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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
4. Authoritarianism in excess.
5. Presentminded attention to sensory data rather than
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
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
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
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
The place of revolutions and democracy in this scheme
will be considered further on.[but not in this draft!]
[see also www.zazz.fsnet.co.uk/mostimp.htm]
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
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
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 www.zazz.fsnet.co.uk/mostimp.htm]
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
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)