Read Part Iread Part II.

Society as Ecosystem in a Time of Collapse, Part III

6. “Disease organisms” (revolutionaries), “parasites” (criminals), and “immune systems” (law and punishment) in times of growth and release

In his brilliant 1976 book Plagues and Peoples, historian William H. McNeill explored how infectious disease has shaped human societies through the ages. A remarkable paragraph on page 84 of the Anchor paperback edition has stayed with me for several decades and partly inspired this essay:

Very early in civilized history, successful raiders became conquerors, i.e., learned how to rob agriculturalists in such a way as to take from them some but not all of the harvest. By trial and error a balance could and did arise, whereby cultivators could survive such predation by producing more grain and other crops than were needed for their own maintenance. Such surpluses may be viewed as the antibodies appropriate to human macroparasitism. A successful government immunizes those who pay rent and taxes against catastrophic raids and foreign invasion in the same way that a low-grade infection can immunize its host against lethally disastrous disease invasion. Disease immunity arises by stimulating the formation of antibodies and raising other physiological defenses to a heightened level of activity; governments improve immunity to foreign macroparasitism by stimulating surplus production of food and raw materials sufficient to support specialists in violence in suitably large numbers and with appropriate weaponry. Both defense reactions constitute burdens on the host populations, but a burden less onerous than periodic exposure to sudden lethal disaster.

At the risk of over-quoting, I will reproduce McNeill’s next paragraph as well. He’s on a roll here, and the explanatory firepower of these passages is measurable in megatons. These are insights that would later help win a Pulitzer Prize for Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Remember: the context of his discussion is the role of disease organisms in the evolution of human societies.

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