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Andre Gunder Frank

Review of The Dynamic Society

A Review Essay on
Graeme Donald Snooks
The Dynamic Society: Exploring the Sources of Global Change.
London and New York: Routledge 1996, xvii, 491 pp.

This book is a veritable tour de force beginning with the establishment of the universe 15 billion years ago and the emergence of life on earth 4 billion years ago. It goes on to analyze the bio-social or socio-biological ascent of man and of human society over two million years and of the rise and development of civilization over the past ten thousand. The author offers a novel interpretation of the causes of the industrial revolution two hundred years ago, and stresses the demographic revolution of the past fifty years. The political payoff from all this and more is the author's recommendation to face the future global ecological crisis by generating a new technological paradigm shift, rather than giving in to Club of Rome type ecological limits to growth, whose existence the author denies.

Snooks's resolute and uncompromising materialism is out of step with all manner of past and contemporary idealist positions:

A major message of The Dynamic society, namely that the driving force is provided by an overwhelming desire to maximize material advantage, is both distasteful and unacceptable to many people [especially] intellectuals [13]. Ideas ... do not constitute the driving force. This position is diametrically opposed to the conventional wisdom [203].

The real life or motor force of this long and still ongoing process, the author is at pains to demonstrate, is economic - or more precisely material/ist - competition to use scarce resources for survival. The author himself refers to the simile of a great game of life on earth. Its chess board and the rules of the game represent the constraints of universal chemistry and terrestrial geology. However, man [sic!] makes himself as indeed does all life itself. They are not a given or a mere product of chemical or natural forces. For the object of playing the game of life for all players derives from the genetically internalized and selfish individual quest for material sustenance to permit survival. The open secret of this social process in the Dynamic Society is the economic competition with all other individuals which itself requires and generates rational biological and social choice among different combinations of "dynamic strategies" and tactics to permit material sustenance and survival within these physical constraints. Thus, Snooks appeals to the authority of Darwin - and of the evidence! - to argue that natural including social selection is itself [generated and driven by] economic competition among all individual claimants for the scarce material resources that permit survival. Social institutions are only enabling derivative mechanisms. The idea that ideas or the intellectuals that formulate them move history is no more than the ultimate intellectual fantasy.

The author's tour de force includes a short history of time, plate tectonics, climatology, and the chemical conditions of life; the origin of the species and natural selection; on being human through competition and cooperation, selfishness and altruism; family life and gender in palaeolithic huntergatherer society and the political economy of neolithic civilization; the wealth of nations and all world history. The author also discusses and disputes the geographical determinism of Eldrege and Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle ... in Geological Time, the physical "supply-side" theses of Crawford and Marsh about The Driving Force of chemical reactions, of Dawkins neo-Darwinist The Selfish Gene, and of the populationist determinism of the Ehrlichs Population Explosion, Ronald Lee and others. He challenges supply-side economics from Marx's Capital to Mokyr's Lever of Riches and modifies Keynes' demand side in The General Theory. He fundamentally disagrees with Hegel about the role of ideology and with Fukuyama on The End of History. Indeed, he rejects all ideological positions about "moral/political versus economic man;' but he also does battle with economists about homo economicus and with the "schizophrenic" internally contradictory position Becker about 'altruism, egoism, and genetic fitness' in A Treatise on the Family. And he challenges and rewrites all received economic history, especially The European Miracle [Jones] of Prometheus Unbound [Landes] in The Rise of the Western World [North and Thomas]. These allegedly lead to The Limits of Growth by Meadows and the Club of Rome, and support the thesis of the entire ecological/environmental movement, against which Snooks combats.

Snooks does not dispute all these authorities just for the sake of argument. He does so in order to demolish or circumvent the obstacles that all this received supply-side and ideological wisdom poses for the construction of a truly materialist demand-side theory for Exploring the Sources of Global Change in The Dynamic Society. For Snooks claims that these sources are endogenous materialism or materialist endogeneity, which generate the internal dynamic of all biological and social life. Snooks' exploration of this endogenous dynamic is designed to cover his bet on further technological change as the only way to confront the threatening gordian ecological knot - by cutting it through a new technological paradigm. Therein this book offers a wider basis for and complements Robert M. Adams' (1996) Paths of Fire. An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology. For that only reviews the "tunnel" history of the last five thousand years from Mesopotamia to the United States to support the plea for a U.S. government technology policy, which would probably be acceptable also to Snooks.

