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July 11, 2012 2:31 PM   Subscribe

What could slow down the pace of change (religious/scientific/economic/cultural) in a civilization? (Please see specific details inside.)

Many scifi/fantasy settings talk about centuries-old unchanging nations or dynasties. This has never seemed terribly realistic to me. None but the most ancient human societies manage more than a century or two without significant changes occurring.

I'm developing a civilization for a private worldbuilding project and I'm trying to figure out how to slow down the pace of change for a specific period. I’m not interested in normative arguments about this topic except as they apply to the feasibility of the method suggested. The details of the setting are not finalized, but would probably be vaguely analogous to Scythia and the Greek city states circa the 4th century BCE (think semi-nomadic people trading with settled city states and slowly becoming more settled themselves). I'm looking for specific ways to stretch this scenario out to about 500 years (~25 generations).

Ways I've already thought of that I don’t like:
-Strong central rule by a rigid theocratic or conservative autocratic authority (workable but doesn’t fit my story)
-Increased child mortality via plot device, keeping population growth low and forcing labor to be devoted to survival rather than innovation (haven’t thought of a good way to do this, and too depressing)
-Restrictions on travel via plot device, for example giant impassable mountain ranges on all sides (sort of ruins the trading angle, and seems very artificial)
-Periodic catastrophe that wipes out progress and returns civilization to square one (also seems too artificial)
posted by Wretch729 to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My first thought was climate change, since it can impact so very many things essential to a civilization's success.

This isn't exactly an answer to your question, but may inspire some ideas: check out Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
posted by Specklet at 2:49 PM on July 11, 2012

My recollection of actual history: Geographic areas with river dependent agriculture develop elaborate bureaucracies to manage the irrigation system required by this circumstance. Periodically, either earthquakes (raising the land so the irrigation system is not readily reparable) or a breakdown of the bureaucracy cause this system to fail, thus putting them back a bit.
posted by Michele in California at 2:50 PM on July 11, 2012

Food types?

I've heard arguments that the "native" North American populations didn't undergo the same types of expansions and developments as those in Europe, China, Asia, and even South America due to the limiting types of food (more sugary than starchy, not good for long-term sustenance and stability). I heard that on the radio, a few years ago though, so not sure of how valid the science behind it is....

But certainly food makes the population run. Poor agriculture skills will cause humans to live hand-to mouth - more time spent tilling the field/hunting/gathering than dreaming up new ideas.

...that said anything that requires constant work and allows for little leisure time would contribute to technological stagnation.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 3:00 PM on July 11, 2012

Lack of foreign trade and immigration.

Historically, cultural diffusion has always been a major cause of change. Cultures that lack the ability to exchange citizens, goods, and ideas with other culturals are caught off from changes occurring elsewhere. The Inca, for example, never really assimilated the ideas and technology of the wheel or the alphabet. Conversely, cultures that exist at a cross-road tend to change the most frequently.

So, a cultural that is surrouded by a massive mountain range and a vast ocean will change much less than a culture surround by rivers, seas, and open plains.
posted by Flood at 3:02 PM on July 11, 2012

Best answer: Read up on Medieval Stasis (WARNING: TVTropes!).

But you're wrong about this:

None but the most ancient human societies manage more than a century or two without significant changes occurring.

...if by "significant changes" you exclude "political upheaval." Technology in China, for instance, was very little different in AD 1800 than 1800 BC, and the Tang, Lio, Western Xia, Ming, and Qing Dynasties all lasted for at least 200 years, or thereabout. Technological development in Europe was actually higher in AD 300 Rome than anywhere in Europe for the next five centuries or so. Europe reached more-or-less Roman levels of technology in the mid-to-late Middle Ages but took until the fourteenth or fifteenth century to surpass it.

And that's just in major civilizations. If we turn to some of the more remote areas of the world, people in parts of Central Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia (especially in the Indonesian/Malaysian/New Guinean archipelago) live lives very little different than their ancestors a thousand years ago. Heck, the UAE was populated mostly by nomadic tribesmen until the twentieth century, just like it had been for the last six thousand years. Same goes for the Inuit peoples, who were living pretty much just like they had in AD 900 when they were "discovered" in the seventeenth century.

