Page 1 of 2 REUVEN BRENNER Make babies or perish How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) by
David P Goldman
Reviewed by Reuven Brenner
By coincidence, David Goldman's book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is
Dying Too), came out the same time that the Financial Times dedicated a
special supplement, titled "Welcome, Number Seven Billion", which gives a
detailed tour around the world about population, fertility rates, and other
demographic details. Also remarkably, The Economist's lead article at the time
was about the rapidly declining fertility in Asia.
Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with Goldman's
demographic-mixed-with-religion journey through world history
(and I found myself disagreeing at times), the book displays the dazzling
erudition, fluidity and sarcasm that marks Goldman's columns on Asia Times
Online written under the "Spengler" pseudonym.
While today's academia is mired in esoteric details and jargon, Goldman's book
sways with easy assurance across millennia and continents, and with utter
disregard to academic fiefdoms. It draws a picture of where the world might
have been (we are very good at re-inventing the past too) and where it may be
heading, with some sharp barbs against present and past Washington
For Goldman, demography is almost destiny. He argues that demographics shed
light on the rise and fall of nations, tribes, and civilizations. Goldman views
the decision to have children as being a matter of religious faith, or at least
reflecting optimism about the future. Where religions fail, fertility declines,
and these civilizations fall into oblivion.
This leads him to one of his "universal laws", namely, that "The history of the
world is the history of humankind's search for immortality." A large part of
the book is about the intricate ways in which this law interacts with
demographic changes, and sheds light on national/tribal destinies from
antiquity to our days.
According to Goldman, when a tribe or a nation suddenly realizes its demise
into insignificance, whether defeated in war or leapfrogged by newcomers who
accidentally stumble on better ideas, institutions, or technology, reproduction
declines. When the fertility of the tribe or nation falls below replacement
level, its civilization eventually disappears. At times, the tribe gradually
dies out, literally speaking. In other instances, the tribes' unique features
disappear as its members emulate the leapfrogging civilization's institutions
and are absorbed in larger entities. These leave their tribal/national cultures
behind for historians to explore the "death of births".
In spite of the recent pessimism pervading the United States (and Goldman is a
severe critic of present and past administrations' policies), he is carefully
optimistic about the US, India, and China, but not about Europe, and certainly
not at all about Muslim countries.
The latter, in his view, will not have the luxury of time to catch up, and
populous China and India will leapfrog them. Their present numbers
notwithstanding, Muslim countries would fall further and further behind with
their already plunging fertility rates. The survivors would have to adopt the
more successful civilizations' features, a transition that will not happen
peacefully, and cannot happen "democratically", as democracy has no roots in
these societies. According to Goldman, the George W Bush's administration idea
that "democracy" can be easily exported was a big blunder.
Another implication of his analysis is that since much of the world is now even
more unsettled than the US, the US has a window of opportunity to put its
political and fiscal house in order and to become, once again, the civilization
that emerging countries want to emulate. The US appears to be the only country
that stumbled upon a model of society that managed to link successfully an
increasing number of people of different backgrounds to create a unique
When I noticed regularities about civilizations rising and falling in my youth,
and was naive enough to write two tomes about history with a big "H" about them
(History - the Human Gamble and Betting on Ideas, both published
by University of Chicago at the time), I found that, indeed, large decreases in
population brought about disappearance of civilizations. And the contrary, when
large increases in population happened, new civilizations came into being, as
societies struggled with a variety of ideas and institutions on how to link the
increasing numbers of people.
When population increased relatively gradually, as happened in Europe after the
16th century, societies had time to carry out such experiments over centuries.
Civilizations changed gradually, though not without violence. There were
continuous conflicts between linking people based on "universal ideas" like
Christianity, or class, as in Marx's "all workers of the world unite" idea, or
on "freedom", that is, the principle of everything allowed equally to all
unless explicitly prohibited. These "universal" principles were opposed to
uniting people based on "tribal" or, as later called, "national", principles.
Two decades ago, it appeared that one "universal" idea, the "freedom
principle", gained the upper hand. There were expectations that the so-called
"emerging countries" would all emulate a model of society based on it. Now that
the US has managed to compound a large number of grave mistakes, this process
has been significantly slowed down.
According to Goldman, the principle of uniting people behind a "supra-national"
idea was always an illusion in Europe. Though Christendom and, now, the
European Community exemplify this, the tribal (Goldman calls them "pagan")
loyalties remained strong. They brought about the modern nation state,
superseding unifying ideas, Christian or other.
This perception may be accurate. There is not much sympathy in Germany today
toward the profligate Mediterranean tribes, yet I remain unconvinced that
diminished religious faith can be directly linked to fertility. Ancient Rome's
civilization disappeared when its population was cut by half by the plague, not
In fact, people's reactions to plagues, epidemics, and wars reveal just how
complex people's reactions to fertility can be, and why population may
sometimes fluctuate wildly. This cannot be linked to religious beliefs.
When Europe went through the Black Death, many young children died. It is well
documented that parents had many kids, but virtually neglected them until they
arrived at an age that the parents could become more sure of their survival.
The parents might have been very religious, but bestowing much love on babies
who would die at a very young age in the epidemic could be devastating.
There are limits to how much parents can suffer. So they insured themselves by
temporarily neglecting their young kids. When the plague disappeared, families
continued to have many kids for quite a while. After all, they could not know
if they would be coming back. The result was a rapid increase in population.
Goldman's example of Israel having fertility above replacement among the
secular Jews is not particularly surprising either, and may not have much to do
with religion. Having grown up there, and having endured two wars and expecting
more, planning to have two or three children seemed reasonable.