The modern synthesis and the blank slate

December 1941-February 1947

We’re now dividing time finely enough to include months as well as years.

For most of the later nineteenth century after the publication of On the Origin of Species. biologists were skeptical of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolutionary change – natural selection. It was only in the twentieth century that this began to change. When Mendel’s work on heredity was rediscovered in 1900, it was originally seen by many as antithetical to Darwinism. But with the pioneering theoretical work of Fisher, Haldane, and Wright, and the subsequent empirical work of Mayr, Dobzhansky, Simpson, Huxley, Stebbins, and others, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s theory of heredity were combined in what came to be called “the modern synthesis.” Julian Huxley’s book Evolution: The Modern Synthesis marked the coming of age of the theory.

In an earlier post I noted how Lyell and Darwin’s embrace of gradualism in explaining the past (as well as George Eliot’s celebration of Dorothea Brooke’s “unhistoric acts” and “hidden life”) had something to do with the political climate in England in the years after the French Revolution and Napoleon. Evolution: The Modern Synthesis was first published in 1942. It’s no surprise that the modern synthesis too was a product of its time, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered gruesome antithetical demonstrations of how not to think about evolution, genes, and behavior.

Not coincidentally, at the same time that biologists in England and the United States were advancing the modern synthesis, social scientists – cultural anthropologists, behaviorist psychologists – were coming to embrace a strong blank slate view of human nature. (Carl Degler tells the American side of the story in In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought.) There grew up something amounting to a peace treaty between evolutionary biology and the social sciences, with the two fields agreeing to respect each others’ spheres of influence. Social scientists would leave biology to the biologists, accepting, for example, that neither a good upbringing nor acquired skills can improve your genes. Biologists in turn would largely steer clear of addressing social behavior. For example, the theory of sexual selection, which Darwin developed, and Fisher elaborated, was mostly dropped from the modern synthesis as it matured. Huxley argued (pretty unconvincingly in retrospect) that the elaborate mating dances and ornaments found in so many species were not a product of sexual selection, but merely helped to let individuals choose the right species of mate. Westermarck’s pioneering work on the evolutionary psychology of incest avoidance and the incest taboo was largely shelved in favor of the shakier theories of Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Even Darwin’s work on emotional expression, which might have seemed fairly anodyne politically, was largely rejected by anthropologists. And the study of prehistory was affected as well.

It was only beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of sociobiology, that evolutionary biologists returned to seriously addressing social behavior. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), by E. O Wilson, made a nod to Huxley in its subtitle. It also announced the end of an intellectual peace treaty, and the opening of an intellectual war that persists up to the present.


Land of samba

South America largely avoided the all-out international total wars that consumed Eurasia in the twentieth century. (Civil wars are another matter.) But international events made themselves felt even here. Brazil had its own fascist party, the Integralists, with its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. However in Brazil, even the fascists couldn’t quite get into the whole National Socialist racial purity thing; the Integralist slogan called for a “Union of all races and peoples.” The Integralists fought the Communists in the early 1930s, but eventually both sides were suppressed by the dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1937, led by Getúlio Vargas.


In much of the world at the time, liberalism and free trade were out, and nationalism and protectionism were in. In Latin America, this move went under the name of “populism,” favoring urban businessmen and workers at the expense of the old export-oriented land- and mine-owners. This often meant cultural as well as economic nationalism. Brazil today is famous for its Carnival celebrations, including samba parades. Ironically these took much of their current shape during the 1930s, echoing mass rallies in Italy and Germany. The organized samba parades were a means of bringing rowdy public celebrations under official control: from this point on they were officially sponsored, and were expected to march in orderly lines and to celebrate edifying nationalist themes. Early twentieth century samba musicians incorporated a variety of musical styles in their performances; in the 1930s, in the name of “authenticity,” they were encouraged to purge their music of foreign influences, including jazz.

Uneven development


If much of the history of Eurasia between 1000 BCE and 1600 CE was shaped by the clash between farmers and city folk, and pastoral nomads from the steppes and deserts, then much of the history of the twentieth century was defined by the collision between Western and non-Western societies. This is one way to see the rise of communism. Traditional Russia and China had developed autocratic institutions that allowed them to cope, more or less, with military threats from the steppe. But these institutions proved desperately unequal to coping with a new set of military challenges from the West and Japan.

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Natures portrays the march of history as a process of diffusion of enlightenment ideals. On a long enough time scale he may be right. But on a medium time scale we see something different – the formation of powerful states on either side of the meta-ethnic frontier dividing industrialized societies from independent but militarily vulnerable peasant societies. Chance and individual personalities played a role in the bloodshed of the twentieth century, but there were also larger forces at work in The World Revolution of Westernization.

