Yearning for the apocalypse, part III

In part I and part II the question was posed what the source of the demand for apocalyptic stories was in our societies. The discussion made it plausible that there is in fact a strong cultural diversity in terms of Doomsday stories: they are prevalent in the West, where their ancestry stretches back to at least the Zoroastrians and probably Assyrians. Yet, in Hinduism the version is so weak that it would be fairer to speak of no major apocalyptic stories and they seem largely absent in Chinese and Aborigines culture too. Alan mentioned that they were prevalent on the other hand in nomadic cultures of the Americas though once again absent in the Mayan culture.

Taking this at face value and thus wondering what on earth the commonalities are between the cultures that have a strong line of apocalyptic thinking and those that do not, we can knock off some possible contenders quite easily: any theory dependent on the actual level of disasters is off the table for the Chinese have probably seen bigger famines and wars than anyone else, and modern societies cannot compete in terms of aggregate violence and upheavals with hunter-gatherer societies like the Aboriginal one. So the real level of aggregate dangers won’t have much to do with it. Ditto goes for anything based on the need for public good provision.

The distribution of apocalypse seekers also seems to cancel out the likelihood of genetic explanations wherein there would be some psychological trait shared more between the apocalypse yearners: if the Indo-Europeans in North India dont have these apocalypse stories and the Indo-Europeans forming the bulk of Northern Europe and North America, then genetic explanations are out.

So we need to think of something unconnected to genes, real risks, or even aggregate level of societal complexity.

As Sam Wylie and several others note, an intermediary in the demand for apocalypse story seems to be the general stories about time: hunter-gatherer or early agricultural societies had circular notions of time. Spirits born and reborn. The same points visited again and again. One needs more linear notions of time, with the ensuing possibilities of progress and end-points to find apocalyptic stories plausible.

To buy into that general line of thought one would then need to think of these ‘notions of time’ stories as an unconsciously believed and then looked-for mental model of how everything works. The mental model of time would then be applied to any other story and stories that violate the dominant ‘time story’ would simply not sound plausible. Even scientific theories and religious theories then have to fit the same basic storyline for the audience to buy into them. Apocalyptic scientists in that kind of theory are merely enacting a storyline accepted by their society already used to such stories.

Where do these underlying time-stories come from though? They may be embedded for a long time and be slow to change, but they clearly do change so one is then looking for commonalities across the apocalypse cultures that explains the different conceptions of time. A key data point would then focus on the supposed lack of apocalyptic stories amongst hunter gatherers. As economists convinced it is all incentives in the long run, we would want to link the time stories to economic realities and incentives. If the economic reality is that the real source of wealth and security is factors totally outside of ones control, such as when one is dependent on wildlife, the floods or rains, then the basic story will be a fatalistic one of accepting fate and of being part of either an eternal renewal or essentially stagnant situation.

The question would then arise what it is about Western society that dislodged the eternal cycle or stagnation theme. One hypothesis is that continuous competition between expanding and changing kingdoms created, at the top of society, a kind of ‘do or die’ culture prone to believing in coming catastrophes. The basic story of those societies would then be dominated by the reality of constant political upheaval at the top even if for the average member of the population there was not much difference with other societies. Since hunter gatherer societies have no elites and their lives consist much less of a conscious and planned struggle for power with the other elites, the theory would seem to fit their reality.

For this kind of ‘warrior elites give rise to all-or-nothing stories’ hypothesis to be true though, the basic political constellation would have to be similar across the apocalypse cultures. Nomads, Assyrians, Europeans, etc., would have to be in this constant elite strife state whilst at the level of the elite things would have to be different for the Mayans, Chinese, and others without apocalypse stories. Hmmm.

An alternative tempting possibility is that we are looking at some off-shoot of forward-looking behaviour, i.e. the idea  that one naturally is drawn to Doomsday stories if one habitually scans into the far future as a consequence of material or political circumstances. Particular apocalypse stories then fit whatever source of fear people can be lead to believe in, but the general prevalence of them would then be an unintended consequence of the demand for forward looking behaviour.

This would require that Europe and nomadic cultures are more forward looking than others. It fits the ill-used term ‘Judeo-Christian spirit of inquiry’ line, but I cannot really see how Northern India and the Mayas would differ from the Europeans on that score. Plenty of navel gazing about human insignificance and the future of the soul in Indian culture. Hmmmm.

A final possibility is that it fits a story of ‘ever present sin’ in the sense that cultures in which there is an open acceptance of the notion that we are all sinners inevitably gets an outlet in the ultimate ‘comeuppance’ of those sinful tendencies. In terms of the prevalence of ‘sin’ as a recurring theme, this story fits modern Western societies beautifully and also is a snug fit to medieval Catholicism and the Zoroastrians. It would also seem to fit India and China where, as far as I know, the ‘we are all sinners’ line is not the dominant story.

The deeper question would then become what generates the sin-story. A tempting possibility is that the story of sin creates a need for salvation and absolution which in turn gives a role to religious intermediaries selling salvation. It is a bit in line with what Tel was advocating with his implicit line that sin is an invention of people trying to control us for their own reasons. Hence perhaps the existence of an intermediary layer of religious interpreters endogenously gives rise to a sin-story. One would then have to argue for some underlying difference in the structure of religion between regions which is not immediately obvious. And it is in fact on reflection not entirely convincing that a belief in sin is all that specific to apocalyptic religions or cultures. Surely every culture with a degree of hierarchy in it (which is basically all of them after hunter-gatherers) has people controlling others by any means possible so no reason for a set of them to miss out on a good trick the others did find. There seem to be plenty of sin-stories in Indian society (plenty of shame and looking for purity).

If I reflect on each of the above hypotheses, I don’t really find any of them all that convincing though the first one seems more plausible than the later ones. Perhaps Stephen Bounds is right that it is more or less accidental as to which cultures get into quite persistent ‘linear time-stories’ and which do not.

Let us thus simply call it a socio-economic mystery yet to find a plausible theory.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

%d bloggers like this: