Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Review of Choosing Survival: Creating Highly Adaptive Societies by John Kemp


I discovered courtesy of the Social Evolution Forum that back in Iowa City a physician at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics has produced a book that looks into a number of issues that interest me, so, although in China at the time, I downloaded it to my Kindle and began reading. The book looks at what it means to be a “highly adaptive society” (adaptive in the Darwinian sense). It identifies basic characteristics and surveys nations around the world, gauging their relative adaptability viz. the factors that he identifies as crucial to highly adaptive societies. These factors are “a representative form of government, a market-oriented economy, a growing scientific and technical enterprise, a universal system of education, and a system of religious practice which becomes progressively more disentangled from government and progressively more tolerant of diverse beliefs.” (Kemp, John (2013-06-11). Choosing Survival: Creating Highly Adaptive Societies (Kindle Locations 68-70). Kindle Edition.) After further discussing these factors, which one can recognize as common factors that many scholars identify as crucial the rise of Western domination of the world in the last 500 years, Dr. Kemp looks more carefully at nations and societies around the world to gauge their adaptability according to these standards. Finally, he addresses some of the challenges that the remainder of the 21st century will present to such societies.

This summary of the book is short because I want to get to what made it fun for me to read. This book really got my juices flowing. As you will see, I have a number of criticisms and suggestions that I set forth below, but this is a terrific project and it really goes to the heart of what we have to do in the years to come. Accordingly, here’s a list of thoughts that this book has generated and which I hope will contribute to the project. (Based on memory and with no pretense to scholarship or form, I randomly cite some thinkers and books that I believe pertinent to any particular point in my discussion below.) 

