Why Mature Societies Are Always Doomed

Have you ever wondered why “mature” and “older” cultures are often incapable of improving or evolving into something better suited to the present? You can see this phenomena in cultures and nations as diverse as Japan, Korea, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Italy, France, Germany or England. They just can’t seem to move on from some point in history.

I have previously written about how societies are negatively impacted by the sclerosis of customs and mores . But how do they reach that point anyway? To understand this phenomena one has to first appreciate the real nature of customs, mores and why they are so dangerous to societies that have accumulated a lot of them.

Customs, mores and institutions come into being to facilitate social functioning. However they are, by their very nature, rooted in a very narrow set of social conditions that gave rise to them. They work well in the begining but become progressively less useful as that society moves further away from the set of conditions under which they were formed. The problem then is not the existence of customs, mores and institutions per se but their persistence past their point of usefulness.

Consider Japanese society.. its customs, mores and institutions are based on a world that ceased to exist over 150 years ago. It is no longer an insular society of a few katana-wielding nobles abusing a population of rice eating subsistence farmers. But is obvious that their worldview has not changed since that era. The sheer number of inscrutable customs and mores which have no relevance to the world we live in might appear charming to an outsider, but are destroying their society as we speak. The same can be said of Korea, China or any other east-Asian country with similar worldviews.

In my opinion, outdated customs and mores are toxic to societies in the following ways-

1. Customs and mores that are not helpful in the present still occupy the time and “mind-space” of people. Living in a society with many traditions and customs forces people to devote a lot of time and energy to worthless endeavours such as complex greetings, social cues, gift-giving and other social rituals which do not make them happy or improve social functioning in a changing environment.

2. Systems with tons of legacy customs and mores adversely affect the ability to make major changes and people are left patching up the mistakes of their ancestors while pretending that they are not fixing mistakes. The high rates of domestic savings in Japan, systems of hiring workers, institutions are the product of an era when those ideas worked. But those very attributes have failed them in the last 20 years.

3. Legacy customs are mores make societies spend their time and resources rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, in addition to the previously mentioned fixing of mistakes, and loudly proclaiming that all is well even as they are visibly engaged in trying to patch the holes in a manner that is likely to fail. This state of affairs also bolsters cognitive dissonance in the population making reform or change even harder.

4. Such societies are too sclerotic to support those who could institute real reform or change. Instead they spend considerable effort persecuting people who even dare to point out the obvious, let alone try to fix them.

5. While they can often survive longer than expected, just like dodos, these dysfunctional systems are very fragile. They can therefore collapse without any warning, or serious challenge, largely because they cannot withstand stresses which nominally functional systems can endure.

Every second wasted on legacy customs, mores and rituals is time forever lost from doing something that might work better or be more relevant.

Comments?

  1. G.Bush
    November 17, 2011 at 7:44 am

    Right on. Lets move thanksgiving to Friday. Too many time zones. It is not 1880 with us taking trains. Women time to sign up for the selective service. Saturday postal service. Lets keep it to business days for legal reasons.
    Even simple ideas like these will give people fits in the USA. They do not want to get a jump on change. They have to be drug along kicking and screaming.

  2. jackal
    November 17, 2011 at 9:10 am

    No need to pick on the Japanese or Asians. Within our own society, core beliefs and attitudes are rarely challenged, if ever. Too many of us agree with basic assumptions too often, our own culture becomes invisible in the same way that neural adaptation anesthetizes the ear to the background noise of urban living. Culture unwittingly hijacks the cooperation of all its members. It accounts for why Brits all speak with the same accent, spell “colour” by adding “u”, drive on the wrong side of the road, install roundabouts, put vinegar on their French fries and then call them chips. And it makes British lawyers wear big wigs. It explains why Scots wear kilts and lawyers are outlawed in Japan. No one is immune from culture, unless he’s living alone in a cave. In this way, we’re all dodos that can’t help being dodos. And only a well traveled individual can see his own culture for what it really is, through the lens of other cultures. It is in Japan, where fertility is lord with public penis worship, that one can see the backwardness of American culture where men are demonized and women elevated to goddess status, fatties included. The Penn State debacle comes to mind, where an individual has already been hanged by the domineering feminazi press — without ever having had his day in court, much less presumption of innocence. If this coach is ever acquitted, it will be one more nail in the coffin of criminal feminism. It could be argued that most other cultures — certainly not all — on earth are far better than what’s available in the US.
    —-
    Japan is an extreme but obvious example of how things go south.