The trick in all of these cases? Give them less-than-hospitable climates. In Africa, pretty much everything wants to eat you, the diseases are horrible, and neither the Sahara nor most of central Africa is all that amenable to farming. In central Asia, you're about two thousand miles from anywhere remotely interesting, trade wise, the landscape is mostly arid and cold, and grinding out a living with yaks is about all you get. In the islands off the coast of southeast Asia, you've got precious little land to work with, and most of it is pretty mountainous. And nobody wants to live in Alaska or Arabia if they can help it. Least not till the oil showed up. Too damned cold or too damned hot. Not much rain in either case.

Of course, the problem with all of those cultures is that they never really formed what we might think of as thriving, settled city states. A quick tangent: the "cities" of Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed in Genesis 18? Probably consisted of about 100-200 people in an area no more than ten or so acres. A metropolis, by local standards, but barely counting as a town by today's. Athens, in its glory, was probably only a few hundred thousand people. Rome reached about a million under Augustus but collapsed to 50,000 or so after the fall of the Western Empire. It would be 1800 years before another city--London-- reached that size again.

So that's the other thing: you want to keep things in stasis? You're going to need to have a small population. You just do. The same forces that are going to keep population size down are going to keep things pretty much in stasis. When almost everyone needs to spend all of their time on food and other necessaries, your culture doesn't go much of anywhere.
posted by valkyryn at 3:07 PM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Give the culture a strong interest in maintaining passed down professions, think collections of families that compete through the generations like the Tsukiji fish market rather than rigid or centralized guilds. Independent yet densely intermarried families of farmers/nomads/fishermen with webs of loyalty so complex even they have a hard time understanding them have a hard time being dominated by a single source, which is inherently less stable.

Give your civilization an unnatural love for walls, think the Swiss, dense fortification is a good reason for foreign powers to keep out. Also, like the Swiss, give your civilization a strong culture of supplying mercenaries to foreign armies, this gives ambitious bachelor males a way to make their fortune that isn't out of the hide of your civilization. It also provides steady income and an army that knows what it is doing without it having to do anything to your civilization. Human ambition makes fighting political change like fighting a tide with sand castles, both sand and institutions will last a lot longer if you give the water a place to go.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:09 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Resource shortage of some kind. When people are struggling to scrape out an existence, they usually aren't innovating or making major progress.

Disease, preferably one that wipes out huge chunks of the population and leaves the rest cowering in fear.

Something happening to the educated or the leadership analogous to the Stalinist purges or a violent overthrow or a superstition of some kind.

Invasion by a foreign power (or a threat of invasion), so that everyone is fleeing or unsettled and all efforts have to focus on defense.

Some kind of weather event, a long lasting Ice Age or something, that makes travel between cities/regions hard or impossible. Thought being even if someone in City A has the Brilliant Idea for Change, City B will never hear about it.

If it's a formerly nomadic/tribal society, maybe make everyone still very tribal and suspicious, where people from Tribe B wouldn't do the thing Tribe A did because that would be admitting Tribe A does things better. Think interlocking grudges going back thousands of years. Like using iron weapons would mean you were weak like Tribe C, so you still use Bronze.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:15 PM on July 11, 2012

How about if this Slog Age comes after a collapse?

The Byzantine empire went several hundred years without really profound or interesting changes after the collapse of the Western Empire and the Plague of Justinian. Their infrastructure (roads, cities, military tech, trade habits) already existed, the smaller population didn't grow very fast, and their neighbors (Europe, Islam) constantly nibbled away at the edges, insensibly reducing the Byzantines' options. Economic "reforms" beginning in the 400s led to price fixing, inflation, hereditary tradesman, and this mismanagement became standard. No doubt much economic activity disappeared or went underground.