1.      Dr. Kemp is an optimist. He seems to believe in Progress or a variation of the Whig theory of history (that history is moving inevitably toward liberal institutions). In his inventory of nations, for he opines that most of them are moving toward becoming “highly adoptive societies” (hereinafter HAS). I am less optimistic, or at least less certain. I agree that overall, his discernment of the general direction of change is correct; however, his available data set is short. That is, the advanced nations of today (Morris, Why West Rules—For Now) are very recent developments. The Industrial Revolution is only about 250 years old. Given this short time span against about 10,000 years of agriculture and civilization (i.e., cities), this is a brief period in human history. Can we say that Progress, in this case defined as movement toward HAS, will prove inevitable? I sense an assumption of inevitability in the tenor of the book, although it’s not an explicit argument. I don’t believe that representative government is the inevitable result of human change. Germany came close to prevailing in the Second World War (before the entry of the U.S.) (J. Lukacs), or perhaps Communism could have prevailed before the collapse of the U.S.S.R. or the change in China (look at the persistence of N. Korea & Cube, for instance).
2.    A key question, I think best formed by Peter Turchin and his work (War & Peace & War), is whether the historical cycles (“secular cycles”) that he’s identified in agricultural civilizations will continue to apply in the Industrial and Post-Industrial Age. Turchin recognizes this is a key issue. I note that Turchin has done some preliminary work on cycles in U.S. history, most of which encompasses the Industrial Age and qualifies as an HAS. Perhaps it will address to what extent we might be really different from the past and therefore exempt from the social gravity that has dragged down earlier societies.
3.    I think that the term HAS is misused, or at least misplaced. It strikes me that the most highly adaptive societies were those of the hunter-gathers, who really did have to adapt to their natural environment. With the advent of agriculture, humans really begin, tentatively, to shape their environment. With the Modern Age (beginning, shall we stipulate, around 1600), humans significantly begin to change their environment, a project that truly takes off with industrialization. Thus, what Dr. Kemp identifies has HAS should, I think, be dubbed Highly Transformative Societies (HTS). The Modern Age marks the transformation of society and (not always intentionally) the transformation of the natural world as well. If we think of adaptation, what has the Modern Age adapted to?
4.    Dr. Kemp refers often to the “fragmentation of power”. I don’t like this term for several reasons. As a term, I think that several options are more appropriate, such as “de-centralization of power” or “devolution of power” (Khanna), or “disbursement of power”. The connotation of “fragmentation” is not a good one, but it does lead us to a deeper issue. I agree with the general proposition that de-centralized decision making, such as we find in markets (Hayek) and democracy are usually the best ways of decision-making in complex societies. However, if we understand power as the ability to make decisions and effect change through speech (and not through force) (Arendt, Habermas), then too much fragmentation damages power in a society. With too much fragmentation, anarchy (in the non-philosophical sense) or political impotency become problems. For instance, the U.S. Constitution came about as a result of the excessive fragmentation of power inherent in the Articles of Confederation. The Civil War came about from an attempt to fragment power (the secession of the Confederate States). Indeed, much of post-Civil War U.S. history shows a trend toward centralization of power in the federal government, which on the whole, I judge to have been beneficial. Today, we see a strong fragmentation sentiment in the Tea Party and Radical Republicans (Wills) who want to strip the federal government of much of its power and role in American life. For the better? I don’t think so, although finding the right balance between centralized (coordinating) power and de-centralized decision-making is not an easy issue or one given to bright lines. (See Coase’s theory of the firm, which I think has applications in political theory, and, of course, The Federalist Papers.)
5.     The book doesn’t address directly the theory of complexity as applied to societies (see, e.g. Gaddis, The Landscape of History; Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth). Whether we can model societies successfully seems to me crucial to gaining a sense of how we can successfully shape the future. It will also help us understand how things might not go the way we want. (Or is this wishful thinking? Theories of the cycles of history have been around almost as long as history itself, yet societies seem to be immune to their insights—historians have just been so many Cassandras to the extent that they might have hoped to alter the course of events.)
6.    The book’s seeming faith in progress (movement towards HAS) is not balanced by a consideration of how things might go amiss, both in countries that have achieved a high level of development and those who might hope to achieve it. Some nations get stuck in an unfavorable equilibrium and have a hard time getting out of it. As a current resident of India, I perceive that despite some strong economic growth recently, it’s hard to see how this society will gain traction in the near future. Corruption, extreme poverty, poor infrastructure, political fragmentation (in the negative sense): all of these factors make me much less optimistic that what I take Dr. Kemp to be from his discussion of India. Having just spent a month in China, I was amazed at the overall level of development, but much of the cost has been externalized (some horrible air pollution and apparently even greater problems of water quality and quantity). These facts serve to cancel much of my amazement at the terrific infrastructure improvements and astonishing commercial development. The prospects of democracy in China are uncertain at best, and the model of centralized power seems to growing in popularity for some. (See M. Pettis, Avoiding the Fall: China’s Economic Restructuring, on prospects and problems for the Chinese economy.) 
7.     How do societies avoid the collapses or declines described by Turchin, Tainter, Diamond, P. Kennedy, Homer-Dixon, Toynbee, et al.? (This list could go on at some length.) This, to my mind, is the ultimate adaptation that any society can aspire to, which assumes that the society has achieved a satisfactory level of equilibrium. (Has any society ever achieved this?) We need to address not only factors of collapse identified in past societies (as controversial and elusive as these causes can be), but we also need to contemplate new threats to social survival. Nuclear war (hey, I’m a child of the 50’s & 60’s), as well as human-caused global climate change pop to mind, but certainly others exist. (Local climate change has certainly altered and contributed to the collapse of many social orders.)
8.    What will drive future adaptation? War, along with economic competition, drove much of the European change (Ferguson, Civilization). What will drive change in the future? If war becomes the driver, it could destroy much of social development achieved to date. (The physical survival of the U.S. allowed Europe to recover after WWII; compare what happened in Europe after WWI). Can we continue to compete in economics with the same system that we have now? (See #9 below.) There have to be ecological limits to growth (Julian Simon notwithstanding). 
9.    We have to figure out how consumer capitalism will morph into a sustainable equilibrium. Can consumer capitalism come to such a state? One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to believe that this system is unsustainable (although Marx had some insights; also see John Stuart Mill). This is the visionary aspect of a program for thinking about future societies.

I’ve said enough for now. I hope it’s apparent that the book has certainly stimulated my thinking, and the parts of the projects that I’ve suggested need further development are a huge challenge, especially given that Dr. Kemp has a day job. I hope that as an amateur who has not ventured such a demanding project as writing a book on such an important topic, my writing this this review isn’t too galling. Think of this, please, as cheerleading, or egging on, if you will.

If you’re interested in this topic—what our future holds and how we might shape it—start with this book and join the conversation!

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