Is the Collapse of Civilizations A Good Thing?

Early states did not form how we've been taught, writes James C Scott in his new book. His research offers a clue as to where we might be heading. 


You’ve probably heard the story. For 250,000 years humans were hunters and gatherers. About 10,000 years ago a group figured out agriculture, settled down in the Fertile Crescent, and the seeds of industrial farms were planted. Sure, a few tribes resisted, but the urban life that grain and livestock provided proved too seductive. Enter modernity. 

Humans have short memories and long for fantasy. History has never been neatly wrapped up in a tidy bundle. The reasons for pretty much everything are complex. In 1998 British science writer Colin Tudge tore apart the notion of a sudden appearance of agriculture. He dated porto-farmers back forty thousand years, into the late Paleolithic: 

The changes of the Neolithic Revolution were not really revolutionary, but merely a consolidation of established trends. People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way. 

Political scientist and anthropologist James C Scott is the latest to take a stab at this agriculture myth. In his fascinating new book, Against the Grain, the Yale professor concurs with Tudge’s assessment: our ancestors did not submit readily to the state. The transition from sedentism to domestication took at least four thousand years. 

Today Americans willingly move to big cities. Diversity, community, and opportunity draw restless youth to urban centers. While there is much talk about tribalism in our national politics, given that our biological hardware is not much different from the era Scott covers, you’d have to wonder why nomadic societies would choose to settle into lands under rule—and, more importantly, taxation—by a centralized power. While now it seems like that’s just how life is, the novelty of bureaucracy took millennia to take hold. 

And the reasons are not pretty. Contributing factors include “climate change, resource depletion, disease, warfare, and migration to areas of great abundance.” Most startling is slavery. Scott writes that the state did not invent warfare or slavery, but it certainly exacerbated it. First, however, you needed a resource that tied everyone together: grains. 

Most early crops could not provide a source of taxation. Potatoes and tubers are easily hidden underground. Lentils produce annually and can be eaten as they’re picked. Grains, however, have determinate ripening times, making it easy for the tax collector to show up on time. They cannot be eaten raw. And because grains are so small, you can tax them down to the grain. Unlike squash or yams, grains are easy to transport. Spoilage time is nothing like that of vegetables. All these factors played into the first widespread form of currency. 

Taxation meant record keeping. Scott isn’t the first to point out that written languages weren’t invented to dream up mythologies. Letters are the latest incarnation of marks that were devised to keep track of grains and cattle. As you read this sentence you’re likely sounding out the words in your head. But written languages weren’t created to reflect speech. That was a consequence, a future relationship. Once farm land was allotted and records were being kept, humans settled into sedentism. Once that happened, states were formed.

The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft.

The formation of states required that one critical factor, slavery. Today we talk of Left and Right, conservatives and liberals. This in-group/out-group phenomenon is nothing new. Once these early states were founded, the “others” were those primitive hunter-gatherers who didn’t understand the beauty of life by grain. And once you outcast a society it’s easy to enslave them.

The bureaucracy relied on two tiers of slavery to thrive. First, farmers had to be committed to their land, which meant politicians relied on rationing. They held surplus crops, doling out just enough food for citizens to subsist, but not enough for them to capitalize. As the structures of the states grew, more labor was required. That meant conquering others. 

If such states had had to extract such labor exclusively from their own core subjects, they would have run a high risk of provoking flight or rebellion—or both. 

Early states did not embark on conquests of land, but of people. Slaves were among the earliest trading items, a process that continued to an uncomfortably close date. Scott cites research that three-quarters of the human population was in some form of bondage until 1800. While we can define bondage in various ways—one can argue that a high percentage of humans are now enslaved to their phones, whose apps are extensions of different bureaucracies—slavery and states have long been troubling bedfellows. 

While Scott’s topics are timely—tribalism, taxation, trade, warfare—one is particularly relevant: the collapse of civilizations. Shifting landscapes, battles, and resource depletion are all factors that forced newly sedentary societies to pack it up and move on once again. Scott does not see this as a necessary evil, but rather part of the natural order of things. 

We should, I believe, aim to “normalize” collapse and see it rather as often inaugurating a periodic and possibly even salutary reformation of political order.

Paying homage does not imply that such transitions were easy. There have been numerous theories as to where American politics, and more broadly, culture, is heading, given the crumbling of institutions once perceived as immortal. As those ancestors who gathered to farm the alluvium beaches of the Tigris and Euphrates knew, everything is transient. 

We can be enslaved to bureaucracies, but we can also be enslaved to ideas. Identity is one such idea. We’re nothing more than a collection of the stories we tell ourselves. Thankfully thinkers like Scott remind us that who we thought we are might not necessarily be the case. Such knowledge is empowering; it gives you perspective, keeps you flexible as the future rolls in. Right now we need such flexibility in our comprehension of reality, for the rigidity of our discourse is causing a collapse that will provide no immediate comfort. 

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Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.