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Long ago, historians more or less gave up on “theories of history.” They determined that human nature was too unpredictable, cultures too various, and developmental patterns too evanescent for any really scientific theory of history to be possible. Human history, they said, was chaos.

The problem is that human history isn’t chaos at all. The “hard” human sciences–evolutionary biology and anthropology in particular–have shown that human nature is quite predictable, cultural variability is strictly constrained, and ongoing patterns of social development have ancient roots. Historians can ignore these facts all they like, but that doesn’t make them any the less true. It does, however, impoverish their discipline by ceding the search for a satisfying theory of history to scientists. Neither Paul Bingham nor Joanne Souza are historians. The former is a molecular biologist and the latter an evolutionary psychologist. But they have formulated an elegant theory of human history in Death From a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe (2009). Like any good theory, it explains a lot with a little. To put it briefly, human society has gone from simple/small to massive/complex because humans alone among animals were/are able to suppress intra-group conflicts of interest by means of low-cost coercion. Bingham and Souza point out that the big “jumps” in social size and complexity–the neolithic revolution, the growth of archaic states, the birth of the nation-state, the rise of globalization–have all been associated with the evolution/introduction of new, more powerful coercive abilities. Paradoxically, it was new weapons that created more and better lives over the course of the last several hundred thousand years.

This brief summary cannot do justice to the richness of Bingham’s and Souza’s theory. You need to read it for yourself. When you do, I guarantee you will see the past and present in a new way.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Lester Ness April 30, 2010 at 8:41 pm

An interesting interview. I’m dubious about Bingham’s statement about forcing democracy on Iran and China. Recently GW Bush tried to enforce democracy in Iraq and killed just a butt-load of Iraqis in the process. I live and teach in China and I don’t want my sweet, lovable, students, killed by the mega-butt-load, napalmed or gutted by shrapnel in the name of what passes for democracy in the USA.

Lester Ness, PhD
Changchun, China

Paul Bingham May 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

We the authors share your concern about the innocent victims of modern warfare. As we discuss at length in Chapter 17 there are powerful strategies short of overt warfare for the citizens of the democratized community of nations to lend their coercive influence to others. We would not advocate direct military intervention by the democratized world inside China under any currently imaginable circumstances. However, the citizens of the democratized world have an ethical (and pragmatic) obligation not to divert their eyes from the oppressive coercion inflicted on the citizens of single party military/police states. If global democratized community is firm, wise and patient we can have an enormous beneficial impact on the lives of the children and grandchildren of all one billion of your students’ fellow citizens.

Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza,
authors of “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”

Lester Ness May 7, 2010 at 4:27 pm

“If global democratized community is firm, wise and patient we can have an enormous beneficial impact on the lives of the children and grandchildren of all one billion of your students’ fellow citizens.”

That’s BIG “if” there. I’m a Viet Nam vet, 57 years old, and I’ve watched my native USA invade country after country in that time, kill a million here, a million there. There’s always some pious excuse about democracy and freedom, but in the end only the likes of Halliburton benefit.

By the way, the US has oligarchy, not democracy. Athens had democracy.

Nathaniel Knight May 15, 2010 at 11:14 am

OK, here’s what I don’t get. If I were to wander into a biology lab, throw on a white coat and start mucking around with microscopes and petri dishes, within five minutes someone would call security. I’d be escorted out and probably arrested for trespassing and criminal mischief. But when biologists and others in the hard sciences wander into the great lab that is the historical profession, not only are they not escorted out, buy the cry goes out — “hey all you historians, listen up!” These guys can set you straight!.” So the historians meekly sit and listen to the folks in the lab coats who claim to have found the single factor that explains the whole history of the universe. Last week it was space aliens, the week before it was flows of bio-energy, before that it was sharing of microbes, and now its the ability to kill at a distance.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff here. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about “elite throwing,” and, not being an expert in human evolution, I can accept it as a reasonably plausible explanation of what set Australopithecus apart from their ape cousins. On the other hand, now that I think of it, I’ve also heard that it was sweat glands–the cooling system that allowed primitive hunters to drive their prey to the point of exhaustion in the mid-day heat. Other say it was the ability to fashion stone tools to crack open bones and retrieve the marrow. At some point, mastery of fire and the development of language enter the picture. So, even in this early stage, a multiplicity of factors come in to play.

But when the podcast reached more recent history, I found myself doing repeated double-takes–”did I hear what I thought I heard?” I’m no expert on the Neolithic Revolution, but the notion that it was “caused” by the bow and arrow seems over-simplistic at best. Do we even have a shred of evidence that town constables in Neolithic villages 10 thousand years ago were using bows and arrows to shoot down perpetrators raiding the grain supplies? I always thought it was rodents that were the larger threats. Some have said that it was the domestication of cats and dogs that really made permanent human settlements possible. And what about the role of climate and geography? Where’s Jared Diamond when you need him?

