Arnold J. Toynbee

The Challenge Hypothesis




This is a short extract from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History in which the author examines the birth of civilizations. One famous hypothesis put forward in that work is that cultural evolution takes place in the presence of a challenge. If the environment provides too easily all the means for sustenance, in other words, if there is no serious challenge, there is no need to evolve culturally, i.e. to devise problem-solving techniques. At the same time, if the environmental challenge is too harsh, the cultural battle is lost from the start or the time required to meet that challenge is quite long.
So, according to Toynbee, cultural evolution happens in the presence of challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult to overcome. This is a very interesting hypothesis that should be verified continuously in relation to the societies in which we live.



We have now reached a point at which we can bring our present argument to a head. We have ascertained that civilizations come to birth in environments that are unusually difficult and not unusually easy, and this has led us on to inquire whether or not this is an instance of some social law which may be expressed in the formula: 'the greater the challenge, the greater the stimulus'.

We have made a survey of the responses evoked by five types of stimulus - hard countries, new ground, blows, pressures and penalizations - and in all five fields the result of our survey suggests the validity of the law. We have still, however, to determine whether its validity is absolute. If we increase the severity of the challenge ad infinitum, do we thereby ensure an infinite intensification of the stimulus and an infinite increase in the response when the challenge is successfully met? Or do we reach a point beyond which increasing severity produces diminishing returns? And, if we go beyond this point, do we reach a further point at which the challenge becomes so severe that the possibility of responding to it successfully disappears? In that case the law would be that 'the most stimulating challenge is to be found in a mean between a deficiency of severity and an excess of it'.

Is there such a thing as an excessive challenge? We have not yet encountered an example of such, and there are several extreme cases of the operation of challenge-and-response which we have not yet mentioned. We have not yet cited the case of Venice - a city, built on piles driven into the mud banks of a salt lagoon, which has surpassed in wealth and power and glory all the cities built on terra firma in the fertile plain of the Po; nor Holland - a country which has been actually salvaged from the sea, but yet has distinguished herself in history far above any other parcel of ground of equal area in the North European plain; nor Switzerland, saddled with her portentous load of mountains. It might seem that the three hardest pieces of ground in Western Europe have stimulated their inhabitants to attain, along different lines, the highest level of social achievement that has as yet been attained by any peoples of Western Christendom.

But there are other considerations. Extreme in degree though these three challenges are, they are limited in range to only one of the two realms which constitute the environment of any society. They are challenges of difficult ground, no doubt, but on the human side -blows, pressures and penalizations - the severity of this physical situation has been not a challenge but a relief; it has shielded them from human ordeals to which their neighbours were exposed. Venice on her mud banks, insulated from the Continent by her lagoons, was exempt from foreign military occupation for almost a thousand years (A.D. 810-1797). Holland, too, has more than once saved her vital centres by temporarily reversing the mechanism which keeps her in existence and 'opening the dikes'. What a contrast to the histories of neighbouring Lombardy and neighbouring Flanders, the two habitual battlefields of Europe.

It is, of course, easy enough to cite examples of communities that have failed to respond to particular challenges. That proves nothing, for almost every challenge that has eventually evoked a victorious response turns out, on inquiry, to have baffled or broken one respondent after another before the moment when, at the hundredth or the thousandth summons, the victor has entered the lists at last. Such is the notorious 'prodigality of nature', of which a host of examples spring to the mind.

For instance, the physical challenge of the North European forest effectually baffled primitive man. Unequipped with implements for felling the forest trees and ignorant of how to turn the rich underlying soil to account by cultivation, even if he had been capable of clearing it of trees, primitive man in Northern Europe simply avoided the forest and squatted on the sand-dunes and chalk downs where his remains in the shape of dolmens, flint-mines and the like are now found - seeking out lands which his successors scorned as 'bad lands' when the forest was falling to their axes. For primitive man the challenge of the temperate forest was actually more formidable than that of the frozen tundras; and in North America his line of least resistance eventually led him Pole-ward beyond the forests' northern fringe to find his destiny in creating the Eskimo culture in response to the challenge of the Arctic Circle. Yet primitive man's experience does not prove that the challenge of the North European forest was excessive in the sense of being beyond human power of effective response; for the barbarians who followed on his heels were able to make some impression with the aid of tools and techniques acquired, perhaps, from civilizations with which they were in touch, until, in the fullness of time, the pioneers of the Western and the Russian Orthodox Civilization 'came and saw and conquered'.

In the second century B.C. the southern vanguard of the North European forest in the Po valley had been subdued by Roman pioneers after having from time immemorial baffled the Romans' precursors. The Greek Historian Polybius, who visited the country immediately after it had been opened up, draws a striking contrast between the inefficient and poverty-stricken life of Rome’s Gallic predecessors, whose last survivors were then still living the life in the backwoods at the foot of the Alps, and the cheapness and plenty which prevailed in adjoining districts which Rome had taken in hand. A similar picture was often drawn in the early nineteenth century contrasting the squalid failure of the Redskins with the bustling vitality of the Anglo-Americans pioneers in the primeval forest of Kentucky or Ohio.


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