about us, what we are as a species, notwithstanding the obvious fact that we are in no way limited by our past, and we may become many things that have no precedent in our long history. Moreover, the kind of evidence that we have of human origins is not such as to provide us with the kind of narrative that we would like to have of our early ancestors. We have the evidence of scientific historiography, but no poignant human interest stories. In so far as our personal experience of life paradoxically provides the big picture narrative by which we understand the world (a point I tried to make in Kierkegaard and Futurism), the absence of a personal account of our origins is an ellipsis of great consequence.
To assert that humanity is a genocidal species is obviously a tendentious, if not controversial, claim to make. I make this claim partly because it is controversial, because we have seen the human past treated with excessive care and caution, because, as I said above, it is about us. We don’t like to think of ourselves has intrinsically genocidal in virtue of our biology. Indeed, when a controversial claim such as this is made, one can count on such a claim being dismissed not on grounds of evidence, or the lack thereof, but because it is taken to imply biological determinism. According to this reasoning, an essentialist reading of our history shows us that we are genocidal, therefore we cannot be anything other than genocidal. Apart from being logically flawed, this response misses the point and fails to engage the issue.
Yet, in saying that man is a genocidal species, I obviously making an implicit reference to a long tradition of pronouncing humanity to be this or that, as when Plato said that man is a featherless biped. This is, by the way, a rare moment providing a glimpse into Plato’s naturalism, which is a rare thing. There is a story that, hearing this definition, Diogenes of Sinope plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy, saying, “Here is Plato’s man.” (Perhaps he should have said, “Ecce homo!”) This, in turn, reveals Diogenes’ non-naturalism (as uncharacteristic as Plato’s naturalism). Plato is supposed to have responded by adding to his definition, “with broad, flat nails.”
Aristotle, most famously of all, said that man is by nature a political animal. This has been variously translated from the Greek as, “Man is by nature an animal that lives in a polis,” and, “Man is by nature a social animal.” This I do not dispute. However, once we recognize that homo sapiens is a social or political animal (and Aristotle, as the Father of the Occidental sciences, would have enthusiastically approved of the transition from “man” to “homo sapiens”), we must then take the next step and ask what exactly is the nature of human sociability, or human political society. What does it mean for homo sapiens to be a political animal?
If Clausewitz was right, political action is one pole of a smoothly graduated continuum, the other pole of which is war, because, according to Clausewitz, war is the continuation of policy by other means (cf. The Clausewitzean Continuum). This claim is equivalent to the claim that politics is the continuation of war by other means (the Foucauldian inversion of Clausewitz). Thus war and politics are substitutable salve veritate, so that homo sapiens the political animal is also homo sapiens the military animal.
I don’t know if anyone has ever said, man is a military animal, but Freud came close to this in a powerful passage that I have quoted previously (in A Note on Social Contract Theory):
“…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”
Is it unimaginable that it is this aggressive instinct, at least in part, that made in possible for homo sapiens to out-compete every other branch of the hominid tree, and to leave itself as the only remaining hominid species? We are, existentially speaking, El último hombre — the last man standing.
What was the nature of the competition by which homo sapiens drove every other hominid to extinction? Over the multi-million year history of hominids on Earth, it seems likely that the competition among hominids likely assumed every possible form at one time or another. Some anthropologists that observed a differential reproductive success rate only marginally more fertile than other hominid species would have, over time, guaranteed our demographic dominance. This gives the comforting picture of a peaceful and very slow pace of one hominid species supplanting another. No doubt some of homo sapiens’ triumphs were of this nature, but there must have also been, at some time in the deep time of our past, violent and brutal episodes when we actively drove our fellow hominids into extinction — much as throughout the later history of homo sapiens one community frequently massacred another.
