The Causes of Decadence and Renaissance: An Evolutionary Basis for Toynbee's Theory of Civilisations

Robin P Clarke (circa 1987)
Convenient-to-print pdf version (only 97k), uses commonly available Acrobat reader
[Note: Since I wrote this, certain words have entered the language, such as dumbing down, soundbite, spin, spindoctor, grade-inflation, sleaze, bung, and politically-correct.]

Arnold Toynbee documented in ten volumes his conception of twenty-six civilisations and their rises and falls. This paper proposes a causal mechanism involving authoritarianism, natural selection, and the fact that genius makes itself redundant. Means of halting and reversing decadence are suggested.
Arnold Toynbee (1) proposed that twenty-six 'civilisations' had existed or were still in existence, for example, the Western (contemporary), the Hellenic (Greek and Roman), and the Egyptian. He further perceived extensive parallels in the patterns of development of some or all of these civilisations, some of which are very briefly as follows.
       Civilisations appeared to arise from circumstances of extreme adversity. Toynbee proposed, for example, that the Egyptian civilisation resulted when the Sahara desert developed and forced the inhabitants to live in the extremely inhospitable environment of the swamps of the Nile valley; that the Mayans had to contend with the extremely vigorous forest that had by Toynbee's day overgrown the remains of their city; that the ancient Ceylonians were obliged to construct their massive irrigation system because the rain fell exclusively on the infertile half of the island.
       Toynbee proposed that the rising period of a civilisation was characterised by a 'creative minority' that inspired respect with its 'charm'; but that in time the elite lost its charm and became a 'dominant minority' commanding obedience by force. He further proposed that some civilisations underwent a 'time of troubles' and/or periods of 'universal states' such as the Roman empire. So desperately insecure was the anarchic alternative that even a universal state of considerable brutality was welcomed by populations. Declining civilisations were also characterised by a vulgar mass culture.
       Toynbee failed to provide a satisfactory explanation of why civilisations arose as they did, and why they so regularly went into decline, with the creative minority replaced by a dominant minority. A proposed explanation now follows dealing along the way also with the phenomena of genius and authoritarianism. The explanation is closely related to John Maynard Smith's (2) concepts of evolutionarily stable states and evolutionarily stable strategies.
       There has been a substantial amount of research and writing about authoritarianism and related concepts (3,4,5,6). Its progress seems to have been limited by reason of the understandable dislike of the phenomenon and the consequent one-sided conception of it as an abberation, disability, or weakness.
       I propose the following conception. Thinking, learning, acquiring expertise and the like can consume much time and effort. Rather than aspiring to be an expert in everything and discovering everything for oneself from first principles and one's own experience, it can be much more easy and effective to acquire ready-made expertise from other persons. But how does one decide whether to avail oneself of such vicarious expertise? In the first instance one cannot ask an authority, or use one's non-existent experience of doing so; there is no alternative than for the decision to be made by the genes (as expressed in the phenotype at the time). Thus I propose that there are innate mechanisms possessed by all or most of the human race that dispose towards (i) judging others as more or less authoritative, (ii) apprehension of what others believe, and (iii) judgement of propositions by whether or not persons judged to be authoritative believe or propound them. I propose that all persons have in greater or lesser degree this tendency to give credence to what selected others propound rather than rely on their own intellectual and informational resources.
       I shall hereinafter refer to this tendency as authoritarianism, though it should be noted that it forms part of a syndrome with other qualities and consequently is only an aspect of other writers' conceptions of the term.
       Readers should have little difficulty in appreciating that natural selection would favour a certain degree of authoritarianism, rather than either an absolute contempt for the ideas of others or an absolute credulousness.
       Given that everyone has at least a trace of inherent authoritarianism we can expect them to be somewhat open to influence by a cultural ethos that either promotes authoritarian behaviour, or alternatively despises it. While this may account for a little or a lot of the individual differences in authoritarianism at any time, it cannot override the argument given above that in the first instance genes must be involved in these differences; and the theory that follows requires only that genes play some part in the behavioural outcome at any particular time.
       My conception of genius is roughly, though certainly not exactly, the opposite of authoritarianism. It corresponds with that of Cattell (7) and others.[see also Eysenck's 1995 book]
       In an earlier paper (A theory of IQ, genius and autism), I presented my theory of genius as part of a larger theory. In that theory I proposed a continuum dimension of individual differences, with at the one extreme the autistic syndrome and at the other one ordinary low IQ, and with a genius syndrome and non-genius high-IQ at intermediate positions. Most of the evidence for that theory lies in the fields of autism and IQ and it is not practical to here restate that evidence or to give more than a cursory exposition of the theory.
       I propose that the genius has in common with other influential persons a high level of general intellectual ability, high achievement motivation, and access to culture and information. The genius differs in having a lack of certain innate intellectual predispositions that are general among normals. As in the case of the authoritarian predispositions they are not content-specific such as a genetic predisposition to believe in Marxism or Monetarism, but rather more non-specific and subtle mechanisms.
