Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations

27 April 2015


What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

Carl Sagan often discussed the possibility of very old civilizations in the cosmos, hidden from us by distance or by our ignorance, but which we might someday hope to find by way of SETI initiatives. Here is a passage from Cosmos where he mentions the possibility of a million-year-old civilization:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

While Sagan focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very old, Kardashev focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very large. Kardashev explicitly argued for the existence of civilizations that he called “supercivilizations” that had quite literally grown to astronomical dimensions. Kardashev wrote:

“The scales of activity of any civilization are restricted only by natural and scientific factors… Civilizations have no inner, inherent limitations on the scales of their activities.”

“On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations,” Nikolai S. Kardashev, in The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, edited by M. D. Papagiannis, International Astronomical Union, 1985, pp. 497-504.

These themes occur throughout Kardashev’s writings on supercivilizations, which Kardashev asserted to probably exist and to be detectable by the methods of SETI, if only a SETI project were to focus on supercivilizations:

“Astrophysical research, data from biology and cybernetics, and from other sciences, point to a high probability for the detectability of extraterrestrial civilizations. Currently, what is needed is a fundamental review of our preliminary notions about the possible nature of these civilizations and of the particular method which must be used in the search for them. In my opinion, the only useful concept is the assumption that supercivilizations exist (in particular, also, that our civilization may eventually become a supercivilization).”

“Strategy for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” N. S. KARDASHEV, Institute for Space Research, Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R., Acta Astronautica, Vol. 6, pp. 33-46, Pergamon Press, 1979

Ray Norris raises the stakes in his calculation of the age of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations and argues that any exocivilization we might hope to find would be on the order of a billion years old:

“Conventional models imply that supernovae and gamma-ray-bursters will extinguish life on planets at intervals of about 200 Myr. Since this has not happened on Earth, either these conventional models are wrong, or else life on Earth is probably unique in the Galaxy. The first case predicts a median age of ET as being of the order of 1 billion years. The second case predicts that we will never detect ET. Thus, if we do detect ET, the median age is of order 1 billion years. Note that, in this case, the probability of ET being less than one million years older than us is less than 1 part in 1000.”

“HOW OLD IS ET?” Ray P. Norris, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Acta Astronautica 47:731, 1999.

For Norris, the idea of a million-year-old supercivilization is a minimum threshold, while the median age for a detectable civilization would be closer to being a billion years old.

The idea of a million- or billion-year-old supercivilization would seem to be the antithesis of a suboptimal civilization, but the consideration of each can help us to refine our conception of the other. If a supercivilization is very old or very large, does this entail that any suboptimal civilization is very young or very small? Given the habitable lifespan of a planet around a stable star, it is possible that even a civilization confined to the surface of a planet (and therefore very small in astronomical terms) could grow very old, perhaps attaining Sagan’s threshold of being a million-year-old civilization. Could we call such a civilization a supercivilization?

A distinction I failed to make in Suboptimal Civilizations is that between civilizational longevity with and without attaining civilizational maturity. Under conditions of planetary constraint, a sequence of civilizations might arise, come to maturity, and disappear, each in turn fulfilling the essential idea of that particular civilization. This cyclical or sequential vision of civilization is distinct from a million-year-old civilization that is not a supercivilization merely in virtue or remaining “small” (confined to a planetary surface).

Furthermore, a million-year-old civilization might either attain its maturity, establishing itself at a plateau (a high level equilibrium, if you will) at or just past its mature plateau in a state of extended senescence (I can imagine this case being made for Byzantine civilization, so imagine, if you will, a million-year-old Byzantium), or a million-year-old civilization might continue indefinitely in the pursuit of some telos that indefinitely eludes it.

If no catastrophic event brings terrestrial civilization to an end (this does not include predictable change that may well be seen by human beings as catastrophic, but which must be expected over a million year horizon — I am thinking of climate change, inter alia), terrestrial civilization could go on to become a million-year-old civilization (that is not a supercivilization) if it fails to cross the threshold of becoming a demographically significant spacefaring civilization.

