In a handbasket

It strikes me that in many ways, life was gradually getting harder in the Old World, especially in the cradles of civilization. We know that every now and then a new infectious disease was added to the mix: smallpox probably shows up in the classical world around 180 AD, bubonic plague in 641, syphilis in 1494, cholera around 1830, HIV in the 1970s. Those we know – but many other infectious diseases must have arrived at some time since the beginning of the Holocene – certainly those like measles whose critical community size was too large for it to have existed among hunter-gatherers. Ancient DNA & molecular phylogeny should elucidate this negative trend. Bet you a dollar that typhus didn’t exist in the old days.

What, if anything, countered this gradually increasing disease burden? I would say selection – medicine was useless until quite recently. But selection is slow. Now and then an infectious disease seem to have disappeared (English sweat) or become milder (scarlet fever) but that was a coincidental outcome of some kind of ecological change – people didn’t plan it.

In the same way, farming should have gotten harder in some ways: the burden of weeds, blights, and insects should have increased with time. There, though, selection acted faster than it did in humans: crops have high effective population size and short generations. Of course, so do weeds… I know that chickpea, one of the original founder crops of the Middle East, disappeared for about 3,000 years because of a fungus – until a version that grew in the (dryer) summer showed up. Rye and oats started out as weeds and developed such effective mimicry that they became crops…

Then there’s environmental degradation – deforestation, erosion, soil salinization, exhaustion of ores useful to available techniques. Worse in fairly dry areas, worse with irrigation as opposed to rain-fed agriculture.

Technical innovations pushed in the other direction – decent horse harnesses, three-field cultivation, water mills, Champa rice – but it could be a long time between innovations. In particular Classical civ seems to have been low on such innovations.

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45 Responses to In a handbasket

  1. Geryon says:

    Welcome to the old normal.

  2. IC says:

    History of China told a story of dynasty changed with fluctuation of population up and down. I never give too much credit to historian opinionated moral argument for the dynasty change. If it were that simple, any one could be successful ruler and dynasty would not collapse.

    New dynasty always started with low pop. Then prosperity with increasing population. Then reduced living space/land per capita. And less room/buffer for crisis due to famine or natural disasters. Political instability due to starving people with nothing to lose but fighting for survival. Rebel alliance, Fall of dynasty, rebels fighting for the king of hill. New dynasty with low population again.

    Last dynasty Qing, it started with 20 acre per farmer and ended up at less than 0.25 acre per farmer near end of dynasty. Huge population increase, reduced wealth per capita, poverty. A huge nation of numerous poor people.

    Revolution is easy when you have numerous desperate people.

    • IC says:

      In Qing dynasty, population in China achieved unprecedented high level due to introduction of New World crops like potato and corn which could be cultivated on previously unused land with poor soil. With increased food supply, population quickly increased to new equilibrium – Malthusian limit. At end, human population is not much different from bacteria colonies which would grow into their limit. Good time never last long.

      Thus pessimistically to predict, industrial revolution/antibiotic/welfare system only offer temporary good time (a few hundred years?) for human population until new harsh selection pressure kick in again at another level of equilibrium. Red-Queen theory.

      • IC says:

        But genetic techs like CRISPRs might revolutionarily change biological world away from Darwin rule. In stead of natural selection through savagery, we might move into era of “intelligent design” in which we human are playing God. Natural selection gives way to artificial selection.

        • melendwyr says:

          Human domestication will mean the same thing to our species as it has to every other species we’ve domesticated: stupidity will rule.

          • Why would you think so? I mean I understand why domestication generally leads to lower intelligence in animals. It also seems like the more intelligent human groups are the most domesticated.

            • melendwyr says:

              There is also a non-trivial distinction between ‘cleverness’ and ‘wisdom’. It’s entirely possible to have a high IQ and be an absolute fool, as elites around the world demonstrate frequently.