    • jackal
      November 18, 2011 at 6:54 am

      Who is hacking comments here? I did not include this statement in my post: “Japan is an extreme but obvious example of how things go south.” It needs to be removed. On the other hand, if this blog’s author has hijacked my post, he needs to attribute the above quote to himself — not me — or move it to a new post.

      • anon666
        November 18, 2011 at 11:56 am

        Bold text means the blog owner wrote it. That’s his response to you. That’s how he’s always done it.

      • November 18, 2011 at 5:56 pm

        hahahahaha,

        you’ve just met mr. CONdissention himself….

        diablo is a durty boi….

  3. Don
    November 17, 2011 at 9:14 am

    One question.

    When will they collapse?
    It seems nothing is moving

  4. Matt Strictland
    November 17, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Most people want social continuity, they are Socially CONservative in that sense and need to belong . Relatively harmless and silly customs facilitate this and improve social bonding. Such societies last longer and work better as human social needs really are not amendable to technological solution or stuff driven ones. They are about identity and “tribe” and as such are basically biological functions that need certain inputs for optimum functioning.

    The problem is one of degree. Eventually too much legacy “software” gets into the system, especially things that don’t work and the stagnation sets in.

  5. Ryu
    November 17, 2011 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t accept this.

    These “mature societies” are still in existence. Egypt is still there, as are China and India. I would say that 5000 years is pretty good. Japan is still a world leader in technology. Their cell phone and robotics technology is second to none. That’s in a nation with no natural resources other than its people.

    I don’t quite remember your educational background. But if you are even a bit closely related to biology, you should know that evolution is always occuring and never stops. This includes customs and behavor.

    • Matt Strictland
      November 17, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      Those civilizations you mention Ryu are very little like the ones that existed there before and are the same in the sense that say the UK is like medieval England, some things in common but hardly anything like continuity .

      Also save Japan which was violently forced into a new mold by the US, none of them are particularly prosperous, China included. India is probably the best of the lot of them but thats very a haphazard sort of development and Inida is far from being as prosperous as say France.

    • jackal
      November 18, 2011 at 6:32 am

      What does one’s education have to do with expressing an idea or theory? Many individuals with genius minds had no formal training in the field they conquered. In fact, many had never bothered to get a degree. By definition, education means training, which in turn means “prescribed course,” which in turn translates to one-track mind. But it’s always the one-track mind who condescends by playing the academia card, in the same way too many of us play the race card. As for the author of any blog, his or her education does not weigh on how I react to ideas, opinions and theory, in the same way that my favorite actor, who has no formal education, is far more skilled than many with advanced degrees. No matter how hard you try, you can’t teach intelligence any more than you can teach “tall.”

      As for evolution, it’s a science that resembles Swiss cheese — it has lots of holes. We know that environment plays a huge role in changing the genome of a species (adaptation), as genetic code is not carved in stone. In the same way, culture “adapts” to environment, which accounts for why some cultures are monogamous while others are polygamous, even though the genome of both groups is unchanged.

    • Konkvistador
      December 5, 2011 at 10:40 am

      Evolution works generally works by adapted stuff dying more or reproducing than adaptive stuff.

      A society being doomed because of customs that are too tightly linked to it to be removed but too heavy to carry is evolution in action.

      • Konkvistador
        December 5, 2011 at 10:41 am

        *reproducing less

  6. Harry
    November 18, 2011 at 12:42 am

    The idea in this post is a very common one these days, but I do not think it can hold up under scrutiny. I used to believe in it once myself, but it is just too nice and tidy a fairy tale. I think it might be useful to list a few counterfactuals, which in my view, pretty much demolish the position in this post.

    1) Europe was at is zenith when social norms were most complex and binding – the 17th-19th centuries. In Europe, loosening of social mores accompanied decline (I am not saying they caused decline).