       It seems reasonable to suppose that the human brain has evolved not as a device for determining ultimate truth and wisdom or for abstract data-processing, but rather insofar as it acts to maximise reproduction and survival of its genes. Thus we should not be surprised if we find that it embodies a number of innate mechanisms that impair intellectual objectivity and thoroughness for this end.
       Predispositions proposed to combine biological advantageousness with intellectual disadvantageousness include the following (of which more detailed specifications are given in the earlier paper):
       1. Wishful thinking.
       2. Pretentiousness.
       3. Superficialness.
       4. Authoritarianism in excess.
       5. Presentminded attention to sensory data rather than absentminded
       attention to mental data.
       The earlier paper presents evidence from biographies of scientists after whom units or chemical elements have been named. Information about the psychology of these persons is rather limited, but such as it is it does support these propositions with the exception of the first, wishful thinking, of which there is no mention either way. But if these founders of the industrial revolution were exponents of wishful thinking, would their creations have worked as they so spectacularly have? By contrast the pseudogeniuses Freud and Marx have completely failed to achieve anything beyond impressing the impressionable.
       We may conceptualise a dimension of individual differences within the population of high-IQ (hence potentially influential) persons, corresponding to the degree to which they resemble the conception of genius expounded above or instead the degree to which they have the innate tendencies aforementioned. I shall refer to the genius end as 'scientive', and to the opposite end as 'innative', which involves among other things high authoritarianism as defined above.
Origins of Civilisations
       Toynbee did not generally use the following terms but I propose to refer to the decline of a civilisation as 'decadence' and the rekindling from the remains of an earlier one as 'renaissance' (whereupon by etymological logic an original arising of a civilisation would be called a 'naissance').
       As mentioned earlier, Toynbee proposed that civilisations arose from circumstances of exceptional adversity. He proposed that a response to a challenge was involved, but did not explain why a challenge should produce a response.
       I propose that the causal link is natural selection - of individual genes, of groups, and of ideas (memes as Dawkins (8) calls them). I propose that in certain exceptionally adverse circumstances the only groups and individuals to survive have been those that have unreservedly co-operated together and been guided by practically effective theories. An example of a practically effective theory is the following: transport is facilitated by use of round devices (of certain dimensions and materials) having a round hole in the centre through which is passed a round shaft. Such practically effective theories would be extremely unlikely to be discovered except by extremely scientive persons, and even their appreciation and consequent vicarious adoption would be unlikely except by persons having the judiciousness of scientives.
       Consider for example the instance of the founding of the Egyptian civilisation at the time of the formation of the Sahara desert. To survive in the swamp of the Nile valley would have probably only been possible with the aid of extensive and ingenious arrangements for controlling flooding and subsidence, for coping with deadly snakes, crocodiles, and other unfamiliar animals, and for the provision of food in the novel environment. You only survive if you get it all correct, unlike with modern-times examinations! Thus we may suppose that the ancestry of all or most of the sometime-civilised human race has passed through 'bottle-necks' in which were selected genes for unreserved co-operation, scientiveness and other aspects of competence such as high IQ, and in which were also selected practically effective theories.
       Thus would a civilisation have as its founding core a creative group whose success would give it the charm to inspire the emulation of followers. And thus there would be in due course a surplus of creative talent to be manifested in artistic, technological, and other intellectual ingenuity.
Genetic Decadence
       Toynbee gave an ample description of the nature of decline in civilisations, but he failed to satisfactorily explain why it should occur. It appears he was confused by the coexistence of short- and long-term processes, which are here given separate explanations.
       I propose that the essential causal process is that when a civilisation has developed, the problems that it faced to begin with have had solutions provided for them, and the talent that solved those problems is no longer required - the genius has made himself redundant because the knowledge of the solution can be used independently of the genius by an imitator. Thus natural selection ceases to select for scientiveness but selects instead for authoritarianism, because it is easier to copy than to create.
       Furthermore, civilisation, by making life easier for its participants both in the way abovementioned and in eliminating problems (such as, perhaps, crocodiles) tends to make another aspect of the environment more significant for natural selection - namely the social environment that is other people. The growth of population would also emphasise this; so that the problems may become other people rather than other things.
       In these changed circumstances we could expect that selection would favour innativeness and the antipathic personality trait that Eysenck and Eysenck (9) call 'psychoticism'. In time the individuals who are in authority come to be those with the innative qualities: ambition to dominate, pretentiousness, superficialness, authoritarianism, presentmindedness, and believing what others want to believe. Thus the creative minority is supplanted by a dominant minority without charm.
       The dominant minority maintains its parasitic position by virtue of traditional privilege and precendent, and by the simple fact of holding the reins of power, in combination with the circumstance that the population is by this stage heavily permeated by authoritarianism and consequently looks up to the dominaters for authority; meanwhile non-authoritarians are persecuted as heretics or otherwise oppressed. Thus the dominant minority can become extremely incompetent without being displaced. But in time the incompetence and lack of effective administration creates serious problems, and loss of respect for authority and expertise. At about this stage there may be a curious combination of preponderance of hereditary authoritarian mentality and preponderant ethos of anti-authoritarian attitudes (Kreml6 documents the theoretical and evidential basis of this distinction). The dominant minority may ultimately be defeated by its own incompetence.