              The very intelligent small groups aren’t domesticated, merely highly selected. Domestication results in entities that are unable to survive in the wild and discard all of the expensive and resource-intensive processing life in the wild requires. Think of the underclasses reproducing themselves well above replacement. They are the future.

        • Patrick Boyle says:

          No doubt ‘intelligent design’ as you call will shortly come to be the prevalent method for human progress. But not, I suspect, biological progress. The Age of Human Biology is nearly over. Humans – if there are any – in the future will almost certainly be machines of some sort or another. Machine development is just too fast. Natural selection is slow and directed biology scarcely any faster.

          Personally I would prefer to be a robot. That would solve my arthritis problem, but my timing is probably off. I’m probably just a little too early.

  3. Tim says:

    So you read that paper on the first farmer genomes?

  4. dearieme says:

    “In particular Classical civ seems to have been low on such innovations.” It’s odd, isn’t it? I once saw a Roman quoted who said that the Britons were an odd lot, but that they had perfected the burning of stones. But did the Romans use that coal for anything? It’s known that they did move coal around England, presumably for domestic heating, but I’ve not read of them using coal anywhere else in the Empire.

    • AppSocRes says:

      The standard argument I’ve read is that slavery was more economically efficient than first generation technologies could have been so technology never got off the ground. The Roman Empire was in a major way a slave-producing and slave consuming machine so this makes some sense.

      I’m meandering here a bit but it’s always struck me that the origins of real, mass scale, exploitative slavery is an interesting and important question. The late Iron Age seems to be the cutting off point. Before that a slave had to be exceptional in some way for it to be worth its upkeep. Greek slaves were either highly skilled in some way or sentenced to a quick death, e.g. in Athenian or Syracusan silver mines. In the book of Joshua, the Illiad, the Odyssey and other sources the capture of cities ended in the massacre of any inhabitants the conquerors could track down. Exceptions were made for really attractive women (and boys?), and highly skilled artisans. Those pentecosters couldn’t hold many persons besides the original crew, minus a few casualties of course. The Roman latifundia system was one of the first effective ways of exploiting massive levies of unskilled slave labor.

      As a cynic this issue has an especial poignance for me because I expect that slavery will reappear as a major institution if it ever again becomes economically viable. (I’d consider arguing that sexual slavery is so difficult to eradicate precisely because it is an example of an economically viable modern form of slavery.) My personal observation is that a large portion of mankind is born pre-disposed to slavery. The only thing that saves them from this fate is that they are not worth the bother of supervision and upkeep.

      • magusjanus says:

        Slavery did not end for being economically unviable. Fogel does the Maths. It really ended due to religious crusade in UK, Northern US, changing social mores and for the US mass war.

        • AppSocRes says:

          Slavery hasn’t ended. There are more slaves in the world now than there were in Wilberforce’s time. But they exist only where the difference between what they cost their owners and what they earn for their owners is a net gain for the owners. If that balance ever shifted significantly in the west in favor of ownership slavery would quickly re-appear. In fact, I’d argue that this has already happened in the case of sexual slavery.

          • Mark F. says:

            It is worth noting that often some of the costs of slavery are shifted to the population at large. Southern slave holders received benefit from fugitive slave laws and mandatory service on runaway slave patrols. If they had to pay all enforcement costs themselves, it might not have been so viable. Some suggest the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Laws alone would have destabilized the South so much that slavery would have been abandoned . An “open border” for slaves would have been very bad for the slave owners.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Enforcement of fugitive slave laws couldn’t have had any significant costs. The total cost of government (3.5% of GDP in 1850, federal + state + local) was insignificant by modern standards. In the South, it was lower than that.

              The number of slaves that escaped was small. More like miniscule: less than 1,000 a year, at the peak. In the north, people (including government (officials) usually ignored the Fugitive Slave Act anyhow.

              So where did you get this idea?

        • gcochran9 says:

          It ended in the Roman Empire because it didn’t pay. slaver requires either population growth among slaves, which implies a very non-Malthusian situation (like that in the US) or a big advantage in conquering you neighbors (Roman).

