Saturday, 1 October 2016

The Fates of Nations by Paul Colinvaux

Reviewed by Susan Price
Warning: This blog is much longer than usual, but it reviews a fascinating book.



          Why does the human race - supposedly intelligent - keep fighting wars, despite all that has been said against the habit?
          Why do empires, such as the Roman and the British, periodically rise and then fall or fade away?
           Why do leaders such as Alexander, Napoleon and Hitler periodically arise to lead their people into war - and why do the people willingly, even eagerly, follow them?
          Why has Europe been, for centuries, a 'cockpit of war' and revolution? 
          Can the EU prevent such 'Wars of Civilisation' in the future?
          Why is the continent of Africa riven with war?
           Why are so many vicious, murderous political gangs - I could say 'IRA' or  'Baader Meinhof' or 'Daesh' - drawn from the nicely brought up and spoken boys and girls of the middle-classes, who, on the face of it, have comfortable lives and little need to fight for 'freedom'?
          And why, in every part of the world and at all times, have the poor always had many more children than the rich, despite being able to afford them less? Why does contraception and education make little difference to this trend?

          All these many questions, and more, can be answered very simply. Niche-Space and Breeding Strategy.
          This theory is argued by Paul Colinvaux in his 'The Fates of Nations.' He was an ecologist, and The Fates of Nations answers all these questions by applying the rules of ecology, not to salmon or brown bears or wildebeeste, but to that other animal, the Naked Ape.

          Colinvaux defines 'niche-space' as 'a specific set of capabilities for extracting resources, for surviving hazards and for competing; coupled with a corresponding set of needs.' It describes not only the amount of physical space an animal requires to live naturally and healthily, but also the animals' requirements in terms of climate, type and amount of food, type and size of home or lair and so on.
         Some niche-spaces are larger than others. An acre of land can support many hundreds of deer, if there is enough water and vegetation. It gives them all they need.
          However, that same lush, well-watered acre would not support a single tiger. As a dedicated carnivore, a tiger needs access to many, many deer to feed itself. Deer run away from tigers and many are too fast to be caught. Also, all deer become skittish when there's a predator about. In Yellowstone, after the reintroduction of wolves, deer stopped standing about, grazing like cows. Even when the wolf-pack was in an different, distant part of the park, the deer continued to move on frequently, snatching a few mouthfuls here and there, but never staying in one place for very long.
         So a tiger needs to be able to shift ground frequently, to find more unsuspecting prey. Every single tiger needs a large territory, which it will defend from others.
          This is, as Colinvaux put in in the memorable title of another of his books, Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare. Long before humans became a plague on the earth, before tigers' habitat was remotely threatened, long before they could be efficiently slaughtered for the supposed medicinal value of their bones, even then, tigers were still rare compared to deer or mice or strawberry plants. They were rare because they had a comparatively wide niche-space. Making a living as a tiger demands a lot of resources in terms of space and prey animals.
          Colinvaux calculates that when humans were living their natural, Ice-Age life, as hunter-gatherers, they were about as common as bears. That is, more common than tigers, because bears and humans are omnivorous and will stoop to eating fruit, vegetables and grubs, but a lot rarer than deer or mice.

That's Niche-Space. Then there's Breeding Strategy.
          Every species that has ever lived has always had the same breeding strategy: to have as many off-spring as it's possible to raise to adulthood.
          For most animals, this is more or less fixed, so much so that naturalists can write of the 'typical' litter or clutch size for a particular species. This is because an animal's niche-space is usually fixed. As Colinvaux puts it, a squirrel, or any other kind of animal, is 'highly tuned to a very specialized profession.' A squirrel cannot decide that, hey, it would rather be a tiger - any more than a tiger can decide that it would like to try out life as a dolphin.
          Evolution has therefore roughly fixed the optimum number of off-spring an animal can have. A very good year may result in birds producing a second clutch of eggs or other animals having a second litter, but that's an exception. In a bad year, when the land can't support the numbers, the animals starve and the population falls. The population of predators is linked to that of their prey. A good year for mice and deer means a good year for wolves and foxes - and vice versa.

Evolution has also fixed the approach most species take to child-rearing: low-investment or high-investment. Low investment species, such as salmon, spawn and fertilise hundreds of eggs at a time. Almost all of them will be eaten, either as eggs or fry. One or two might survive and that's all that matters. The salmon might have made an almighty effort to reach its spawning place but once the eggs are laid, it troubles itself no further about its off-spring.
          High-investment species, such as bears, cats and naked apes have one or two off-spring at a time, and they invest a lot of time and effort in feeding and training them. It's a high-risk strategy because, in a bad year, the off-spring might die - or be killed to ensure the survival of older off-spring or the parents. Some animals are known to kill and eat their young if faced with a threat to their own survival. Colinvaux argues that early humans almost certainly regulated their population not only by leaving granny on the ice-flow, but by leaving junior with her. Historically, we know that people frequently abandoned children they did not think they could afford to raise.

