Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Biosocial Model of the Rise of Western Civilization: A Counter-Point to Oesterdiekhoff (2013)

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

The Biosocial Model of the Rise of Western Civilization: A Counter-Point to Oesterdiekhoff (2013)

Article excerpt


In his target article Oesterdiekhoff (2013) has argued that the acquisition of higher Piagetian developmental stages constitutes the core phenomenological commonality latent amongst a number of socio- and psycho-cultural evolutionary developments, each of which relies in some manner upon intelligence enhancing 'cognitive-evolutionary trends' and/or 'institutional expressions of intellectual phenomena.' These trends include industrialism, the development of the sciences, the Enlightenment, democratization and humanism, which in all cases have attained their 'peak expression' in the West, rather than elsewhere in the world, presumably because Western populations attained these stages en masse before anybody else could.

Thus what Oesterdiekhoff terms the 'cognitive- developmental' model solves the conundrum of Western exceptionalism - a problem that he notes has vexed social scientists of a venerable pedigree, including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and (more recently) Nial Ferguson (2011), in whose book Civilization. The West and the Rest, this problem is described as being absolutely central to the whole historical research enterprise.

In this critical commentary, we argue that first, the greatest leaps towards addressing this obviously important problem have been made not by social scientists employing the purely culturally deterministic frames of reference (proximate psycho-socio-cultural causation only) lauded by Oesterdiekhoff in his article, but by those who embrace biosocial models, i.e. those who describe the human organism as a joint product of both its environmental context and its evolutionary genetic legacy. This tradition also has a rich heritage, albeit one completely ignored by Oesterdiekhoff, which includes the likes of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Gregory Clark, Richard Lynn, Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending amongst others.

Second, this comment will cut to the quick of Oesterdiekhoff's 'cognitive- developmental' model by demonstrating that one of its key predictions, namely that Western societies have been recently advancing in terms of Piagetian stages, is questionable and that many of the greatest changes of the 20th century that Oesterdiekhoff attributes to 'cognitive-developmental' processes, such as the Flynn effect, diminishing violence and diminishing religiosity, have in fact been occurring independently of actual long-term measured Piagetian stage regression, indicating the operation of alternative causes.

The Biosocial Perspective on the Rise of Western Civilization.

Once Upon a Time in the Pleistocene...

Anatomically modern human populations started radiating out of Africa around 70,000 years ago and came to colonize environments that were radically different from anything encountered previously in the course of human evolution. Europe in the Pleistocene (roughly 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago), and North East Asia even more so, were exceptionally cold, owing to these regions being in the grip of the Würm glaciation event. Exceptional cold and also variability in climate brought with it exceptional survival challenges, such as the need to cope with environmental complexity, to hunt novel and more elusive prey, the presence of novel predators, diseases and even other Homo species (Neanderthals and Denisovans), who were in direct competition with the ancestors of modern Eurasians for essential resources. This is all in addition to the need for clothing, shelter and a system of long-term provisioning that would permit people to endure punishingly cold winters. These challenges were to a large extent cognitive, hence would likely have favored the evolution of higher general intelligence amongst the distant ancestors of contemporary Westerners as well as North-East Asians (Grove, 2012; Hart, 2007; Kanazawa, 2004, Lynn, 1991, 2006; Rushton, 2000). Thus natural selection for higher intelligence in response to cold winters and climatic variability in Pleistocene Europe can be described as having 'set the stage' for the evolutionary sequence that culminated in the rise of Western civilization. …

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