Faith buttresses civilisation

Societies decline after religions wane: it’s biology, argues Jim Penman


LONG before the rise of Christianity, it was a commonplace idea that wealth and moral decay caused societies to decline. Ancient Roman historians such as Sallust spoke out against the laxity of their time. Later, the 14th-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun observed how vigorous societies became soft under the influence of civilisation. And, of course, Christian moralists of all ages have warned of this danger.

It does seem that wealthy societies that abandon their traditions tend to decline. The problem is that decline comes only after a considerable delay. Recently, I was listening to a wonderful series of lectures on Roman history, in which the speaker discussed various possible reasons for the decline of Rome.

One cause he dismissed was “decadence”, on the grounds that Rome reached its peak of power as traditional religion and morality declined in the Late Republic. The same can be said of our own times, in which religion has declined, while wealth has surged to unparalleled heights.

Recent advances in science suggest that historical and social changes can often best be explained in biological terms, an approach known as “biohistory”. Biohistory is, in its general sense, a school of historiography that developed in the mid-20th century, but is also the title I have given to my own theories, which focus on epigenetics and its application to historiography.

One clear conclusion from biohistory is that wealth and decadence are the cause of civilisation decline. It starts from the idea that the nature of a society reflects the tem-perament of the population.

In his book A Farewell to Alms (Princeton University Press, 2007), Gregory Clark shows how the Industrial Revolution in England was made possible by a population that became harder working, more peaceful, and more willing to invest in areas such as literacy and work skills that had long-term benefit. This raises the question of how such a temperament could be formed.


AN IMPORTANT clue can be found in cross-cultural studies that show that the family patterns of civilised peoples are quite distinct from others, such as those of hunter-gatherers. They tend to restrict sexual activity, control their children, form nuclear monogamous families, and delay marriage. Curiously enough, this same set of behaviours can be found in animal societies in the wild, but only those that are short of food.

In a series of experiments with rats over the past seven years, my research team has shown that all these behaviours can be explained as a direct result of food shortage, which has significant hormonal and epigenetic effects (epigenetics is a new science that shows how environment affects the activity of certain genes).

An important finding is that the strongest effects are not on adults, but on the young, and that epigenetic effects can also be inherited. This means that the full effect of food shortage or affluence may not be experienced for a generation or more. Thus, biology explains in principle why wealthy civilisations tend to decline, but also why the effects of wealth are not immediately felt.


THIS does not explain, however, how peoples become civilised in the first place. After all, the disciplined and austere Victorians were less likely to experience famine, or even hunger, than their 14th-century ancestors; so their “hungry” behaviour could not simply be a result of food shortage. This is where religion comes in.

Laboratory studies have shown that restricting sexual activity in rats, especially in the period just after puberty, has a similar effect to food restriction. For example, it permanently reduces the level of hormones such as testosterone and leptin. This is a significant finding, because lower testosterone is associated with occupational success, law-abiding behaviour, and religious commitment. Ministers of religion, for example, typically score low. This explains why teenagers with limited sexual outlets achieve more education and greater career success, as detailed in the Kinsey report, in 1948.

I believe that the same will be found to apply to other religious traditions, such as sabbath-keeping, disciplined prayers, and religious rituals – and also, of course, to fasting, which is an element of most religious traditions. Any code of behaviour that restrains people, including children, serves to increase this disciplined or “food-short” temperament. All of these are hypotheses that could be tested in the laboratory.


ADVANCED religions such as Christianity can be seen as a kind of “cultural technology”, which creates the temperament that makes civilisation possible. This is also why the decline of religion is such a problem. As wealth undermines the disciplined, food-short temperament, it also undermines spirituality and support for traditional morality. This, in turn, further advances the decline. The long-term result must be the end of our civilisation, unless something is done to stop it.

Biohistory does not have anything to say about the truthfulness of any religious tradition. Indeed, I started on this journey as an agnostic. Since becoming a Christian, however, I have come to see it as a buttress to my faith. If the Bible is truly God’s word, then it should be a guide not only for individuals, but also for a healthy society, and that is what biohistory suggests that it is. It also suggests that faith and science, working together, are the only hope for the future of our civilisation.


Dr Penman is an Hon. Fellow and Guest Lecturer at RMIT University, in Melbourne, and the author of Biohistory: Decline and fall of the West (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015). 

5 replies
    • Jim Penman
      Jim Penman says:

      Not a lot, because there hasn’t been much interest to date. I’ll try posting something else and see what happens.

