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Fall of Roman Empire can be explained by biology, researcher says

Forget the Vandals – the fall of the Roman Empire can be explained by biology, according to a new book.

roman ruins - photo by Jan Smith


A pioneering new study of the fate of the Romans and other great civilisations such as the Ancient Greeks pins their collapse not on economic decline or war, as is traditionally held, but on biological causes. Historian and social theorist Dr Jim Penman suggests that the real cause of Rome’s fall in the 5th Century AD can be explained by a mass behavioural change in the population, driven by epigenetics.

Roman historians recognized what they considered to be a decay in the traditional Roman character from the late Republic onwards. Symptoms included a falling birth-rate, a growing gap between rich and poor, and declining attachment to ancient traditions. Modern historians have tended to focus on economic and political changes, but this new theory suggests that the root cause was, in fact, a mass change in temperament driven by prosperity.

With time this change in temperament led to the fall of the Republic and one-man rule, replacement of native Romans by more “vigorous” provincials (who were, according to the theory, also affected in turn), economic decline, and military and political weakness.

Eventually the Empire was unable to function effectively or resist enemy attack, resulting in the sack of Rome in 410 AD – the traditional date given for the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Dr Penman has dubbed his new theory, which sees human social and economic behavior as grounded in biology, ‘biohistory’.

It is detailed in a new book Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West, released internationally this week through Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Dr Penman explains, “Biohistory is a radical new way of looking at social behaviour, informed by the study of history, cross-cultural anthropology, and zoology. For the first time it connects human biology to the rise and fall of civilizations. The question of ‘why’ the Roman Empire collapsed has fascinated me since my undergraduate days, but the standard answers never satisfied me. They seemed to focus mainly on institutional changes or the decisions of leaders but I thought that there had to be something more at play.

“Since then I have dedicated myself to this question and have analysed a wide range of human history looking for patterns of behaviour that could be linked to demographic changes and especially to population decline. I also found similar patterns of behaviour in cross-cultural anthropology, and then, finally, in physiology and animal behaviour. From this I concluded that the key to history and the boom-bust cycle of civilisations wasn’t to do with economics or politics, which are actually symptoms rather than causes, but biology.”

Dr Penman, who is also the owner and full-time CEO of Jim’s Group, Australia’s largest franchise network, has spent forty years developing his revolutionary new theory of biohistory – the study of biology as the key to the understanding of history.

A unique aspect of this theory is that it leads to hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory. In a seven-year study, researchers at leading Melbourne universities tested how rats behave under mild food restriction, in order to ascertain whether this had any effect on the animals’ offspring. They found a dramatic improvement in maternal behaviour and marked changes in the offspring. These included epigenetic effects, meaning that the function of certain genes was permanently changed. The findings have been published in 10 scientific journals to date, including the respected Behavioral Brain Research, and Physiology and Behavior.

The research was commissioned by Dr Penman. Though the researchers lacked knowledge of the wider theory and its broader implications, their findings were consistent with the assertions and hypotheses that relate to biohistory. The findings of the research are incorporated in the book and support his theory that the fate of civilisations is determined by epigenetics.

He believes that human temperament is influenced on a hormonal and genetic level by factors including food scarcity and environmental stresses, parenting styles, and religious practices. These changes pass from generation to generation, partly through direct inheritance but mainly through experiences in early life, causing changes in temperament which in turn have economic and political effects.

In the case of the Romans, Dr Penman attributes their success to the development of a uniquely disciplined temperament in central and northern and central Italy, driven largely by religious traditions imported from the Middle East. But his theory suggests that this temperament was in decline from as early as the late third century BC.

He adds, “The fall of the Roman Empire was not an event that occurred in the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD. Rather it was a long process that had begun more than six hundred years earlier. It may go against the common sense, view but my research into biohistory shows that the seeds of Rome’s fall were sown even before it reached the peak of its power and influence.

“The character of the Roman people changed during the late Republic and early Empire, becoming less disciplined and hard-working, less innovative and forward-thinking, increasingly averse to military service, and less attached to the institutions of the Republic. These changes were epigenetic in origin and were influenced by greater prosperity, declining respect for authority and religion, and less strict childrearing.

“From a biological and psychological perspective, the Romans became weak. And though an influx of people from the provinces shored up the Empire for many centuries, they too were affected epigenetically. It was this that led eventually led to the fall of their civilisation and the rise of a Dark Age.”

Most disturbingly, Dr Penman sees exactly the same process as taking place in our own age, but at a “far more accelerated rate” because of the West’s greater prosperity. The effects are already being seen in economic stagnation, a growing gap between rich and poor, and a collapsing birth-rate. This provides a note of urgency to the biohistory research, since he believes that only science has the potential to affect this process.

Dr Penman has commissioned an ongoing, multi-million dollar study to develop and substantiate his ideas and has published Biohistory: Decline and Fall of the West to engage others to join him in this project.

To learn more, please visit his website

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