       The place of revolutions and democracy in this scheme will be considered further on.[but not in this draft!] [see also]
Institutional Decadence
       The genetic decadence elaborated above is a phenomenon that takes centuries to unfold. I am sure that many readers will have the perception that there is another phenomenon that mimics it over a much shorter time-span, and I propose that such a phenomenon is 'institutional decadence'.
       In a decadent civilisation scientives are generally suppressed by the dominant minority, the authoritarian majority, and the authoritarian system of personnel selection. Such competent persons may found unofficial institutions having a more or less informal character. Probably the most important of such institutions of recent centuries has been the scientific movement originating (roughly speaking) in Western Europe. By definition such an institution is at first predominantly scientive; in the decadent society there tends to be a separation, of the innatives into the official institutions and the scientives into the new institutions such as the scientific community.
       Donald Wilhelm (10) and others have described the broad-minded character of the scientific community of seventeenth century Edinburgh, contrasting it to the present-day character of "science", i.e.:
       "With few exceptions one sees a remorseless fragmentation and trivialisation of knowledge. Moreover, the specialist who knows more and more about less and less finds himself in an unassailable status position. [....] The doctoral degree, often based on a narrow and constricted and parochial piece of research, becomes the professional union card. The 'publish or perish' dictum largely governs academic advancement even when 'publish' signifies nothing but trivia and minutiae. All too often the academic system's conformity mechanism is immediately brought to bear against those who seek to widen disciplinary horizons. [....] One could visualise a strikingly different system under which academic specialists would continue to churn out information in their narrow fields and then higher-level generalists would integrate that information and decide how to apply it to problems of the real world. [....] But the academic caste system, far from elevating the integrating role to a high status position, has continued to view it with suspicion. Those who seek to integrate knowledge are considered to be presumptious and to have transgressed by going outside their own fields. Worse yet, they may be branded with the word 'populariser', that dread epithet which can readily lead to academic excommunication. For the populariser, almost by definition, is he who has deserted academic propriety and respectability in favour of pandering to the hopes and fears - perhaps even the genuine pressing problems - of the multitude."
       What has happened is of course that science/"science" has become fashionable, establishmentised, and career-professionalised. I suggest the following causal mechanisms.
       In a non-authoritarian milieu, achievement is judged objectively and status determined by achievement. However, when an institutional status system is introduced, the milieu starts to change. The first professors of (say) psychology would presumably have promoted those they judged to have good judgement and sensible ideas; but passably-skilled imitators and conformers would have been mistaken for judicious talents, and hence come to predominate. In other words, the milieu becomes predominantly authoritarian. In an authoritarian system competence is defined in terms of formal training and the resulting 'qualifications' of expertise.
       Students would be trained in at most a subset of their professor's fields of expertise, so there would be an ongoing mechanism for narrowing of the field permitted for any particular individual.
       I suggest that in all milieux, overview integration is equated with higher status. But whereas in a non-authoritarian milieu achievement determines status, in an authoritarian milieu formal status and qualifications determine 'achievement'. This is why aspiration to integrative overview achievements above one's 'status' is equated with presumptious self-aggrandisement.
       Toynbee's theory includes the concept of 'churches', non-establishment organisations that emerge in a decadent civilisation, and which after surviving through the period after the end of that civilisation then provide the basis of a new civilisation. Perhaps science will form the basis of such a church in the future.
       It appears that in the past the problem of the incompetence of the dominant minority has been resolved by drastic pruning of the population by natural selection in renewed circumstances of adversity. The problems that face our civilisation(s) today threaten to extinguish not just a part but the whole of the human race on this planet. If the whole of humanity is not to become extinct it seems we must divest ourselves of incompetence in high places by means other than natural selection; but the innatives have nothing to lose by this, since the alternative is universal extinction.
       One possibility is that genetic engineering will provide a means for restoring competence - and even charm! - to the dominant elite.
       Another possibility is that the present prescientific methods of personnel selection - school and university examinations (11) and crude systems of electoral democracy - could be replaced by new methods having the scientific sophistication required to eliminate the subtle biases favouring innativeness. Such methods would need to be validated against objective criteria of competence; at present it appears to me that the only forms such criteria could take would involve either prediction or devising of effective systems. But that takes us beyond the scope of this paper [see my "Valid measures" paper]. [See also]
       1. Toynbee A. A study of history. (1934-1960).
       2. Maynard Smith J. Evolution and the theory of games
       3. Adorno. The Authoritarian Personality.
       4. Eysenck H.J. The Psychology of politics
       5. Eysenck & Wilson The Psychological bases of ideology
       6. Kreml W. The anti-authoritarian personality
       7. Cattell R.B. A triarchic theory of intelligence (1971)
       8. Dawkins R. The extended phenotype
       9. Eysenck H.J. & Eysenck S.B.G. Psychoticism (1976)
       10. Wilhelm D. Creative alternatives to communism (197?)
       11. Baird L.L. Res. Higher Educn. 23, 3-85 (1985)

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