An Epigenetic Explanation for the Decline of the West

Jim Penman, Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2015, $5.92.

In 2009 I wrote an article outlining the emerging field of biohistory.[1] So when I came across a book written by Jim Penman entitled Biohistory: Decline of the West my interest was immediately piqued. Published in 2015, I wondered how the book had escaped my notice for two years. One reason might be that, although he holds a Ph.D. in history, Penman is an Australian businessman rather than an academic. This could explain why the book has not been reviewed by the customary American media.

My TOQ article was primarily a survey of some relevant historiography. I noted how various historians had incorporated human biology, and ecological influences such as climate, geography, diet, and disease, into their research while generally eschewing the significance of race. Penman also denies the importance of race, but he takes biohistory in a different direction with the use of epigenetics.

Epigenetics is a “new science which looks at the way on which genes are switched on or off by the environment” (9). It appears that “environmental influence turn up or down the activity of certain genes while not altering the DNA” (25). It is particularly significant that: “Epigenetic regulation seems to operate in an almost Lamarckian fashion . . . [and] can produce effects in gene expression that may echo over many generations.” [2]

Epigenetics has been described as evolution without Darwinism. It appears particularly important in determining temperament. Two significant epigenetic environmental factors are diet and stress. To greatly simplify things we can say that gluttony and ease produce weak men, who produce weak sons leading to decadence, and societal decline. This theory is not new, but epigenetics suggests that these changes are physiological and heritable, not just cultural. And it provides some scientific evidence to support this paradigm.

Penman’s thesis is engaging and epigenetics is gaining wide acceptance, but at times his presentation is overstated and reductionist. For example, historians and economists have been studying the Great Depression for decades. They disagree on the causes, but generally believe that, as with almost all major historical events, it was precipitated by a confluence of factors. In this case the lingering effects of World War I, policies pursued by major economies, as well as the mistaken beliefs of millions of economic actors. In contrast, Penman believes “the explanation of recession involves a change in the temperament of the general population” (141), and “that governments have little or no power to halt the underlying forces of economic and political change, because these forces are driven by changes in temperament” which are in turn shaped by epigenetics (153).  Certainly there is a psychological component within economic downturns as the terms “depression” and “panic” imply. But it is difficult to believe that epigenetic changes alone account for economic cycles.

Rather than being the key to understanding history epigenetics could prove to be another useful tool for analyzing human societies past and present. As mentioned above, the author’s goal is to develop a biological explanation of history sans race. He “takes particular issue with the idea that [cultural development] might be about race or genetic differences” (5). His interpretation of “biohistory takes issue with the idea that differences between peoples can be explained by genetics such as the idea that Europeans and East Asians are more intelligent” (8).

Penman does, however, made selective use of genetics and ethnic differences. The one example of the latter regards Ashkenazi Jews whose intelligence “appears to have risen significantly over the course of about five centuries due to the selective pressure caused by their mercantile role” (192).

Other than this Penman has little to say about intelligence, temperament being all important. There is nothing in this book, however, that would preclude the agency of race in history. Nor is there anything to say that human genetics, as well as culture and epigenetics determine temperament. Thus the author is somewhat contradictory when he admires the work of Cochrane and Harpending, and especially of Gregory Clark, authors I cite in the 2009 article who have argued for the influence of human genetic change within historical times.[3] Penman concedes that “genetic change could account for the increase in C-type [civilized] behaviors in Europe between about 1200 and 1850, but the rapid collapse of C since than indicates that this is primarily an epigenetic rather than a genetic change” (34). This sounds credible — genetics was a major reason for the rise of the West, and epigenetics is a major reason for its decline.

It is telling that the author’s axis of world history runs from the West, including the Mediterranean, to the Far East, while Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is not part of the model. Whatever its shortcomings, this book is worth reading because it provides a cogent explanation for the decline of the West.

One of the strengths of Penman’s analysis is the use of animal studies to supply evidence (though not proof) for his thesis. Apparently, “all of the mating and childrearing behaviors that distinguish complex and small-scale human cultures have direct equivalents in monkeys and apes” (16). The author’s supporting evidence also uses studies involving rats and other animals.

Penman labels the cultural characteristics that create and maintain a civilization as C. C includes industriousness, ability to cooperate, and moderation in food, drink, and sex. Chronic mild hunger produces hormonal, behavioral, and epigenetic changes that make people harder working and more cooperative. In societies with plentiful food similar effects can be achieved through religion and other social institutions: “Human societies, by a process of trial and error, have developed cultural practices which mimic the physiological effects of hunger” (14).

While C behaviors are required; “A successful civilization needs . . . some level of warlike aggression” (39). This should be disciplined aggression, group or collective assertion, not individual violence. Penman labels this component of civilization as V for vigor. Characteristics of V are a pioneering spirit, high morale, and the urge to expand and explore. The author offers Victorian Britain as a good mix of C and V.

V promoters include: intermittent (not chronic) stress, patriarchy, “an anxious but affectionate mother” and exposure to adult authority in late childhood” (48). “One final V-promoter in human societies is control of women’s sexual behavior” (49). In summary, “the temperamental complexes labeled C and V can be considered the fundamental building blocks of civilization” (54).