Changing Niche Space

Animals can't change their niche-space - not by themselves, anyway. Some have become domesticated, some have learned to live alongside humans, but that came about as a result of human actions
          The Naked Ape, however, learned to change its niche-space, and has done so repeatedly.

The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris
          First, they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, as common as bears. But they learned to hunt and gather in almost every part of the world - in the Europe of the Ice Ages, in the rain forest and deserts of Australia, in Africa, on Siberian tundra, in the far North of Alaska. In doing so, they increased the niche-space of their species. Instead of being limited to a local population in the tropics, or the temperate regions, naked apes spread to every part of the world except the extreme poles.
          But this spreading population was still limited by the resources available to hunter-gatherers. They followed the high-investment breeding strategy of having one or two children at a time, and spending much time rearing them. As with all other animal species, their population increased during good times, when more children were born and survived - but might crash during bad times when fewer mothers were in condition to give birth and more children died. So the population remained relatively stable.

But then, astonishingly, these animals learned to stop hunting and to herd the animals they needed - whether reindeer, or goats or cattle. They maintained the population of their prey-animals by protecting them from other predators and helping them to find food. This meant that the naked apes themselves could confidently expect to raise more children to adulthood because there was a more certain food supply. Their population increased - and increased again, because it was much less affected by bad years.
          Moving from hunter-gatherers to herders meant an increase in niche-space: more resources were available. But, as ever, the increase in resources was soon absorbed by the increased population brought about by breeding strategy.

Not to worry, though, because herding led on to settled farming, another huge increase in niche-space. Now, not only were the prey animals kept in one place, protected and provided with food, but the neccessary plant foods were too. Food could be produced more efficiently, and also stored more efficiently when it didn't have to be carried with a nomadic group, or hidden in caches.
          These were huge changes in life-style for the naked ape - but the breeding strategy remained the same. A great many more naked apes were born to take advantage of the niche-space - but more niche-space was also being created by the emergence of city-states and a whole new way of life.
          For one, if you could produce more wealth than your neighbour, you could persuade your neighbour to do most of your work for you, in return for a share of your produce. So different classes came into existence.
          Why make your own clothes, shoes and pots when it was more efficient to pay someone else to do it, and pay them in money or kind? Some people found that they were good enough at singing or story-telling to make a living at it.
          New technologies - the smelting of metals, stone-masonry, ship-building - produced other niche-spaces, absorbing the growing population and allowing them to make a living. A governing class. A priest class. A warrior class. They were all sub-niche-spaces, all provided livings.

City State - wiki

Niche Space Runs Out

But eventually, as the population grows, there comes pressure on resources. So long as there's enough space in the world to enable more land to be cleared or mined, this isn't a problem - but if there's another city-state over there - and another one over there - then the solution is more difficult.
          One way of avoiding the problem of shrinking niche-space is to impose a very strict caste or class system. Most societies of Naked Ape have tried this, in some form, at many different times over the centuries. For instance, only males are allowed to do certain jobs, usually high-status jobs, while females have to find a male to support them. Or restrictions may be applied to certain ethnic or religious groups, or simply to 'a lower class' who are deemed 'serfs.' This tactic buys time, for a while, but the breeding strategy ensures that the population continues to grow - and, ironically, it's usually among the higher classes where the squeeze of narrowing niche-space is felt first and most painfully, by those children born to affluence who suddenly realise there is no space left for them in the wider, freer niche-space their parents enjoyed.

Another way out of the problem is to trade. You go to those states who are crowding your own, and you offer to exchange surplus goods with them. You can even build ships and cross the seas to trade with foreigners. This, for a while, solves the problem. It creates a source of fresh produce and creates prosperous jobs for many.
     But every increase in niche-space means an increase in population - because the breeding strategy rolls on unaltered. Every single person in these growing cities produces as many off-spring as they think they can raise. Up and up goes the population, particuarly among the poorest.

