Sunday, August 07, 2005

The inevitability of humanity....   posted by Razib @ 8/07/2005 06:21:00 PM

The Life of Meaning has an excellent post up about the importance of the Younger Dryas in human prehistory, in particular to the subsequent transition to the agricultural lifestyle. The Younger Dryas was a thousand year snap of cold and dry conditions within the macrohistory of global climate change. In the relativey balmy period prior to it in the wake of the Last Glacial Maximum human populations seem to have expanded, and in regions like the Levant settled communities arose in the plentitude. These were not towns based on crafts and agriculture as we know it, rather, they were the spatially fixed gazelle hunting cultures that I have spoken of before. But with the harsher conditions they dispersed and reverted back to a more nomadic existence. The fact that non-agricultural people could live in settled communities should not surprise us, not only do modern hunter gatherers give us a biased selection sample because of the ubiquity of agriculture and urbanity, but the Pacific Northwest tribes were exemplars of an opulent, residentially static and stratified society as late the 19th century based around fishing and gathering.

Intellectual historians often sketch out a dichotomy between a "cyclical" conception of human history and a "linear" (usually progressive) one. The latter is typically classified as "modern," and is associated with the Abrahamic religions and science,1 while the former is usually associated with Eastern cultures or "primordial" civilizations (like the Greeks). This dichotomy, like most, obscures more than it illuminates. Every schoolboy knows that the ancient Greeks conceived of the world as moving from a Golden Age down to their own Iron Age via the Silver and Bronze Ages. And yet if you examine the character of the Ages of Man2 as exposited by Hesiod, those who have read Genesis, in the supposedly linear Judeo-Christian tradition, will note that there are similarities. I suspect that the idealization of the past is a bias of any society, just as old men and women often glamorize the time of their youth, so the scholars who interpret the history of their people tend to suffuse their works with the same glow about the days of yore. If, like the Greeks circia 650, you have a recent historical memory of a "Dark Age," all you need to do is keep on pushing back to remember a time when things weren't so bad, ergo, the "Age of Heroes," which seems cognate with the period of massive Bronze Age citadels ~1200. Nevermind that these citadel cultures were characterized by a functionally illiterate society (linear B script was the preserve of the scribal class) which seems to have practiced human sacrifice (see the Pylos tablets), and was arguably artistically impoverished in comparison to the Classical Greeks and their Minoan predecessors. One can see the same mindset manifest during the Renaissance, which dismisses the "Medieval" period and looks to the era of Classical Civilizations as the exemplars of learning and knowledge. Nevermind that for science to progress one had to dismiss and move beyond Galen or Ptolemy.3

In today's fast paced culture, when college students can barely remember a time when one had to walk down to the local library to look up obscure facts, the linear model seems to be ascendent.4 Netscape might be practically defunct, but we all live in "Netscape time." But this model has its flaws, as it tends to underemphasize the importance of epicycles and periodic regression in human history.5 For example, Greek, and to a greater extent Indian, ancient civilization can be bifurcated into two phases, separated by a "barbaric" chasm when literate civilization simply did not exist. We know more about the Greek case because the chasm was shorter, and shallower in its impacts, and we have translated the literate output of the pre-chasm culture.6 Though in many ways Classical Greeks were superior to their Mycenaean predecessors (one only need to point to 5th century Athens), until the rise of the Macedonian empire the polities of the Classical world never equalled those of Mycanaean Greece, and it seems likely that the rulers of the citadels were more powerful than the often elective oligarchs of the polises. Viewed through the lens of a 17th century Hobbesian intellectual one could argue that Classical Greece was something of a decline from the more centralized Mycanaean world. The Tasmanian regression in technology seems to be an illustration that a culture, when cut off from the broader stream of human information networks, can reverse the normal helical progression upward that seems to have typify our species.

