Trade as enabler of civilization

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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.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 3]

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This post is the final post on Jewish matrilineality, continuing from previous post (part 2).

Let’s summarize:

Based on the described dynamic, the matrilineal arrangement, as it was practiced among the Jews all the way till present time, was a necessary (but not sufficient just by itself) precondition for Jewish communities to further themselves in the physical sense. As I’ve described it, the matrilineal arrangement was a well-defined protocol (in the context of a society living by Jewish identity and custom) that helped Jewish communities to grow and, especially important in trying times, to survive. It served as a guard both against diffusion of other identities into Judaism and against assimilation of Jews into surrounding host societies.

Of course, matrilineality was only one of many Halakhic  arrangements and dictates which, when all combined, was what made Jewish communities into a kind of super-organism, with the wealthy Jews being pivotal in providing infrastructure for inter-communal Jewish connection (the veins) and as main sources of economic input to sustain the community materially (the mouth and all non-nerve organs, plus the extremities), while the Rabbis and related Talmudic scholars and teachers were the keepers of the Jewish tradition (the nerves, which effected the flesh and conveyed the senses) and the providers of communal direction via adjudication of communal matters and disputes (the brain, to which all nerves were connected).

Fascinatingly, said super-organism is not only community-based, but also a distributed entity. The Jews (or rather, Jewish exilarchs, rabbis, scholars) have been in touch with one another over millennia, both temporally and spatially, since the times of Babylonian exile till this very day and across communities divided by warring empires and tribes, as well as significant natural obstacles. Hence, although the nerves and brains were many, all have functioned, effectively, as one.

It is why I will repeat that becoming matrilineal denotes a kind of demarcation line between Jews being a nation living on their land, united and ruled by King but still identified via a tribal imprint from their agro-pastoralist past, and Jews becoming a nation living in exile, distributed among other assimilating nations, an urban society. To use the old tribal analogy, Rabbis were not just the priests of their communities, but also the community’s judges. If one views humans and human societies via cultural evolution, as one should, it was a new, but luckily beneficial mutation that allowed Jews to not only persist (survive), but thrive (grow) within their novel circumstance, a circumstance that required being culturally portable and resilient.

Now that Jews finally have Israel back, the main threat to their identity is coming from breaking of the communities and secularization from within, a double whammy from Haskalah and, later, Shoah. New realities possibly entail a need for some new mutation to preserve the Jews: leaving aspects of the shtetl-derived way but possibly going beyond old-style Rabbinic communities by resurrecting and re-applying some the rules of Halakhah from the days of Judean Kingdom or even creating new ones. Innovation in Halakhah, as we now see, has precedent, and it may be needed again, given the context of additional requirements of surviving and growing as part of a modern, technologically advanced nation-state, a state threatened from many directions, economically and militarily.

Indeed, when one thinks of it all in any real depth, it is boggling the mind – it is amazing to be Jewish. But that’s a story to be continued and expanded on for yet another day or, rather, days.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 2]

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I’m continuing from where I left off, in the previous post.

For the second point, we know that even in our modern times, it is still the men who initiate courtship in virtually all instances leading to family formation. If one refers to how things happened historically, the institution of marriage was usually in the hands of either the groom-to-be or the parents (most often, fathers) of both the groom and the bride. It has never been the case, until women’s emancipation of the last century or so, that brides exercised any significant control in such matters.

Continuing the second point’s explanation, we can now pose the question: if the Rabbinical authorities wished to preserve their communities in exile, what would be the best route to positively affect the likelihood of Jewish identity preservation? Obviously, the best route would be to keep the pillars of the community, i.e. the families, Jewish. But to keep the families Jewish, it is important to keep the members thereof, beginning with the parents, but especially the fathers, given the patriarchal and patrilocal nature of most societies until recently, Jewish.

