Is there a biological reason for the rise and fall of civilizations?

This is an intensely interesting topic for me. I’ve been wondering about this for years, but I haven’t been able to locate how to approach it: What underlies the more obvious motives for constructive and destructive societal trends? The obvious characteristics don’t seem to explain enough. I’ve been hearing about r/K selection theory, and I find that compelling. Penman expands on that to try to explain the biological origins of civilizing behavior, and its opposite, which is destructive.

This is a discussion between Stefan Molyneux and Dr. Penman on this topic from July 2015.

The gist of what undergirds r/K theory, and Penman’s idea of “biohistory,” is a category of action in molecular biology called epigenetics. It’s the idea that your genetic machinery can change its behavior in response to environmental factors. Unlike the popular notion of this, it doesn’t mean that your DNA literally changes its chemical makeup, rearranging genes in healthy and unhealthy ways. What epigenetics looks at is that the cells in your body, responding to chemical signals that your body generates in response to stimuli, can dynamically turn certain genes “on” and “off,” by adding and removing what have been called “genetic markets” to your genetic code. This has physiological effects. What’s most interesting to people like Penman (and myself) is the idea that it can also have psychological effects, changing how we see our relationship to the world around us, and our expectations of it. Not much of the cause and effect of this is clear in my head yet. Not much of that has been explained. Even so, at least with r/K theory, it seems to have a lot of explanatory power in showing what’s been going on with our politics.

I didn’t find Penman’s site (linked above) that edifying, but I thought I’d reference it, since that’s where this material comes from. It links to a book, “Biohistory,” that I’m currently reading.

I thought from listening to the discussion with Molyneux that this concept is not “fully baked” yet. My impression was that Penman made what sounded like contradictory statements. I’ve noticed that can happen when someone is explaining something, but doesn’t give the background for it, because they absent-mindedly assume the audience has it. After some exploration, one can understand there is no contradiction. I’ll just reserve judgment on this for now.

A house divided against itself cannot stand

Lately it seems odd what I’ve been putting under “favorites,” because talking about stuff like this is not my favorite thing to do, but I put it here because I think it explains what’s going on in our society so well.

I’ve thought for the past 5 years that the U.S. is in a state of cold civil war. As countrymen and women of different political stripes, it is almost impossible to talk to each other. I mean that literally. So many conversations about political differences result in such putrid bile that the participants can’t stand each other, or they just don’t talk at all, or some of the participants even get to the point of harassing their opponents, or even physically causing them harm.

In the last 6 years, I’ve seen how people in institutional settings cannot even say what they think without being summarily dismissed, or at best, cast out of some privileged position, but still employed.

These two videos I think explain very well what’s going on. The first is from Dec. 2014 at Harvard, with Christopher Caldwell, called “The endless 1960s.”

The next is from June 2019 at the Heritage Foundation, “America’s Cold Civil War.”

What the panel crystalized is a fact that Caldwell talked about more vaguely, which is that we have a country that believes in two different constitutions, and we have two political parties that are defending each one. The two constitutions are labeled “the constitution of 1787,” what we traditionally call “the Constitution,” and “the constitution of 1964,” which is the Civil Rights Act that was passed that year. The Republicans defend the “1787 constitution,” the Democrats defend the “1964 constitution.” Caldwell said that the Civil Rights Act has been treated as if it’s “a kind of constitution.” The panel at Heritage treated it as if it’s a competing constitution.

What was fascinating was listening to how Caldwell talked about the Reagan presidency. He surmised that the Reagan Admin. came in thinking that their election was a revitalization of the old order (the “1787 constitution”), but they found this was not the case. What Reagan ended up doing was leaving the 1960s revolution’s welfare and “managed economy” bureaucracy intact, but “buying off the losers of the revolution” with tax cuts that allowed the “losers” to a) not bear the cost of this other system, and b) to “secede” from it. The hope was that a revitalized private economy would allow the “losers” to recover. They could realize a system of independence, and the welfare/managed economy state (the revolutionary order) would whither. That didn’t happen. People got wealthier, but first of all, the generation that Reagan dealt with was educated by progressives, not educated in how the older constitutional order thought, and secondly, corporations felt just fine getting on the dole. So, what Reagan ended up creating was “detente” between the two orders.

Caldwell further asserted that Obama’s election in 2008 was a declaration that these two orders could not stand together. One had to go (the “1787 constitution”). This leads into the discussion at Heritage, where some conservatives just laid it on the table. What conservatives don’t like to talk about (and some only murmur about it) is that it may get to the point of a hot war. They hope it can be avoided, but that may not be possible.

This discussion between Joe Rogan and Andy Ngo re. the recent Antifa attack against Ngo, I think, gets right to this point.

The problem I’ve seen is whenever conservatives have tried to talk about the “1787” constitutional order, people on the Left have racialized it, saying, “You mean you want to bring back slavery?” While it’s convenient to talk about these “two different constitutions” by the date they were ratified, I don’t think it conjures in the mind what’s actually being discussed. I’m sure when most people hear “constitution of 1787,” they think of how we had slavery. That isn’t what these people were trying to communicate. They were saying, “This is when the constitution was ratified,” but they’re not excluding the amendments that came later, which outlawed slavery, and created civil rights, the right of blacks and women, and people 18 or older to vote, etc. I think these conservatives are on to something extremely important in talking about this, but it would behoove them to use a different way of distinguishing these two social orders, because if they talk about it with a wider audience, it’s going to end up scaring a lot of people needlessly.