Moral failings of leaders collapsed even the best societies, study finds

Researchers found a common element in the destruction of even the most powerful empires.

Moral failings of leaders collapsed even the best societies, study finds

Destruction from The Course of Empire.

Credit: Thomas Cole. 1836.
  • Researchers found a commonality between the collapse of ancient empires.
  • Even the best-run nations fell apart because of leaders who undermined social contracts.
  • The scientists found that societies that had good governments broke up even worse than those with dictators.

As America chooses its next President, a new study suggests that even the most powerful and best-run empires have collapsed under leaders who broke social contracts.

The anthropology study took a deep dive into 30 pre-modern societies and found that even those that had "good" governments were not immune to catastrophic demise. In fact, societies where the government provided goods and services and prevented drastic inequalities of wealth and power, tended to fall apart even more dramatically than those who had despots. One commonality in the destruction of such societies – the failings of leaders who gravely weakened them by tearing apart societal ideals and morals.

Many pre-modern societies were similar to ours, even exhibiting what we can expect in contemporary democratic countries, explained Gary Feinman, the MacArthur curator of anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum, who was also a co-author of the study.

"The states that had good governance, although they may have been able to sustain themselves slightly longer than autocratic-run ones, tended to collapse more thoroughly, more severely," said Feinman in a press release.

The study's lead author, Richard Blanton, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Purdue University, thinks that the degradation of such societies could have been anticipated and even prevented, but singular leaders managed to shake them up to the point where there was no turning back.

"We refer to an inexplicable failure of the principal leadership to uphold values and norms that had long guided the actions of previous leaders, followed by a subsequent loss of citizen confidence in the leadership and government and collapse," pointed out Blanton.

A particular focus of the study were four societies that lasted for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years: the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty of China, India's Mughal Empire, and the Venetian Republic. All of these had relatively even breakdown between the haves and the have nots, although they did not hold popular elections.

As there were no exact equivalencies to modern democracies in ancient times, the anthropologists used other points of comparison like the main features of good governments, which meet the needs of their people.

"They didn't have elections, but they had other checks and balances on the concentration of personal power and wealth by a few individuals," Feinman elaborated. "They all had means to enhance social well-being, provision goods and services beyond just a narrow few, and ways for commoners to express their voices."

Such governments provided necessary "communication and bureaucracies to collect taxes, sustain services, and distribute public goods." In this way, the economy was both helping the people and funding their leadership.

These societies lasted longer than those ran by autocrats or small power groups, but their collapses had worse effects on their citizens who came to rely on the government support for their lives. If a dictator-led country fell apart, the economic transformation was likely less pronounced as these leaders monopolized all resources and did not rely as heavily on taxation. It also stands to reason that people in such nations could have already been living worse due to the unethical behavior of those in power.

The ruins of the Roman Forum, which served as representational government.

Credit: Linda Nicholas / Field Museum

What were the qualities of a leader who could shake up and ultimately destroy a previously well-governed country?

"In a good governance society, a moral leader is one who upholds the core principles and ethos and creeds and values of the overall society," related Feinman. "Most societies have some kind of social contract, whether that's written out or not, and if you have a leader who breaks those principles, then people lose trust, diminish their willingness to pay taxes, move away, or take other steps that undercut the fiscal health of the polity."

The obvious connection to the present is that any society can fail, no matter how powerful or virtuous, as it's a "fragile human construct," stated Professor Blanton. Living off of past glory is no guarantee of future success, if you choose leaders who are willing to disrupt the society for their own benefits and immoral pursuits.

Check out the study "Moral Collapse and State Failure: A View From the Past" in Frontiers in Political Science.


This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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