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2010 November 25 Thursday
Heather Mac Donald Thanks Human Ingenuity

Heather thanks the engineers who reduce our odds of dying from disasters and diseases.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for the human ingenuity that tries to foil such tragic Acts of God as the Haitian earthquake through heroic feats of engineering, and when such preventive efforts fail, that tries to save as many surviving victims through medical science. I am grateful that human reason has conquered so much of the squalor and suffering that nature unleashes upon the world. I hope that Haiti’s suffering comes to an end through tolerance, honesty, enterprise, and discipline.

What made those feats of human ingenuity possible? Read economic historian Gregory Clark's book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. About this book read the reviewa by NY Times science writer Nicholas Wade as well as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman.

By Randall Parker    2010 November 25 12:50 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (0)
2010 April 29 Thursday
Bureaucracy Enables Conquest

The expansion of the world's first states was made possible by bureaucracy.

"Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work," said Albert Einstein, sharing a popular view about bureaucracy grinding progress to a halt.

But it now appears that the organizing functions of bureaucracy were essential to the progressive growth of the world's first states, and may have helped them conquer surrounding areas much earlier than originally thought. New research conducted in the Valley of Oaxaca near Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site in southern Mexico, also implies that the first bureaucratic systems may have a lasting influence on today's modern states.

The research by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences directorate, is published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"The earliest evidence of state organization is contemporaneous with the earliest evidence of long-distance territorial expansion," said lead researcher Charles Spencer, curator of Mexican and Central American Archaeology at the AMNH. "This pattern was consistent with the territorial-expansion model of primary state formation, which I have proposed in a number of publications over the years."

Spencer's territorial-expansion model argues that states arise through a mutual-causal process involving simultaneous territorial expansion and bureaucratization. Spencer's model breaks with previous ideas that suggest states rise through a protracted, step-by-step process--first the state forms, then an organizing bureaucracy takes hold, and sometime later, the state begins to expand into other regions in an "imperialistic" fashion, thus giving birth to an empire.

Whatever genetic variants enabled the formation of bureaucracy probably have been under positive selective pressure. The expanding states captured more resources that helped feed the bureaucrats. So attributes that helped a person become an effective bureaucrat probably provided reproductive advantage. Don't like bureaucracy? It is probably a product of human evolution.

By Randall Parker    2010 April 29 11:20 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
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