What really struck me, though, was the somewhat offhanded suggestion that the rise of gunpowder warfare somehow “caused” the scientific revolution. Excuse me, but weren’t there a few other things going on at the time? For example, the printing press, the discovery of the new world, invention of the clock, the astrolab, the telescope, quantification, arabic numerals, and don’t forget the renaissance. Sure, gunpowder was important. But why privilege it as the single “independent” variable amidst all this innovation? And is gunpowder really so independent? After all the Chinese had it for centuries and all they did was make firecrackers.

My point is that history is not just a conglomeration of arcane knowledge about the past. History is a way of thinking, a methodology unto itself, that has little in common with the traditional scientific method of controlled experiments to isolate causality. Attempts to apply this scientific method to history inevitably fall flat. Yes, Marshall, history is chaos! And if there’s one approach from the hard sciences that we should be drawing on to help us study history it’s chaos theory. The study of complex systems–their formation, functioning and interactions–is much more important to understanding past human societies than the search for a single all encompassing factor that explains it all.

Lester Ness May 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Amen and amen, Knight! I’ve always liked the theory that settled farming began as a way to brew beer more easily! But as C. S. Lewis said in another context, the people who really know are all dead.

Yandoodan May 17, 2010 at 9:09 am

I have some sympathy for Mr. Knight’s comments. There is, however, a long tradition of successful amateur historians; Barbara Tuchman comes instantly to mind. Genetic biology, in contrast, probably produced its last talented amateur with Mendel. I suspect this is because history, as a field, requires less equipment. Plus, like all the humanities, it’s attractive to the math-challenged.

So I do not automatically reject Bingham & Souza on credentials. I do have questions about their claim to have developed a “theory”. How do they intend to develop decisive tests against, say, that of William Hardy McNeill, as given in “Plagues and Peoples”? Without this (and other) tests they have only developed a neat story. Others tell different stories. You can choose whichever one suits you.

Paul Bingham May 18, 2010 at 5:46 am

Nathaniel Knight refers to the crucial dialog about the nature of history as a scholarly endeavor. Such conversations are crucial, the very essence of science (below). The possibility that we can (or cannot) understand history is the single most important question for the entire contemporary academy in our view (the authors). Moreover, this question ultimately engages all six billion of us, not just a few professionals. For each of us to act as global citizens, wisely mindful of our political, economic, ethical and family interests, we must understand the causal logic underlying our history (and, thus, our present and our future).
Knight courageously expresses his views with great clarity. We will try to match his candor. When Knight argues, for example, that history is a “way of thinking” that is different than for the natural sciences or argues that the mathematics of chaos theory is relevant to understanding the “causal” processes of history he is expressing a powerful opinion – a world view, really – with which we disagree emphatically. Let us defend our world view. We begin with the general, and then turn to the particular.