In Prehistory of the Mind Steven Mithen argued that the essential characteristics of our cognitive phenotype biased us toward the ascending ladder of cultural complexity which ensued after the last Ice Age. In After the Ice he argued that the pre-Younger Dryas Natufian culture, which was sedentary, though hunter-gatherer based, might not only have provided the demographic boost which precipitated the invention of agriculture, but, that the memories of its glory could have been the mythological seeds which the post-Younger Dryas people drew upon as they set about recreating the ancient days of dense plenty. In a previous post about epistasis I highlighted that it was important to evaluate the fitness and phenotypic implications of an allele in the context of its genetic background. An analogy with the norm of reaction could also be made, as in that case it is usually varying environmental conditions which result in a nonlinear response from disparate genotypes. In another post I suggested that the same qualifications also apply to our ideas of concepts which are not based on agreed upon axioms, but are driven by induction, an intuitive essentialism and an understanding of the lack of linear separability of "litmus test" qualities.7 Moving up from the mind, which is in part contingent upon genetically coded elements and predisposed to particular biases, to the society, obviously the geographical context and the historical inputs matter, with the society itself is also imparting a great deal of information which shapes the phenotype of the mind. Just as the analogy from genes to memes breaks down on many levels (ie; the ubiquity of horizontal transfer in memes), so the Spenglarian conception of a "civilization" as an "organism," which goes through phases of growth, maturity and senescence must be tempered by the reality that there are so many points of difference that using the organismic metaphor as a theoretical basis is likely fallacious in all but the most constrained circumstances (perhaps the nearly isolated Eastern Islanders would work under a Spenglarian model).

Just like gene-environment and gene-gene (epistatic) interactions stick out like unwanted sore thumbs in analysis of complex phenotypes,8 so the various interacting elements in socio-historical models are often discarded in favor of an "additive" or "environmental" only model. If you listen to this interview with Jared Diamond and Victor Davis Hanson you note that they both sing a one-note tune (Diamond of course appeals to geography while Hanson argues that the sui generis emergence of Classical Greek culture was the singular event in human history, from which all else follows). Older racial theorists, and some of the more enthusiastic proponents of human biodiversity on the comment boards of this weblog, tend to argue for a genetic basis for the development paths of human societies,9 as if gene frequencies have no relation to the environmental, social and historical forces that might shape fitness of a given allele. The old diffusionist school of archeology and history seemed to work on the thesis that all of human development was contingent upon singular inventions which were so unlikely as to never be reproducible, even though the development of stratified cultures with complex features cognate with the Old World in Meso and Andean America (religion, literacy and astrology) suggested that there were common universalities in the human mental architecture that tended to tease out similar phenomena given particular social contexts.10

The Post Modernists are right when they diabuse us of the notions that the old theories really explained much of anything, but I believe they are wrong in their contention that we sit atop a mountain of lies which we can never move past. The human genome might be mostly "junk" (or so we think!11) but the functional elements construct a rather marvelous phenotype. A nucleotide-by-nucelotide comparison might show us to be almost a chimpanzee, but we look within our minds and we know that this "almost" is very different nonetheless. Deconstructing the tissue of lies on which we've built our houses is far easier than gleaning from the moist despoiled mass the truths there are12 (it is certainly necessary as well, but not sufficient to generate new truth). But the fact that I am typing this out on a device with incredible computing power, and that you are reading this from all ends of the earth, is manifest proof that the gold we can extract from our lies can bear rich fruit. In the 1920s physicists had to abandon their clockwork classical universe and open themselves up to the statistical possibilies of the post-Daltonian atom. Nevertheless, science did not end within the banishing of hard determinism, our greatest achievments were arguably ahead of us, in the very realm of the terrifying reality of the new atomic world. Today, the monomethodological explanations of Everything that is human still reign, but the multipronged advances of the life and human sciences continues, cross-fertilizing and catalyzing. Historians and archeologists benefit from better dating technology as well as the insights from archeogenetics. Psychologists explore the bounds of the phenotypic mind, while neurologists explore the brain's physiology and geneticists aid in understanding the seeds of the developmental arc of the brain's final physical structure. In turn these discoveries help us understand how social networks are effected by cognitive constraints,13 and these networks are nested within our understanding of the emergence of institutions and cultures,14 which themselves reshape the cognitive phenotype which birthed them (via memes).15

An accurate and precise understanding of these fields is not available today, but this is where one hopes that cognitive boosts via both the artifices of the life and computational engineering sciences may one day aid us in our battle for comprehension. We may live today in a time where Post Modern skeptics and Monomethodological quasi-sages sit atop their mountains, self-satisfied in their adulation, but there are others who wend their way through the deep, dark valleys below, over rapids and through narrow ravines, mapping the landmarks for the explorers to come, and they are the ones who will be the progenitors of future progress. After the Younger Dryas perhaps the elders of the tribes who stumbled into an age of plentitude regaled the youngsters with lore of the ancient days before the hungry times, but the youth did not go back to hunting the gazelle as the traditions dictated, instead they blazed a new path, informed by the past, but emboldened by visions of the future.

