Notes on Burja’s Interview with Razib Khan: Lost Civilizations



1) Feast celebrations produce a promise of non-aggression. Temples produce a space of non-aggression (sacred). Religions produce a promise of non-aggression (habits, norms, traditions that prevent conflict and retaliation cycles). Habits of non-aggression produce mindfulness under high population density, the division of labor, and the hierarchy, classes, anonymity, and alienation that results. It is rational for archaeologists to presume that in heterogeneous polities (the intersection of three continents and three races) with a constant supply of external hunter-gatherers (then raiders) and expanding agrarians and their urbanization, that religion would provide the first of the three possible institutions (religion, state, contract(law)). Whereas the East Asians produced the state and bureaucracy and the Europeans produced law and aristocratic (distributed managerial) responsibility. We have a hard time today imagining the level of the persistent threat of violence in most of history, and so we undervalue the necessity of what we call ‘sacred’ meaning ‘safe’ spaces.

2) Gobekli Tepe is in the optimum location for the formation of a ‘place of non-aggression’ – especially if we examine the history of humans seeking marshy areas of hunting grounds. (South Africa, NE Africa, pre-flood Persian gulf, river lowlands) in the chalcolithic. We do not see this same need in homogenous areas. East Endo-Europeans in India produced an informal religion whereas the West Indo Europeans produced informal contract law. Why? The West IE could overcome, decimate, and rule Europe. The IE in India could not overwhelm the population and territory, so as did the Byzantines, they chose the ‘cheap’ solution: a highly adaptive religion. Religion is cheap with limited responsibility, and states are costly with concentrated responsibility, and contract requires distributed responsibility. The resulting difference in priority of institutions produced the differences in rate of evolutionary adaptation to technological innovations.

3) Humans (uniquely) evolved to specialize in adaptation itself. That’s the value of the costly brain at the expense of digestive plasticity. Evolution by Recursive innovation, adaptation requires increasing transformation of energy into mass (size, population, capital). The problem we face is that we run out of converting available energy sources into mass (size, population, capital). So just as individuals run out of resources, so do groups, and polities, and civilizations, and mankind. In economics, we call this phenomenon secular cycles, but as Quigley and others have illustrated, civilizations tend to go through the same cycles of exhaustion of opportunity by the maximization of rent-seeking and free riding, such that there is insufficient free capital to adapt to shocks, war, or changes. European civilization is interesting because we seem to reform constantly rather than collapse entirely.

4) Technological Collapse: Tech collapses occur when the i-pencil problem cannot be overcome, because the knowledge is distributed. Metallurgy under bronze was a hard problem because of the location of tin deposits. Metallurgy under Iron wasn’t a hard problem. The problem was the quality of manufacture (brittleness). So if craftsmen can maintain a knowledge base it remains. We don’t talk about it in the west but Russians are keenly aware that they lost a number of arts (advanced material welding) in one generation after 92.

5) RE: Never adopted: We have evidence of war. We have evidence of temporary agrarian plantings. Just exclusively. The ‘vast availability of vulnerable hunting stock’ in Eurasia, and then later, in the Americas took us X miles per year to exhaust.

6) Urban agrarianism suppresses aggression but the early agrarian civs other than china were surrounded by steppe and hill peoples whose aggression was not suppressed. Imagine having to govern Mesopotamia.

7) Not sure I buy into abandoning the Whig history quite yet, because the quality of life of the people is always a trade-off between the cost of adaptation to the rate of innovation, and the cost prevention (discount) of not adapting to the rate of innovation. Every civilization followed a predictable rate of expansion, stagnation, regression, devolution, or collapse, given the institutional method of cooperation and the demographic distribution of the classes. In fact, every civilization other than Europe stagnated by 800ad, despite the innovation of agrarianism and cities. We know the answer to why. We are just afraid of that answer. And some of us must have the courage to look into that abyss and discover what terror lies there – so that others do not have to. 😉

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