Here is a short piece of mine (not from the blog) on History and Group Consciousness relating this topic to arguments about group selection. I argue that taking group selection seriously as an engine of historical dynamics may give us a better understanding of recent history.

Marxism is not very successful as a scientific theory, but in its heyday it was enormously successful as an ideology involved in subordinating masses of individuals in larger collective projects. Here’s a famous speech by Stalin to industrial managers in 1931, in the midst of the first Five Year Plan and the collectivization of agriculture, and on the eve of mass starvation in the Ukraine

It is sometimes asked whether it is not possible to slow down the tempo somewhat, to put a check on the movement. No, comrades, it is not possible! The tempo must not be reduced! On the contrary, we must increase it as much as is within our powers and possibilities. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the workers and peasants of the USSR. This is dictated to us by our obligations to the working class of the whole world.

To slacken the tempo would mean falling behind. And those who fall behind get beaten. But we do not want to be beaten. No, we refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual defeats she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and the French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her – because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because to do so was profitable and could be done with impunity. You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet : ‘You are poor and abundant, mighty and impotent, Mother Russia.’ Those gentlemen were quite familiar with the verses of the old poet. They beat her, saying : ‘You are abundant’, so one can enrich oneself at your expense. They beat her, saying : ‘ You are poor and impotent,’ so you can be beaten and plundered with impunity. Such is the law of the exploiters – to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism. You are backward, you are weak – therefore you are wrong; hence you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty – therefore you are right; hence we must be wary of you.

That is why we must no longer lag behind.

In the past we had no fatherland, nor could we have had one. But now that we have overthrown capitalism and power is in our hands, in the hands of the people, we have a fatherland, and we will uphold its independence. Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence ? If you do not want this, you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop a genuine Bolshevik temperament in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way…

We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.

 Stalin’s policies were not just a response to perceived external threats, but helped to generate those threats: if the German Communist Party (which took direction from Moscow) had cooperated with the Social Democrats and other supporters of the Weimar government, they could have kept Hitler out of power.

“I’ll never be hungry again”

“… No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

Gone With the Wind


Steven Pinker wrote an important book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that along a number of dimensions and on a number of time scales, human societies have been getting less violent over time. I think he’s probably right, but there’s an obvious problem to be wrestled with, the battle deaths in the First and Second World Wars and further associated deaths from starvation, disease and other mass killing. Here’s a figure from his book:


Pinker argues that there’s a lot of random variation around the long-term trend to reduced violence. The frequency distribution of sizes of wars (measured by war deaths) looks like random noise following a power law (like the frequency distributions of the magnitudes of earthquakes and the population sizes of cities). For war deaths, the exponent of the power function is less than 2, so that a handful of large wars have killed more people than a multitude of smaller wars.

However, I think there are also two more systematic causes of twentieth century mass violence,

I’ll talk about the first here, and the second in a later posting.

The anthropologists Melvin and Carol Ember did a study of the correlates of war across cultures, and discovered that one of the strongest predictors of warfare is fear of natural disasters and subsistence crises. This is not about chronic (i.e. non-crisis) food shortages. The most warlike people are not those who know that there will be a hungry season every year, when some of the population is pushed to the edge of starvation, but those who may be doing well now, but fear a disaster – drought, flood, insect plague, typhoon – in the future.

Europeans in the early twentieth century were better fed than any time before in European history. But the international and national markets that kept them fed, bringing grain and animal products from the Americas and Eastern Europe, and from country to city, also made them exceptionally vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a move toward protectionism spurred in part by fear of food vulnerability. This reached a crisis with the First World War, when England and Germany both attempted to interrupt each others’ food imports. England and the Allies were more successful: the blockade of Germany helped force the country out of the war, and pressured Germany after the war to agree to the Versailles Treaty. About 750,000 Germans may have died as a result (although the number is disputed).

The war also interrupted food supplies between country and city, as urban industry shifted from supplying consumer goods for farmers to producing war materiel, and farmers held back on supplying food.  Urban food shortages in turn contributed to both Russian and German Revolutions. In both countries, the aftermath of war was a determination on the part of a new generation of political leaders never to let this happen again, to make sure that one’s folk – whether the German Volk or the Russian urban working class – stood at the top of the food chain, even if it meant sentencing others to starvation.