Thus childrearing practices are seen as particularly important in determining temperament and thus C and V. In turn, temperament is transmitted from generation to generation via cultural practices and epigenetic inheritance. Penman thus minimizes or ignores the influence of genetics (what behavior geneticists term additive genetic variance—genes that have the same effect throughout the range of normal environments) in determining intelligence and behavior. It would have enhanced his thesis if he had integrated his epigenetics to complement, rather than displace, genetic-based history, and then incorporate genetics/epigenetics into the wider field of biohistory.

One broad area of agreement with the author is on the importance of cycles in human affairs. The presence of cycles seems to be ubiquitous within the universe. The cycle of life, the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, the hydrologic cycle, the rotation of the planets, moons, suns that produce tides, night and day, and seasons are all examples. As biological entities and social animals it seems likely human collectives would also be subject to cycles.

Dr. Jim Penman and Tara McCarthy

In Chapter Seven Penman describes his civilization cycle. Low C leads to a raise of V that raises stress. High V and stress cause C to increase. As C rises it causes V and stress to fall. Eventually the fall in V and stress will cause C to fall, and “when C falls to a certain level, V begins to rise and we return to step 1” (102).

We can, however, explain the fall of a civilization, the medieval world for example, without including changes in childrearing, temperament, or epigenetics. Many scholars divide the history of the West into three distinct civilizations: classical, medieval, and modern.  Historians generally agree that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries medieval civilization declined and was replaced by the early modern age. How did this happen?

One explanation sees the High Middle Ages as a period of particularly favorable weather in Northern and Western Europe. This, coupled with technological developments, increased food production along with population and trade. Beginning in the fourteenth century the climate turned colder and wetter. Food production decreased and was unable to feed Europe’s larger population. Trade with the East had introduced or reintroduced new diseases from Asia that now ravaged the malnourished population. The social and economic disruptions lead to increased armed conflict such as the Hundred Years War.

The disintegration of the old order paved the way for capitalism to replace manorialism, nationalism replaced feudalism, and eventually science to modified theology. Here we have a biohistory that includes climate, demography, nutrition, and disease. This not to argue against changes in childrearing and temperament, only that the above factors can be considered independent of epigenetic influences.

In the next chapter Penman discusses cycles in wildlife populations. For millennia as Homo sapiens pursued game, men have noticed that animal populations rise and fall in cyclical patterns. Today these cycles have been well documented by wildlife biologists, but are not entirely understood. The author introduces the concept of G, or growth phase, and relates this to population cycles of muskrats. During the growth phase these swamp rodents, valued for their fur, are more disease resistant, breed earlier with larger litters, and tolerate high population density. During their decline phase they are more susceptible to disease, breed later with small litters, nest farther apart, and “react poorly to any form of stress” (p. 105). There appears to be some parallels to human societies.

Penman notes that, being affluent and urban, elites are especially susceptible to decadence and decline. He believes that the high population density of city life tends to decrease both C and V. Though the author does not deal with race his analysis has certain similarities to early twentieth-century racialists such as Madison Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. Grant thought that cities were toxic to Nordics who required the fresh air and heavy labor of country life. Roosevelt held a neo-Lamarckian belief that the strenuous life lived outdoors would help extend the pioneering character of eighteenth and nineteenth century Americans into the twentieth century.

In Chapter Thirteen Penman introduces his S factor — stability. He contends that long-established civilizations become more stable, but less innovative, over time. India and China are given as examples. Here the author makes limited use of genetics as an explanation despite repeatedly claiming his biohistory is epigenetic rather than genetic (5,8,25,193,256). He explains that “the process of collapse causes people to go through a genetic change, which makes them more indulgent of infants and less so of older children” (187). A bit later, however, we learn that it is not just civilizational collapse, but rather the conquest from an outside force that produces the S factor. This explains why the West despite two collapses — fall of classic civilization in the fifth century and the decline and replacement of medieval civilization circa 1500 — has remained low S, innovative, and creative. The West has survived two periods of decline because the people who created the god Apollo and the spacecraft Apollo were genetically similar.

Penman predicts that “if and when Western Civilization collapses the successor civilization will be poorer and less brilliant, but more stable” (195). The explanation is that “when civilizations collapse, people with a genetic predisposition to indulge infants (high S) are better at maintaining traditional values, because they tend to have lower infant C and higher child V. This means they tend to have more children and high S genes spread” (202). All this is highly speculative, especially given that the author admits “we have no direct evidence of how children were raised in ancient China and India” (213). Such conjecture would probably not pass muster in a peer-reviewed historical monograph. But let’s face it, plausible speculation is often more interesting than meticulously documented case studies.

In the last several chapters Penman discusses the current state and future prospects of the West. He makes the startling statement and grim prediction that “the traditional culture of the Middle East . . . is arguably the most advanced culture on earth . . . not in terms of technology or wealth, but in its ability to endure and reproduce. It is the product of thousands of years of cultural evolution. In the future, it may well be our world as well” (218). The author believes “Europe will become an Islamic continent in a century or so. The 1,400 year struggle between Islam and the West is coming to the end” (230). This was written before the 2015–2016 alien deluge into Europe. If present trends continue we have far less than a century before the creation of Eurarbia.

Penman mentions in passing his disagreement with Francis Fukuyama, the Asian-American author of The End of History.[4] Fukuyama, influenced by the end-of-the cold-war triumphalism, saw liberal democratic globalism of the contemporary West as the final stage of human social and political development. How ironic that the rot was becoming increasingly apparent to a perceptive few as this book became a best seller.

For Penman the decadence and decline of the West is manifest in low birthrates, broken families, obesity, drug use, increasing public and private debt, and rising state dependence. Western societies are experiencing “a decline in morale and cultural confidence. . . . Perhaps the strongest expression of this change is the theory and practice of multiculturalism” (237). Amen to that.

The author predicts that the decline of the West will also pull down prosperous urban sectors of East Asia society. Then, after a Dark Age there will be a partial restoration. “Eventually, as poverty and the revival of traditional values do their work, V and C will revive.  But this will be a very different world,” poorer, more authoritarian, and less innovative (255). It will also be genetically quite different given the invasion of all Western countries by non-Whites.

In the final chapter Penman reiterates that, “the future of the West looks bleak. Levels of C and V, following the course of the civilization cycle, are in long-term decline. Such a decline, over the next century or two must bring about the end of Western civilization” (256). The trouble is, if you frame the problem as something that will happen a century or two, most people will be uninterested. In a hundred years they, their children, and maybe even their grandchildren will be gone. We need to emphasize that the decline of the West has already impacted the quality of life in Europe and America, and will increasingly do so in the years ahead.

It should also be mentioned that historians and social scientists set quite a low bar for defining a civilization. A civilization is a human culture with permanent settlements of 5,000 or more inhabitants, with buildings constructed of permanent materials, and a written language. So Iraq and Afghanistan are civilized places though few Westerners would consider them tolerable places to live.

All may not be lost. Penman sees glimmers of hope. Perhaps a religious revival could save the West. “Far from being an outdated relic, biohistory shows religious practices to be the key driver of the high C temperament” (257). Christianity is the traditional religion of the West, and millions still believe. Millions more are cultural or secular Christians. But many, especially among the scientifically educated, have turned away from the faith. And others correctly see the establishment churches as working against the interests of their traditional adherents.[5]  There is a possibility for a new religion in the West, one that combines faith and science. Monism, Beyondism, and Cosmotheism have been suggested for consideration.[6]

Penman puts forward two other chances for saving the West. One is “C-promoting supplements” — presumably dietary supplements. The other hope is that as the West declines a segment of society might break away from the larger culture and pursue traditional values. This strategy is not an option today as no one is permitted to opt out of  left/liberal cultural hegemony. But if the system weakens this could be a choice for the future.

A German biochemist and medical school professor, Gerhard Meisenburg, raises the latter possibility in his book In God’s Image.[7] Meisenburg, who also predicts the end of global civilization in a century or two, believes that if an elite did manage, say through eugenics, to avoid societal decline, the degraded masses would eventually rise up and destroy them.

Biohistory is a glass more than half full. On the plus side the book introduces to a wider audience the role of epigenetics as a causal factor in societal development and change. Determining causation is a difficult problem in historiography; much more challenging than merely chronicling events. What reader has not wondered how Western civilization got into its present predicament? This book offers a comprehensive explanation.  However, one gets the feeling that the author is bending over backwards to avoid discussing race-based genetic differences, not to mention the enervating effects of ideologies such as cultural-Marxism and critical theory as factors in Western decline.

Penman readily admits that his ambitious thesis needs additional research. The strength, duration, and pervasiveness of epigenetic inheritance are unclear at best. Indeed, epigenetics has provided a lifeline for many in the social sciences eager to find environmental causes and reject additive genetic influences. Obviously a short review cannot fully develop the author’s intriguing ideas on history and sociology. In addition to the paperback edition for general readers reviewed here, there is a longer hardcover edition entitled simply Biohistory that includes more supporting data and citations for those who wish to delve further into epigenetics.

[1] Nelson Rosit, “Biohistory: A Brief Prospective,” The Occidental Quarterly 9, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 79-90.

[2] John L. Brooke and Clark Spencer Larsen, “The Nurture of Nature: Genetics, Epigenetics, and Environment in Human History,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (December 2014): 1502.

[3] Gregory Cochrane and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009). Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Arms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[5] James C. Russell, Breach of Faith: American Churches and the Immigration Crisis (Raleigh, NC: Representative Government Press, 2004)

[6] Nelson Rosit, “Ernst Haeckel Reconsidered,” The Occidental Quarterly, V. 15, #2 (Summer 2015) 81-96.

[7] Gerhard Meisenburg, In God’s Image: The Natural History of Intelligence and Ethics (Brighton, UK: Book Guild Publishers, 2007). See Nelson Rosit, “Whither the Future?” A Review of Gerhard Meisenburg’s In God’s Image: The Natural History of Intelligence and Ethics, The Occidental Quarterly, v. 10 #4 (Winter 2010-2011) 117-120.

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