Darwin for true believers

The Dynamic Society Exploring The Sources of Global Change
October 25, 1996

Even with universal linguistic and cultural knowledge the attempt to write global history would bring forth no more than a global collection of anecdotes unless it tried to explain the great differences in wealth and power between different societies. In some primitive world, which the techniques of historians cannot elucidate, it was not so. Since then differences in power, which in the modern period we ascribe to economic strength, have been responsible for most of those great events - wars, empires, and the rise and fall of states - with which a history of the globe would deal. Most accounts of the history of the world have therefore been theories of economic change. Marx has been their most prolific progenitor, if only by reaction. Not surprisingly, they have replicated his intense concern with industrial capitalism as the agent of change, explaining only the world of the past 200 years.

In a spate of recent publications Graeme Snooks has put forward a much bolder approach, of which the progenitor is Darwin, whose "central hypothesis remains as the only persuasive explanation of the evolution of life". Economic explanations of global history are here merged with biological ones. The genetic determination of behaviour and the change that natural selection generates is, Snooks argues, one of the four dynamic strategies that have characterised human behaviour and generated the pattern of global historical change. The three others are family multiplication, predation by conquest, and commercial symbiosis. These strategies are alternatives, selected according to their cost effectiveness. They were chosen at first by private individuals, "pioneers", so that individual decision-making remains the driving force, even though the process of "strategic imitation" may seem to cast an illusion of programmatic inevitability. In selecting these strategies the human aim is to win advantage in the competition for scarce resources. This "dynamic materialism" is the driving force of global history. Widened in this way Darwin's hypotheses become an explanation not just of evolution but of the development of the whole of economic change.

As soon as this extension is made, the disputes over the extent to which the evidence supports Darwin's hypotheses can be resolved. If the study of fossils should properly be construed at present to suggest upward steps in evolution, a punctuated equilibrium rather than the slow, even rate of development that Darwinian natural selection hypothesises, dynamic materialism would explain this economically rather than through the physical sciences. Global history also shows a step-like pattern, the steps representing shifts in technological paradigms. Three such shifts, so Snooks would argue, are attested to by historical evidence: a palaeolithic revolution, a neolithic revolution, and an industrial revolution. These are related to the strategic choices of dynamic materialism. Family multiplication and dispersion as a way of controlling resources was succeeded, for example, by a neolithic technological paradigm offering the choice between conquest or commerce as strategies. The modern industrial paradigm can be traced back for 1,000 years but has only removed the ceiling on wealth and power over neolithic strategic choices in the past 200 years. Attempts to impose limits on growth would be to curb the very force that drives global history forwards. To limit technological development would cause humans to revert to the alternation of strategies of conquest or commerce.

What help is this marriage of life sciences and history in explaining the world? It is, it should be noted, as ultimately dependent on a progressivist belief in some kind of revolutionary breakthrough in technology and economic organisation that has defined the modern period of history as are the many theories of global development which ignore life sciences altogether. Had such a breakthrough not happened - Snooks is explicit on this point - relatively rich 17th-century England would have declined like earlier empires, as its chosen strategy of commerce reached exhaustion. World development thus still appears, as in all similar schemas, as an almost eternity of primitive society separated from modern society by an advance in industrial technology. There is much historical evidence to suggest that this is not fanciful, although the consequences of such a shift are the subject of fierce arguments. In the longer perspective, earlier paradigm shifts are far less susceptible to being demonstrated from historical evidence. And even if they could be demonstrated it is not clear how this could explain the doubts over the fossil evidence for Darwinian evolution.

Nevertheless dynamic materialism as the fundamental model of global history is, we are assured, "based firmly on quantitative evidence". This is held to show that each technological paradigm shift was followed by a population explosion. Population growth then slowed down as the paradigm approached exhaustion. By using the Domesday Book Snooks estimates English GDP per capita back to 1086. Whatever the Domesday Book was intended to be, it was not national accounting. However, it is then taken as a proxy for the GDP per capita of western civilisation as a whole. By plotting this proxy against the scarcely better evidence of varying rates of population growth over the same period Snooks feels able to show that population growth did indeed vary in accordance with technological shifts.

The sweep of these statistical fancies is matched and reinforced by the biblical language of the text. From the opening sentence, "In the beginning was the word", it is evident that more than logic is involved. As the four strategies of dynamic materialism become the four chariots of the book of Zechariah, leading us through "The shadow of the tower" into part three, "The wheel of fire", wherein is offered "an entirely new explanation of the dynamics of human society over the past two million years", we realise that we must rise to the author's enthusiasm. It is only fair to say that some do; the book is highly praised on the cover by a Nobel prizewinner. For myself, I was unenthused. I found it like a bad night in a motel in Utah with the Book of Mormon.

Alan S. Milward is emeritus professor, London School of Economics.

The Dynamic Society Exploring The Sources of Global Change

Author - Graeme Donald Snooks
ISBN - 0 415 13730 6 and 13731 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
Pages - 491

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