Given the Rabbinical need for keeping tabs on the Jewishness of family life, how to ascertain that fathers are Jewish? Since the brides never (till recently) controlled the outcome, the channels of influence were via fathers and grooms-to-be. In other words, the males of the community ought to be restricted in their choice of marriage partners for themselves or their sons vis-a-vis their ability to stay in the Jewish community. Put differently, the grooms and their fathers are likely to decide in favor of marrying a Jewish bride, if the arrangement is such that if they do otherwise, they or their descendants don’t stay in the community.

Before I commence unraveling how matrilineality in the Jewish communal context helped to preserve the Rabbinic control of Jewish family, we need to better address what that context was, beyond the mere fact of Jews being patriarchal and patrilocal, like most of the surrounding gentiles.

Most prominently, it needs to be noted here that being steeped in Jewish learning has always been not just a historic requirement but a marker of high status of men in Jewish communities, most of which were likely either established or, at the very least, glued by Talmudically learned men. Not just that, but also the fact that many Jews were involved in trading and finance, both of which required being connected to high-trust networks — all of these reasons clearly pushed Jewish males into finding themselves Jewish wives and de facto leaving bride fathers no choice but to marry their daughters into a Jewish, or more desirably, a learned or connected Jewish family.

Also, historically, many Jewish communities lived in Christian Europe, where Jews, since 5th century AD on, were explicitly forbidden from converting Christians to Jewish faith. Hence, the Jews had to be extremely cautions to when it came to accepting converts: an elaborate, lengthy process (called “giur”) was set up. Before 5th century, Roman Jews were quite open to proselytizing, and conversion was merely a formality.

For a rich Jewish man to marry out of Jewish community would often be an unwise decision. More often than not, the security, if not the very viability of their business depended on being integrated in high-trust financial and trade networks. Being a part of family whose Jewishness was questionable if at all real, jeopardized such arrangements — if not for the groom, then for his descendants, who would not be considered Jewish.

Of course, there surely were sometimes political, if not economic, reasons to marry out of faith and out of community for a even a rich Jewish man or his family (his parents desiring to make a new alliance via their son’s marriage, for instance, or maybe sheer absence of Jewish brides in the area). And technically yes, one could, for example, marry a gentile woman, but in order to preserve offsprings’ Jewishness, the matrilineality requirement necessitated converting their gentile brides or wives to Judaism, the non-trivial “giur.” A giur is very involved  technically, requiring stringent Rabbinical oversight, and can last a year or so, thereby both putting a serious obstacle for a Jewish man with aspiration to marry a woman not from Jewish community and putting such decisions into discretion of Rabbinic authority. Obviously, women who were either not capable or serious about adopting Jewish way of life as it was mediated by Rabbis would not get accepted.

Most problematic was, of course, the situation of poor Jewish men, who, even when desiring a Jewish wife, could possibly be not as attractive to a potential bride’s parents as a wealthier groom. Quite possibly, some of the poorest, unlearned Jewish men would marry out of faith, thereby “dropping out” or, to use, Greg Cochran’s expression “boiled off.” That was the case, as historic evidence clearly attests, unless the faith and Jewish learning of the poor Jewish groom were so strong that they could command respect of the entire Jewish community that this man was part. In that case, many parents of said community’s brides, including the the wealthy, were quite willing. Marrying one’s daughter to an esteemed Talmudic scholar was a prestigious thing to do. This social dynamic, by the way, likely contributed to selection for cultural cohesion among Jews, a cohesion based around values espoused by Rabbis.