          When the Roman Empire stopped expanding slavery gradually died out.

          When Western Europeans contacted America (and west Africa) and the Amerindian population collapsed due to disease, profitable tropical and semitropical crops needed labor. Weak states in backwards Africa were willing to sell slaves, and Africans did better than Europeans in those semitropical and tropical regions, especially after they brought along some African diseases.

          Thus slavery was reborn. Short version.

          • Slavery grew or shrank not because of ethics (that is modern thinking placed into ancient times) but because of economic return. It makes sense. It is a hell of a lot easier to manage subcontractors, for example serfs giving a percentage of crop yield to their lord, than to micromanage the every move of a slave.

          • magusjanus says:

            Yes. To be clear, “modern slavery as practiced in the West” did not end due to becoming economically unviable, is what I meant. The West continues (for now at any rate) to have non-Malthusian conditions. And slaves had a nice return up to (and including) Civil War, as well as continuing to have nice return in Brazil for decades thereafter.

            Heck, I bet if social norms changed somehow via mind virus overnight it’d be economically viable even now.

      • Dale says:

        You write, “a large portion of mankind is born pre-disposed to slavery”. That seems to be true only of non-foraging societies. I read somewhere that the first Spanish to land in some part of the Americas tried to enslave the locals, but the locals were foragers and wouldn’t work when enslaved. They had to march a ways inland and capture people from a (despotic) agricultural society. Those people were used to working for overlords. (And the rest is history.)

      • Yudi says:

        Slavery is known among a few groups of hunter-gatherers (normally sedentary ones), so it may well predate the Holocene–slavery is an elaboration upon abduction, which is very old. However, large scale slavery and the slave trade almost certainly are products of civilization.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Culture’s have flavors and the Roman flavor was unfavorable to being clever. The Greeks were clever but not interested in utility. While the central American civilizations liked to cut people’s hearts out and stick cactus spines through their penis in public. Let us all act according to national customs.

  5. spottedtoad says:

    In Rats, Lice, and History, Zinsser considers a bunch of potential outbreaks (from the Peloponesian War onwards) as potential typhus outbreaks, and then settles on 1566 as one of the first that were definitively typhus. (P.159 here)
    He claims a bunch of diseases have become less virulent over time- syphilus, English sweating sickness, plague, etc. The basic question, as I always understood it, was if slower rates of infection favored selection for lower virulence- the bug needs to get along with its host since it couldn’t jump to a new host right away.

  6. Jerome says:

    Rust never sleeps.

  7. Doug Jones says:

    Even before modern medicine, a few places saw improvements in sanitation and public health that must have cut down on disease mortality. Quarantines helped in some cases. And in later Tokugawa Japan, human waste was collected for use as a fertilizer. People made money setting up free public lavatories to collect valuable excrement. (There are stories about people chastised by family members for using public facilities instead of saving it for home.) Waste was stored for long periods before being used, which apparently was enough to break the chain of transmission for most diseases; waste borne diseases seem to have been rare. (It didn’t do anything to help the smell though.) This is presumably one of the things that let pre-modern Japan avoid a lot of the classic cities-as-population-sinks problems and become one of the most urbanized places in the world. Here’s a reference from anthropologist/historian Alan Macfarlane:

    Off topic, here’s me on a recent paper of mine exploring a wrinkle in the theory of kin selection, “Beating Hamilton’s Rule.”

  8. Could you be a bit more specific about chickpea’s disappearance? Or point at a reference, please.

  9. MawBTS says:

    Here’s some interesting datasets re: medieval crop yields and how they changed over time.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Thanks, interesting.

    • dearieme says:

      Wonderful link, Maw.

    • Hmmm. Once again England has kept records going far back into the middle ages. Gregory Clarks’ wonderful book “Farewell to Alms” was only possible because of records preserved of wills going back into this time period. It makes sense careful records of crop yields were kept, someone was always mooching a share of the crops, the only way they would know what to demand was to carefully inventory the harvest. But because England was an island it was very rarely over run so records there were far less likely to be destroyed.

