April 3, 2010

Professor John R. McNeill

Mortara Center for International Studies

Georgetown University

37th and O Street NW

Washington, DC 20057

202 687-5585



Dear Professor McNeill:

I have read your chapter “Sustainable Survival” along with the rest of Questioning Collapse, the multi voiced response to Diamond’s Collapse.  It is encouraging to see so much talent directed toward the big picture and in particular the question of why things collapse.  (I am particularly pleased that you take the long view.)  When I was first dragged kicking and screaming into worrying about such things it was different, sort of like the hobby of looking up for dirigible balloons, not much company.  But however difficult it is to define just what a “collapse” is, and trust me I still am not totally happy with a definition, there seems no question that things do fall apart for societies.


In order to make sense of it one must look at numbers.  And you juxtapose two numbers that probably seem to have nothing to do with each other, but I believe they have much to do.  You mention that the Hutu-Tutsi tragedy occurred after they seem to have cohabited for 300 years.  And you mention that the Greenland collapse happened after 450 years.  The one number is exactly half again the other. 


I do not think that is a fluke.  Nor do I believe in numerology, only in numbers.  Haitian society has not really undergone a collapse recently, but it underwent a rather typical collapse in 1804.  It had been visited by Columbus in 1492 and slaves were brought in in 1517 so there could be a roughly 300 year span there.  In fact you seem repeatedly to hit on 300 years as a jolly good time to look at a society to see how it’s doing.  Bravo.


I am struck that you point out that a thousand or three thousand years ago politics was dominated by kings, who did everything in their power to get people to identify with the nation instead or religion, tribe or ethnic group, or to identify that group with the nation.  I might want to add village to the list.  Most people were primary producers living in the village, and the life of the village loomed large while the life of the sate stooped.  You point out that the effort to sustain a culture or polity is vain; but villages are almost immortal.  Virtually every village mentioned in the Domesday Book almost a thousand years ago thrives now.  Kalahari Bushmen keep their bands so distinct that a couple of bands that are within walking distance (admittedly they walk a long way) are as distinct genetically as Asians and Europeans.  So the band can survive tens of thousands of years.  Not bad at all, I should say.


So what is the pendulum of this cycle that drives cultures to extinction?  I think it is fertility.  If you have a big random mating gene pool you will suffer a catastrophic fertility decline.  I put my evidence, thought, references and correspondence on my website nobabies.net. Probably the easiest way to look at it is to go to the March 25. 2010 posting, which is a poster I showed at a genetics conference in Albuquerque.  I was challenged on details but not one had an argument with the basic point.  Once a population approaches 1,000 the clock starts.  There is a smallish crisis at 150 years and a virtually unsurvivable one at 300 years.  Greenland broke through the brick wall.  And Egypt did on three occasions.  That is because of the other gift of the Nile: the flanking desert.  There are no marriage partners out there, so the gene pool stays small. 


England is exceptional.  There is a good reason for that, almost a moral.  But it would take longer in describing than I would like.  If you are interested of course I should be happy to go into it.  Meanwhile have a look at what I offer and let me know what you think.




M. Linton Herbert MD 


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