Snooks constructs a complicatedly simple model to explain endogenously driven social change. Decision making individuals, each acting during its own lifetime in a competitive environment that is subject to transformation whose rate of change is mostly much slower than a generations' life cycle, chose among available 'dynamic strategies' to maximize their material well being. Snooks' short summary of these dynamic strategies is procreation, predatation/conquest, generic/technological change, and symbiosis/commerce, and/or their combination in sets of such 'dominant' and 'dependent' strategies.

Snooks devotes a chapter to each of the dominant dynamic strategies. The first one is family multiplication. That was the dominant strategy for 99.9 percent of humanity's struggle to survive during the past two million years. Family units - prior to the past fifty years - with an average of five members that however may combine in bands of several families, use natural resources near them as gatherer-hunters. Cooperation within family and even band units is materially maximizing and therefore economically rational for the individual, and contrary to Becker (1991) and others is not a sign that altruism replaces competitive individualism within this social unit. Where and when foraging or gathering predominates, it is economically rational for women to have relatively more income and status. When hunting - and a fortiori war - predominate, the income and status of men rises. Family multiplication was the dominant economic growth strategy as family and larger group units migrated to open up new lands all over the habitable earth until land and other resources became too scarce to support this strategy any longer. That in itself 'dynamically' generated new dominant strategies, which become socio-economically rational in turn.

The next two strategies are technological change and conquest. Indeed, adding hunting to foraging was itself also an at least dependent technological paradigm shift. Another major one was the neolithic agricultural revolution, which permitted the material support of far larger populations in smaller areas. Alas, not all or even most of the members of these larger population groups were able to enjoy as good a livelihood and certainly not as much freedom and leisure as their foraging ancestors. Nonetheless, material wealth increased, although it became more concentrated in the hands of upper classes, who formed states mostly at the expense of their lower agricultural laboring classes -- and of their neighbors. Snooks' account does not altogether clarify how and why the rational action of "all men and women" led to adopting strategies whose cost for so many, including women, generated benefits primarily for the few.

For these neolithic developments also created conditions in which conquest became economically rational. That is why Snooks says that civilization is synonymous with conquest. It became rational to pursue further economic expansion through conquest of neighboring societies and states. Some had also amassed wealth or controlled resources and trade routes that could be conquered and pillaged or otherwise productively incorporated into the spoils of the victor, for whom reliance on conquest strategy was not only rational ex-ante but ipso facto also post hoc. All settled wealth producing agricultural and industrial communities and their states became magnets for conquest not only by their other settled neighbors, but also by their herding nomadic ones. That institutionalized offensive and defensive war, its enormous infrastructural investments and other military and related political expenditures, and of course the political military castes that came to specialize in these activities. Even so, under many circumstances and recurrently for a long time war and conquest was able to generate greater material income and wealth for some at the expense of others. Snooks reviews the use of this strategy from antiquity in the Fertile Crescent, through classical Greece and Rome, but also in East Asia and in the Western Hemisphere to modern times. Conquest alone is however different from the other dynamic strategies: it is a zero sum game, which cannot itself directly generate more material benefit for all concerned. At best, it can and did stimulate others which can: further technological change used as a dependent strategy [eg. to improve military hardware] and the next dynamic strategy - commerce.

Commerce can increase the total material welfare of the trading parties in accordance with the classical economists' principles of absolute and comparative advantage, which Snooks accepts. Fortunately, he also recognizes 'unequal exchange' in trade and is not so naive as modern 'free traders' to claim that the benefits of trade are likely to be distributed equally as well. Unlike conquest, commerce is a positive sum game dynamic strategy, whose use however makes some more equal than others.

Commerce was initiated by state traders and private merchants already in early antiquity in West Asia but then also in East Asia and the Western Hemisphere taking advantage of differences in the natural and social endowments among regions. For instance, ancient inter-fluvial Mesopotamian and Nile-straddling Egyptian bottom lands were good for producing food even in excess of local requirements and cotton for weaving textiles, but lacked timber and metals, which were available in highland Anatolia and even in the Levant. Snooks reviews the expansion of trade from there to the ancient Greek world, the Phoenicians and the Carthage they founded, to Rome which battled against it relying more on conquest than on trade, and to Constantinople, which survived much longer on its trading position. He then jumps to Venice, Genoa and Pisa to arrive at northwest Europe and its commercial 'expansion' around the world, which alas Snooks reviews from a far too Eurocentric perspective. Contrary to Snooks (p.370), at the end of the Middle Ages Europe was not the center but entirely marginal to a world trading system. It is also not true that then "history turned to north-western Europe" (p.369); only historians did, and even they did not do so until the nineteenth century! Alas, even Snooks was taken in by them; and that still compromises his otherwise excellent analysis, as we will see further in my critique below.

The inequality in the benefits from commerce also contributes to political economic and social inequality among societies. That in turn combines with the exhaustion of the marginal benefits compared to the marginal costs of relying on other dynamic strategies, especially family expansion and conquest, but temporarily also of commerce. This combination of circumstances then made it economically rational for some - in Western Europe - to once again to switch reliance among dynamic strategies, among which reliance on technology itself now became dominant. The result during the past two hundred years was an 'industrial revolution' in productive, commercial, and also military technology.

Therewith, Snooks arrives at the practical political policy payoff from his tour de force: It is not that this new technological capacity now does or threatens to exhaust the physical and natural capacity of the Earth to support life as we know it, as environmental ecologists try - wrongly according to Snooks - to persuade us. No says Snooks, it is the dominant dynamic strategy of technology that itself requires and will undergo still another major paradigmatic shift. For "materialist man is the same yesterday, today and forever. Only the underlying economic conditions facing him have changed" [197]. Human Dynamic Society can and will come up with the necessary and therefore economically rational dynamic strategy to face and overcome these new conditions - if only its intellectuals will wise up and let it.

Already in his preface, Snooks stresses that

a major expression of the humanist spirit of this book is my argument that the dynamics of human society arises from the decision-making not just of small elites but of all members of society both male and female throughout the world.... It may come as a surprise to some that focus upon fundamental economic forces involving a central role for materialist man should lead to an uncompromisingly humanist outcome [xiv].

So wide ranging a book is bound to tread on many toes. Cosmologists, geologists, climatologists, chemists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists, philosophers and others can and hopefully will speak or shout for themselves. I confine myself to reservations from my own perspective of world economic history and its implications for the age old battle between determinism and free will. I begin with the latter.

Snooks stresses the "humanism" of his uncompromisingly materialist reading and writing of evolution and history in which - to recall Karl Marx and Gordon Childe - "Man [sic!] Makes himself," but not under conditions of his or [still less?] her own choosing. In this task, all members participate, albeit perhaps not equally. Intellectuals and their ideas do so much less than they would like to think. What about the ecologists among them? Are they likely to stem the 'progress' to a new paradigmatic shift within the dynamic technology strategy? Not if there is anything to Snooks' central argument that the innate economic rationality of [almost] all materialist men and women will continue to generate Global Change in the Dynamic Society. But then why write this book to propagate these or indeed any ideas - I asked the author by e-mail. His answer: Well, ideas do influence intellectuals. But why bother, I retorted, if intellectuals and their ideas themselves are mostly - and thankfully! - so useless, if not downright perverse, as Snooks and I 'think'? Life is contradictory!

Snooks also enmeshes himself in other 'minor' contradictions. What is "society," dynamic or otherwise? Well, Margaret Thatcher said, it does not exist; only individuals do! And ultimately in Snooks's book, it is the rational decision-making action over their own lifetimes of each, or at least of almost all, individuals that drives the Dynamic Society and its dominant strategies. But if it is the action of "all men and women" that does so, then "society" has been world-wide for a long time past, at least since the family multiplication strategy ran its course. Like Frank and Gills (1993) and Frank (1993), Snooks also identifies growth cycles of three to five hundred years duration. Unlike us, he looks for different ones in China and Rome; and he concentrates his interest in Europe during the past millennium. That leads him to regard the fourteenth century Black Death and the seventeenth century population decline as exogenous events. We instead treat all these events, like the European cycle itself, as integral parts of Afro-Eurasian wide cycles going back to 3000 BC, which we identify and date but that Snooks disregards.

Why then does Snooks argue that only Western Europe relied on technological strategy over the past millennium, which finally generated the paradigm shift to the industrial revolution about eight hundred years later? But such claims or analyses are not consistent with the global erudition of Snooks and the wide range of his book. Indeed the same may be said of the above cited book by Adams (1996), who is the premier archaeologist of world ranging experience. For when they come down to [literally] brass tacks, they restrict the purview of their analyses so much as to contradict their own more global models. In my view (Frank 1997) and also in that of Pomeranz (1997), this shortcoming is a legacy of Eurocentrism, which leads Snooks to disregard - indeed explicitly to deny with regard to China - the contemporaneous developments in Asia.

Like Snooks, we also see the source of the industrial revolution in rational marginal benefit/cost choices and response to resource factor price alternatives generated by changing economic and ecological circumstances. But we insist that these were global and not just British or West European and that it was the economic history of the whole world and especially of Asia that confronted the previously quite marginal West Europeans with new choices; and only quite unexpectedly and abruptly so around 1800. Therefore, only a truly global economic/ecological/demographic analysis can even hope to account for this paradigmatic shift of also global proportions. One of the strange internal contradictions in The Dynamic Society is that its for world historians and others exemplary globalism over the millennia is suddenly abandoned in favor of a still Eurocentric 'explanation' of the latest global transformation. In my view, that constitutes a serious shortcoming.

Snooks' sudden abandonment of globalism also leaves less than clear or consistent to what extent conquest and commerce can be and still are rationally materialist dynamic strategies. A 'minor' but interesting example is his rather extensive but inconclusive treatment of World War Two, which he does not find so rationally materialist after all. Yet, the Pacific part in which Japan, China, and the United States competed with each other very explicitly for economic resources and markets in a "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" receives short shrift from Graeme. Not so the Atlantic and European theater.

Snooks shows how economic competition generated military adventures that were consistent with the pursuit of rational materialist conquest strategies by the major Atlantic and European contestants at least until 1943. Yet, Snooks insists again and again that Hitler was "irrational," and that the policy that he 'imposed' on Nazi Germany was equally so. His argument is based mainly on the horrors of the Holocaust and on Hitler's mistake to fight on two fronts. But what if he had avoided that strategic mistake or if the winter of 1941 had not been so severe, etc? Snooks insists that in global materialist competition, the winner takes all. Then Germany might well have taken all the world's material benefits that the war bestowed on the United States in the - shortlived - "American Century."

I have touched on no more than the highlights of Snooks' magisterial tour de force. Therefore, I have sought to organize their exposition in a more orderly fashion than the author himself, who goes into vastly more detail, but does so at the cost of jumping back and forth through time from one place to another. That also makes it a bit hard to follow his sophisticated and complicated attempt to boil the course of the Universe, the Earth, Life, Humanity, Society, and of World History down to bite-size categories that he in turn combines into a 'simple' model menu of self-generating and autotransforming rational materialist choices. To help the reader follow his argument, Snooks also supplies a ten page alphabetized glossary of three dozen of these categories, for most of which he also invented the terminology himself. Moreover he cites 13 pages of references including over 300 items; and he or his publisher supply an index that runs between pages 455 and 491 of a very long and dense book. Although it concentrates on only .01 percent of the time frame that it covers, the diligent and attentive reader will nonetheless find this book more richly rewarding than the other 99.9 percent s/he is likely to read.


Adams, Robert M. 1996. Paths of Fire An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Becker, G.S. 1991. A Treatise on the Family. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Crawford, M. and D. Marsh (1989. The Driving Force: Food in Evolution and the Future. London: Mandarin.

Dawkins, R. 1989. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ehrlich, P.R. and A.H. Ehrlich 1990. The Population Explosion. New York:Simon & Schuster.

Frank, Andre Gunder 1993. "Bronze Age World System Cycles" Current Anthropology 34,4, Aug.-Oct.:383-430.

  • 1997. East & West: Global Economy in the Asian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming.

Frank, A. G. and B.K. Gills, Eds..1993 The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? London and New York: Routledge.

Fukuyama, F. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Gould, S.J. 1987 Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Jones, E.L. 1981. The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keynes, John Maynard 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmilllan.

Landes, David S. 1969. The Unbound Prometheus. Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl 1957-61. Capital. 3 vols. Moscow:Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Meadows, D.H, et al 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

  • 1992. Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green.

Mokyr, J. 1990. The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progess. New York: Oxford University Press.

North, Douglass C. and Robert Paul Thomas 1973. The Rise of the Western World: A New Economic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth 1997. Extraordinary Changes in an Ordinary Place. Unpublished Ms.

Snooks' book was the subject of a lengthy discussion on PHILOFHI (Philosophy of History) during October, November, and December of last year. This discussion has been archived. In order to read this discussion one should send the command:

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Table of Contents
Personal and Professional
Honors and Memberships
Research Interests
Publications Summary
Recent Publications
ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age
Essays on NATO and Kosovo, 1999 On-line Essays

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