THE GENERAL: Can we develop a ‘science’ of history? As we have already suggested, this question is effectively identical to the question of whether the Earth’s people can ever hope to take humane command of their common future. If we do not understand historical processes, we must forever be their ignorant, helpless victims.
Implicit in our statement of the problem is that we cannot understand anything – chemistry or history, say – without having a SCIENCE of that area. There are many interchangeable ways to express the essential process of science. Here is one of our favorites. It involves just two rules.
RULE 1: The fundamental tool of science is social doubt. That is, science works when one individual or interest group proposes a theory for how the world works that other individuals and interest groups can independently test. Thus, a theory must be formulated in such a way as to make testing maximally effective by any party who cares to invest the necessary effort. In more technical jargon, our theories must be designed to be maximally “falsifiable” (vulnerable to be being simply shown to be wrong on the basis of universally accessible empirical evidence).
RULE 2: Even when Rule 1 is respected, we sometimes possess multiple, mutually exclusive theories that have all (temporarily) evaded falsification under Rule 1. Under these conditions, we evaluate theories on the basis of what we can call “competitive parsimony.” A simpler theory that explains more wins against a complex theory that explains less. [This is just a restatement of “Occam’s Razor,” of course.]
Thus, science implicitly assumes that the world is simple enough for us to understand. Consider the alternative. For example, the day-to-day functioning of biological organisms could consist of such “booming, buzzing complexity” that we can never fathom it. [Indeed, before the 19th Century a quasi-magical “vital force” was often invoked.] Moreover, a catalog of Earth’s organisms can easily look to us like a list of “one damn thing after another.” Of course, since Darwin and the molecular revolution, we know precisely to the contrary. The day-to-day functioning of organismic physiology and development involves shockingly simple physics and chemistry. Likewise, the superficially overwhelming complexity of biological communities is generated by the stunningly simple process of natural selection acting in transparent, specific historical contexts.
The competing hypothesis, that biology (or physics or chemistry) is too complex to submit to scientific explanation has always proven wrong in the past. However, one favored outlook in the contemporary social sciences is that human history will buck this long-term trend of scientific success. History is too locally contingent and complex to be susceptible to scientific analysis, on this view. Our attempts to apply Rule 1 and Rule 2 will be defeated on this working hypothesis. We deliberately used the phrases in quotes in the preceding paragraph (normally applied to human history) with this view in mind.
This “too-complex-for-science” approach to history begins with one strike against it. By its nature, it is remarkably impervious to direct falsification. If we claim that the modern economic and scientific miracles of the last four centuries are produced, in turn, by some extremely complex, contingent, one-off interaction between prior historical events (invention of the printing press, Protestant Reformation, etc, etc) we are immediately stumped. After all, we cannot re-run the last 400 years in the absence of the printing press. Such non-falsifiable beliefs can have a very long run, even when they are wrong or irrelevant – witness religious belief in divine intervention in history, for example.
Fortunately, we can potentially falsify such too-complex-for-science theories through the crucial back door provided by Rule 2. If we can construct a simple, analytical theory of history that is transparently falsifiable, yet accounts for vast portions of the historical record, this theory “wins” under Rule 2, implicitly falsifying the too-complex-for-science view in the process.
Knight listened to our interview with Marshall Poe, but it appears that he has not yet read our book. Our theory claims to do precisely what the preceding paragraph describes. We carefully build an ostensibly general theory of all animal social behavior – human and non-human. This theory accounts for all the unique features of human biology – language, cognitive virtuosity and others. Moreover, it also specifically contains a simple, falsifiable theory of human history and historical change. Finally, this theory predicts the rise of the first humans, the behaviorally modern human revolution, the diverse Neolithic revolutions, the multiple occurrences of archaic states, the rise of the modern state, and, finally, the contemporary consolidation of the “global village.” These predictions are simple, transparent and vulnerable to direct empirical falsification (Chapters 11-17 in our book).
The fundamental logic of our theory is simple. The conflict of interest problem limits all social cooperation in all animals at all times on all scales. Conflicts of interest are to social behavior what gravity is to cosmology. They are with us always and central to everything else. Thus, the scale (and internal structure) of social enterprises are essentially entirely determined by how the conflict of interest problem is managed.
Our ability to manage conflicts of interest, in turn, is always limited by a single thing, the coercive technologies available to cost-effectively suppress free-riding on the cooperative social enterprise. Access to the weapons of law enforcement are the only things ultimately limiting the scale (and organization) of our social cooperation. Moreover, our adaptive sophistication (including our ‘economic’ and ‘scientific’ prowess) are dependent on the scale (and organization) of our social enterprises. Thus, each fundamentally new weapons system should engender a new scale (or organization) of social cooperation, inevitably producing a new upsurge in capability (what we call an “adaptive revolution”). New technical capabilities like the printing press or the astrolabe are effects of such upsurges, not their underlying cause, on this theory. [Note: Historians have long recognized that “power” was a central issue in historical processes. Our theory gives this insight strong new focus and specificity.]
In other words, humans first became unique as an animal by evolving to coercively manage the conflict of interest problem on a radically new scale. The adaptive revolutions of our history reflect the repeated “playing” of this ancient, evolved adaptive “trick” at ever greater scales. We need no other causal theories to account for the fundamental course of human history, we argue.
The fact that some of the predictions of this simple theory might violate our empirical intuition is irrelevant. Quantum mechanical theories of the subatomic world likewise violate our intuition – violently, in fact. However, they are (apparently) right nonetheless. Our intuition is a rich starting place, but it must never limit where we end up. Only Rule 1 and Rule 2 matter. Moreover, our individual institutional/disciplinary interests and our evolved proximate ethical psychologies are equally beside the point here.
Finally, the scientific process always wreaks a great deal of “creative destruction” when it works properly. A strong new theory (Darwinian evolution, for example) ultimately chases a failed one (Lamarckian evolution) into oblivion. However, we need not be put off by what appears to be destructive. Most of what went before each new theory retains crucial value afterward. For example, Mendeleev’s periodic table remains just as valuable after the quantum revolution in chemistry as it was before. Likewise, Mendelian genetics is just a useful after the molecular biology revolution as it was before.
So it will be with the development of a better scientific theory of history. Most of what professional historians (and archaeologists) have won with such tremendous effort, risk and pain remains just as important under our new theory as it was before. Indeed, much of the professional historians’ highest quality work is elevated in importance at each new round of creative destruction en route to a scientific theory of history. [See the hundreds of references to the historical literature in our book and its online endnotes for examples.]

