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The Devolution of Man June 30, 2012

Posted by Sobek in History.
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Hope you’re in the mood for a long essay, ’cause that’s what I got.

I’ve been pondering this theory of history for a while now – several years in fact.  Maybe some of you will find it interesting at least, if not persuasive.  I’m certainly up for some peer review.

Evolutionary History

There’s a Darwin-esque sense when reading a history of the world, or localized histories that reach into the distant past, that mankind is on an evolutionary ascent in terms of social progress.  That is, primitive cavemen were primitive, the classical Greeks and Romans less so, Enlightenment Europe even less so, and today we have the modern world, where we’re pretty freakin awesome, and it’s only going to get better.  Sure, there might be setbacks.  You’ll notice I omitted the Dark Ages, for example.  But the general trend is towards the better.  This is an implied theme, even if nowhere expressly stated, in a lot of the history books I read, and I read a whole lot of history books.

History!

Devolution in Human History

My theory is that human society is much more a series of devolutions.  That is, after a period of massive turbulence, society emerges and produces a golden age, which devolves into a silver age, a bronze age, an age of clay and iron, and then dissolves back into turbulence until it is replaced by a new society entering a new golden age.

A similar kind of pattern has been recognized by students of Middle Eastern history for a long time.  Namely, the barbarians come in from the steppe, conquer the soft and weak city-dwellers (and generally break all their stuff), but then they settle down, develop a flowering culture, get soft and weak, and make themselves targets for the next wave of steppe barbarians.

The important thing to notice about this pattern is that political stability is always at its greatest with the new conqueror/lawgiver/king.  The prophet Muhammad united the warring tribes in Arabia and founded one of the world’s greatest societies, hallmarked by a piece of literature unmatched by any Arabic author in the succeeding 1,400 years.  But society quickly devolved into warring factions, the murder of three out of four of Muhammad’s successors, and a new dynasty (the Umayyads) emerging from the ashes.  The Umayyads produced a flowering of political strength as the Muslim world expanded and unified far beyond the borders Muhammad and the first four Caliphs ever knew.  But as the Umayyads became increasingly citified and weak, the empire broke up at the periphery, and the dynasty was destroyed by the Abbassids.  (The Abbassids are interesting because, at least in name, they stayed around far longer than their political power would have suggested, but that is specifically because their successors found it useful to have them as figureheads.  The Mongol invaders didn’t see them as useful, and exterminated the line in 1258).  In terms of political stability, the Middle Eastern world graph looks like this:

history … 😦

And it happens over and over again: in the ludicrously over-simplified version, the Abbassids are supplanted by the Seljuks, who weaken and get supplanted by the Ilkhanids, who get destroyed by the Timurids.  By this point the world is divided between Ottomans (in Turkey), Safavids (in Iran) and Mughals (in India) and each of these competing, co-existing dynasties goes through the same process of spectacular rise and decline.

Devolution as Marked by Music and Literature

The process I’m talking about refers in essence to culture, a term that I won’t try to define, but which I think anyone can agree includes politics, art, music and literature.  I want to look at the latter three in terms of the European experience to further support my theory.

If we posit that culture is constantly improving on an evolutionary, incremental basis, we would expect that Beethoven would be preceded by a composer who was a little less good, and followed by composers who were increasingly better.  Or, even if we view Beethoven as a radical mutation who departed drastically from his musical predecessors and contemporaries (which one can reasonably argue), his successors should still be better than him, not worse.  But what we see is that the Classical period is a sudden ferment of amazing new ideas and landmark composers – Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven foremost among them – followed by a decline.  No one took Beethoven’s ideas and made them imperceptibly better, to be followed by another who improved a little bit more.  Instead, Beethoven has remained a household name for hundreds of years.  And who do we have today to compare to him? In a certain sense we have the Beatles, or pioneers of Jazz, the Blues, maybe rap (if that’s your thing).  But that only helps prove my point: the Beatles revolutionized their genre by helping to invent rock and roll, and then we followed by imitators, not better bands who made imperceptibly small improvements.  The Beatles became that new, revolutionary spike that was followed by a decline, just as Beethoven was.

