Introduction to my thoughts so far… (part 3)

This is part three of a four-part post. See also parts 1, 2 and 4.

After thrashing through all the rival theories, I came to believe that it is possible to combine these ideas in a coherent way. I have attempted to synthesize the most compelling of current theories into one general conceptual framework for understanding human history.

This is a huge undertaking, so one must be very clear about goals. I decided that it is more important to be useful than be comprehensive. To be useful, this conceptual framework has to:

  • Account for the key trends in human history that I listed above.
  • Account for the key constants in human history that I listed above.
  • Be as relevant today as to 200,000 years ago (and all time periods in between).
  • Be relevant across the globe, not just one geographical area.
  • Be relevant to entire nations, but also to sub-national regions, cities and ethnic minorities.
  • Include just enough causal variables to make the framework accurate, but not so many as to make the framework cumbersome. This framework must be concise enough that a typical person would find it memorable and useful.
  • Rest on a solid foundation. By that I mean, the theory must include causal variables that existed long before humanity evolved. Otherwise, the framework cannot explain its own origins.

After much thought, I honed the list down to what I consider to be the six most important causal variables (i.e. those factors that account for both stability and change) in human history:

  • Biology
  • Geography
  • Technology
  • Skills
  • Social Organization
  • Values

Biology determines the unique inherited characteristics that enable human societies to evolve far more rapidly than other animals. Biology also establishes fundamental limits on what humans can and cannot do. Biology enables humans to acquire skills to conceive of, design, build, test and use technology. Biology also enables humans to cooperate together within a wide variety of social organizations. Most importantly, biology existed long before modern humans evolved, giving our framework a solid foundation to build upon.

Geography is important because it establishes the key natural resources that societies have available to transform into useful technologies. Geography is particularly important in explaining why change has come so rapidly in some societies, but hardly at all in others. And like biology, geography existed before modern humans evolved, giving our framework a solid foundation to build upon.

Technology is the most immediate (proximal) cause of change in human societies, particularly in modern societies. While biology and geography establish limitations, technology enables humans to overcome some, but not all, of those limitations. While all other animals are fundamentally constrained by biology and geography, humans can create and use technology to expand the possible. But once humans do so, the technology sets off a chain reaction that we cannot control.

Skills are the repeatable tasks which humans accomplish to transform solar energy and other natural resources into simple technologies. Humans can then use more complex skills to combine simple technologies into more complex technologies. Skills are a critical factor that has too often been neglected in standard histories. Biology gives humans the innate skills to conceive of, design, build, test and use technology. A technology cannot come into being until humans learn skills related to that technology. And when a new technology comes into being, it then forces humans to learn new skills. In the modern world, the necessary skills related to technology have escalated to include marketing, packaging, selling, shipping, financing, insuring and myriad other skills.

Social Organization is the means by which individuals cooperate to transform ideas into technologies that can be used broadly throughout society. Competition between those social organizations is the means by which groups of humans acquire limited resources necessary for survival and change.
Like most intelligent carnivores, humans live together in groups. Unlike other social carnivores, we have shown an incredible ability to adapt new social organizations in response to biological, geographical and technological pressures.  These social organizations range in scope from families, villages and tribes to cities, governments, corporations and even entire societies.

All but the simplest social organizations are designed to coordinate all the necessary skills to support a set of technologies by chaining them together into a repeatable process. In this way, technology, skills and social organizations are all tightly bound together. A change in one forces a change in the other two.

Values are the outcome of a group of people repeatedly performing the same tasks and using the same technology within a social organization. Skills require repetitive action; those repetitive action create habits; repetitive actions create values. Those values reinforce and sometimes change behavior.
Human beings are not robots. They do not react to the same environment in the same way.
Groups in isolation evolves certain characteristics, clothes, hair styles, body adornments, languages, cuisines, festivities that become embedded within the identity of the group. Humans naturally endow those characteristics with a moral value, that carries great weight and affects their behavior. This is most typically seen in values stemming from ethnicity and religion.

Values enable individuals within a group to cooperate more fully, but they also function as a great barrier to diffusion of technologies, skills and social organization. 

While it is clearly possible to create a longer list of causal variables, I think these six are absolutely essential. Leaving out any one of the six would seriously undermine the validity of the conceptual framework. Leaving out biology would make it impossible to explain why humans have had a very different history from other animals. Leaving out geography would make it impossible to explain why some societies have changed rapidly over time, while others have hardly changed at all. Leaving out technology would be the worst mistake, as it would be impossible to account for change at all. Leaving out skills would treat technology as though it were disembodied from human beings and would make the link between technologies and social organization unclear. Leaving out social organization would make it impossible to account for how humans cooperate together to innovate and adapt to innovation. Leaving out values would fail to account for why some ethnic and religious group exhibit very different behavior from other groups in the same environment. And leaving out values would make it difficult to explain why successful technologies, skills and social organizations do not get immediately copied by other societies. I could have added in more causal variables, making the framework more comprehensive, but I ultimately decided not to do so. 

Other factors seem to fit in well with the Big Six. Psychology and neural science fit in well with Biology. Culture and ideology fit in well with Values. Institutions, family structure, war, trade and economics are obviously important, but I thought they ultimately fit in well into the concept of Social Organization. Adding in more factors would make the conceptual framework more accurate, but less concise and, therefore, less useful.

Go to part 4.

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