  1. Jim Penman
    Jim Penman says:

    Biohistory and Global Warning

    Global warning has been a hot issue in recent years, with attitudes largely defined by political orientation. Those on the left tend to see it as a serious threat to humanity, and the right as an overblown danger that is an excuse to bash business.

    In political terms I am distinctly on the right. As a businessman I dislike the high marginal tax rates which discourage effort and enterprise, and I favor limited government. I am also a social conservative, for reasons that will become clear later in this article.

    However, my life-long passion for science tells me that global warming is a serious problem. Massively increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere must have ill effects, whether these be melting ice caps or rising sea levels or ocean acidification or all of the above. It is hard to predict exactly what these effects will be, but they surely will happen.

    As for dealing with the problem, I favor a steep carbon tax. Nobody likes taxes, but those that encourages energy efficiency and new technology are preferable to those such as payroll taxes that increase unemployment. And a carbon tax is far more efficient than government ‘direct action’ schemes such as subsidizing solar panels. Markets are far better than governments in picking the most efficient way to achieve results.

    But science also provides hints that there is another and far more serious problem facing our society. This started with a study of civilization rise and decline that I did as part of a PhD in history. I came to the conclusion that changes in society could best be explained, not by impersonal economic and political forces, but by a change in the temperament of the general population.

    For those who are interested, a vivid and convincing account of this process can be found in Gregory Clark’s book ‘A Farewell to Alms’. Clark shows how Englishmen changed in the 500 years leading up to the nineteenth century. They became harder working, more disciplined, and more ready to sacrifice present leisure and consumption for future benefit. The end result was that massive explosion in wealth and mechanical ingenuity known as the Industrial Revolution.

    My own studies found an equally major change in family patterns during this period. People became more monogamous and family minded, more strict about sexual behavior, more likely to control their children, and more likely to start such control at a younger age. Cross-cultural studies showed the same pattern. Wealthy and civilized societies were far more likely to control their children, restrain sexual activity, and to form nuclear monogamous families.

    There were fascinating hints that this difference was rooted in biology. People in the nineteenth century not only married later but reached puberty later. In animals, later puberty is normally a result of food shortage. And so too are all the family patterns found in civilized societies. Animals in food-limited environments, such as gibbons, tend to delay breeding, form nuclear monogamous families, and provide intensive care of their young. Thus, people in the nineteenth century were acting as if they were short of food, in biological terms, when they were not. After all, middle class Victorian women were presumably better fed than famine-ridden peasants in the thirteenth century. So why did they reach puberty some years later?

    The explanation can be found in the science of human behavior. Food shortage affects behavior and physiology at least partly by reducing testosterone. But laboratory studies show that testosterone can be reduced by other means, such as limiting sexual activity. In other words, culture has the potential to change behavior in a way that creates the civilized temperament, and thus makes civilization possible. These cultural forces are normally found in religions or religion-like philosophies such as Judaism and Christianity in Europe, and Buddhism and Confucianism in East Asia.

    The problem of our current age is that extreme wealth is undermining this ‘civilized’ temperament, not only directly but by weakening cultural norms such as chastity and the control of children. The result is economic stagnation, increased cynicism about government, and a growing gap between rich and poor. Our civilization is declining just as did Rome and all others in the past, and for exactly the same reason.

    Ironically, this decline will in the end solve our global warming problem. As economies decline and technology retreats in coming decades, the remaining fossil fuels will become increasingly hard to extract. This will naturally bring about a return to water power, the use of animals, and back-breaking human labor. With time, the surplus CO2 will be gradually absorbed and the world return to the pre-industrial norm. Not that this will be any conservationist’s Garden of Eden. For subsistence farmers, trees are firewood and fodder for goats, wild animals a source of food. Thus, even the suffering caused by global warming will be utterly dwarfed by the misery of decline.

    But what if we were to take some tiny portion of a carbon tax, even a fraction of a percent, to invest in some basic biological research? Over the past eight years I have been running a research program through several Melbourne universities on the neuro-science of food shortage. We have come up with some highly significant findings, one of which is that the decline may not be inevitable. Rat studies suggest that it might even be possible to ‘immunize’ humans against the malign effects of too much wealth.

    This approach, which I call ‘biohistory’, also suggests that there may be ways to greatly enhance human creativity. This applies especially in fields such as science and technology, vital to dealing with the problems we face.

    With the help of science, and enough determination, we might one day be able to achieve a society which is both stable and sustainable.

    • Gisa
      Gisa says:

      I’m not familiar with Catherine’s story eiethr but this book has really captured my interest. I’m in the middle of a few light and fluffy reads right now (my brain needed a break) but I think I’ll pick this one up soon it sounds like the perfect combination of history and story that I really enjoy.

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