The situation of poor Jewish brides was better. Firstly, until around 1000 AD,  preceding the contrary change introduced by Rabbeinu Gershom of the Ashkenazim, even early Roman proto-Ashkenazi communities, not to mention Sephardim/Mizrahim, could practice polygyny*, albeit the practice was very much on the wane among Ashkenazim a long time before Gershom ben Judah. Thus, a more wealthy member of the community could, at least in theory, take and support two wives. Secondly, and more importantly, the Talmudic scholar respect argument I posited above also applied to brides, but in a slightly different way: a bride coming from a poor Jewish family would be valued much more if her father was a Rabbi or a scholar or a teacher. Lastly, a poor bride marrying a poor, of an “am ha-aretz” (common) provenance Jew could get a bit of community’s support, especially later, with expansion of Jewish numbers and emergence of shtetls (self-contained Jewish towns). Said newly formed poor family would probably be on the margins of existence, but would still be able to survive with one or two children during tough times. I don’t have the information right now, but I am sure that any community support to the poor would be predicated on the entire family being Jewish, so in the very unlikely case when parents of a Jewish woman made the decision to marry her out of community, or if the woman on her own volition rebelled into doing so, she would be automatically dropped from the community.

A Jewish bride, poor or wealthy, could, rather only in theory, marry a wealthy gentile, with her children being counted as Jewish. Nonetheless, because of stigmas of gentile societies against Jews, especially, pre-Industrialization, such cases were extraordinarily rare. In gentile societies surrounding the Jewish communities in exile, historically, rich or powerful men would almost always marry into other rich or powerful families.  For a gentile, crucially, given patrilocality of both Jews and gentiles, to “marry a bride” meant also “bring the bride into home/community.” To marry an explicitly Jewish woman, not to mention a poor Jewish woman, would have been a very bad idea, if not an anathema, in those types of arrangements. And either way, again, due to patrilocality, even if such cases did happen, for all practical purposes (until Reform Jewish emancipation), said Jewish woman would de facto drop out of her Jewish community, along with her children, even if they could be qualified as technically Jewish.

I want to reiterate the important point: since being a learned Talmudic scholar or a Rabbi or a teacher** was always considered high status, independently of wealth, cohesion among Jews was centered around their faith and knowledge of the tenets thereof, with Rabbis being intimately involved in the day-to-day workings and drive of this process.

In the next, final post, I will summarize on matrilineality in Judaism.

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*I will later post on how monogamy evolved both among Jews and gentiles. How it arose in the first place is still not clear and worth exploring.

**Teachers’ job was inculcating knowledge of Tahakh and basics of Halakhah in Jewish children.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 1]

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Ever wondered why Jewishness gets passed via mother? No? Even despite the fact that the Tanakh (Bible) has virtually always cared only about paternal lineage? Per Shaye Cohen, a Jewish historian of Near Eastern Studies at Harvard, the author of “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties,” this is an innovation of early Mishnaic Period, a borrowing from Roman law.

His detailed article is one of the most well-reasoned pieces I have seen in a long time.

To  me, it marks the emergence of Jewishness as a post-tribal national concept  – of Jewishness as that of a communal identity, beyond that of a set of related tribes and clans. The adoption of matrilineality, in fact, is also an accident of history.

While Cohen didn’t go into actually explaining the reason for the switch, but merely elucidating on the most likely inspiration source(s), it must be further clarified that, in my opinion, given all presented evidence, the Roman law is the likeliest origin for the practice.

In light of the inward-looking nature of the Halakhah, the “forbidden mixtures” argument that he cites as a potential source for matrilienality seems like a convenient, if abstruse and rather forced justification. The need for such a justification becomes clear if we account for the fact that Roman culture, from which such rule sprang, was viewed as highly antithetical to Jews, hence anything to arise from it, both due to preceding and forthcoming events, would have been viewed as an undesired, if not outright unacceptable, innovation. Hence, “forbidden mixture” seems more of a veneer to conceal the de facto nature of the foreign influence.

Given the drastic changes entailed by the emergence of Jewish diaspora, whether on willing basis via Hellenization (e.g. the Alexandrian community established around 300 BC) or galut (exile, e.g. in Babylon and, subsequently, Roman domain), the pressure to assimilate and, thus, culturally disappear, became hard to ignore. Hence the need to define and delineate Jewish identity, as well as come up and follow the actual mechanisms to achieve the above. It is important to keep in mind that before one can even speak of Jewishness, one needs to define it. This exact process was in full swing around the time of the Babylonean exile, and picked up even more during Alexander the Great’s conquest. Shaye Cohen describes this in his book, “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.”

