People everywhere in my experience are innately equally intelligent (and equally filled with humor). But some groups of people prosper more than others. Why exactly? Here’s what I believe, based on two years of living and working in Peace Corps in India, several months of aid work in East Africa over the past five years, and a lot of reading and thought over many years. This much experience and study is admittedly tiny in the big picture.

I think six key attributes or factors determine why certain large groups – states, nations, ethnic groups – have come to grow and prosper. Here are the attributes and factors in more or less decreasing centrality or importance:

  • Nutrition: Reliability of balanced food sources.
  • Literacy: Degree of literacy in one shared language.
  • Communication: Efficient communication across distances.
  • Stability: Stability of shared beliefs and institutions.
  • Freedom: Degree of personal freedom.
  • Drive: Sustained impetus for prospering and/or dealing with change.

Little can grow in the absence of good nutrition, and literacy is unlikely to take deep hold without it, no matter how strong all the other factors are. Learning is slow and uncertain when carried out through the spoken word, even if that word comes through YouTube: with practice, people read and type several times faster than they can repeat spoken words or hand-write them.

Stability depends on reliable ongoing communications throughout the group. Today, large dispersed groups can communicate efficiently only through electrical means. Stable shared beliefs and institutions can grow only slowly. They deteriorate, sometimes quickly, when people cannot or do not communicate with each other. Literacy is unlikely to emerge on its own without stability, but literacy can arise through external forces such as colonization.

Many states and nations with little individual freedom have become powerful, even for very long periods. It appears today, though, that truly democratic nations are becoming increasingly stronger than repressive regimes, as communications become near-instantaneous around the globe.

A solid, advanced, free nation without a common will to grow and to deal with change is likely to erode under pressure from other growing nations. It would seem that will – a sustained drive or impetus for growth in some dimension – usually forms in a relatively small amount of time due to some external source or unplanned condition, such as natural disaster, attack, overpopulation, or loss of food sources.

Beyond these six attributes or factors one other element is essential:

  • Time. Lots of it.

High literacy and highly stable shared beliefs and institutions take time to develop, decades if not generations, and each depends on the other. There is no way (yet) for either to be implanted both quickly and successfully. For a given not-too-large group, however, nutrition and communications and personal freedom can all be put in place conceivably in just a few months: Start shipping in enough food and plan to do so for the indefinite future. Build generator-powered cell towers and give everyone phones. Build roads and airports. Declare personal freedom and remove political blockages to it. But this is a picture of a group of people on life support, not of a resilient and growing state or nation.

We were pulled or driven out of rain-forest trees onto emerging savanna. We caught fire. Our brains grew rapidly on cooked food. We thought more and more.

Groups larger than about 150 – Dunbar’s number – often split into smaller groups, one or more of which might move. A traveling group would meet new challenges that forced it to change its ways else go extinct: start to eat tubers, go fishing, or plant crops. New arrivals in a region merged with, mastered, or destroyed other groups they encountered. Cro Magnons displaced Neanderthals in Europe, Bantu displaced pre-Bantu across sub-Saharan Africa, Europeans displaced pre-Columbians in the Americas.

Literacy, and increasingly efficient travel and communications across distances, have raised stable group limits to nation-states consisting of hundreds of thousands up to billions of people. Some Africans migrated hundreds of thousands of years ago into Europe, where winters winnowed and shaped them into far-flung predators, who returned to Africa three centuries ago as now-white-skinned colonists. Power and prosperity – even existence – now depend on large enough groups finding stable ways to live together, evolve together, and defend themselves together. Democracy is only one such way, but it appears to be the way best adapted to continuing revolutions in communications and technologies.

This blog is about root causes, necessary and sufficient conditions, and wedge approaches to change: finding high-leverage, low-waste routes. The main change I’m thinking about is bridging the enormous economic gap between third-world sub-Saharan societies and first-world western societies. Other areas and kinds of change will come up as well.

Here is Thoreau’s famous thought, from chapter one of Walden: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root …”

Rarely cited is the rest of the sentence: “… and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

And before this sentence, the start of its paragraph: “Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. “