The assertion was made by leading scientist Dr Jim Penman, who believes Britons no longer have the genetic temperament to advance because of decades of peace and a high standard of living. This, he concludes, makes the collapse of civilisation inevitable.
Here, writing exclusively for History Extra, Penman explains his theory, and highlights the lessons we can draw from Rome...
Recently I had the pleasure of listening to a series of recorded lectures by Professor Garrett Fagan on the history of Rome. He ended with a discussion on the all-important question of why the Roman Empire fell, for which he could find no single valid explanation. One he dismissed was that of ‘decadence’, on the grounds that the Romans reached their peak of success in the late republic when the decline of moral standards in the Roman populace was already well under way.
I will be proposing, on the contrary, that decadence driven by wealth was the reason for Roman decline, and for the decline of every other civilisation throughout human history. I will also explain why there was a delay between decadence and decline, and reveal how some simple laboratory tests could be used to determine if this approach is correct.
The key to understanding civilisation decline begins with the idea that the economic, political, military and cultural make-up of a country is largely determined by the underlying emotional and psychological nature of the population within that country. My research suggests that this basic nature or temperament appears to change over time, and this process can be understood as the primary reason for significant change within a society.
This is a very different approach to most other studies of human society. It is an unstated assumption of most historical and economic writing that at the basic emotional level, people are the same. Thus, if political and economic changes take place, they must be the result of the environment; changes in political institutions; external factors such as neighbouring powers, and so forth. But a great deal of recent work in the biological sciences suggests that people differ markedly in their emotional make-up as a result of early life experience.
For example, animal and human studies show that experiences such as maternal neglect or severe stress have profound effects on attitudes and behaviour. These effects are epigenetic in origin, in that there has been a permanent impact on the activity of certain genes.
We also know that parental behaviour changes greatly with time: consider the severity of Roman parents in the early republic compared with their far more moderate descendants of the late republic and early empire, or the overall leniency of parents today compared to the strictness of our great, great grandparents. Further, as made clear in a recent article published in the journal Nature, deep-rooted emotional differences have a profound impact on attitudes to politics. A change in temperament over time is thus not only plausible, but to be expected.
In his masterful work Farewell to Alms, Greg Clark shows how the temperament of British people changed markedly up to the 19th century. They generally became more hard-working, less violent, and more willing to sacrifice present consumption for future benefit – all of which he sees as the prime reasons for the industrial revolution. During these same centuries, Britons also experienced changes in family patterns.
They were more likely to control their children, and at a younger age form monogamous nuclear families, and to restrict sexual behaviour. Significantly, cross-cultural studies also show that these family patterns are associated with larger states and more advanced economies.
The rise of civilisations can thus be seen primarily as the result of people gradually developing this ‘civilized’ temperament, which in my book Biohistory I argue causes people to be hard working, market oriented, and more accepting of wider authority. At the extreme it also causes people to be more impersonal in their outlook, and thus more likely to support government by laws and institutions, such as a republic, rather than rule by a man.
The fall of Rome
Now that we’ve established the basics, let us see how this applies to the fall of Rome. Rising C in the sixth century BC caused Romans to become more impersonal in their loyalties. They were able to expel their kings and form a republic – something that also happened in Etruscan cities around this time. C rose to a peak probably in the mid-third century BC, based on our knowledge of family patterns, and then started to fall.
As it fell, the state became increasingly unstable as loyalties transferred from republican institutions to individuals such as Sulla, Marius and Caesar. The same process continued under the empire, with the senate gradually losing power until giving way to naked absolutism by the early third century. Eventually, loyalties became so personal that even a distant emperor could no longer command obedience, and the empire fell apart.
Alongside this change was economic decline. Recent studies of deposits in the Arctic ice show a significant fall in metal production after the first century AD, with the greatest decline happening before the empire collapsed. All accounts show a decline in trade and even the use of money, with a widespread reversion to barter. Lower C people are simply not as productive or good at trade as those with higher C. A weaker economy also reduced tax revenues, forcing debasement of the currency to raise badly needed funds and putting additional pressure on the state.
Considering all this together, the real question is not why the empire fell, but why it took so long. High C family patterns began weakening in the late second century BC, but the empire lasted for another 600 years. This is the objection raised by Professor Fagan to the ‘decadence’ theory, and it has three distinct answers:
The first is that civilisation decline involves two separate processes. The first we have mentioned is the decline in the ‘C’ of civilisation system. The second is the decline of a system we call ‘V’ for vigour, and which involves aggression, patriarchy and an element of punishment and brutality.
While C promotes flexible thinking, V, especially when induced by the harsh punishment of children, can significantly inhibit it. Further, V actually supports C so that civilisation decline occurs first as a fall in V and then in C. Thus, the early stages of decline show an increase in creativity and economic skills as V falls faster than C, and a decline later as C falls more rapidly.
The same process can be clearly seen in our own civilisation day. Before the 1960s there was only a moderate change in sexual behaviour, but a very strong decline in indications of V such as punishment of children and the subjection of women. Thus it is that around 1970 western economies grew faster than a century earlier when C was at its peak, and faster than today when falling C has begun to hurt productivity. The Roman equivalent of the 1970s would be the late second century BC, which was also a time of rapid commercial growth.
Further, it has recently been discovered that the experiences of parents and even grandparents can cause epigenetic and behavioural changes that are passed directly to offspring. For an example, in a soon-to-be published experiment, I found that restricting the amount of food given to male rats has a profound impact on the behaviour of their offspring, even though the males have no role in the care of young. Thus, the full impact of changing behaviour (for example, with regard to sex) may not be felt for a generation or two.
Still another factor in the delay was the Romans’ talent for assimilating outsiders, so that as each group lost V and C, another was ready to take its place. This process can be traced by plotting the origins of writers, officials and emperors, who progressively came from further and further afield where C and V were still high.
America had this same ability to attract higher C immigrants (for example Jews and Japanese) in the early 20th century. As these groups have assimilated, their levels of achievements have dropped, while new immigrants from places like India and China increasingly take their place as the nation’s high achievers.
As to what causes this decline, the short answer is ‘wealth’. V and C are responses to food shortage and other hardships, supported by cultural norms. Thus, rising wealth reduces V and C, which makes it harder to maintain traditional codes of behaviour, which in turn causes a further decline in V and C.
There are other aspects of the decline of Rome not covered in this account. Why did the empire almost collapse in the mid-third century AD and then briefly recover? Why did the eastern empire survive the west for more than a thousand years? It will not be a surprise that I consider these events also to have biological explanations, though in the latter case influenced by a small genetic change in populations with long experience of civilisation.
One unique feature of this theory is that it is scientific, in that it gives rise to hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory. C, for example, can be increased in animals by mild food shortage, which has been the main focus of our research project over the past seven years. Once the epigenetic effects have been fully identified, we can look for the same pattern in human groups. There are dozens of similar hypotheses ready for testing once the funds are made available.
The decline of Rome is a fascinating subject in and of itself. But if our approach is even partially correct, then it is vital that we learn from it. Understanding what happened to Rome, and doing the necessary research to understand the mechanisms behind it, may be the only way to prevent our own civilisation from reaching the same sad end.
Dr Jim Penman’s Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015) is out now. For more information, including short videos on biohistory, visit www.biohistory.org.