The first step, one of delineation of polity and ethnos, of divorcing culture from ethnicity, was achieved by the Hasmonean revolt. It was a reaction to Greeks’ same differentiation, which made Jews, the ethnic majority and citizens of a Hellenic state, feel the need to explicitly define and, therefore, re-assert the identity of their polity, its non-Hellenic cultural character, instead of remaining content as being just one of the ethne inhabiting Judea. In doing so they established the Jewish state not merely as a state of Judeans, descendants of Moses’s Israelites, but a state of explicitly Jewish character, where other ethnics (like Edomites/Idumeans) could exist, provided they accepted the overall Jewish-Judean cultural character of the polity (Hasmoneans went even further in that they forcefully culturally converted the other minor ethnicities into Judaism.)

The next step, the emergence of Pharisees, as priests of the people, the righteous ones, was instrumental in preparing the ground to achieve the cohesion and portability of the Jewish culture — especially, as the Judean Jewish polity went through being re-conquered by Romans, experienced attempts at imperial assimilation, and finally, after resistance and bloodshed, gone.

But I’d like to concentrate here on the matrilineal principle, its usefulness in helping Jews to culturally and genetically survive in exile. It is hard to say with absolute confidence, but we can reason, based on at least two arguments, about how it actually became the established practice:

1. Empirical evidence: the relative fecundity and spread of Jewish groups practicing matrilineal vs patrilineal descent.
2. Cultural evolution modeling insight: performing a thought experiment to understand Jewish family-communal interactive dynamics based on current and historical practices of courtship and marriage.

To illustrate the first point, we know that the only surviving patrilineal Jewish group that is older than a few hundred years is Karaite Judaism. The numbers of Karaite Jews is in the tens of thousands — a pittance, as compared to size of worldwide Jewelry, represented by Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc. communities, which, until secularism and Reform Judaism’s relatively very recent emergence, numbered in millions.

I will delve into second argument in the next post.

Diamonds, Pyramids, and Civilization

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VERNER PANTON  “Diamond Pyramid” mirror: Vernerpanton Diamond, Inspiration, Diamonds, Mirror Model, Pyramid Mirror, Diamond Pyramid, Design

Recently, I viewed David Brin’s inspirational TED talk, titled “What’s next — the horizon of our dreams.” He also delves into the issue of pyramids and diamonds here.

I respectfully disagree with Brin on several things, including, crucially, his strong focus on the diamond-shaped distribution of power/resources within society as the cause of humanity’s recent success. He is mistaken: said “diamond”, being less of a driver, is more like the outcome of the explosive, orders of magnitude-multiplying, increase of civilization’s carrying capacity. A carrying capacity explosion that itself was caused by Industrial Revolution. And what caused the Industrial Revolution late 1700’s and 1800’s? Until fairly recently, most of the truly civilization-enabling competition happened via militaristic inter-group (tribal/supra-tribal/imperial level) conflict, which — crucially — is what caused the genetic-cultural evolution and the eventual development of the underlying physical techno-machinery… So, au contraire (and alas, not to be easily brushed aside either!), it’s not the magic sprinkle-dust of “diversity” that is the cause, but the painful, cruel, and slow evolution of humans via intergroup competition: via, since times immemorial, patriarchally-driven status acquisition, expansion, rule-setting (i.e. morality), rule-resetting (i.e. evolving/conflicting understanding of morality, be they rooted in hunter-gathering group structure or agricultural or anything else), and, yes, via differential fertility of various groups caused by economic circumstances and, much more often, by warfare.

