Addendum on Extraterrestrialization
7 June 2010
Recently I explained my conception of extraterrestrialization as a potential demographic shift comparable to previous transformative punctuations of the equilibrium of integral history, such that humanity and our civilization(s) could become a primarily off-planet presence, and therefore a spacefaring species. To date, I see only two other demographic shifts of similar magnitude: the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
This post on extraterrestrialization generated a particularly interesting response from T. Greer of the Scholar’s Stage blog, who wrote:
As a final thought –- how ‘transformative’ do you think extraterrestrialization will be? Go back with me, if you will, to 1656, when the city of St. Augustine began construction. It was the first true European settlement in the New World, and it was the start of a centuries long process resulting in a global economic shift away from Europe and towards the West. How different will be our space pioneers and these Europeans sailing off the coast of Florida? Few people consider the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the New World the onset of a new age of civilization itself –- and for good reason; for the most part, the lives of the settlers and the societies they created were not radically different than what they had in the Old World. The New World was home to a large network of farmers held together by a universal religious tradition and a political structure known as the state. The dynamics of the New World were no different than the dynamics of the old, even if the background was a bit different.
So my question, then, is this: does expanding across the galaxy fundamentally change our civilization’s dynamics, or does it simply change the background?
Other than the minor quibble that St. Augustine was not the first European settlement in the New World, but rather the first semi-permanent European settlement in North America (there are cities in the Caribbean and South America that predate it by a hundred years), I couldn’t have received a better question in regard to my exposition of extraterrestrialization if I had written it myself. I will try to give something in the way of an answer, however inadequate.
While it may be that, “Few people consider the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the New World the onset of a new age of civilization itself,” I would be one of those few. I consider it one of the few punctuations in integral history that merit top drawer consideration. Here we have two inter-connected but fundamentally different landmasses (in his Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond emphasizes the climatological importance of the east-west orientation of the Old World and the north-south orientation of the New World) that have hosted fundamentally different yet internally inter-connected histories of human civilization. The encounter and conflict between the Old World and the New World is among the greatest ruptures in the history of civilization. But I will leave that aside for today and not consider it further here.
The real issue, the meat of the question from Mr. Greer, is whether the expansion of the scope of a civilization can change, has changed, or will change the nature of the civilization. The particular case given is the expansion of human civilization to extraterrestrial dimensions, but the question can be generalized to include any civilization whatever, and any kind of expansion whatever. I dealt with this issue, admittedly somewhat obliquely, in Civilization in the Wilderness, where I considered some of the changes that occur to a tradition of civilization when it is moved into a New World and a new context. Thus, while I just said above that I wouldn’t return today to the encounter of the Old World and the New World, I find myself back again in the very next paragraph, for the transplantation of European civilization into the New World is a paradigmatic case of how civilization changes when it migrates to a new biome and grafts itself onto a distinct (and, up to the time, unknown) history.
The kind of changes that have occurred to European civilization transplanted into the New World are distinct from the kind of changes that have occurred in the unbroken tradition of European civilization in Europe. European history in Europe has remained European history, but in the new world, it became, and is still becoming, something entirely different. On the basis of this observation alone, I would say that the expansion, growth, and extrapolation of a civilization can in fact change the dynamic of a civilization. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with me on this if we consider the fine details of civilization. But Mr. Greer’s question can be taken to a more radical level, concerned with the largest dynamics of civilization and not merely the differences between saying “Hello” in the New World and saying “Hello” in the Old World, for such latter trivialities of the ordinary business of life might well drift in unpredictable ways even while the overall structure of civilization remains unchanged.
If we adopt a sufficiently abstract perspective, there is no social change that cannot be forced into the background. Mr. Greer cites, “large networks of farmers held together by a universal religious tradition and a political structure known as the state,” and at this level of abstraction and generality we cannot distinguish a great many changes that affect the development of civilizations, though I will note that the conditions he cites belong to a agricultural paradigm that has already given way to industrialized civilization that does not privilege farmers, that does not have a universal religious tradition, and whose modern nation-state is distinct from pre-modern state structures.
If we further narrow our focus to the facts of human biology, than any one age and its civilization (or lack thereof) can be shown to be rigorously identical to any other age or civilization (or lack of civilization). This is as much as to say that if we abstract from civilization, nothing is changed in the dynamic of human life by a change in the dynamic of civilization, because we are essentially no longer speaking of civilization. But this is a mere tautology and tells us nothing. We need to find a conceptual mid-point between the details of human biology, which only change on an evolutionary time scale, and the details of civilization, which change every time an adolescent coins a new term that is picked up by associates and goes on to become a part of contemporary language.
I have tried to define integral history as something like a conceptual mid-point between biology and civilization by taking it as the synthesis of humanistic and scientific history, both of which consider human biology and human civilization, but each from its own point of view. The power of the conception lies in the synthesis that sees the inter-connections of biology and civilization as a whole. Instead of two points of view, then, the humanistic and the scientific, there is one point of view — the point of view of integral history — and this point of view draws jointly on biology and civilization to produce a unified conception of man in the universe.
It is man’s place in the universe that is precisely the point at which extraterrestrialization reveals distinct forces that will act upon civilization at a level nearly indistinguishable from that of natural history, and therefore constituting integral history. There is at least one sense in which extraterrestrialization does not merely change the background of human civilization but actually changes the overall dynamic of civilization, and this is the possibility of historical viability offered by extraterrestrialization. A civilization that confines itself to the finite surface of a single planet has an inevitably finite destiny. Extraterrestrialization changes the finite dynamic of a quasi-organic cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death into a potentially infinite dynamic in which civilization is no longer bound to a cyclical history, no longer bound to a finite vehicle, and no longer bound to organic limits. The limits of a spacefaring civilization are cosmological rather than organic.
If we are able to make the transition to being a spacefaring civilization, by the time we have established ourselves securely in the Milky Way our conception of ourselves and of the civilization that we bring with us may have changed so dramatically that we would not recognize ourselves in our future descendants, and we would not recognize their social organization and aesthetic achievements as civilization. But, as I have elsewhere observed in relation to historical viability, only those entities that can survive a change even of their essential nature possess authentic historical viability.
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