Let’s move to Russian literature, which had a Golden Age featuring Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenyev, to name only a small fraction.  Even if you haven’t read those authors, you know their names and their reputations.  There was a sudden ferment, a spontaneous outpouring of amazing literary landmarks that have never been equalled in the Russian language.  Why?  If human culture is evolving, steadily improving through a process akin to natural selection, Tolstoy should be our Lucy, only barely recognizable compared to modern Russian letters.  The exact opposite is the case: how many contemporary Russian authors can you name?  Solzhenitsyn, maybe.  Nabokov, I guess.  No Tolstoys or Dostoevskys to be seen.

The Intersection of Art and Politics

Consider how literature and history/politics are intertwined in this respect.  The greatest Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were produced at the beginning of the classical Greek period, when Greece was emerging on the stage of history, rather than at the culmination or end of Greek civilization.  Greece had a renaissance during the age of Pericles, and produced new landmarks of culture, personified in Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.  But as before, these new authors (a) never rose to the prominence or importance of Homer, and (b) they represent a new cultural ferment, rather than an incremental outgrowth inevitably progressing from Homer in an unbroken line.

Homer. Also, part of me just died.

Rome has its most spectacular epic in Virgil’s Aeneid.  What later Roman poet ever matched that work in power, or in defining the era?  Dante’s Divina Commedia helped to invent Italian as a language, during the birth pangs of the Italian Renaissance, and has not been improved upon by any subsequent Italian, even though a theory of cultural evolution demands it should have been bested in intervening 700 years, and bested frequently.  The Egyptian pyramids at Giza were built during the Old Kingdom, and more specifically at the beginning of the Old Kingdom.  That is, when the Egyptians became a kingdom, a power, a culture, they immediately set about building their most massive and defining monuments, and five thousand years have not been enough for any descendants of the Pharaohs to make anything better.   Again, there are new bursts of creative energy that tend to follow the country’s political fortunes, as with Queen Hatshepsut’s spectacular mortuary temple.  I don’t meant to suggest that the temple isn’t amazing, but you know what the pyramids are without googling, and that’s probably not true for Hatshepsut.  I just heard a very persuasive argument that the Torah was first composed around 1,000 B.C., which is the time David was King of Israel — i.e., the height of Israel’s ancient glory.  That seems the perfect time for a Jewish author to write Israel’s greatest literature, which is synonymous with Jewish identity.

America has produced some of the finest political minds the world has ever seen.  How many countries had a Thomas Jefferson, a John Adams, a Thomas Paine, a Benjamin Franklin, a James Madison, and scores of other Revolutionary luminaries, let alone all at the same time?  But consider the near-universal disdain in which we hold our politicians now – who would we send to a new Constitutional Convention?  Do we have an Abraham Lincoln among us?  As with other places, America started off with a massive explosion, a Big Bang of intellectual output, which has since dwindled, rather than improved steadily.  And in literature, do we have an Edgar Allan Poe among us?  A Mark Twain?  John Steinbeck or Ernest Hemmingway?  As far as I can tell, we have Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks.

Note that I haven’t discussed China, or Japan, or South America or Africa.  Long story short, I admit I don’t know enough about those areas.  But I suspect the same pattern holds true.

The Exception to This Rule

At this point I’m just multiplying examples, but there’s one counter-example I haven’t mentioned, because it’s a counter-example.  Specifically, I haven’t talked about math and science.  That’s because science is more incrementalist by nature.  Unless corrupted by politics, science tends to very quickly assimilate the good and build upon it.

Above: Science assimilating things.

Even in the area of science we tend to have eras of intellectual ferment, dominated by giants in the field comparable to the Russian authors of the Golden Age.  So again, we’ll find an Einstein or a Newton making amazing discoveries by leaps and bounds, or a Tesla (and an Edison, being Edison to Tesla’s Tesla) inventing crazy new crap.  Even if their immediate successors don’t produce the same volume of new discoveries, at least they generally can’t be said to be purely imitative, or regressive.  So science has that going for it.  Or so it seems to me, a non-scientist.  I’d love to hear Geoff or Mrs. Peel chime in on the subject.