A recent book on genocide, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Persepctive (edited by ROBERT GELLATELY, Clark University, and BEN KIEMAN Yale University), is limited in its “historical perspective” to the twentieth century. I think we must go much deeper into our history. In an even larger evolutionary framework than that employed above, if we take the conception of humanity as a genocidal species in the context of Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, according to which life itself is biocidal, then humanity’s genocidal instincts are merely a particular case (with the added element of conscious agency) of a universal biological imperative. Here is how Ward defines his Medea Hypothesis:
Habitability of the Earth has been affected by the presence of life, but the overall effect of life has been and will be to reduce the longevity of the Earth as a habitable planet. Life itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations. Thus it is life that will cause the end of itself, on this or any planet inhabited by Darwinian life, through perturbation and changes of either temperature, atmospheric gas composition, or elemental cycles to values inimical to life.
Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 35
Ward goes on to elaborate his Medea Hypothesis in greater detail in the following four hypotheses:
1. All species increase in population not only to the carrying capacity as defined by some or a number of limiting factors, but to levels beyond that capacity, thus causing a death rate higher than would otherwise have been dictated by limiting resources.
2. Life is self-poisoning in closed systems. The byproduct of species metabolism is usually toxic unless dispersed away. Animals pro- duce carbon dioxide and liquid and solid waste. In closed spaces this material can build up to levels lethal either through direct poisoning or by allowing other kinds of organisms living at low levels (such as the microbes living in animal guts and carried along with fecal wastes) to bloom into populations that also produce toxins from their own metabolisms.
3. In ecosystems with more than a single species there will be competition for resources, ultimately leading to extinction or emigration of some of the original species.
4. Life produces a variety of feedbacks in Earth systems. The majority are positive, however.
Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 35-36
The experience of industrial-technological civilization has added a new dimension to hypothesis 2 above, as industrial processes and their wastes have been added to biological processes and their wastes, leading to forms of poisoning that do not occur unless facilitated by civilization. Moreover, a corollary to hypothesis 3 above (call is 3a, if you like) might be formulated such that those species within an ecosystem that seek to fill the same niche (i.e., that feed off the same trophic level) will be in more direct competition that those species feeding off distinct trophic levels. In this way, multiple hominid species that found themselves in the same ecosystem would be trying to fill the same niche, leading to extinction or emigration. Once homo sapiens achieved extensive totality in the distribution of the species range, however, there is nowhere else for competitors to emigrate, so if they are out-competed, they simply go extinct.
Ward was not the first to focus on the destructive aspects of life. I have previously quoted the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined ecology as the science of the struggle for existence (cf. Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated), and of course in the same vein there is the whole tradition of nature red in tooth and claw. Such visions of nature no longer hold the attraction that they exercised in the nineteenth century, and such phrases have been criticized, but it may be that these expressions of the deadly face of nature did not go far enough.
There is a sense in which all life if genocidal, and this is the Medean Hypothesis; what distinguishes human beings is that we have made genocide planned, purposeful, systematic, and conscious. The genocidal campaigns that have punctuated modern history, and especially those of the twentieth century, represent the conscious implementation of Medean life. We knowingly engage in genocide. Genocide is now a policy option for political societies, and in so far as we are political animals all policy options are “on the table” so to speak. It is this that makes us the uniquely genocidal species.
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28 April 2009
It is easy to suppose that human beings — homo sapiens — constitute the most successful species in the natural history of the planet, but it is somewhat more difficult to quantify this claim. How ought we to measure the biological success of a species?
When I was thinking about this a couple of days ago, without too much effort I could think of six ways in which the biological success of a species might be quantified, and these methods of quantification would yield different results for different species.
1. The biological success of a species could be measured by the absolute number of individual organisms belonging to the species in question.
By this measure, homo sapiens is not the most biologically successful species. For example, at any given time there are approximately 16 billion chickens living on Earth. The title of most numerous organism would probably go to some insect species, or perhaps some marine invertebrate, like plankton. But because each individual of the species homo sapiens is so large, our absolute numbers can be less significant than the total biomass that we represent (see 3 below).
2. The biological success of a species could be measured by the number of distinct biomes in which the species in question has been able to make a home.
