Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Sketch of Human History

If I were to channel Condorcet or Hegel on the big sweep of human history, this is what I would say.
Human history begins about 200,000 years ago with the Great Leap Forward: human language capabilities become fully-formed, enabling social learning to blossom. I.e. to a far greater extent than even their closest hominid ancestors and relatives, homo sapiens are no longer limited to their genetic repertoire combined with individual learning; they can now learn from each other, socially. This launches a whole new, much more rapid, stage of evolution – cultural evolution. Religion, art, significantly more advanced tools, even trade networks all emerge after 200,000 BP.
However, this potential for rapid progress is held back by the *sparseness of human population*. Foragers (hunter-gatherers) need lots of space to survive, and the expansion of humans starting around 100,000 BP out of Africa into Eurasia, then Australia and the Americas allows foragers to maintain this scattered lifestyle. In the absence of dense populations, social learning does not occur as rapidly as otherwise might.
The agricultural revolution starting around 10,000 BCE and the first emergence of agrarian civilizations around 3,500 BCE appear to “solve” this fundamental limitation of the foraging phase. Humans can now live in much denser settlements. Social learning and progress should take off. However, agrarian civilizations remain stagnant in many ways across the millennia. Why? Because a new impediment to social learning and progress has arisen hand-in-hand with agriculture and agrarian civilization: *hierarchy*. Whereas foragers lived in basically egalitarian (and small) groups, agrarian civilization is characterized by enormous gulfs of wealth and power. The powerful hold back progress for millennia. Political power-holders (“macro-parasites,” in William McNeill’s phrase) leach off their peasants, making property insecure and preferring (their own) political security to the threatening dynamism of economic growth. Meanwhile, intellectual power-holders (religious authorities) guard their monopolies, preventing alternatives from arising and intellectual innovation from occurring. One impediment to social learning and progress – sparseness of population – has been replaced by another – hierarchy.
Finally, in the last few centuries, parts of north-western Europe pioneer a path out of hierarchy. Arbitrary political power is tamed (through parliaments and the rule of law) and the intellectual monopoly of the religious authorities is broken by science, religious toleration, and legal guarantees of intellectual pluralism. In the modern age, 200,000 years after the possibility of social learning emerged, its promise is finally being realized, as humans are free for the first time from the successive handicaps of sparse population and hierarchy.
– Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Meskill


  1. Intel Corporation has 83,000 employees in a single massive hierarchy with Craig R. Barrett at the top. Intel is innovative. Intel has figured out how to manufacture semiconductors at 22 nanometers before anybody else on the planet, and demonstrated this capability a few weeks ago with a working 22 nm SRAM. So, it seems to me that the notion that 'hierarchy' inhibits 'innovation' (or 'social learning and progress' as you call it) is quickly disproven by counterexample.

  2. Thanks, Wayne. My response, in short, is that you are confusing levels of analysis. Your Intel example shows that *within* a fundamentally non-hierarchical, open society, hierarchical organizations can flourish. I wouldn't dispute this. But my argument refers to a broader level, to society as a whole. If this is characterized by steep political and intellectual hierarchies, you won't get much innovation at all. Monopolists have an interest in stifling change. The most basic characteristic of argrarian societies from 3500 BCE to 1500 CE (or even to this day in many places) was stagnation and miserable poverty for most of the people. If not the hierarchy that I posit, what do you think explains this basic fact?