Complexity and Serendipity

Reading David Correla’s review of Jared Diamond’s newest book, The World Until Yesterday is bemusing in that particular way of “seeing two people you violently disagree with violently disagree.”  There ought to be a word for that.  German probably has one.

In essence, Correla’s problem with Diamond is that Diamond is a “willing tool of empire,” who sanitizes imperialism and capitalism — a characterization that Correla would no doubt equally apply to me, if he had the faintest idea who I am.  My problem with Diamond is that I think he’s principally motivated by the concept of “there must be a reason why some societies ended up technological and rich, while others didn’t.”  And I suspect that Correla also believes that there is such a reason, albeit a radically different one.

But sometimes, there is no reason.

Take a hundred dice, and roll them each a hundred times, and you’ll find that some dice roll sixes much more often than other dice.  In fact, humans tend to dramatically underestimate the degree to which this is true.  We see cause-and-effect and patterns even when there are none.  My guess is that it’s probably an underlying feature of our brains.

Human social development isn’t purely random, of course.  But it is staggeringly complex, and it is subjected to a huge number of random influences.  It seems basically likely that some amount of random chance factors into how a society develops.  Have you ever, ever, ever heard a scholarly article on history, economy, or anthropology mention randomness at all?

People like Diamond and Correla traffic in explanations.  The explanation of “there is no explanation, no reason, no lesson to be learned, no heroes or villains” is a profoundly unsatisfying one, and probably not one on which you can base a career, whether that’s the career of a pop-anthropologist or an academic marxist anthropologist.

I think that the typical thinking about random chance goes something like this:  “Of course randomness plays a role in the day-to-day lives of each person in a society.  But on the scale we’re thinking of, we can ignore it because it is repeated so many times.  Yes, for thing X to happen, chance must favor it.  But with so many opportunities for thing X to happen, chance will inevitably favor it at some point.  So if thing X fails to happen, there must be a non-chance reason for it.”

There are a lot of assumptions in there.  Just make the odds of thing X worse, and that entire line of argument collapses.  And that’s where the complexity of society factors in.  For a major developmental shift to happen, clearly a lot of factors must align.  Let’s say that I have the idea to start irrigating my garden, starting my society down the path to a more agrarian destiny.  How many ways could that go wrong?

  1. I could be someone who my society doesn’t value, and my idea is ignored because I’m not the right kind of person to have ideas.
  2. I could try it, screw it up on the level of getting the water to the ground actually, and my idea looks bad, even though it could have been implemented well.
  3. I could try it, succeed, and then piss off the local powerful people by crowing about my success, and they beat me.
  4. I could try it and then a drought dries up my water source and I’ve doomed myself even though other years it would have worked okay.
  5. I could try it and then a wet year comes along and no irrigation was necessary.
  6. I could try it and then get a disease and die before my idea comes to fruition.
  7. I could try it and then get killed in a vendetta before my idea comes to fruition.
  8. I could try it and succeed and show my friends and then our tribe gets conquered and scattered or enslaved by a competing tribe.
  9. I could try it and succeed but just fail to evangelize my idea to my conservative peers.
  10. I could try it and succeed but then we need to move on from my garden for unrelated reasons, and by the time I’m next able to try it, I have to start from scratch and risk all the previous failure points over and over again.

And there are millions of other factors on any given cause for social change.  As this review which has its own problems points out, 

Britain’s foremost expert on prehistoric man, Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum, for example, routinely cautions against seeing modern hunter-­gatherers as “living fossils,” and repeatedly emphasizes that, like everyone else, their “genes, cultures and behaviors” have continued to evolve to the present.

So sure, some of the ideas that lead to social change work out.  But why should it surprise us — why do we need any giant overarching theory of development — to say that it followed the path to western-style technology and governance only in one place?  Do we need any more explanation of this than I do of why I did poorly at blackjack in my last trip to Vegas, versus well in the previous trip?

Well, probably.  I suspect that the guns, germs, and steel that Diamond champions have something to do with which societies ended up which ways.  And I suspect that the patterns of exploitation and development that Correla champions also had something to do with it.  But I doubt that either one has 50% the explanatory power that their authors suggest, and I would be unsurprised if the explanatory power were more like 5%.


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