Most importantly, nonetheless, David Brin’s very vocal message of hope and higher purpose for the future of humans and human civilization resonates strongly within me. I agree: the likelihood, based on long-running SETI’s results up to date, is that humans may be one of the very few, perhaps either the only ones or maybe the very first, survivors of “The Great Filter” within the Milky Way Galaxy — and it may be incumbent upon future humanity, if it survives civilizationally, to either materially/culturally help other potentially existing species within our galactic neighborhood or absorb/contribute to them genetically (be it for their own good or for human civilization’s). Maybe some will become the next Borg, and maybe some are destined for something else entirely — but only if, and that’s an IF, Humanity, not just humans/hominids, civilizationally survives in the next few hundred years.

The still pertinent question is: which primary “competition type,” be it on level of countries/cultures/”multi-culture”/confederations, does one see as being the closest to providing the best chance or hope for survival of Humanity?

If the answer is the magic sprinkle-dust of enlightened multi-culture, i.e. diversity, with the hypothetically ensuing “diamond-shaped” power distribution, which involves nobly regulated competition of individuals vs individuals and capital vs capital, a la “Brin’s way” — if that is the answer leading to long-term progress and civilization, then we (the abstract “we”) should pursue that. Taken to its extreme scope, the main danger here is that a unified planetary multicultural framework, i.e. ultimately a hypothetically enlightened, trade-friendly, likely somewhat socialist “one-world government” based on combining statism with capitalism with the goal of ever-increasing inclusion may lead to, essentially, a single government-capitalist complex where regulation favors monopolism and a diversity which de facto ends up enforcing a divide-and-conquer rule via a bought-mob voting class, living outside of the gated communities of the rich, protected by rent-a-cops, i.e. essentially, a pyramid-shaped power structure. But this outcome is exactly what Brin protests against! This populist-statism-merging-with-capitalism issue, by the way, was deeply delved into by Joseph Schumpeter, in his seminal “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy.” But Schumpeter, due to his understanding that this framework arises as a response to Soviet regime, viewed such a framework as driven by Communism-sympathetic elites, hence did not at all envision the de facto increasing class divisions, which both Brin and I witness. Such divisions are happening not just in the United States, but also in other plural-Democratic, multicultural, very diverse countries — countries like India and Brazil. Both Brin and I would agree that such class divisions are a natural state of society, from historical perspective. However, unlike me, he thinks that it’s essential to combat those, to preserve/expand the diamond, no matter what.

If, on the other hand, neither diversity per se nor “diamond-shaped” power distribution, are the long-term solution to human civilization’s preservation and expansion, but the answer lies in strongly-cohesive, well-defined cultures — cultures which may incorporate genetically diverse individuals that can well-fit said strict frameworks, but where accommodating diversity is not the goal per se — cultures that compete with each other on macro level, possibly to the point of pursuing import-minimizing/mercantilist autarkies, but bounded in their military actions by sane adherence to the MAD doctrine — then this is what will sustain and advance overall human civilization, either indefinitely or until a winner emerges and prevails planetarily. And if an ultimate winner does emerge, then it either absorbs the loser/losers or, more likely, pushes it/them out into cosmos — hence ensuring that either competition remains or the spreading of civilization continues on galactic scale either way. The main danger here is contingent upon a winner emerging too early, with said winner being technologically and culturally strong enough to control its masses, but unable and not desiring to propel itself out into the cosmos. In some way, if you notice, it is superficially identical to the scenario from the one-world government scenario above, except that it happens later (hopefully, tens of generations later). In this case, humanity may or may not evolve into a single, global-pyramid shaped society, halting progress indefinitely. However, and importantly, the saving grace here is, by definition, that by that time, said society will be cohesive and smart enough to empower it to self-evolve, in a directed fashion, towards enabling its own technological salvation and expansion, especially, in case it or members thereof determine that it needs such a leap (and of course, it will need it!).