By this measure, homo sapiens has a good shot at the title of most biologically successful species, since human beings have inhabited every biome on the planet from equatorial desert to arctic tundra to tropical forest to temperate grassland, but there are probably other species — for example, species of microbes — that have been similarly successful in colonizing diverse habitats.
3. The biological success of a species could be measured by the absolute quantity of biomass (in weight) represented by the collected members of the species.
In other words, if we could gather up all human beings in a big net and weigh them, if together they all weighed more than another other species (say, for example, more than the weight of all the killer whales in all the oceans of the world, or all the chickens in the world) then we would be the most biologically successful species. By this measure, human beings have a good shot at being named the most biologically successful species in the earth, since human bodies are large, and taken together they constitute a substantial biomass, but this is far from certain. However, being at the top of the food chain virtually guarantees that a more plentiful biomass of primary producers is supporting the later consumers at or near the top of an ecological pyramid.
4. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a given species to alter its habitat for its own use.
This seems like a category contrived strictly for the purpose of making humankind the most biologically successful species, but that is not necessarily the case. Whereas our changes to our environment — like the building of cities — are dramatic, the coevolution of many microbial species with their non-living environment would constitute another, and perhaps more pervasive, example — and an example that has persisted for a far longer period of time. There are also more conventional examples like beavers, who alter their habitat, but I doubt beaver numbers approach human numbers, so that human beings modify their environment far more than beavers, speaking quantitatively.
5. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a given species to inhabit every available ecological niche.
This may not be too different from 2 above, except that a biome and a niche are two very different things, differing in terms of order of magnitude (though, for present purposes, qualitatively similar), so a careful definition would allow us to distinguish this as a category of biological success. Biological success defined in terms of niches is a far more fine-grained account than biological success defined in terms of biomes. Within the biome of, say, tropical rainforests, there will be many niches. Few biological niches are sufficiently robust to support a species as large as a human being, but of those that are, we can quantify whether or not these niches are so exploited as a relative measure of the biological success of the species in question.
6. The biological success of a species could be measured by the ability of a species to supplant and replace other species.
This again sounds like a contrived category provided merely for the purpose of finding human beings to be the most biologically successful species, since we certainly have supplanted a great many species. But this is true of “weedy” species generally, and a careful quantification, once again, would be necessary to determine, so far as it is possible, the exact number of other species supplanted by a given weedy species. This could be defined in more than one one, whether in terms of the total number of individuals of any one species displaced, the total number of species displaced, or the total number of individuals of any species whatever displaced. Each of these formulations is likely to yield a distinct result.
There is, however, a yet more radical way in which we might define the biological success for a species. The biological success of an individual is measured by the success of the individual organism in passing on its genes to the next generation. When this happens the species survives (we could say that it has historical viability, or even existential viability). Obviously, this definition of biological success cannot be used to define the biological success of a species, but it could be reformulated, mutatis mutandis, to apply to species on the whole, and not just to individuals of a species.
The biological success of a species, then, could be measured by the genetic information that it passes along to other, distinct species after the species in question itself has become extinct. Death is the extinction of the individual. Extinction is the death of a species. An individual is survived by the offspring that carries its genetic information. Similarly, species that undergo adaptive radiation bequeath their genetic information to successor species. After a given species has become extinct, its relative biological “success” could be measured by the amount of genetic information that it passed along to successor species. In other words, the biological success of a species could be measured by its total contribution to the genetic legacy to the planet.
In this last and most radical sense, homo sapiens cannot be called the most biologically successful species on the planet, and we would not want to earn that title soon, as it can only be conferred upon extinction. Moreover, the institutions of civilization have militated against human adaptive radiation, at least in terms of biology — in terms of social technology, human beings have an impressive legacy of adaptive radiation, and it is just this that has made it possible for us to inhabit as many biomes and niches that we do inhabit. But it is worthwhile to think of our legacy, and our potential legacy, in this context.
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