Why do the poor have more children, even when their more prosperous countrymen crush them into a smaller and smaller niche-space?
'Slum Tourism' - wikipedia
       Because if you live, say, on a sheet of cloth spread on a pavement, and your biggest aspiration for your children is that they eat once a day, then children are cheap. They aren't going to cost you much - indeed, it will possibly cost you more, in all sorts of ways, to prevent their birth. Children will also start earning for you in infancy, so where is the incentive to limit their number?
       If, however, you are rather better off - if your plans for your children include a nursery, then room of their own in a comfortable house, a crib, a nanny, a bed, good clothes and shoes, three or more meals a day, a good education, toys, books, music-lessons, dance-classes, training in a trade, a car (or horse) on their 18th, a good marriage (with a dowry or big wedding) a house of their own, prosperity and children of their own - well, then each child is going to cost you thousands. One way or another, you make sure you have fewer. It's the well-off who sit down with pencil and paper (or Excel) and work out if they can afford a child. The poor, in this as in almost every other life-situation, just get on with it.
     Again, it's about niche-space. The niche inhabited by the poor is narrow. They have few choices and, as a result, few aspirations. But this narrow niche is cheap. It requires few resources. The people crammed into it are satisfied with little. My aunt, who grew up in a slum, has often told me that, until she won a scholarship to grammar-school, she had no idea her family were poor, since she had never known anything better to compare to her family's way of life.

     The niche-space occupied by the better-off is wider, and increases with wealth. Indeed, Colinvaux remarks that the richer a naked ape is, the more their life includes aspects of the old hunter-gatherer life: - acres of beautiful countryside as their 'territory', travel, hunting as a pastime, dogs and horses. But although this niche is broad, offering many choices and freedoms, it is very expensive in terms of resources. It can, therefore, be occupied by far fewer than the narrow niches of the poor. The poor are like deer - hundreds to the acre. The rich become more tigerish as they grow richer. They defend their territory too.

Herein also lies the answer to the question: Why are revolutions always led, not by the oppressed, but by the middle-classes? and Why are so many vicious, murderous political gangs drawn from the nicely brought up and spoken boys and girls of those middle-classes?

Delacroix - wikipedia
      The aspiring and prosperous - from the middle to the upper classes - have always had fewer children than the poor and higher aspirations for the few they have. But the more freedom and choice a niche offers, the more resources it uses and therefore, the narrower it is. It is these narrow niches which feel the pinch first and the most keenly when the pressure on resources mounts.
      The very wealthy, the ones who call themselves 'aristocracy' are insulated by their extreme wealth - and they also have the most resources to use, tigerishly, in defence of what they have. The Military, the Church, the Judiciary, Communications, the Means of Production - almost all of it is in their control. Threaten their position and they will close rank - hence the strong swing to the Right we are experiencing in politics now.
       The poorest are used to hardship and never expected much anyway. They're grateful to 'have a roof over their head and a loaf on the table.'
      But those caught in the middle, those who grew up expecting that their life would include a comfortable house with a big garden, an interesting, rewarding job, the wherewithal to travel and follow interests, whether it be rock-climbing or pottery - what happens when they find that they are going to have to settle for much less than their parents had? When they find that they can't get a job, can't afford a house, or a car or a holiday - or a child?
       It understandably comes as a humiliating, painful shock. And why shouldn't it? After all, nothing about the situation is their fault. They didn't choose the time they were born in, or the way they were raised. Most of them have never even heard of niche-space and breeding strategy and, even if they had, couldn't do anything about it.

When Trade Is Not Enough

So we've seen that you can increase niche-space by trade and by technological advance - because a new technology, whether it's ship-building or smelting metal, or programming computers, creates jobs.
          But, in some periods there comes a point when no new technology is coming to rescue the naked apes from their breeding strategy and trade is no longer supplying enough resources or enough profit to support the growing population. What then?
          Then it inevitably occurs to the naked ape that if, instead of trading with a particular country, if they just took the country instead, that would be more profitable.
          At any given time, there are always several ambitious apes seeking to be top ape, as apes will. If one of these ambitious apes happens to coincide with a squeeze on niche-space - well, then you have an Alexander, an Augustus, a Clive of India, a Napolean, a Hitler, all of them whole-heartedly supported by their tightly-squeezed countrymen, longing for more niche-space - which answers all those questions about war. Hitler even spoke about 'living-room.'
          Being a pacifist feels much more comfortable when your niche-space isn't too tight. (And is much more courageous when it is tight and all around you are in jingo-istic, empire-building mood.)
          These 'wars of civilisation,' Colinvaux points out, are always a stronger, more technologically advanced state grabbing a weaker (if not geographically smaller), less advanced, less organised country. Whatever high-flown reason is given, whatever excuse is put forward, it is always a straight-forward bullying snatch of land and resources by the stronger state. There has never been an example of, say, a tribe of Bushmen invading and conquering France or Britain. Barbarians took down Rome, yes - but they were, in fact, highly organised and well-equipped barbarians, quite wealthy in their own opinion - just as Genghis Khan's 'barbarians' were at a later period. In each case the 'barbarians' faced large states exhausted by their efforts to find new niche-space; states that had run out of options.

