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Faith buttresses civilisation

19 June 2015

Societies decline after religions wane: it's biology, argues Jim Penman


LONG before the rise of Christianity, it was a commonplace idea that wealth and moral decay caused societies to decline. Ancient Roman historians such as Sallust spoke out against the laxity of their time. Later, the 14th-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun observed how vigorous societies became soft under the influence of civilisation. And, of course, Christian moralists of all ages have warned of this danger.

It does seem that wealthy societies that abandon their traditions tend to decline. The problem is that decline comes only after a considerable delay. Recently, I was listening to a wonderful series of lectures on Roman history, in which the speaker discussed various possible reasons for the decline of Rome.

One cause he dismissed was "decadence", on the grounds that Rome reached its peak of power as traditional religion and morality declined in the Late Republic. The same can be said of our own times, in which religion has declined, while wealth has surged to unparalleled heights.

Recent advances in science suggest that historical and social changes can often best be explained in biological terms, an approach known as "biohistory". Biohistory is, in its general sense, a school of historiography that developed in the mid-20th century, but is also the title I have given to my own theories, which focus on epigenetics and its application to historiography.

One clear conclusion from biohistory is that wealth and decadence are the cause of civilisation decline. It starts from the idea that the nature of a society reflects the tem-perament of the population.

In his book A Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press, 2007), Gregory Clark shows how the Industrial Revolution in England was made possible by a population that became harder working, more peaceful, and more willing to invest in areas such as literacy and work skills that had long-term benefit. This raises the question of how such a temperament could be formed.


AN IMPORTANT clue can be found in cross-cultural studies that show that the family patterns of civilised peoples are quite distinct from others, such as those of hunter-gatherers. They tend to restrict sexual activity, control their children, form nuclear monogamous families, and delay marriage. Curiously enough, this same set of behaviours can be found in animal societies in the wild, but only those that are short of food.

In a series of experiments with rats over the past seven years, my research team has shown that all these behaviours can be explained as a direct result of food shortage, which has significant hormonal and epigenetic effects (epigenetics is a new science that shows how environment affects the activity of certain genes).

An important finding is that the strongest effects are not on adults, but on the young, and that epigenetic effects can also be inherited. This means that the full effect of food shortage or affluence may not be experienced for a generation or more. Thus, biology explains in principle why wealthy civilisations tend to decline, but also why the effects of wealth are not immediately felt.


THIS does not explain, however, how peoples become civilised in the first place. After all, the disciplined and austere Victorians were less likely to experience famine, or even hunger, than their 14th-century ancestors; so their "hungry" behaviour could not simply be a result of food shortage. This is where religion comes in.

Laboratory studies have shown that restricting sexual activity in rats, especially in the period just after puberty, has a similar effect to food restriction. For example, it permanently reduces the level of hormones such as testosterone and leptin. This is a significant finding, because lower testosterone is associated with occupational success, law-abiding behaviour, and religious commitment. Ministers of religion, for example, typically score low. This explains why teenagers with limited sexual outlets achieve more education and greater career success, as detailed in the Kinsey report, in 1948.

I believe that the same will be found to apply to other religious traditions, such as sabbath-keeping, disciplined prayers, and religious rituals - and also, of course, to fasting, which is an element of most religious traditions. Any code of behaviour that restrains people, including children, serves to increase this disciplined or "food-short" temperament. All of these are hypotheses that could be tested in the laboratory.


ADVANCED religions such as Christianity can be seen as a kind of "cultural technology", which creates the temperament that makes civilisation possible. This is also why the decline of religion is such a problem. As wealth undermines the disciplined, food-short temperament, it also undermines spirituality and support for traditional morality. This, in turn, further advances the decline. The long-term result must be the end of our civilisation, unless something is done to stop it.

Biohistory does not have anything to say about the truthfulness of any religious tradition. Indeed, I started on this journey as an agnostic. Since becoming a Christian, however, I have come to see it as a buttress to my faith. If the Bible is truly God's word, then it should be a guide not only for individuals, but also for a healthy society, and that is what biohistory suggests that it is. It also suggests that faith and science, working together, are the only hope for the future of our civilisation.


Dr Penman is an Hon. Fellow and Guest Lecturer at RMIT University, in Melbourne, and the author of Biohistory: Decline and fall of the West (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015). www.biohistory.org 

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