1 - Obviously I tend to think that science is characterized by linear progress, at least so far, more or less. But the line between science and non-science is one of steps and continuity, not a sharp and yawning canyon. Though it might be fashionable in some circles to label Newton the "last of the magicians," remember that a "sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology," the daughter and helpmate of science.

2 - There are ages when man lives centuries, when he eats freely of the fruit of the earth without effort, when men were great and warlook, when there are sons of the gods who walked the earth and knew women, etc. etc. A close reader of Genesis and the Ages of Man can see the similarities, even if there are obvious differences.

3 - The great failing of Renaissance scientists, like the predecessors of Thomas Willis in physiology or Galileo in physics, was insufficient contempt for the past synthesized with a parsimonious preservation of the nuggets of genuine wisdom.

4 - Today, erudition is not marked by a knowledge of facts, but an understanding of a relation of facts which can only be attained by repeated reading and thinking.

5 - This happens in science too. Note the eclipse of Darwinism between 1900 and 1930, or the waxing of the popularity particle and wave theories of light before their reconciliation under the umbrella of quantum electrodynamics.

6 - Judging from the archeology and the philological evidence it seems that the period between the decline of the Indus Valley civilization around 2000 and the rise of post-Sanskritic literate culture around 500 was characterized by a discontinuity of language, material culture and possibly alleles. It has been argued that before the construction of New Dehli the Indus Valley cities were the apogee of public planning over the history of Indian culture, and on average, India has never recovered from that particular regress.

7 - The problem is that our representation, or operational thesis, about our own self-conception is that we do behave as if our paradigms are ideas are deductively based, which often results in people talking past each other, as the words are not communicating the information that both individuals intend them to communicate.

8 - Phenotype = Additive genetic variance + Dominance genetic variance + Epistatic variance + Gene-environment correlation + Gene-Environment interaction + Environmental variance.

9 - Aryan-Nordicist theorists ingeniously leveraged the diffusionist biases of the early 20th century to concoct an exogenous elite factor in the rise of all non-white and non-European civilizations, and manufactured theories of racial decline a priori from inferences demanded by their model in the pre-archeogentic era to explain the relatively tardiness of complex literate culture in the Aryan-Nordic ur-heimat of Northern Europe vis-a-vi Southwest and East Asia. Subsequent historical (the likely non-Aryan character of the Indus Valley civilization or the lack of any Indo-European presence in Mesopatamia until 1500) and archeogenetical data makes such theories even less tenable, at least as first aproximations which explains the primary component of variation evaluated over all of written history.

10 - With the full translation of Maya annals the uncanny resemblence (at least to my mind) between it and archaic Old World cultures is brought into sharper focus. The fall of the Maya city states seems to be very similar to collapse of the Bronze Age Greek citadel culture, in particular, the last days of Pylos and recorded in their famous tablets.

11 - The evolutionary persistence of many intergenomic sequences which do not seem to code for proteins offers compelling circumstantial evidence to selectionists that much of the junk DNA is not junk. Many molecular geneticists seem to assume it has some unknown regulatory function, perhaps by acting as modifiers within the higher order structure of the chromatin during the relaxation or condensation of histone scaffolded DNA strands.

12 - The pattern of our lies and self-deception can also give us important clues as to the nature of our mind and its particular biases, so the sort of lies we tell are crucially important. Just as "junk DNA" might have regulatory functions, so "junk memes" might serve crucial buffering and framing roles for those nuggets of truthfull representation in our minds.

13 - See my post about Dunbar's number.

14 - Relevantly, for example terror networks.

15 - No matter what we think what others think, we tend to reach social consenses about various shibboleths, which seem to trigger ingroup-outgroup behavior, which, depending on how you look at it is the bane or grace of our species.