Thursday 16 May 2013

Roman domestication of humans?


I was interested by the recent post and discussion at Henry Harpending's blog

which cited this paper by Peter Frost

which extended Greg Clark's Big Idea to Roman times - I mean the idea that natural selection operating in 'recent' and recorded history shaped human personality and intelligence in ways which changed history.


Greg Clark's book A Farewell to Alms: a brief economic history of the world had a massive impact on me - for example it propelled me into IQ research and discredited mainstream economics in my eyes.

And I think it likely that Frost is correct to suggest that the Roman Civilization did have some kind of pacifying effect on its inhabitants - all all civilizations probably do.

But I think Frost is demonstrably wrong to state (from the Abstract): "By creating a pacified and submissive population, the empire also became conducive to the spread of Christianity—a religion of peace and submission."


This is wrong because Rome was not the capital of Rome at the time of the fall of Rome - the capital of Rome was Constantinople and the Empire was divided into East and West - both of which were Christian but only one half, the Western half, of which fell - the Eastern Empire surviving and indeed thriving for many hundreds more years ('Byzantium').

Rome the City fell in the four hundreds AD, but Rome the Empire certainly did not - and the City of Rome was in the less important half of the Empire. 

(This point is well covered in the comments on West Hunter.)

So, according to this matched cohort study (!), Christianity cannot have been a major cause of the fall of Rome


Another difference between the English medieval example of domesticated humans given by Clark, and the putative Roman example, is that English domestication led to world conquest and the Industrial revolution, while the Western Roman Empire example of domestication led to barbarian invasion and economic collapse.

Assuming that domestication of humans comes first, then its consequences follow - a new kind of human is first evolved (in terms of changed average personality and intelligence), then the consequences of that evolution follow.

Since the consequences were so different, the first hypothesis would be that the new kind of human was probably different in the case of Rome and Medieval England - different in intelligence and/ or personality.

The selective pressure towards domestication was, indeed, very different - as different as Ancient Rome and Medieval England.


Having said that, which is critical of details of Frost's idea - I must emphasize that I liked the paper and believe that his broad argument is very likely to be correct: some kind of natural selection surely went on during the Western Roman Empire, and it very likely had historical consequences.

But I do not think that Christianity had the role ascribed by Frost, and I would emphasize the differences from - rather than the similarity to - the process of domestication of Homo sapiens in medieval England.



josh said...

Clarks basic idea is that the middle classes repopulated Europe after the plague, right?

I wonder who repopulated Byzantium afte the plague of Juistinian.

Adam G. said...

Excellent points. The Western Empire underwent a long period of extreme violence and disorder for over a century before its fall (the East suffered from it too, but pulled through). Its likely that if domestication occurred, the spread of Christianity was more one response of a new kind of person to the return of violence than just a byproduct of the new kind of person being more pacifist.

Really, tying genetic change to a particular set of religious beliefs and disentangling them from a complex set of historical and social phenomena like Rome is probably beyond our abilities and always will be. But its an interesting speculation.

While Frost's theory can't be completely discounted, my guess is that a better human biological explanation for the rise and fall of Rome would be that the Roman/Latin/Italian peoples had an unusual degree of group altruism, perhaps for genetic reasons (the Rome of the high Republic looked a lot like the Anglo peoples at their height--high sense of duty, lots of trust and cooperation, easy willingness to assimilate outsiders), which allowed them to create a great empire, but the resulting merger back into the larger gene pool and the new evolutionary environment which favored conspiracy and skulduggery and narrow protective tribalism (i.e., not the genetic traits that we postulate the Roman peoples as having at the period of their success) gradually enfeebled the empire. Autocracy and Christianity in their own ways were both responses to these developments in the population, and the Empire was able to survive in the East where Christianity and autocracy were more deeply rooted and where the population had had those characteristics for longer so social instituations were better adapted to them.

All speculative, of course, but it fits with suggestions offered by ancient writers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh - not quite right - the evolutionary change would have started as soon as medieval England was reasonably stable - probably from 1100-ish.

The effect of the plague might have been on the one hand to kill more peasants than rich people 'eugenic' for intelligence), but after the plague, the standard of living of peasants doubled - which was probably 'dysgenic' for intelligence.

asdf said...

The Eastern Empire was the more Christian one. It seems obvious the western empire fell not because of some moral tale but because it was less populated, less rich, and surrounded by more barbarians.

Bruce Charlton said...

@asdf - having written this post I took a look back at Count Belisarius by Robert Graves - which I read approx aged 14 and was literally all that I knew of the Eastern Empire until I went crazy reading about it from 2009...

Anyway, looking again today it was clear that the Graves book is a really horrible, snide, cynical, subversive, deeply anti-Christian look at the Empire - where nothing is depicted as good except the eponymous hero.

AND YET I took away from this book a vision and feel for Constantinople of that era which is so vivid and (in its way) achingly desirable that I can see it and smell it as if I were there now!...

Samson J. said...

AND YET I took away from this book a vision and feel for Constantinople of that era which is so vivid and (in its way) achingly desirable that I can see it and smell it as if I were there now!...

Really, eh? Is it worth reading, Bruce?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - I couldn't recommend it. But Graves could put himself into a trance and really *be* in the places he wrote about - most famously in I Claudius and Claudius the God: he was greatly gifted. But he was viscerally anti-Christian - so it's hazardous stuff.