More on the Principle of Historical Viability
1 December 2008
Previously I distinguished between intelligent and unintelligent institutions, and I remarked that intelligent institutions are primarily marked by their flexibility, that is to say, their adaptability to changed circumstances. (This might also be called institutional plasticity.) Any structure, on up from the individual life through civilizations to the universe entire, can, in this sense, be intelligent or unintelligent.
During prehistory, there was an immediate reward for flexibility, and an immediate “feedback” that forced the recognition of changed conditions. If there were no mammoth to hunt, one had to hunt bison instead. But civilization interposes a layer between the environment and the population that delays the experience of changed conditions. Perhaps, then, civilization can be seen as having a “cushioning” effect, to allow populations to adapt to changed conditions.
More ominously, it could be that populations erect civilizations to insulate themselves from change, which they can be reluctant to accept. The Agricultural Revolution made the large-scale production of food at a fixed location possible, and from the earliest Neolithic settlements that have been excavated, there are always food storage technologies. By producing as much food as possible, and saving all that could be saved for the future, man made a decisive step away from the immediacy of the relationship that a hunter-gatherer population has with its environment.
So much plenty has been created by the Industrial Revolution that it becomes possible for progressively longer periods of time to stave off change necessary to survival. In a subsistence economy, which was all there every was prior to the Industrial Revolution, any failure to keep up with the changes that the world undergoes would be the immediate and perhaps total annihilation of a population that fails to change.
Now, we run the risk of delaying requisite changes so long that we lose the cognitive readiness to change. The efficacy of civilized institutions to keep a population alive, and to maintain the tradition of its institutions, could be a slippery slope to extinction — our extinction. If necessary change is indefinitely postponed, when inevitable change ultimately forces itself on a population acculturated to an absence of change, that change will be catastrophic. In traditional terms, we would say that civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction; in more contemporary terms, we would say that civilization reflexively poses certain existential risks to itself.
Thus the historical viability of temporal existents such as individuals or institutions or civilizations is subject to windows of opportunity that expand and contract in scope depending upon the degree of change occurring and the resistance to change manifested by the structure subject to degrees of change. An unlucky confluence of historical circumstances could be disastrous, and the end of us all; a fortunate confluence of historical circumstances could spare us even as we remained ignorant that we were being spared.
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