To summarize, which is it: continuing with (possibly, global) statist multiculturalism-maximizing approach or shifting the worldview to accept cultural macro-competition bounded by MAD as the better approach? Although nothing is perfect, my abstract bet, after weighing both, is on the latter scenario as the right one. Sure, one might say, the answer may be a combination of the above, but the question, essentially, still stands: what is the primary mechanism? My bet, again, is on the latter: humanity is not yet ready, it is not yet evolved and cohesive enough for a one-world government, a government with enough leverage and self-conviction to progress and evolve towards a survivable mode. To continue to pretend that nationalist/cultural concerns are passe, is to pursue an ultimately losing, if not suicidal approach, at least as things currently stand.

If preserving civilization is of concern, competition works better, more smartly, when it’s primarily driven on macro scale, as opposed to micro scale, be it individual or even corporate one. Ironically, and historians agree (although I will not provide references here), it’s not a radical statement that the peak-50’s-era American-style diamond-shaped individual power and capital distribution structure, including the next few decades, until the very late 90’s and a bit after (count inertia here), were themselves, in a big way, a result of the macro competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  At least, competition to the extent of the U.S. government needing to maximize its domestic scientific, military, and even social expenditures, thus benefiting its own technological progress, including of course countless citizens, in the process. Having noted that, if societies compete, a diamond-shaped scenario might ensue again, but such is not necessarily the case, and civilizations may possibly be more competitive by being organized via completely different orders, be they, in nature, totalitarian (more centralized) or theocratic (more distributed) or even some weird combination of all of the above¹, strengthened by techno-mind control complemented with genetic engineering. To imagine such structures as viable may not be very palatable to the cultural sensitivities of pro-plural Democracy ideologues, especially, to Social Progress and Justice-minded Americans, but reality does not necessarily always correspond to our wishes for it. The U.S. winning the previous round of the cultural war (against the Soviet Union) is not an indicator of it winning the current one, against a different sort of cultural adversary (China) or the one after (whatever that might be).

Sure,  having too many players possessing nuclear arsenals may not be a good idea. It is also obvious that said players need to be large and technologically advanced enough to not need to depend on conquest of other nations to expand their civilization. This topic requires careful analysis, but does not, in itself, constitute an anathema to the inter-national competition mode of Humanity’s evolution. Also, some cultures can be so dysfunctional as to be de facto suicidal. Most vivid examples from recent history are Nazi Germany and Soviet Union, but it’s also possible that other cultures/countries are de facto suicidal, albeit via different mechanisms, discussion of which I’ll leave for another post.

Brin’s well-wishing mistake, then, is one of confusing correlation with causation: the diamond is not a cause, it’s a consequence. But, then, one may ask: is individual-level selection pertinent? Yes, of course, the micro/individual-level mode selection indeed happens, but it happens at the less significant, inner level of the overall multi-level selection for cooperation, as both the result of and feeding into the macro competition between existing cultural/national groups. Contrary to Brin (and he, too, is a self-described contrarian), the question of which mode of inner-level selection is the right/best is still far from being settled and will become especially pertinent as societies compete not just with regard to simple survival, but with regard to maximizing their own (inner) expansion. Increasingly, acquiring and nurturing human talents and resources, especially mental ones, will be an imperative for any sane society, due to highly-skilled human capital requirements dictated by the need to maintain and improve sophisticated technology and to deal with constraints imposed by density of said societies. Whether said constraints are technological or social, they will involve solving never-ending problems of scale-expansion and easing the pressures entailed by need to provide water, food, energy, space, eliminating/recycling waste, regulating (micro-) climates, as well as regulating and policing citizens’ behavior, stemming from societies becoming ever more populous in the process of existing and competing with each other.

But certainly, Brin is right about the following: technology’s march can sustain civilizational expansion for at least another few centuries of humans living on Earth, eventually supporting trillions (yes, trillions!) of people.

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¹I will post on those scenarios separately, someday.