The option of war and colonisation creates niche-space not only by gaining access to resources such as food and materials at less cost - it also creates interesting and generally well-rewarded jobs for the young of the better-off. They become viceroys and governors of the colonies, merchant-traders, spice-growers, tea-planters, even missionaries. The armies needed to enforce colonisation also provide niche-space for 'the sweepings of the gutter.'
          But breeding strategy continues to do its stuff and the new niche-space gained at the cost of war is filled up by the increasing population.
         Sometimes, it takes a while. The colonisation of Australia and the Americas (and the genocide of the native civilisation,) siphoned off surplus population and relieved pressure for several centuries. 'Go West, young man.' There will never, Colinvaux remarks, be such a pressure-release valve again.

Why was Europe the 'cockpit of war?' Too many nations crammed into one land mass, their populations increasing and aspiring. Every time the pressure of falling resources was felt, another revolution or war was triggered as the prosperous classes felt the pinch and grew angry.

          To win big, final victories and establish an Empire lasting hundreds of years, as the Romans did, you have to go against less well-armed and organised opponents with a tactic they cannot withstand. Alexander won his victories with the phalanx. The Romans had the legion and the tortoise.
Wikipedia: printing press
          But in Europe was developed a piece of technology than not only created a lot of niche-space, but meant that no war-like state was going to be able to win crushing, final victories in Europe ever again:- the printing-press. Once the printing-press was invented, any new tactic was, within a few years, available to everyone else. Hence the endless round of revolutions and wars in Europe, which had no direction, not north, west, south or east, to send its restless and disappointed young and no way of winning new niche-space by winning a lasting victory over another European state.
         This is also why Africa is riven with so many wars now - and why Europe probably will be again.

Oh, but the European Common Market was created, in part, to prevent war in Europe ever happening again. I had little faith in this argument before I read Fates of Nations. I have none now. All over Europe are nations seething with people whose niche-space has just crashed in on them, crushing them into a place where they don't want to be. Revolution and war will follow, as they have always done. There were trading agreements and international contracts and rules before the EU. They never prevented war and revolution in the past and it's hard to see why they should now.
          In the last couple of months, the IRA have started attacks again. Daesh commit atrocities while journalists confess themselves puzzled that the boys and girls who run away to join Daesh are not only 'middle-class' but appear to know little about Islam. Nor, often, it seems, do the people who recruit them.
          That's because it's not, at bottom, about religion or politics. It never was. It is, and always was, about niche-space made tight by breeding strategy.
          Left-wingers in the UK at the moment are puzzled and despairing at the political swing to the right - by the fact that the 'Nasty Party' keeps being re-elected, despite their proving, again and again, just how nasty they are. Good-hearted people are dismayed by the increasing xenophobia, the increasing tendency to stigmatise and isolate the poor. They are distressed by the push to turn schools into academies which can refuse admission to pupils who, to be blunt, they consider not good enough and by the push to privatise the NHS, which would take us back to my great-grandparents' age, when one of their children died because sending for a doctor would have cost twelve and a half pence. Which they didn't have to spare.
          Colinvaux isn't puzzled. The shift to the right, the hardening of class-barriers, is shrinking niche-space in action. As niche-space shrinks those with the widest niche-space move, like tigers, to protect their territory. They harden their attitude, become more callous, more prejudiced and xenophobic, less open to argument or new ideas. This is shown in the way they vote.
          As the niche-space of others contracts, that of the very wealthy becomes ever wider and more comfortable. We'll soon be back to those good old Victorian Values so beloved of the Tories - when servants were plentiful and cheap and the lower-classes knew their place.


Humans have changed their niche-space again and again but, like all other animals, they have never changed their breeding strategy. They stubbornly continue - as they have throughout history - to have as many children as they think they can raise to adulthood within the niche-space they occupy at the time. It's ruinous, to human society and the planet.

We not only have as many children as we think we can raise, massively increasing demand on resources year on year on year - but we are now occupied in trying to escape death for longer and longer, in trying to ensure that infertile couples can have children too, and in preserving the lives of those who would have naturally died young.

I first read Colinvaux's The Fates of Nations over 20 years ago. It lit up my head then, and it does now. I look around, I watch the news, and see the theories of niche-space and breeding-strategy at work everywhere. Indeed, my family are becoming fed-up with hearing me mutter, "Niche-space," at regular intervals.

The book is fascinating. Not cheerful - in fact, rather depressing - but clarifying. Clarity is often depressing.

It's particuarly uncheering for a left-winger like me; but it's hard to deny the truth behind it. The theory doesn't justify war, cruelty, infanticide and so forth. It simply makes clear the ecological pattern that is expressed through them.

In short, a great book if you want to think. But not if you want to sleep easy.