Of course, Byzantium really wasn't that unchanging, but this only has to sound plausible enough for literature, right?
posted by General Tonic at 3:29 PM on July 11, 2012

Something that gives significant cultural pressure against innovation. Maybe the only available food source requires multiple complicated steps to prepare and any missteps result in posion - cassava is an example of a food that does this. When any change is dangerous, especially if existence is marginal, there would be strong pressure for stability. If some of the steps require particular resources then hydraulic empire pressures could increase stability, if some of the steps are secret and done by guilds this could also increase pressure not to change. This also gives reason to trade - to eat we need $substance only available from $far away place. It also gives a good plot tool to break stasis without changing too much - now we have the seeds of the plant that produces $substance we can break free of $empire.
posted by Gilgongo at 3:50 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Really, you don't need much in the way of a plot device or contrivance. As recently as the 1850s, the infant mortality rate was about 21% in North America and 34% in Africa, according to Wikipedia. Maternal death was historically around 1%, but it spiked to almost 40% in nineteenth century before dropping to about .01% in the twentieth.

The real question isn't "How can I keep things the same?" nearly as much as "Why did things ever change?" Something happened in Europe between about AD 1300 and 1500 which changed the face of history. Elsewhere in the world, things continued pretty much as they had for the previous 6,000 years until the Europeans showed up.
posted by valkyryn at 4:13 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ancient Egypt's Old, Middle and New Kingdoms had some properties (dynasties, art, writing, farming, worship, food) that lasted thousands of years. This fits nicely with Michele's observation about river farming.

I'm going to stick my neck out and say that a society that has enough surplus human capital to have the potential to change has to want to be stable... so the changes forced on society by the occasional maverick (Akhenaten) get papered over by the next generation. I suggest that at a minimum you need writing to record "correct belief" and a worldview that venerates the past.

There are a lot of ways your society could have it's surplus tied up that don't result in progress... fighting amongst themselves, fighting their neighbours, elaborate burial practices, great religious works (Silbury Hill)...

By the way, where are the farmers in your setup? I think you've got a step missing - nomads settle down to farming, then they start banding together into larger organisations, right? Whether the birth of the city is because of ritual, trade or politics, don't you need a farming base first?
posted by Leon at 4:41 PM on July 11, 2012

Without a decent energy source, your society could stagnate just before the industrial revolution. What use is building machinery if wood is scarce and slaves are cheaper anyway?

A strong preference for equality would reduce competition and presumably innovation. I'm sorry I can't recall it any preciser than that, but some inventor in medieval germany was punished with imprisonment for having made some invention which would have made his craftshop more productive and therefore threatened the income of other inhabitants.
posted by Triton at 5:09 PM on July 11, 2012

How about you give them a reason to become very isolationist? It seemed to do a pretty good job at keeping China, and then Japan, stable for a few hundred years. Piracy or a (real or perceived) external threat could both work as justifications.
posted by vasi at 5:30 PM on July 11, 2012

How about approaching it from the other angle - innovation and technological advancement occurs when there is a deficit of something. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

What if people were content, for whatever reason. What if they discovered/were-endowed with a higher level of technology than they were able to develop for themselves. Everyone's current conception of need has been achieved, so there's no need to improve.

Or perhaps drugs, like the "stoner" stereotype. Massive investment of effort into making ever more elaborate bongs, but going out to get a "real job?" No way. Perhaps there is a ruling class that drugs the serf populace?

Or maybe an utopian socialist/communist/hippy situation where basic needs are easily met, and higher Maslow needs are replaced by "something" either drugs or religion or whatever. Or perhaps a parasite in the vein of Toxoplasma gondii.

Cultural taboo (superstition) against innovation? There's a joke, "You have three monkeys in a cage. There's a ladder in the middle of the cage that will allow a monkey to reach a banana stapled to the roof of the cage. Every time a monkey tries to climb the ladder, everybody gets hosed down. Eventually, every time a monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other two monkeys pull them down. Replace one of the monkeys. When it tries to climb the ladder, the other two monkeys pull it down. Keep replacing monkeys one by one and even when you have a cage full of non-hosed monkeys, they'll still keep each other from climbing the ladder.

Jerry Pournelle touched on this a little in his Janissaries series - an outside group introduces incremental technological innovations like twisting three strands of wick together instead of using a single wick to make non-sputtering/guttering/flickering candles. Local candle-makers could easily see this new innovation and make more money by adopting it, but were resistant to using the new technology (partially due to the perceived provenance of the technological innovation).

