Civilization and War as Social Technologies
21 December 2008
Before being interrupted by a snowstorm, in The Lethality Peak I wrote, “The evolution of society is driving an evolution in the warfare that emerges from changing societies… we find that civilization and war are in a relationship of co-evolution, each driving the development of the other, and each being driven in turn.” This is an observation worth considering at greater length.
Coevolution has been defined in many ways, though all refer specifically to biological evolution. Here is a good example: “coevolution is a change in the genetic composition of one species (or group) in response to a genetic change in another. More generally, the idea of some reciprocal evolutionary change in interacting species is a strict definition of coevolution.” Here is a less biologically specific definition: “The term coevolution is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.” (This definition is technically not biologically specific if we admit what chemists and geologists call mineral species.) This should be sufficient to give the reader a general idea of what I am talking about, and any similar definition can be generalized to cover the descent with modification of entities other than biological entities. Thus a generalized definition of coevolution might involve, “where two (or more) entities reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”
Civilization and war are two such entities engaged in reciprocally affecting each other. Also, both civilization and war are temporal phenomena, so that both have histories and exhibit descent with modification. In the case of coevolution, histories are intertwined, and I don’t think it is in any sense a controversial claim to assert that the histories of civilization and war and profoundly intertwined. The social organization of civilization makes war possible; one could construct a Kantian transcendental argument to demonstrate that the very existence of war depends upon the existence of civilization.
Any attempt to separate the histories of civilization and war and to see them in isolation creates a chicken-and-egg scenario in which one goes round in a circle fruitlessly attempting to show that either civilization or war emerged first in human history. In prehistory, we can identify both proto-civilized institutions (such as art, as evidenced by the material culture of a people) and proto-military institutions (such as raiding parties that hunter-gatherer peoples might send out against rival bands of hunter-gatherers). By the time human history laboriously makes its way into the historical period proper, among the earliest texts are inscriptions commemorating conquests.
The steady advance of technology throughout the historical period has lent its power both to civilization and war, making possible both the raising and the razing of great cities. Cities have growth in size and magnificence, while war has grown in scope and ferocity. It has long been a point of fascination for me that civilization creates the forces that make possible the destruction of civilization. (1) (2) That is because war is impossible without the organization provided by civilization (allowing for the phenomenon of proto-war in pre-historical societies). And it may be equally true that civilization (as we know it today) is impossible without the spur to action provided by war. War may be seen as one of many challenges (in a challenge and response theory of civilization) that prompts a people to greater efforts and achievements.
Besides being involved in a relation of coevolution, civilization and war are both what I call social technologies. Several times in this forum I have referred to “social technologies”. This is a concept, like that of the coevolution of civilization and war, that deserves further expansion.
What is technology? It could be defined adequately in many ways, but I will take the definition from Frederick Ferré’s Philosophy of Technology as a convenient place to start. He defines technologies as, “practical implementations of intelligence.” (3) Primarily when we think of implementations of intelligence we think of what an archaeologist would call “material culture”. But human forms of social organization are as much implementations of intelligence as are machines. Indeed, there is a sense in which human institutions are social machines. (The historian John Roberts said that the Byzantine Empire was “a machine for getting people into heaven” — this captures our meaning of social technology quite nicely.)
Both civilization and war arise from and require in turn extensive social organization, that is the say, the implementation of intelligence in the organization of human activity as well as the creation of special institutions devoted to particular purposes. This makes them social technologies. Moreover, two social technologies in coevolution are two sets of practical implementations of intelligence with their histories intertwined. The coevolution of civilization and war together constitute human history.
One practical consequence of this observation is that civilizations will make war based upon the assumptions, presuppositions, meanings, values, and purposes of that civilization. In other words, war is a cultural expression. We find this most obviously exemplified in highly isolated civilizations and the forms of ritualized violence that they have perfected when spared the immediate pressure of an external enemy (I am thinking, inter alia, of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance). However, even in cases in which an external enemy demands a strictly utilitarian approach to warfighting, a given civilization’s way of making war is still profoundly specific to its culture.
This observation in turn has profound implications for strategic thinking. External enemies that derive from distinct civilizations present not only a military danger, but also the special danger of the unexpected. When Germany and France bled each other white during the First World War, such unexpected dangers were not part of the strategic calculus as both nation-states came from the same civilization. But when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001, it came like a bolt from the blue. Both the methods and the motivations of the attackers constituted a strategic shock of the first order.
To fight such an enemy effectively, we would need to understand their civilization, and we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors. If taken seriously, this proposal would be controversial in the extreme. It has become a commonplace for politicians to reassure both their constituents and the world that, when they take military action, they are not acting against a people or a culture or a civilization, but only against violent militants whose grievances have turned deadly. But the controversial nature of war against an enemy civilization should not be rejected tout court simply because it is controversial.
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(1) Poetically, one can say that civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Psychodynamically, one can say that civilization, like the individuals who bring it into being, has both a life force, a creative urge, as well as a death drive, a destructive urge.
(2) I should point out that war is not the only force that can threaten the existence of civilization. Probably most civilizations have met their end due to incremental environmental degradation leading to a collapse of food production.
(3) Frederick Ferré, Philosophy of Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 23
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