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October 29, 2006


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Without minimizing at all all the danger signs for western civilization (peak oil, the flight of US capital and the rise of China as a major power among them), there seems to be almost a longing for collapse these days. It's the anthropological equivalent of the fad of explaining human behavior by the behavior of animals, as if there was something comforting in saying, "oh, he's just an alpha male".

I think there's just as much evidence that we are moving toward a state of totalitarian consolidation (or worse.) The decline of the Roman Empire may seem relatively benign, by contrast.


hi John,

If societal complexity is subject to diminishing returns - something that seems sensible to me -then building mechanisms for periodic simplification and resetting of rules is a paramount necessity for civilizational endurance.

John Robb

True. However, everyone seems to be asking for more complexity. Crash programs. National initiatives. Global organizations. Multinational forces. Monolithic rule sets. Etc.


In chapter 14 of Diamond's book "Collapse" he mentions Tainter's book. Tainter didn't seem to believe it possible that those societies might have collapsed due to resource depletion. That their very complexity would have meant that some portion(s) of the societies would have analysed, pondered and set out remdiation of the depletion. He couldn't imagine that some parts of the dearly departed societies would have sat back, or worse, actively prevented any solution of the problem. I guess Tainter never could have imagined the herds of PR agencies proclaiming that "global warming doesn't exist; even if it did exist, you can't prove that humans are responsible; and even if you could prove it was caused by people, you can't prove it is a bad thing."

As Diamond says "[c]ontrary to what Joseph Tainter and almost everyone else would have expected, it turns out that societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived."

There is another book on my shelves, "The Ingenuty Gap" which posits that we aren't going to solve the problems.

I think the problem falls into the area called "rational behavior." People tend to maximize their benefits without care or concern of who actually pays the costs of those behaviors.

And if that fails, just declare martial law:

John Robb

Isn't there a scale problem involved between the two works? Diamond tends towards small societies and Tainter looks at large and complex civilizations. I can see small societies driving off of the cliff due to a single (albeit fatal) error, but large complex civilizations die by a thousand cuts. As a result I don't think Diamond is really as applicable (despite his rock star status) as Tainter to the current situation.

James Bowery

Making things simpler is actually harder than making things more complex in the same way that intelligence is harder than stupidity. This isn't any old opinion -- it is actually a theorem of algorithmic information theory.

It requires real creativity to make things simpler.

The problem is, as W. D. Hamilton points out in "Innate Social Aptitudes of Man", inherent in civilization: "the cost in fitness of such altruism and sublimated pugnacity to the individuals concerned is by no means metaphorical, and the benefits to fitness, such as they are, go to a mass of individuals whose genetic correlation with the innovator must be slight indeed. Thus civilization probably slowly reduces its altruism of all kinds, including the kinds needed for cultural creativity"

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