Declinism in Disfavor, and a Rebuttal

In 1776, Edward Gibbon wrote one of the most famous works of history in the English language, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  One criticism that has been leveled at Gibbon is that his “decline” period lasts for four centuries.  How can Rome be said to be in decline after Marcus Aurelius (d. 180 A.D.), if Rome wasn’t finally sacked until 476?  On a similar but more exotic note, David Morgan rejects a similar “decline” approach to the fall of the Safavid empire in Iran, in his book Medieval Persia, 1040-1797.  How can the empire be in decline after Shah Abbas, and then continue for an extra hundred years?

I respectfully submit that conquest and destruction is not the only hallmark of decline.  Instead, conquest is a function of both decline and aggressive neighbors.  If the Safavids are in cultural freefall, but the Ottomans aren’t interested in pushing east, and the Ozbeks aren’t interested in more than border raids, the empire can coast for quite some time.  The key question isn’t when the capital city gets sacked, but whether the society is producing cultural achievements.

I wasn’t sure what I’d get when I did a Google image search for “rebuttal,” but I figured it would be something similar to this. Fun fact: this image means Dave is 13% more likely to read my mammoth post.

So I think that applies to America, which can go into cultural and political stagnation and decline for decades, but because no one can or wants to invade and start breaking stuff (as a general matter), there is no “decline” in the sense of Germanic barbarians at the gates, or Roman legions conquering Athens, or Romans razing the temple in Jerusalem (huh, these Romans kinda deserved what they got, eh?), there can be an absence of those hallmarks of a great civilization because we’re content to coast on our glorious past.  Nothing that David Morgan wrote about the Safavids has me convinced that they did anything impressive after Shah Abbas died; no Roman emperor after Marcus Aurelius rises to his historical stature; none of the states in decline produce like states at the peaks.

I need to emphasize a point about coasting.  If you tell an Arab that his society is backward, assuming he doesn’t blame the Jews, you’ll probably get an indignant “We invented Algebra!  We were masters of the world!”  Those are both true statements, I think, and yet the reason they sound so hollow is the lazy recourse to achievements that are millenia in the past.  First of all, you didn’t invent Algebra, someone else did, and that guy’s been dead for a very long time.  You didn’t write the Rubayiat or the Muqqadimah, you didn’t build the Dome of the Rock.  Your extremely distant ancestors did, and if you don’t have any more current examples of greatness, your culture is in decline.  Indeed, it has been supplanted.

Some Perspective on Chronology

So is America currently in decline?  I think so, and partly because it’s hard to think of achievements that compare with the Declaration of Independence, Mount Rushmore, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, or the Brooklyn Bridge.  The Lincoln Memorial (1912-22) is awe-inspiring.  The FDR Memorial (1997) sucks donkey balls.  Also, because of the spike-and-decline patterns I’m positing, most periods in history are decline periods.  If you’re not living during a time of feverish formation of national identity, you’re probably in a decline period.

And yet it’s not so easy to tell, because the historical periods I’m discussing are ludicrously long.  I mentioned earlier that the great pyramids in Egypt were built at the beginning, not the end, of the Old Kingdom, not the New (or later).  But the Old Kingdom lasted from 2686 to 2181 BC.  That’s one tiny sliver of ancient Egyptian history (3,100 to 30 BC).  The Old Kingdom had five hundred years to rise and fall.  By contrast, America has existed as a nation for just over 200 years.  There’s absolutely no way to predict how long a decline period will last, or when (or where) the next spike period will occur.  So maybe China’s current strength relative to America (for example) signals a new spike in Asia and the supplanting of the American experiment, but maybe it’s all statistically-insignificant noise.

It’s amazing to me to hear historians casually gloss over the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt in a paragraph or two, even though it lasted over four hundred years — nearly twice the current age of America, and it’s historically seen as little more than a hiccup.

 

Comments»

1. geoff - June 30, 2012

The FDR Memorial (1997) sucks donkey balls.

At least we still have donkey balls.

So maybe China’s current strength relative to America (for example) signals a new spike in Asia and the supplanting of the American experiment

*struggles to keep mouth shut*

2. geoff - June 30, 2012

You remember the Alexander Tytler quote, I’m sure (though it may not really be Alexander Tytler’s quote):

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been about 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.

Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747–1813)

3. geoff - June 30, 2012

Unless corrupted by politics, science tends to very quickly assimilate the good and build upon it.

…or corrupted by funding. Which it has been. I know I’ve mentioned before that the US is rapidly losing ground to other countries in terms of the number and quality of publications, at least in the journals I take. Twenty years ago we were completely dominant, today we publish about 50% of the articles in a given issue.

More and more you see amazing innovations happening elsewhere. So while our science continues to more forward, it is being overtaken by everybody else.

4. daveintexas - June 30, 2012

>> Dave is 13% more likely to read my mammoth post

You guessed low, but still, I’m feelin you brotha.

There’s also a Maslow factor in play, civilizations tend to focus their energy and productivity on “what hurts most right now?”

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams

5. Michael - June 30, 2012

I respectfully submit that conquest and destruction is not the only hallmark of decline. Instead, conquest is a function of both decline and aggressive neighbors.

You forget to mention rap music, TV shows like American Idol, and kids on my lawn!

6. Michael - June 30, 2012

I agree with you completely, by the way. It has long been my opinion that civilization is not advancing, we just get more technologically sophisticated about our barbarism. It’s the basic conservative (and Christian) view of human nature, which is — we suck.

But, we have achieved some cool stuff like air conditioning and iPhones.

7. Michael - June 30, 2012

I mention air conditioning because I recently had to deal with one A/C system that was leaking freon, another one that was leaking water, and a third one where the compressor was blown and had to be replaced.

That meant I had two systems that were OK, but still, I was scarily close to actually having to live with the North Texas climate in July. Or just drive around in my car all the time.

8. Michael - June 30, 2012

I think I read somewhere, years ago, that Houston consumes more power for air conditioning than all of western Europe.

It’s true that if you go to Europe in the summer and stay at nice little B&Bs or country inns, you won’t have air conditioning. On a warm day, you open the windows and hope for a breeze.

9. sandy burger - July 2, 2012

It has long been my opinion that civilization is not advancing, we just get more technologically sophisticated about our barbarism. It’s the basic conservative (and Christian) view of human nature, which is — we suck.

That’s the Christian view of human nature, but it is not the Christian view of civilization. The Christian view of society is generally one of progress, leading towards: “On Earth as it is in Heaven”.

10. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

A true follower of Christ would never be allowed by his fellow man to take a position of leadership. They would kill that Christian, just like they killed Christ. Besides, even if they let him have a leading role in that civilization, it would destroy that country, because a true Christian would tell his countrymen to not ever fight, and to give every man what they ask for. So, basically, anyone could come and take over a country ruled by true Christians.

Did Christ tell his disciples to try to rule nations? Of course not! All he commanded them to do was love one another, and do good even to evil people, and resist not evil. All this other stuff in this article is nice, like technological advances, but that is not the right thing to look at to determine whether mankind is devolving. You can build a big old pyramid, and not have love.

Almost everyone today, and in the past, who claims/claimed to be a ‘Christian’, is/was a little ignorant of the fact that we must behave as the Lord Yahshua Christ really behaved, if we want to be saved.

Is mankind devolving??? Of course, and the decline is dropping fast.

What is the solution??? Ask Yahweh to lead you to true Christianity, and through Yahshua His Son, you will find it. Love is the only solution.

11. Michael - July 12, 2012

Scholars think it was “Yeshua.” Kinda hard to say for sure, because the Hebrew alphabet did not include vowels.

12. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

That was one ugly looking Gravatar picture. I’m trying to fix it, maybe it will be right with this post.

13. Michael - July 12, 2012

Love is the only solution.

Well, love is not the only solution. A superior military capability helps a lot.

14. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

Yahshua, Yeshua, Yehoshua, Yoshua, they are all a different spelling for the same name. Everybody, even people in the same country, will pronounce His name slightly different.

15. Michael - July 12, 2012

“Yeshua” is the antecedent of the modern name “Joshua.” It was a common name during the Second Temple period, about the third most popular according to archeological evidence.

16. geoff - July 12, 2012

Love, schmuv. Gimme some pyramids.

17. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

Superior military capability only helps if you want to kill people or force them to be something they’re not. A true follower of Yeshua will not even hit a person, let alone kill them.

18. Michael - July 12, 2012

What bugs me is that English speakers make the biggest mash of his name.

Jeeeeezzzus.

Dang. If you want a prayer to get listened to, try to do a better job with the name.

19. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

Lot’s of people were named Yeshua. You’re right. But he was Yeshua the Son of Yahweh, the Messiah/Christ.

Pyramids were a waste of time and effort. Poor pyramid makers. Though, they are neat to look at.

20. Michael - July 12, 2012

A true follower of Yeshua will not even hit a person, let alone kill them.

Yeshua actually whipped people in the temple courtyard. He was enraged by the larceny.

21. Michael Hurley - July 12, 2012

You can’t read that. He whipped around, but the scripture never says that he actually struck anyone.

If any servant of Yahshua feels led to mimic that act, he better be sure that he’s a good aim.

22. Michael - July 12, 2012

Nope, the synoptic Gospels are clear that he whipped the money changers (Mark 11:15-18, Matthew 21:12–17)

23. Michael - July 12, 2012

OK, it actually says the he overturned the tables of the money changers. Still a violent and militant act.

24. Mitchell - July 12, 2012

Didn’t the J-Man tell His homies to get themselves some swords in case they need to open a can of whoop-ass on some punks if said punks try to get up in their grills?*

*paraphrased

25. Michael - July 12, 2012

I’m pretty sure that “whoop-ass” is not a term that exists in Aramaic.

26. geoff - July 12, 2012

Pyramids with laser beams.

That’s what I want.

27. Mitchell - July 12, 2012

Pyramids with laser beams

Here ya go.

28. Sobek - July 12, 2012

Mitchell, well-played.

29. Sobek - July 12, 2012

Sandy, I agree that Christians generally (can’t say I know what all of ’em believe) believe we’ll have a perfect society, per the Lord’s prayer. But I don’t think that’s any kind of evolutionary process, or social progress. My take (speaking as just one Christian) is that society will keep heading down the toilet, and will only become good through divine intervention.

30. Sobek - July 12, 2012

Michael Hurley, thanks for your comments. I take issue with a couple of your points, but agree on most. Most basically, my post wasn’t a “here’s what we should do about it” post, but rather a “here’s how I think historical dynamics tend to work” post. I agree that the only real solution to devolving is faith in Christ, but that’s a dynamic that affects individuals, rather than societies. That is, even if we got a “true Christian” President according to your definition, it wouldn’t change society except to the extent individuals wanted/allowed themselves to be changed.

Okay, I’ll take issue with one more thing. You said: “Almost everyone today, and in the past, who claims/claimed to be a ‘Christian’, is/was a little ignorant of the fact that we must behave as the Lord Yahshua Christ really behaved, if we want to be saved.”

Well I certainly try my best to behave like Christ. I also fall pretty short, pretty much constantly. But I have God’s grace to make up the difference.

Okay, one more one more thing. I believe in using force for self-defense and the defense of others. If a scumbag slaps me for my faith, I will turn the other cheek. If a scumbag tries to rape someone, I will shoot him repeatedly, until the threat is eliminated (then I will secure the assailant, administer first aid to the best of my ability, and call an ambulance).

31. Tushar - July 12, 2012

In India, Jesus is called Yeshu Christ.

32. Tushar - July 12, 2012

He overturned the tables of the moneychangers to make sure theRe was no under the table exchange of money going on. IRS calls him The First Agent.

psalmistofyahweh - September 29, 2012

Yahshua came that he might the destroy the works of the Devil, which is to get man to sin, so that we will be as lost as he is. In Yahweh’s eyes, everyone is a scumbag, unless they repent and follow after His Son Yahshua, which means that they stop sinning. I used to act like a scumbag, in fact, I think I was a Chief of Scumbags! I’m glad no one murdered me before I repented. Yahweh winked at man’s ignorance before Yahshua came to straighten up the mess. Now there is no killing/murdering allowed!!! That’s why no Holy Man could ever take a major leadership position in this wicked world today. He would never make it in office, or he would be assassinated after he told his fellow countrymen to “Resist not evil”.


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