THE SPECIFIC: First, Knight objects that individuals (like we, the authors) originally trained as molecular biologists or psychologists must, perforce, be naïve about the historical record. On the contrary, we have invested vast amounts of time over the last two decades both mastering the academic archaeological and historical literatures and consulting with many professionals. We are not dilettantes. Indeed, we may even have a small advantage by not being invested in the last round of theory arguably slated for creative destruction.
Second, Knight claims that he cannot imagine that we have good direct evidence for the role of the bow as ultimate cause of Neolithic revolutions. We recommend Chapter 12 in our book in rebuttal of his doubt. The empirical evidence is, in fact, quite formidable. In this context, he invokes Neolithic, bow-wielding “town constables” as inherently implausible. Of course, this objection is anachronistic. Professional “law enforcement” became the province of non-military individuals only recently, with the rise of the modern state. Before the rise of archaic state professional armies and modern state police forces, law enforcement was always an obligation of the coalition of the whole – all citizens collaborated to enforce the “law” on their own behalf. This is the context in which the bow would have served to police conflicts of interest internally in Neolithic communities.
Third, Knight objects to the intuitive plausibility that something as superficially complex as the modern world – with its “economic miracle” and Scientific Revolution – could have been ultimately caused by something as simple as the development of cost-effective individual gunpowder handguns. Again, we refer him to Chapters 15 and 17 in our book. The empirical evidence is far stronger than he imagines. The key causal impact of the gun was (potentially) democratizing access to decisive local coercive threat – transforming how (and in whose interests) the conflict of interest problem was managed. Our theory predicts the modern miracles as simple consequences of the inevitably ensuing social revolution.
The more general point is about intuition, as we mentioned above. If we privilege our personal intuition over Rules 1 and 2 of the scientific process we are doomed to remain trapped in the narrow box canyons of our unconscious preconceptions. By recognizing that the world might be different than we imagine and having a procedure for reliably discovering whether this might be true, we can escape the prison of our individual provinciality.

Paul Bingham May 18, 2010 at 7:49 am

Yandoodan (Comment 6) asks a vital question. How do we go about evaluating the specific hypothesis that the triumph of the “West” over the “rest” during the colonial era was a product of differential resistance to the diseases evolved by Western pastoralist and urbanite ancestors? Eurasians inherited this resistance, Native Americans and others did not.

The essential tool for making this evaluation is “competitive parsimony” (also see our response to Nathaniel Knight). This principle says that a theory that is simple and explains more is more likely to be right than a complicated theory that explains less. This rule has been spectacularly successful in the natural sciences and we (the authors) expect it to continue to be successful in the social sciences.

The disease theory (developed by McNeill and popularized by Diamond) begins with an accurate statement of an empirical fact – differential disease resistance produced a greater death toll in Native American (and other aboriginal) populations than in European colonialists. However, from this valid empirical observation is then built a theoretical edifice that is highly doubtful, in our view.

We summarize the most general form of our argument in three steps as follows. (See Chapters 11-17 in our book for details.)

FIRST, the disease hypothesis probably accounts for the relative ease of colonial conquest in some places; however, it fails to explain the fact that the Iberians were able to invade Mesoamerica rather than the Aztecs invading Spain, for example. This larger point is the more important challenge, not the details of what happened AFTER Europeans made large-scale landfall in the Western Hemisphere. Germs did not give the Iberians the differential adaptive sophistication reflected in this initial invasion. Thus, germs alone are not much of a theory of this large-scale historical process.

SECOND, suppose we incorporate added contingent factors (guns and steel in Diamond’s formulation) to develop what can arguably pass for a complete theory of global Western ascendancy. We then ask, “Does this theory generalize to explain the rise of the first humans 2 million years ago, the behaviorally modern human revolution, the diverse Neolithic revolutions, and the contemporary emergence of a global economy?” The answer is clearly no. This failure indicates one of two things. Either these other historical events are the products of unrelated sets of contingencies (one traditional historian’s view) or the Diamond theory is just fundamentally inadequate.

We begin to decide between these last two options by asking if there is a competing theory that explains early Western global ascendancy AND all these other events. If there is such a theory, the McNeill/Diamond approach must be taken to be explaining second-order or knock-on processes, not the primary, ultimate causation we must demand from a theory of history.