Alternatively, refer to Jack London's "The Scarlet Plague" which is a post-apocalyptic novel written in 1912. The descendents of the survivors rapidly degenerated and actively rejected prior knowledge since it was so advanced it didn't feel like it has any use in day-to-day survival and superstition was ascendant. Interestingly, this story posited that it was so easy for humans to survive off the land because of the massive decline of human population, that there was no need to develop technology but social status/power amongst the human population was a force that drives the rise of (the use of) superstition to counter the increased utility of brawn over the rule of law.

Another very important point is that there was a very strong founder effect where the most fecund member of one group was strongly anti-intellectual and was just an absolute asshole about the inversion of social status. His prerogatives (and intellectual weaknesses) were strongly imprinted on his many progeny, reinforcing the lack of technological innovation.
posted by porpoise at 5:46 PM on July 11, 2012

Since you include fantasy in your tags ... I've seen reasonably believable worlds in stories where societies were relatively stagnant for long periods because of magic used in one of two ways: Either it is extremely powerful (and runs in families) and held among an elite who can lock society in to a structure that benefits them and their descendents and who resist change because change would reduce their power; or, it's an everyday sort of thing where everyone can cast little housekeeping spells and there's no great drive for material invention because who needs steam power when you have magic? It might be a worthwhile exercise to think about, "If I had magic that functions like it does in my story, what modern conveniences could I do without? What things that I hope they invent soon wouldn't need to be invented?" Just to get the juices flowing.

A third version, but this is probably too out there, is removing a key piece of technology and replacing it with magic. I read a short story a while back where the world had no fire, and everything you would do with fire was done in some other way by magic. So no fire meant no pottery, no glass, no steel, etc., in addition to no firelight and no candles and no cookfires. It was interesting (if somewhat arbitrary) how the author worked out what people would use instead. (In some cases it was like, they make knives out of stone because they don't have much if any metalworking, but in others it was like, they make lights out of magic because magic.) Anyway, that might give you an avenue to slow down change.

You should look at the area around (the middle parts of) Hadrian's Wall in Britain. After the Roman legions left (around 400 AD), that part of Britain didn't regain its Roman standard of living until the 20th century. (They didn't regain a Roman standard of BUILDING, even, until the Victorian era.) The economy of the entire area was basically based on sheepfarming, and periodically having routine sheepraiding grow into little border wars. It's particularly interesting because Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the eastern terminus of the Wall, was a port city that grew at a pretty ferocious pace during the industrialization of Britain, but it took like 350 years for that to start making a difference just 30 miles further inland!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 PM on July 11, 2012

building on puorpoise's "content" reason, long-lifespans seem pretty good at slowing things down - the same emperor with the same advisers holding the same rigid beliefs and the same values and doing the same things for decade after decade. (There is also a saying that for science to progress, the old guard has to die off).

There are also good cultural examples. I forget the specifics, but compare the effect of the discovery of gunpowder in China and Europe. In Europe, it unhinged everything, launching massive changes in architecture, weapons, armor, combat, tactics, hunting, food, trade, fashion, shipping, power, everything.
In China, it made no difference to anything at all.
Ok, celebrations gained fireworks. That's about it.

The reasons were cultural. Put those cultural reasons in your culture, and there you go.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:00 PM on July 11, 2012

(I have been trying to find a picture to no avail, but at Vindolanda they have excavations and reconstructions and a museum all about Roman life at Vindolanda, so you can see how the Romans lived, and then on the grounds they have a farmhouse built in the 1800s that a big family of farm laborers -- like seriously 8 kids or so -- lived in and it is a shithole compared to what the lowliest Roman soldiers had 1600 years earlier. It's low and dark and not very well-built and the chimney is terrifying. Maybe another mefite has done the tour more recently and knows what I'm talking about, they actually use it to point up the how high the standard of living was for Roman subjects pretty much as far from Rome as you could possibly get in an area of the world that was Roman-occupied for a very short period of time, and how once the Romans left it basically took until the 20th century for that part of Britain to join the First World again. Anyway, a millennium and a half of stagnation; it's a start, and the materials about the area are mostly in English.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:09 PM on July 11, 2012

I don't see it mentioned: The "content" remark reminds me of historical Egypt. Also, some island cultures that didn't evolve much. Pleasant weather, plenty to eat, no serious threat from outsiders...etc...and you don't see much progress.
posted by Michele in California at 9:13 PM on July 11, 2012

Alternatively, monopolies.

