For those who are sympathetic to longtermism, one promising line of inquiry is to examine past events that have had very long-run influence to see whether they hold any lessons for present-day efforts. As part of my research for the Forethought Foundation, I’ve looked into a couple of possible examples: the rise of early Christianity, and the triumph of Confucianism over Mohism and other Chinese schools of thought.

With respect to early Christianity, I was initially tasked with assessing the role of Constantine’s conversion in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. However, in the course of my research I came to believe that this was less of a decisive factor, and that Christianity would likely have achieved a position of dominance regardless of Constantine’s conversion. More generally (and perhaps unsurprisingly), I became more convinced that it’s difficult to point to specific events and say with much confidence that they significantly altered the course of history.

Nevertheless, these write-ups may still be of interest to longtermists. Religions are among the most long-lasting institutions in history, and may be instructive to study for that reason alone. In addition, these write-ups may hold some lessons on social movement growth that could inform our thinking about the future of effective altruism. The decline of Mohism is perhaps particularly interesting, as the Mohists resemble effective altruists in some striking ways: as the world’s first consequentialists they emphasised impartial caring over attachment to one’s family, saw lavish social rituals as wasteful, and held other views that were unlikely to appeal to the rulers of the time. Of course, these are not core elements of EA doctrine, but the decline of Mohism may still be a failure mode to bear in mind.

Needless to say, these are only a few data points from societies very different from our own, and one should therefore be careful not to draw too strong conclusions from them. Moreover, I spent about 16 hours in total on each of the two documents, so these are only some initial findings. With those caveats in mind, here are the write-ups:

Any feedback is much appreciated. I would be especially interested if you have ideas for other historical case studies that could inform the longtermist project.


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Very cool! Finally had time to read the reports. Would there be any utility in cross-posting this information in OPP's Notable Lessons (or all on Forethought) ? It should appeal to the same audience as Philanthropy's Success stories.

I'm glad to see historical evidence being considered and also awareness of its limitations.

What do you consider to be the main strategic implications for the EA community?

Is it mainly to update slightly away from strategies which might lead to events similar to the hypothesised causes of decline of Mohism, and towards those which might lead to events similar to the hypothesised causes of the success of Confucianism? E.g. update towards being willing to "adapt doctrines to changing social and intellectual circumstances."

Yes, those seem right to me. My impression is that most social movements will inevitably have to adapt if they are to survive for longer periods of time. Of course, there's a trade-off here: to adapt one will likely have to compromise on some of the movement's initial values. But at the moment I think that adapting too little is probably a more plausible failure mode than adapting too much.

I'd be interested in seeing how evidence based medicine became the default in most places (amongst the general public as well as within medicine), and if there were previous attempts to popularise it that failed.

This is really interesting, both as a topic and as just general history geek stuff. Have you considered the intolerance hypothesis for the spread of christianity (and islam after it)? I vaguely remember reading about it while in undergrad and it essentially says that christianity managed to dominate because it was exclusive, meaning required you only believe in the christian god, unlike other roman pagan religions.

I vaguely remember the last pagan generation being a good source on early christendom as well: