Trade as enabler of civilization


JD Unwin made the case that civilizations collapsed when their internal cultural frameworks were no longer fit to sustain cohesion and fertility. Typically, it would be because of deviation from the pattern of, what he termed, “absolute monogamy” and sexual restraint. Most often, more rights to women would precede such a collapse.

Of course, in the particular case of Mycenaean civilization’s collapse, it is more likely that natural, exogenous factors were the real culprit (part of the Bronze Age pattern of collapse).

But it is natural to ask the question: what enabled more advanced civilization in the first place? One of the answers is intelligence. Another is cooperation.

Let me state for the record that I am not one to deny the importance of individual intelligence, especially, in the context of group, or “hive” intelligence. But this post is not about that.

Let’s discuss cooperation per se. It can be internal or external. Internal cooperation, per Turchin’s “Ultrasociety,” is what enabled people to work together, to better to compete against other groups. Through millennia of this process, groups that were better at cooperating, won out. (And yes, since a lot of winning was done by warfare, necessitating fulfillment of logistics and efficient population growth and density, it is natural to recognize that this type of cooperation was most likely mediated by religion and that it also put upward pressure on IQ. As I’ve mentioned, we’ll postpone the religion and IQ topics to another post.

But that is not the full story: cooperation can also be external.

No, I am not talking about a modern-ish liberal utopia of peoples all over the world “joining hands” and helping each other altruistically. I’m talking about something more prosaic, yet more fundamental: trade.

Broadly put, trade was instrumental when it came to expanding the overall carrying capacity of civilizations. What I think bears mention here, is that not all trade is created equal, and this fact may be ascertained from Findlay and O’Rourke’s “Power of Plenty.”

Historically, if we concentrate on the post-Roman Empire period, before the emergence of Hanseatic League and Venice after the end of Dark Ages, most trade was about supplying elites with status-granting items. However, the Mycenaeans were the first people who were able to exploit their proximity to sea to build advanced technology (for the time), to transport items and people (slaves, warriors) in a very cheap manner, in higher volume, and across huge distances. This trade was fundamentally higher scale and quality than what could be accomplished through more conventional, non-maritime routes. It also required great skill to sustain and expand it, along with various tangential enterprises endeavored by status-seekers of the polities that comprised Mycenae.

This trade on mass scale enabled more labor specialization, helping to free up the talents of increasingly more citizens of the polities along the Aegean, for value-added endeavors, including intellectual ones. It is known, for instance, that Athens of 5th century BC imported grain, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that Athenians faced pressure to export people (set up colonies) and import food during Bronze Age as well. This labor specialization via trade, in my opinion, is the main reason we know of Ionian Greeks as the intellectual and literary paragons that they were.

Not to discount it, of course: not only trade, but technologically involved, well-organized warfare, including plundering incursions, played a huge part, too.

I am not as convinced as some people, however, that Mycenaean Greeks, on an individual basis, were more special, IQ-wise, than the preceding Minoans. It’s just that the conditions were ripe for the Mycenaean/Ionian international acclaim. Genetically, the Mycenaeans, most likely, were just an Indo-Europeanized, more warfare oriented, version of Minoans. The Minoans were likely Anatolian derived, like the LBK, and were very adept at building things, including agrarian-based civilization. As explained above, we need to invoke group-competition based arguments to understand Mycenaean fame, as opposed to focusing on the individuals that comprised those civilizations.

There were other examples of civilizations that benefited from trade, with citizens who were unlikely smarter, individually, than those of societies that existed roughly contemporaneously and who practiced similar way of life.

Let’s take Sumerians. Individually, they were probably as “special” as the Elamites and the Harappans, who probably were very much related to them. Just, again, more access to productive land (enabling higher population capacity and more intense inter-group competition), water for irrigation and rivers, somewhat better trade, including via said rivers, and thus, again, labor specialization.

All of these groups are, ultimately, descendants of Natufian people who acquired farming capability and evolved better intelligence as a result.

If we look at our more modern times, examples abound of huge political conglomerations based on trade: colonial empires (like England, Portugal, Spain) and confederacies of related kingdoms (Hanseatic League, German kingdoms) are something that comes to mind. There may be others, too.

I do not dispute that societies evolve and expand via inter-group competition. What I think is important to notice, however, is that there are situations that, given a certain threshold of efficiency in technology of food and goods production, in order for said groups to expand, require making a choice between the familiar zero-sum strategy of warfare and a positive-sum strategy of between-group exchange, conditional upon interest in mutual survival and trust.

I’ll even further speculate that, sometimes, inter-group competition necessitates building closer, if initially loose, coalitions. At the beginning, it is trade which allows those coalitions and confederations to become more than just a collection of united parts, to be part of something holistically bigger. But by further stimulating new type of cohesion, via blood-alliances, if they are further united by common culturo-linguistic framework, these coalitions may serve as springboard to formation of even more integrated super-entities, whose parts are indelible. This super-entity, as a super-organism, can be more competitive against foreign other groups and states.

The United States is a prime example of an initial confederacy united by trade, blood-ties, and common language that became something bigger when it became a holistic political entity. It certainly has not always been a smooth sailing (recall the Civil War), and it remains to be proven whether the current internal social and fiscal arrangements of this super-entity makes it survivable in the long term (to be posted on later). However, it remains the case that the US provides the most striking illustration of trade enabling both greater population carrying capacity and competitiveness of a coalition of states vs the hypothetical carrying capacity of non-trading, competing individual parts.


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