  10. Markus says:

    “syphilis in 1494”
    Didn’t recent evidence refute the theory that syphilis made its first appearence in Europe only after the discovery of America?

    • gcochran9 says:

      No, recent evidence proved that syphilis did originate in the Americas.

      • gcochran9 says:

        They found a strain of Pinta that was closer to syphilis than anything in the Old World.

        The congenital syphilis stuff is tricky: some other conditions can apparently mimic it, at least to the unwary, and there can be subtle problem with C-14 dating. Like eating too many fish.

        • gcochran9 says:

          I might also point out that once syphilis clearly shows up in 1494, it spread like a prairie fire, all over the Old World by 1520.

          Thinks about it: with this kind of infectivty, what could have kept it from spreading earlier, if it had already existed for some time in Europe?

          The Atlantic Ocean could do it, before Columbus.

          Moreover, it’s clear that it existed in the Americas before Columbus. Lots of skeletal evidence.

          Way too many people in the softer sciences run Occam’s razor backwards: they dislike simple explanations, even when they work fine.

          • Jim says:

            Yes, the theory that syphilis existed in the Old World before Columbus shows how ideological motives can cause people to totally ignore the obvious in favor of convoluted theories. It’s clear that syphilis existed in the New World long before Columbus. There’s no evidence it existed in the Old World before that. When syphilis first appeared in Europe it was extremely virulent. Europeans seemed to have little resistence to it. Then after a while it gradually changed to a less virulent more chronic disease. Obviously it was a new disease appearing right after the voyages of Columbus with the first outbreak in Lisbon.

            • gcochran9 says:

              You really think it’s ideology? Because I’ve seen similar tendencies in paleontologists talking the meteor impact and the K-T extinction, while as far as I know, dinosaurs can’t even vote.

              First epidemic I know of was in Naples, not Lisbon.

              • Jim says:

                Yes the first reported outbreak was in Naples. If it’s not ideological I’m not sure why people would try to refute the obvious conclusion that it was a disease from the New World. As for paleontologists they may have been upset by the fact that Alvarez was an “outsider”. Apparently he also made some rather tactless remarks about paleontologists which presumably irritated them.

              • Jim says:

                Also presumably some of the palentologists had previously suggested other reasons for the extinctions and were relunctant to give up on their personal investment.

  11. I think it’s interesting to compare the state of agriculture in neolithic Europe compared to native North America during colonial times. The Iroquoians used slash and burn methods where a clearing in the forest was made and cultivated for a few years until the soil was exhausted, and then they would move on and repeat. In Neolithic Europe and the Near East by contrast successfully cultivated their areas for millennia, which made possible large, settled communities, a priesthood, literacy, coinage, trade, and surpluses. What was the difference? I suggest it was domesticated animals, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and later horses, the manure of which was discovered early on to fertilize soil. North American natives only had turkeys and dogs. Since North Americans could just as well have domesticated animals as anybody else, I think this is an example of culture driving evolution. In other words, a human created environment provided a new ecosystem to which humans adapted.
    As an aside, I wonder if you could suggest a good summary of the state of genetic science for an interested layman. For instance I know about mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome but I do not know what autosomal DNA is. On a personal level I have a problem with a prothrombin G20210a gene. Does that g stand for the Y chromosome grouping? If so I guess me and Otzie are distantly related.

    • dearieme says:

      I don’t know how much of the Continent would be covered by this statement but “slash and burn methods” couldn’t have worked in Britain. You can’t destroy British broadleaf woodland by fire, and you can’t destroy the trees by slash either. No one knows how British wildwood was cleared: my own conjecture is that cutting down trees and having goats eat the regrowth might have worked. God knows how they disposed of all the tree trunks.

      So, yes, stock would have been key.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment suggests that while Europe was on the upswing over the last 600+ years, most major civilizations were stalling out in the arts and sciences. The only other Old World civilization that was making steady progress was Japan.

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