Being a history buff, I have always been fascinated about the origin, growth and decay of empires and civilisations. It is remarkable to see how certain determined individuals, who started with nothing, built great empires. Most of these empires died off after a couple of generations while a few survive longer to establish long-lasting civilisations. What differentiates the two is an interesting question.
Why do powerful civilisations decay and collapse, after becoming so strong and mighty as to dominate the world in their prime. Are there similarities between today’s entrepreneur and the kingdom builders of ancient times? Can large multinational corporations of today learn anything from the forces that destroy empires and civilisations?
What drove Alexander the Great, Chandragupta Maurya, or even Genghis Khan? The Egyptian civilisation survived thousands of years and left us their hieroglyphics, mummies and pyramids, while the Indus valley civilisation in India could leave us only some ruins, a few seals and an un-deciphered script.
We do have a collective memory of the so-called glory of the British Empire though we have to depend on historical sources to learn about the earlier ones. America and Russia were the recent superpowers after the two World Wars of the 20th century – Russia’s fall was swift and we can now see glimpses of what awaits America. The list is endless. So, why do empires and civilisations fail?
Of course, a large number of people have studied this question and one can read interesting theories from Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, where he focuses on the importance of geography, or in Daren Acemogolu’s Why Nations Fail about the importance of institutions and inclusive versus exclusive models of growth.
I think it is a combination of these rather than one or two in isolation that determines the fate of empires and civilisations. I call them the G factors.
The G Factors
Surprisingly, it all starts with what I would call the first G factor, geology. Our planet earth though a rocky planet, has an outer crust, which is formed of plates that are moving very slowly. Over millions of years all the continents come together into a single mass and then split again forming different land masses and the cycle continues.
The second factor that leads from this is geography. The fate of a nation and often a civilisation depends on its mountains, rivers, minerals, coastal access and so on.
The third factor is the genes. As our ancestors moved out of Africa to populate the rest of the world about 60,000 years ago, not only did they interbreed with some of our hominid cousins like the Neanderthals and Denisovans, their sub groups got isolated in different geographic regions for many centuries leading to considerable genetic differences among different human population groups.
The fourth factor is God. No, I don’t mean God playing a role in determining our fate, but the fact that man found (or made) God and our lives changed considerably since. The fifth and sixth factors are glory and greed. Unlike animals, when we moved into a different evolutionary branch with larger brains., our goals grew from just survival to something greater – to salvation and now to singularity. These have caused our species to do unspeakable harm to one another in the name of God and glory and our greed is destroying our planet.
With the rapid progress of science and technology some are confident that these problems can be fixed while others are worried about the technology getting ahead of us and smart AI machines taking over the world. While I have great hope on the first, I am not worried about the second since the AI machines would not have the last three G factors driving them.
The final G factor is the government. After experimenting with various forms of government we have realized that democracy is the best. But then, why is Democracy so fragile? With Hitler, Idi Amin and the like we had seen the worst of what dictatorships can do. Similarly, the religious conflicts of the last millennium have given us innumerable examples of what religious fanaticism would result in. In spite of this, why are dictatorships and religious juntas remerging?
None of the G factors on their own can explain the past nor help us predict the future. But it is obvious that they play a significant part in driving the events and they do offer us good clues to our individual and group behavior. There is not much we can do about the first three G factors except to understand them and their implications well. On the other hand we have complete control over the rest of the factors and genetics will allow us to analyse what drives our species to God, glory and greed. Unfortunately, there is no single gene for any of these complex behaviors or craving. Our other redeeming features like the capabilities for love, spirituality, empathy, renunciation and sacrifice show that most of the good and bad from genetics come together in complex packages. And when our basic fears of survival are stoked, the bad instincts take over.
I would argue that the most important G factor that we should focus on is the government and the institutions under it. There are grave challenges that our society is now facing – rapidly growing inequality, global warming, energy, food and water shortages etc. With the revolutionary growth of our science and technologies, I am confident that we will find a way to solve the problems, provided we ensure a stable and egalitarian society.
The author is founder chairman and global CEO, MedGenome Labs.