Theories of history and Viking gloom:
Here is a diagram of classes of theories of history.  The study of history is the study of what has happened, and that introduces the question of why things happen, particularly things that involve cooperation between people, things like governments.  So one way to phrase the question of history is to ask what makes a government work, and the answer pretty much has to be that it takes a lot of things going right.  One can also phrase the question as to why governments, or cultures or societies or civilizations die.  And then the answer is simpler, and you already know what it is.  But right now, consider this diagram:

Chance of




                                                                   Age of civilization  


The vertical axis is the chance that a civilization, society or whatever large exclusive social organization will outlast some time interval.  The horizontal axis is the age of that civilization.

We have looked at graphs like this before in specific cases, but this is a very general case.  With this chart we can classify theories of history.  Most of us have one or more theories of history in mind although we do not think of them usually as testable theories.  We think our theories are common sense and above question.  But no theory is above question. 

The top line is a class of theories that assume that a society will tend to improve over time.  These are “liberal” theories.  You can think of that as meaning the liberal use of capital letters or implied capitals.  As in this person is a Liberal and his theory of history is Liberal.  He believes in Progress.  Societies Improve.  All we need to fear is Fear Itself.  Any Change is probably for the Good.  Anything that is not Good is Evil.  It is Evil to resist Change.  It is hard not to be bitter about such thinking, so I shall not try.  An example of Liberal thinking is the notion that a government can improve life, so we need lots of government intervention in people’s lives.  The modern socialist societies of Europe are examples.  Societies are expected to move in that direction and thus improve.  Another example of Liberal thinking is the idea that a marked economy will make better decisions than the government, so Progress consists of Unleashing the Power of the Market.  Deregulation and Privatization will lead us forward in an ever improving society.  Another example is the proselytizing religions.  There are those who are convinced that their own religion is superior to all others and that the world will be a better place once everyone is converted to the favored Religion.  Another example is eugenics.  Our Behavior is no doubt determined by our Genes, (From Genes to Social Behavior SCIENCE vol. 322 no. 5903 November 7, 2008 page 891 through 914 and Can the Can ECONOMIST vol. 389 no.8697 November 22, 2008 page 91 and Warren Mansel Seeing is Behaving NATURE vol. 456 no. 7218 November 13, 2008 page 171) so we need to make sure we have Good Genes, whether by stirring up the worlds gene pool into one blended whole, dividing the worlds gene pool into a few massive and hermitically sealed groups, eliminating the Bad Genes by selection or Engineering Genes to get the perfect combination.  The Liberal believes in Freedom, but not freedom.  Everybody will have to buy into the favored Liberal agenda. 

Of course the worst Liberal of all is I.  Here I am saying that we need to develop a Rational Mating Strategy.  All we need to do is to understand the process and rely on everybody’s Good Sense to set matters right.  If everyone agreed and started maximizing their reproductive rate by an optimal mating choice our birth rate would skyrocket, and overpopulation which is now a dire crisis would become an unmitigated disaster.  The projected population of ten billion people is far too many.  Ten million might be closer to the mark.  That ought to be enough to preserve every language, possibly every dialect.  But even then it would not be possible to maintain stability unless most people decided not to reproduce.  I can claim in my defense that unlike all other theories, I do have evidence.  To my shame I must confess that my best effort has not yet yielded a single person working on the matter. 

The next line is the “conservative” line.  It is based on the assumption that one society is more durable than another.  The weak die out in a kind of Darwinian process of selection leaving the stronger with their brighter than average future.  Under this kind of assumption, whether the stronger are better by virtue of their genes, their culture, their religion, their laws or whatever, the society cannot be improved.  Any change is bad.  The landed families of Medieval Europe probably bought into this, and a host of other cultures may have as well. 

The third line down is “nihilist.”  It takes the position that it does not matter what you do, some random event like climate change, a meteor impact, an accidental nuclear exchange or a plague will come along out of an unexpected direction and wipe us out anyway.  The age of the society does not matter.  This is a respectable theory in science.  (Pingzhong Zhang, Hai Cheng, R. Lawrence Edwards, Fahu Chen, Yongjin Wang, Xunlin Yang, Jian Liu, Ming Tan, Xianfeng Wang, Jinghua Liu, Chunlei An, Zhibo Dai, Jing Zhou, Dezong Zhang, Jihong Jia, Liya Jin and Kathleen R. Johnson, A Test of Climate, Sun and Culture Relationships from an 1810-Year Chinese Cave Record SCIENCE vol. 322 no. 5903 November 7, 2008 page 837)

The next line is the Greek “fatalist” line.  Every life and every culture has a date fixed on it by fate, and there is no way to increase or decrease the chance that fate will strike. 

The bottom line is the one that predicts the end of the world at some date or other in the future.  A current favorite is the prediction that the world will end in 2012 when the ancient Mayan calendar turns over like an odometer reaching 100,000 miles. 

But the class of theories that interests us is the next to the bottom line.  It is somehow worse than Greek fatalism.  Without putting too much importance on the idea, I tend to think of it as Norse.  The Greek gods were fairly neutral; they could be helpful or vindictive.  They could not turn aside fate, but they could influence things.  And their own survival was indefinite.  They could die, but it was not a sure thing that they would.  Norse gods were doomed.  At the end of time, all the heroes who had gone to Valhalla to spend the time fighting all day and drinking all night and all the gods would march into battle against the forces of chaos and be defeated.  The dominion of darkness and decay would be illimitable. 

It is just about the worst possible kind of theory.  At least the end of the world class of theories can be dismissed as each doomsday arrives and passes without a flicker.  Viking gloom is forever. The Norse themselves called it Ragnarök, which the Germans translated Götterdämmerung and comes into English as Twilight of the Gods.  We used to call it “the Weird of the Gods,” which carried more emotional freight and “the Gloom of the Gods” or “the Gloam of the Gods” would as well.  “Twilight” seems too sweet.  I think we do not use the older terms because they are unbearable.  Most people now are in the Liberal camp, which makes the opposite prediction. 

The most melancholy thing about the Norse prediction is that it happens to be right. It is hard to say why it should be right.  I can extract almost all of the real world evidence from the computer model of fertilty but not really that one without doing some hand waving.  Yet a glance back at the experience of Egypt, China, Japan and Mesopotamia reveals the process  unambiguously.  The line of the chance of survival does not just go down.  It always curves down.  

Curiously, the best evidence comes from Iceland and Denmark, both old Viking haunts.

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