    2) Henry James suggested that the US could not compare with Europe in the arts and sciences because it lacked an elaborate culture. In the 19th century, the US lagged far behind Europe in science and art. Thinkers as diverse as Nietzsche, Freud, and Toqueville, and many others, also thought that complex societies led to high culture.

    3) It seems quite plausible that mastering a complex culture trains the mind in the habit of making fine and subtle distinctions, a mental habit necessary for all forms of high culture. Furthermore, once these things are mastered in childhood through a process of osmosis, they became completely unconscious and do not take up any mental space.

    4) Nearly all societies that have complex and binding social codes have been the ones that have been highly creative. Societies without such codes – barbarian societies – have not been notably creative.

    5) There seems scant evidence that these systems are fragile. Your showpiece example, Japan, collapsed not as a result of any internal stress, but as the result of being conquered by a much more advanced people. And Japan hardly collapsed, it merely altered.

    • anon666
      November 18, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Europe sucked to live in during the 17th through 19th centuries. I never understand why people think that eras that experienced devastating conflicts such as the Thirty Years War were the zenith of human accomplishment. Life at that time really was nasty, brutish and short. The average person living there now has fucked way more hot girls, has had access to way more porn, has enjoyed modern conveniences like air conditioning and electricity, hasn’t been forcibly sent out to die in a war (where the “lucky” survivors get to look forward to spending their remaining days toiling in a field or next to a kiln). Existence was shit during the height of these grandiose civilizations that people rave about. We’ve never had it so good.

      • Harry
        November 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm

        anon66, you are confusing civilization with *comfort*. The 17th-19th centuries had infinitely greater civilization than we have today, but much less comfort, that is true. Their discoveries in science and creations in the arts are unmatched.

        Even in terms of pure comfort, the 18th and 19th centuries were MUCH more comfortable than almost any other society, and were EXTREMELY elaborate and complex socially.

        And the Thirty Years War was a WAR, so all bad things caused by it CANNOT be attributed to complex social mores, unless you think the war itself was caused by an elaborate social code.

      • Jordan
        November 18, 2011 at 10:23 pm

        Point is, Europe was LEAST stagnant and fragile (most dynamic and innovative) when it was MOST hobbled by complex and binding – even STIFLING – social mores and customs and traditions (the Victorian Age? The 18th century, age of *manners* and *formality*?).

        Conversely, Europe is MOST fragile and stagnant when it entered an era of relaxed and *free* social mores.

        No, the the OPs thesis simply does not bear even the slightest bit of scrutiny. It is utterly superficial and merely recycles pop culture theories about dynamic and stagnant societies. It ignores the most obvious historical facts.

        You know, AD, in some ways you are refreshingly iconoclastic and see beneath the surface, but on many subjects you just recycle the standard pop culture explanation.

        Your posts on the decadence of Asian civilizations similarly dont hold up to even casual scrutiny and are just re-hashes of the *standard* pop-culture *explanation* for Asian lack of innovation.

        The reality is probably far more interesting and unexpected and less superficial than the mainstream wisdom about this.

      • Michel
        November 19, 2011 at 8:32 am

        Jordan, give us your explanation on Asia. I’m interested.

      • Jordan
        November 20, 2011 at 12:55 am

        Oh, I dont actually know, I just know that the *standard explanation* that AD parrots does not hold up to even the mildest of scrutiny. Supposedly Asians are perfectly capable of being just as original and creative as Westerners have been (in the past) but are held back by complex social rules, filial piety (as if these things did not exist in the West when the West was creative!), and a fear of being iconoclastic (also existed in the West), and for some unknown reason Asians in the West go to the best universities but are still oddly uncreative because of complex social rules in Asia, and despite the fact that modern science prioritizes, incentivizes, and rewards originality and creativity – yet Asians have not been notably original in modern science.

        AD had a post about it a while back and I responded with a fuller critique.

        Whatever the REAL reason is, it has to square with the FACTS. We dont know the real reason, but I have read reports from original thinkers about how their ideas just *came* to them in ways they could not control – in other words, originality is not some kind of mysterious nexus between personality and intelligence but is an ABILITY that is not captured or measured on IQ tests. An ability, pure and simple. None of the mystification about Asian personality needed. Europeans were only creative for a small period of time, too. Its probably a purely genetic thing. Nature just throws up creative types every now and then. Each generation has a slightly different genetic profile from the last.