THIRD, our new theory has precisely the properties of a successfully competing theory as outlined in the preceding paragraph. Our approach explains the rise of the early modern states, like the Spain of the Conquistadors, as well as each of the other major transitions in the human historical record, all with similar simplicity and economy. Indeed, Western ascendancy is a predictable consequence of the larger and more stable social units allowed by gunpowder policing of conflicts of interest (Chapters 14 and 15 in our book). The advantage of disease resistance was just an unexpected tactical bonus to Western colonial ambitions, on this view. Further, the rise of disease resistance in ancestral Eurasian populations, in turn, is a product of the Neolithic revolutions (producing animal domesticates) which our theory also explains (Chapter 12), but that McNeill/Diamond merely presuppose.

If you accept the theoretical and empirical evidence in the book (Chapters 11-17), our theory is far more likely to be correct on grounds of competitive parsimony than any other currently available theory, including the McNeill/Diamond disease hypothesis.

Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza
Authors of “Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe”

Kevin DeCamp May 27, 2010 at 1:21 am

Speaking of the Neolithic Revolution, here are the competing theories on its cause taken from Wikipedia. After reading the book and appreciating how simply and beautifully Bingham and Souza’s theory accounts for its origins (with a great deal of evidence), it is useful to examine these failed attempts to explain the agricultural revolution without knowledge of humans “adaptive trick”. I especially like the “Feasting Model” which claims “that agriculture was driven by ostentatious displays of power, such as giving feasts, to exert dominance.” Kinda reminds me of MTV cribs.

Nathaniel, empty your cup and read the book.

“There are several competing (but not mutually exclusive) theories as to the factors that drove populations to take up agriculture. The most prominent of these are:

The Oasis Theory, originally proposed by Raphael Pumpelly in 1908, popularized by Vere Gordon Childe in 1928 and summarised in Childe’s book Man Makes Himself.[6] This theory maintains that as the climate got drier due to the Atlantic depressions shifting northward, communities contracted to oases where they were forced into close association with animals, which were then domesticated together with planting of seeds. However, today this theory has little support amongst archaeologists because climate data for the time actually shows that at the time, the climate of the region was getting wetter rather than drier.[7]
The Hilly Flanks hypothesis, proposed by Robert Braidwood in 1948, suggests that agriculture began in the hilly flanks of the Taurus and Zagros mountains, where the climate was not drier as Childe had believed, and fertile land supported a variety of plants and animals amenable to domestication.[8]
The Feasting model by Brian Hayden[9] suggests that agriculture was driven by ostentatious displays of power, such as giving feasts, to exert dominance. This required assembling large quantities of food, which drove agricultural technology.
The Demographic theories proposed by Carl Sauer[10] and adapted by Lewis Binford[11] and Kent Flannery posit an increasingly sedentary population that expanded up to the carrying capacity of the local environment and required more food than could be gathered. Various social and economic factors helped drive the need for food.
The evolutionary/intentionality theory, developed by David Rindos[12] and others, views agriculture as an evolutionary adaptation of plants and humans. Starting with domestication by protection of wild plants, it led to specialization of location and then full-fledged domestication.
Ronald Wright’s book and Massey Lecture Series A Short History of Progress[13] makes a case for the development of agriculture coinciding with an increasingly stable climate. The case was extended to current issues of global warming/climate change presenting the thought that perhaps a major effect of increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere could very well be a shift to a less stable and more unpredictable climate. Such a shift could impact agriculture in profound ways.
The postulated Younger Dryas impact event, claimed to be in part responsible for megafauna extinction, and which ended the last ice age, could have provided circumstances that required the evolution of agricultural societies for humanity to survive. The agrarian revolution itself is a reflection of typical overpopulation by certain species following initial events during extinction eras; this overpopulation itself ultimately propagates the extinction event.”

Lester Ness May 28, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Note that “science” is hard to define and always socially constructed. Astrology has gone in and out of scientific respectability several tiimes over the last 2500 years.

Nick Gotts November 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm

“FIRST, the disease hypothesis probably accounts for the relative ease of colonial conquest in some places; however, it fails to explain the fact that the Iberians were able to invade Mesoamerica rather than the Aztecs invading Spain, for example. This larger point is the more important challenge, not the details of what happened AFTER Europeans made large-scale landfall in the Western Hemisphere.”

This is utter bilge. Both the Aztecs and the Incas were conquered before Europeans made large-scale landfall in the Western hemisphere: mere hundreds were involved, and in both case we know epidemics of smallpox were important from contemporary accounts.

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