Old Realities

Kevin Lewis

December 02, 2023

The vulnerability of aging states: A survival analysis across premodern societies
Marten Scheffer et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 28 November 2023 


How states and great powers rise and fall is an intriguing enigma of human history. Are there any patterns? Do polities become more vulnerable over time as they age? We analyze longevity in hundreds of premodern states using survival analysis to help provide initial insights into these questions. This approach is commonly used to study the risk of death in biological organisms or failure in mechanical systems. The results reveal that the risk of state termination increased steeply over approximately the first two centuries after formation and stabilized thereafter. This provides the first quantitative support for the hypothesis that the resilience of political states decreases over time. Potential mechanisms that could drive such declining resilience include environmental degradation, increasing complexity, growing inequality, and extractive institutions. While the cases are from premodern times, such dynamics and drivers of vulnerability may remain relevant today.

Technology and survival in preindustrial England: A Malthusian view
Aykut Attar
Journal of Population Economics, October 2023, Pages 2071–2110 


This paper contributes to the debate on the evolution of living standards in preindustrial England. It emphasizes the need to depart from the approach of focusing only on the time paths of observables, like income per capita and population size, in order to assess the validity of Malthusian predictions. It first constructs a Malthusian model and then develops a robust algorithm for identifying the latent forces that have shaped aggregate outcomes in the preindustrial era. The analysis suggests the existence of two distinct Malthusian regimes in preindustrial England: a survival-driven regime, where mortality is the main latent force in economic-demographic interactions, and a later technology-driven regime that emerges after the mid-fifteenth century and is characterized by both population and productivity growth but stable mortality and long-run stagnation in per capita income. The paper discusses the role of various historical accidents (e.g., the Black Death, the discovery of the New World, the English Reformation) in triggering the emergence of the technology-driven regime, and it also highlights some mediating mechanisms through which subsequent productivity growth may have been sustained. The existence of long-run stagnation in income per capita in England through the mid-seventeenth century, despite the technological dynamism of the early modern period, is consistent with the predictions of Unified Growth Theory.

The ten-million-year explosion: Paleocognitive reconstructions of domain-general cognitive ability (G) in extinct primates
Mateo Peñaherrera-Aguirre et al.
Intelligence, November-December 2023 


The correlation between primate “Big G” scores and brain volume in 68 extant species was employed to estimate probable G values for an additional 68 extinct and 1 extant species with endocranial volume data, employing phylogenetic bracketing. Three different methods were used to generate bracketed estimates, which all showed high convergence. The average of these G estimates (for the extinct primates) coupled with the values from the extant species were found to correlate strongly with neurocognitive measures of both extant and extinct primate taxa, specifically Transfer Index scores (an indicator of cognitive flexibility) and the neuroanatomical covariance ratio (a measure of neural integration). Ancestral character reconstruction incorporating G values was made possible with a phylogenetic tree containing data on the relationships among extant and extinct primates. Negative correlations were found between G and branch length, indicating that higher-G species do not persist as long as lower-G ones, consistent with the presence of the grey-ceiling effect (brain mass negatively predicts maximum population growth rate, and therefore a heightened vulnerability to extinction). Cladogenesis rates were also positively associated with G. Both associations were robust to models that controlled for false positive rates. Comparative models revealed that G evolved in extinct and extant primates in a punctuated pattern. The biggest increase in G occurred after the split between the members of the tribes Hominini and Gorillini 10 million years ago. Hence at the macroevolutionary scale, there can be said to have been a “ten-million-year explosion” in primate G leading up to modern humans.

Survival of the literati: Social status and reproduction in Ming-Qing China
Sijie Hu
Journal of Population Economics, October 2023, Pages 2025-2070 


This study uses the genealogical records of 36,456 men from six Chinese lineages to test one of the fundamental assumptions of the Malthusian model: Did higher living standards result in increased reproduction? An empirical investigation of China between 1350 and 1920 finds a positive relationship between social status and net reproduction. Degree and office holders, or the literati, produced more than twice as many surviving sons as non-degree holders. The analysis explores the impact of social status on both the intensive and extensive margins of fertility -- namely, reduction in child mortality and better access to marriages. The high income and strong kin network of the literati greatly contributed to their reproductive success.

Intermarriage and ancient polity alliances: Isotopic evidence of cross-regional female exogamy during the Longshan period (2500–1900 BC)
Xiaotong Wu et al.
Antiquity, forthcoming 


The late third-millennium BC Longshan period was a crucial time for state formation in central China. During these centuries, long-distance networks expanded and shared material culture and then cultural practices spread across wider areas precipitating social and ideological developments that presaged the rise of states and cities on the Central Plain. In this research, the authors use multiple (strontium, oxygen and carbon) isotope analyses from the dental enamel of 67 individuals buried at the Xiajin cemetery, Shanxi Province. The results indicate significant long-distance migration among females during the Longshan period, which the authors interpret as evidence of exogamous marriage for political alliance-building—a phenomenon found more widely across Eurasia at the start of the Bronze Age.

Urbanizing food: New perspectives on food processing tools in the Early Bronze Age villages and early urban centers of the southern Levant
Karolina Hruby & Danny Rosenberg
Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, December 2023 


The Early Bronze Age in the southern Levant is associated with the onset of urbanization processes, expressed through the emergence of walled, densely populated settlements. The local agro-pastoral economy faced new challenges regarding subsistence of the aggregated communities. We compare ground stone tool assemblages involved in food processing from rural, fortified non-urban, and urban settlements in an attempt to understand the impact of the urbanization process on foodways during that period. Additionally, we explore food processing technologies and preferences as indicators of social complexity and urban development. The results point to specialized production and wide distribution of high-quality, standardized grinding implements and, consequently, an intensification of staple food provision. We propose that this phenomenon is associated with a change of socio-economic priorities that comes with the onset of urbanism, causing a decline of the basalt bowl industry and reorganization of the food processing habitus within growing settlements. We also propose that the enhanced organization of food production concerned mainly the early urban centers, whereas villages display higher variability in modes of food processing and tendencies to utilize easily accessible materials. This indicates an opportunistic approach regarding food processing technologies and/or higher variability of local staple food resources in the rural peripheries.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.