        In any event, the *standard explanation* that AD dishes up as boldly subversive is a bit absurd.

      • Konkvistador
        December 5, 2011 at 10:56 am

        “Point is, Europe was LEAST stagnant and fragile (most dynamic and innovative) when it was MOST hobbled by complex and binding – even STIFLING – social mores and customs and traditions (the Victorian Age? The 18th century, age of *manners* and *formality*?). ”

        Maybe Europeans where much more capable then period and so could afford to maintain complex and binding social norms.

        Perhaps it was the gain from the low hanging technological fruit unlocked by the energy of coal ( http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/6781 ), perhaps Europeans where biologically superior (evolution can be rapid as demonstrated by Askenazi Jews, and we know for a fact genoytpical intelligence has been falling for nearly all of the 20th century, how do you think non-zero sum thinking or alturism has faired as a biological trait in the past 200 years ?) or maybe a few centuries of built up socio-economic capital or just a really long period of there generally being a larger fraction of young people in the next generation than the there where in the previous one. Pick the one you like or come up with your own, it dosen’t matter for the argument why capability declined for this to work.

        Later as European capability waned, they jettisoned the parts of the burden they could do without in the short term, first some old class division enforcing things, then religiosity, then sexual mores and now at the dawn of the 21st century workplace discipline, the last thing we clung to as crazy drunks, but we are giving up as the old middle class joins the underclass culture. Naturally they rationalised each of these changes as “progress”.

        Also I would argue that modern social norms aren’t *that* much less hard to navigate. The rules of politically correct behaviour and most of all speech burden our upper classes as much as rules of polite behaviour and avoiding indecency where for their Victorian equivalents.

  7. Ryu
    November 18, 2011 at 7:40 am

    The purpose in mentioning education is that “evolution” has a very specific meaning in biology.

    If you really would like to test your ideas, drive to your local university, find a biologist. Biologists make their living by their ability in biology, unlike bloggers, who don’t have to prove anything. Then you will learn if you are on the right track or not.

    It’s the same as claiming 1+1=3. Maybe you’re thinking in a new and creative way. Or, perhaps you are on the wrong track.

  8. November 18, 2011 at 6:19 pm
    • hoipolloi
      November 19, 2011 at 6:15 pm

      I would say Aliaa can meet and beat Miley Cyrus look alike picture

  9. November 20, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Like natural selection, customs and mores are a conservative force. There are billions of options, most of them random in consequence. Any successful organism “conserves” the cause-effect pairs that have the most beneficial effects. The lack of customs aka liberalism will cause a temporary increase in flexibility and thus momentum, like a “hybrid vigor” effect, but it will lead relatively quickly to disorganization and failure, as you see in most modern societies.

  10. Scott
    November 21, 2011 at 11:57 am

    With the exception of getting it completely backwards, this was a good post. Your major mistake is in thinking that customs and mores are just arbitrary rules societies drudged up for no good reason. This is how all liberals think. If you change your perspective to realize that many norms and customs evolved (in the cultural, not necessarily biological sense), to advance a society which would otherwise devolve into chaos, then customs and norms come to be something to be preserved or at least carefully considered before they are discarded. LIberals find a fence impeding their ‘progress’ and say tear it down. A conservative says we don’t tear down the damn fence until we know why it was erected in the first place.

  11. Konkvistador
    December 5, 2011 at 10:58 am

    People here don’t seem to grasp that its perfectly possible to evolve to extinction.

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/l5/evolving_to_extinction/

  12. P Ray
    August 17, 2016 at 5:26 am

    Those mature societies also have rituals and associations that only those coming from the longest resident or richest people have access to, to continue increasing their stranglehold on wealth and power – and static ways of thinking.

    This is why a lot of “new rich” only come around after a war, “coup”(whether technological or via politics) or natural disaster.


    And that is part of the reason why historical changes are irreversible. The new ways not only supplant the old ways, but also directly and indirectly destroy the social scaffolding which allowed the old ways to function.

  1. November 20, 2011 at 2:01 am
  2. February 6, 2012 at 8:08 am

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