View Full Version : Toynbee & K/r-Selection

James Brody
March 19th, 2007, 12:00 PM
According to HL Mencken, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, in the 1400's, urged that we, instead of holding onto traditional ideas, abandon them when we find they entail errors. Descartes took the next step in 1619 when he urged that we refuse to endorse an idea until there is material evidence in its support. Descartes became a signal for a mind's arrival, one that allowed us to adhere to the shared environment of science and not to the instinctive notions and swarms known as religion. Accepting Descartes as a prophet means, however, that slackers with unstained fingers have less to sell. Nonetheless, Toynbee's Civilization on Trial, one that I bought in 1960, hooked me after waiting almost fifty years to do it. He tells a story but one that resonates with some concepts developed by Robert MacArthur and Ed Wilson in Island Biogeography. The notions of "K selection" and r-selection are congruent with those of Toynbee's description of the rise and disintegration of some twenty-three human civilizations. Most schools would give one of you a masters degree if you lined up demographic trends with the civilizations and dates from Toynbee's lists.
Michigan would probably give you a PhD.

Toynbee: Twenty-two of twenty-three civilizations (or twenty-seven of twenty-eight!) have emerged and dissolved according to one template. The West is the twenty-third. A people, challenged by a difficult environment, unite against that environment and achieve a dominating culture, similar people in easier environments or in extremely harsh environments remain static. The challenged cultures develop three features: a creative minority, an internal proletariat, and an external proletariat. Once the culture stabilizes, the creative minority becomes a ruling minority when it both idolizes itself and loses the proletariat's endorsement. Invasion comes from within by an internal religion and from outside when barbarians cross the frontier. The civilization falls.
There is, accordingly, an alternation of secular and religious organizations and Toynbee finds that the thread, the consistent path from lower to higher, is that of religion and secularism is a transition that helps religion achieve ever higher expressions.

MacArthur and Wilson (1967/2001): K denotes the carrying capacity of an environment, usually for a particular species. That environment includes physical resources as well as predators and competitors. "K selection" is an evolutionary state in which fitness is correlated with efficient use of limited resources. K selected species typically have larger individuals and fewer offspring but greater investment in them. Relationships between such a species and its competitors and predators tend, like the rest of the environment, to be relatively stable across generations.

r denotes the rate of population increase. r selection is an evolutionary state in which there is a temporary abundance of food in relation to population density. Fitness is correlated with productivity, that is with rapid conversion of food into offspring.

r conditions become K conditions within a few generations in a new setting. r conditions also exist when dramatic seasonal changes cause only temporary abundance of food. K conditions also become r conditions after a major climate change, volcano eruptions, meteor crashes, and perhaps solar flares or bursts of radiation. (Refined sequences of behavior become disrupted and such things as heat shock proteins stabilize the more primitive sequences that appear.)

I sense that Toynbee and MacArthur/Wilson describe the same dynamic.

The problem is to define the architect and how she worked. That's right: I suspect that female sensitivities influence the numbers of children that women bear and the kinds of partners who father them in different moments of human history. Move into stable environments and they slow the assembly of offspring. Happened to the Victorians, happened to us!

My recommendation: Some blessed grad student track down how many babies were born at different points in the history of these civilizations and the sex ratios of those children. Secondary data would consist of K traits such as changes in the culturally-endorsed relationships between men and women and the life span of individuals. The mechanism for these changes may somehow lie in the subtle negotiations between maternally and paternally imprinted genes (Haig, 2002; Burt & Trivers, 2005).

Implications: The twenty-third (or twenty-eighth!) civilization, that of the West, peopled now by old white guys and feminists, breaks into parts before invaders and their religions arrive. Susceptibility to invasion develops before invasions actually occur! Another fracture: the dissatisfaction that we in the proletariat have with our ruling minority that repeats a classical error that Toynbee identified: the group that achieved power because they solved one problem is the least qualified to solve the next one. The banquet served by one generation turns to crap when passed to the next.

My feet are cold, it's late, gotta build a fire...


Burt, Austin, & Trivers, Robert (2006) Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard.
Haig, D. (2002) Genomic imprinting, sex-biased dispersal, and social behavior. In Haig, D. Genomic Imprinting and Kinship. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
MacArthur, Robert & Wilson, E.O. (1967/2001) The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Mencken HL (1908/2006) The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. NY: Barnes & Noble.
Toynbee A (1958) Civilization on Trial and The World and the West. NY: Meridian. Wikipedia (I think) remarked that Toynbee lost credibility when he endorsed religion as a player in the births and deaths of civilizations. I protest! The people who read his book and write histories may not care for religion but are outnumbered by multitudes who DO care about religion. Dawkins and Dennett be damned, such elites repeat Nietzche's mistake: sometimes aware of narrow boundaries around secular beliefs but "like Moses, Mohammed, and St. Francis, thundered at them uproariously and urged them to turn from their errors and repent." (Mencken, p. 112).