Counterfactual Civilizations: A Thought Experiment

9 March 2014


The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

The dawn of a new day always suggests possibilities.

Million year old civilizations are not necessarily supercivilizations

The most common way to think about the possibility of very old civilizations is in terms of an ancient supercivilization, in which it is implied that the civilization in question began much as our civilization began, but has continued its trajectory of development for a million years or more. I previously addressed this theme of a million year old supercivilization in Third Time’s a Charm.

It is also possible, however, to conceive of very old civilizations — perhaps even million year old civilizations — that do not correspond to the assumptions implicit in the idea of a supercivilization. Such ancient but not necessarily advanced civilizations would constitute counterfactual civilizations — paths to civilization not taken by humanity, but which were once open to humanity at one time. Indeed, such paths may be open to us yet.

I previously considered counterfactual civilizations in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution. This post reviews scenarios for civilization absent the industrial revolution; below I will continue this line of counterfactual thought experiments in the history of civilization.

counterfactual graph

Diachronic extrapolation of the pre-industrial past

If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. That is to say, if we had just kept doing what we had been doing before the industrial revolution, this slow development represented by a shallow angle could have continued indefinitely without ever catching up to the kind of development that followed the industrial revolution.

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachronic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to earlier human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there was a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. This same level and rate of progress might have continued to characterize human civilization in its later stages of development as well. It is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past, that the breakthrough to industrialization had never occurred.

If we were to add to the absence of an industrial revolution several strategic shocks or global catastrophic events — demographic catastrophes such as the Black Death or natural disasters such as a massive supervolcano eruption or an impact by an asteroid or comet — what little gains that may be made by the ever-so-gradual increases in technology and population due to civilization prior to the industrial revolution might be canceled or reversed. Contingent events could result in a contraction or collapse of a civilization that never made the breakthrough to an industrial revolution.

social science

The social science of a non-industrialized civilization

Imagine that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose, despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived. What kind of future would these pre-modern social scientists forecast for their world?

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution, they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition.

I implied as much about the divergence of contemporary civilization from its pre-modern tradition recently when I wrote (in Is society existentially dependent upon religion?) that:

“It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.”

Prior to the industrial revolution, the entire economy of civilization was based on agriculture. (Elsewhere I have called this biocentric civilization.) On the basis of this biocentric civilization, there was nothing to suggest (or, more cautiously, almost nothing to suggest) the possibility of a civilization with an economy in which agriculture was marginalized to the point of near invisibility to the overall economy. What could possibly replace agriculture in its role as the indispensable employer and primary producer of commodities?


Non-civilizations and other non-peers

The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity without ever making the breakthrough to civilization; just as we might never have experienced the industrial revolution, we might also have skipped the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In fact, if Marian scientists had been observing life on Earth for the five millions years or so of hominid history (prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution), they might have said, “Here is an intelligence species with a very long history that has never created a civilization, and shows no signs of creating a civilization.”

It is an especially interesting thought experiment to imagine humanity having attained great antiquity without creating a civilization when we reflect that the uniquely human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization. Even without the great impetus of civilization, there would have been some minimal continued development of art and technology. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology. It could be argued that such a gradual development of technology, if extrapolated indefinitely into the distant future, could surpass any arbitrary technological measure.

Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human social context that never passed through the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the industrial revolution — the two great disruptions in the history of humanity that define civilization, and which have come to define us as a species. Without these definitive events, humanity would be defined very differently.

The non-civilization social institution that could arise from the antiquity of humanity without civilization might qualify as an example of a non-civilization such as i described in my Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability. In an attempt to define what constitutes a “peer” civilization we need to try to understand alternatives for sentient species that would not constitute peers, and this thought experiment provides just such an example.

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thought experiment

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Grand Strategy Annex

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