Maybe guilds are super duper strong and in order to be, say, a metalsmith you really need to toe the guild line. Any deviations on working metal is strongly frowned upon and insane jealousy can get innovators or people who develop new techniques killed dead on guild-sanctioned orders.

A couple of generations of this ought to stifle technological innovation dead. Look at modern patent issues and attempts at patent reform.

I really like Eyebrows McGee's idea of magic; there's an easier way of doing things, there's no need to do it the "hard" way and learn peripheral knowledge that improves other areas. For example, if you can use magic to make a hot enough fire to forge steel you miss out on learning about making bellows or using charcoal to make a a hotter fire. Without charcoal, you might miss out on lye and maybe soap.

Or perhaps magic healing comes from gods so no-one ever figures out the germ theory of disease. This is the flip side of the "content" posit; there is a shortcut to fulfilling a need so you lose out on understanding the process and then lose the peripheral benefits. Kind of like the USA never getting the benefit of a peace dividend.

Slavery is sometimes given a as a reason why the ancient Greeks didn't get into the industrial revolution - it was easier to throw more slaves intro the problem than to solve the problem by technological means. Hell, the ancient Greeks had steam engines centuries before they were used to drain mines to allow improved mining efficiency. It was easier to use slaves to manually pump the water rather than develop Hero's engine(?) into a mechanical pump.

Huh, that wikipedia editor fight is pretty fascinating. Yeah, the Leibniz steam engine drama is probably a result of Neil Stephenson's last book (System of the World) of his Baroque trilogy.
posted by porpoise at 11:19 PM on July 11, 2012

I like your mountains thought. The existance of the Basque language and people show that simple geography can have an impact lasting thousands of years. They were so inaccessible except via the sea that we really don't even know a lot about the language.
It is the last remaining descendant of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe.[2] Consequently, its prehistory may not be reconstructible by means of the comparative method except by applying it to differences between dialects within the language. Little is known of its origins but it is likely that an early form of the Basque language was present in Western Europe before the arrival of the Indo-European languages to the area
Wiki link

posted by Wilder at 3:31 AM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lack of food is always a big one. Also, transportation and communication. How much free time and education do people have? Nobody can really invent much if they spend 16 hours a day working menial jobs just to eat.
posted by Jacen at 8:24 AM on July 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great ideas, especially those who responded to what I had already considered and discarded. I had overlooked climate (duh) and Blasdelb's suggestion of mercenaries to channel agression/ambition would work well with the nomad herders idea.

I had also considered the powerful conservative guilds idea, but wasn't sure just how long-term sustainable those were. I like the idea of intertwining family with guilds but does anyone have good historical examples? The Medici only managed about 300 years. A little Googling turns up the Dulo clan in Bulgaria and several long dynasties from the Korean peninsula that I will have to research further.

The basic tension is I don't want to hold the whole society to a subsistence agricultural level (though most people will be at that level, in keeping with history) because it will be boring, but it's hard to introduce more interesting political/economic things without requiring cultural exchange and spurring change.

Anyway, this is all for my own fun, so thanks for the help!
posted by Wretch729 at 8:48 AM on July 12, 2012

Best answer: it's hard to introduce more interesting political/economic things without requiring cultural exchange and spurring change.

Again, don't underestimate actual world history. The Romans had knowledge of and semi-regular trade with China as early as the 2d century BC. They also had a rather thriving trade with India in the 2d and 3d centuries AD. That plus trade routes sufficient to fill the Colosseum with African megabeasts and ivory.

Further, all those medieval statutes about how serfs and peasants were supposed to stay put? Those were there because serfs and peasants weren't staying put. Most people didn't travel often, and travel took a while, but travel did occur. And not just official trade missions, but normal people just sort of moving around. maybe not over thousands of miles, but certainly over hundreds.

In short, don't let the title "medieval stasis" fool you. Just because things weren't rapidly changing on a technological level doesn't mean that nothing happened. Even the so-called "Dark Ages" turn out to have been remarkably dynamic, which is why the term has fallen out of favor. Lots of stuff happened. It just wasn't technological improvement stuff.
posted by valkyryn at 12:57 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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