For more on international trade, insecurity, and war there’s When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana. For food insecurity and war in England and Germany in World War I and after there’s The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. And for food supply and mass starvation from World War I to World War II, there’s Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.

The first Nobel

(First in Literature, that is)


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to look beyond the sciences, and start awarding annual Nobel Prizes in Literature. The first prize was to be awarded in 1901. There wasn’t much question who deserved it. Leo Tolstoy was still alive. He was not only the greatest novelist ever, probably, but also an imposing moral figure, a champion of passive resistance. (He would eventually inspire Gandhi and Martin Luther King.) So the first Nobel Prize in Literature went to …

Sully Prudhomme

No, I haven’t read anything of his. I doubt I ever will.

Next year they could still have awarded the prize to Tolstoy, although it would have been pretty embarrassing to have him getting it only after Prudhomme. So instead the prize went to the historian Theodore Mommsen. Thus began a century-plus long tradition of hit-and-miss awards. In some years, the awardees were acknowledged great writers. In other years, the winners were less well-known, but arguably merited the wider recognition that came with the prize. But many of the choices – and omissions – were just plain weird.

In response to all these wasted opportunities, Ted Gioia, musician, music historian, and author, offered his own list of authors who should have gotten the prize, year by year, with a generous representation of popular writers as well as more literary ones (and one of each in 1966). Looking over his choices, I might disagree with this one or that one, but I certainly couldn’t have done any better. Here’s a link to The Nobel Prize in Literature from an Alternative Universe.


Commerce and coalitions


The theory of comparative advantage is one of the really great theories in the behavioral sciences. It implies that even if country E has an absolute disadvantage at producing every kind of good compared to country P, it can still gain by finding goods for which it has a comparative advantage, and specialize in producing those, and trading for other goods with P.

But the theory of comparative advantage (like another great theory,  the theory of kin selection) needs to be handled with care. Even if a country benefits in the aggregate from international trade, there may be losers as well as winners. As the world came to be increasingly tied together by international trade, conflicts over free trade and protectionism moved to the fore of politics. In nineteenth century England, the free traders, representing industrialists and urban workers, took control, opening the country to cheap imported food. But in the 1870s, both Germany and the United States arrived at political settlements that favored protectionism over free trade.

Germany was unified in 1871. The densely populated country had a comparative advantage in labor and a comparative disadvantage in capital and land. Free trade for Germany would have meant specializing in labor intensive goods, and importing capital intensive goods from more industrialized countries like England, and cheap food from the more thinly populated Americas and Eastern Europe. Instead, Germany put up high tariff barriers to protect her industrialists and landowners – a “marriage of iron and rye.” Germany’s industrial working class was pro-free trade (so was Karl Marx), but their main political vehicle, the Social Democratic Party, was excluded from the government. This political settlement lasted right up to the First World War; on some accounts, the fraying of the protectionist ruling coalition was a factor pushing Germany toward war.

The United States had a different protectionist coalition. In the 1870s the country had an abundance of land, but it was short of labor and still in the early stages of industrialization. Protectionism, supported by Republicans, promoted national industry, and kept high-wage American workers from having to compete with low-wage workers overseas. The agricultural South and West were the big losers under this scheme, but there was a compensating advantage for the South. The compromise of 1876 put the Republican, Hayes, in the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction in the South. White Southerners then had a free hand to set up a one party state under the Democrats, committed to white rule. When the upstart Populists started winning support in the South and West on a free trade platform, they were beaten back by Southern Democrats playing the race card. The condominium between Republicans and Democrats lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In Latin America at the same time period, the free traders were largely in the ascendant. In Brazil, for example, the ruling coalition stood for café com leite – coffee with milk – São Paulo coffee planters and Minas Gerais cattle ranchers committed to an export oriented economy. Brazil had a lot of vacant land that could be opened up for coffee production, and was able to attract European immigrants to help with the harvest.

In Guatemala by contrast, free trade took a more sinister turn. From 1871, a “liberal” government facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands to promote coffee production, all in the name of progress. Indians were recruited to work on the plantations by a combination of forced labor and debt peonage. The country came to resemble a penal colony under the control of a large standing army.

Joseph Conrad spent his early life as a sailor, and had plenty of chance to see the dark underside of globalization, most famously the Congo rubber trade as depicted in Heart of Darkness. In Nostromo, set in a fictional Latin American republic, he wrote

Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavor of folly and murder.

Big in Japan

Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.

Karl Marx. Capital

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.

Marc Bloch. Feudal Society

After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.


Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.

Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.

Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)

Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”