If we understand civilization of the third order (see below) to extend from the earliest origins of civilization on Earth to galaxy-spanning Kardashevian supercivilizations, than any civilization we know of occupies a point along this civilizational continuum, and the telos of civilization (and therefore the measure of whether civilization has reached maturity) is a supercivilization. In this sense, any civilization that has not evolved into a supercivilization is a suboptimal civilization.

However, given my definition of civilization of the third order, no individual civilization would thus attain supercivilization status; only the whole structure of intertwined civilizations (going back ten thousand years to the origins of civilization on our planet) could be said to be a supercivilization (and indeed not only in Kardashev’s sense of the term, but also a “supercivilization” in the sense of being a meta-conception of civilization distinct from any particular civilization). In the case of a supercivilziation of the third order, no individual civilization within that continuum of civilization could be judged as a suboptimal civilization in so far as each contributory civilization is part of a third order supercivilization.

If, on the other hand, we require that a supercivilization be a single, continuously extant individual civilization of great antiquity and achievement, then a supercivilization is a concept of civilization of the second order. In this case, even if an individual civilization were incorporated into a network of related civilizations (just as the civilizations of Earth manifest a reticulate organization) that eventually lasted a million years and attained supercivilization status, that individual civilization that itself failed to ultimately develop into a supercivilization could be said to be a suboptimal civilization. Thus a civilization’s attaining maturity could be a function of its development or of its place within the larger structure of civilizations. Distinctions need to be made to avoid confusion.

We could define the maturity of civilization in terms of any of the orders of civilization. In Thinking about Civilization I introduced the idea of orders of civilization as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense. Civilization of the zeroth order may involve socioeconomic communities that do not rise to the threshold of civilization.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire life cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole.

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. In other words, civilization of the third order is the life cycle of many civilizations as they overlap and intersect in one grand narrative of civilization.

Based on these orders of civilization, the maturity of each conception of civilization can be distinctly defined:

● Zeroth Order Maturity Mature institutions of hunter-gatherer nomadism.

● First Order Maturity Mature institutions of large-scale socioeconomic organization, without reference to the stage of development of that civilization on the whole.

● Second Order Maturity A civilization that has completed its life cycle, including having passed through a stage of fulfillment of its essential idea.

● Third Order Maturity The maturity of the overall structure of civilization, including diachronic and synchronic relations between distinct civilizations, sufficiently developed that all of the essential features of this conception are present.

It is in this final sense of maturity, the maturity of civilization of the third order, that we can speak of all non-supercivilizations as suboptimal civilizations. However, we may wish to make further distinctions. In cases in which a planetary civilization never passes the threshold to a demographically significant spacefaring civilization, and the entirety of civilization originating on such a planet plays itself out on the same planet, there may be predictable patterns of such planetary civilization of the third order, and patterns distinct from spacefaring civilizations of graduated degrees of gravitational thresholds. Thus we might speak of planetary civilizations of the third order, stellar civilizations of the third order, galactic civilizations of the third order, and so on. This clearly implies all of these distinctions also being made for each order of civilization.

We will also want to formulate the orders of supercivilization:

● Supercivilization of the Zeroth Order I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Supercivilization of the First Order This is essentially Kardashev’s conception of Type II and Type III civilizations from his 1964 paper, which are judged to be supercivilizations on the basis of a single technological capacity, which is a snapshot of their technology in time, divorced from any conception of civilizational development or evolution.

● Supercivilization of the Second Order This is the idea of a single civilization possessing a single developmental arc that leads from primitive origins to supercivilization status, in other words, Sagan’s idea of a million-year-old civilization or Norris’ idea of a billion-year-old civilization. Such a civilization might be the source of detectable civilization understood above as a supercivilization of the first order.

● Supercivilization of the Third Order This is the idea of a network of civilizations that overlap and intersect, with individual civilizations emerging and then disappearing, but with successor civilizations carrying on the tradition and eventually achieving supercivilization status.

Given this sketch of the orders of supercivilization, we would also want to formulate the orders of suboptimal civilizations:

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Zeroth Order Again (as above), I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the First Order A civilization the institutions of which fail to fulfill their intended purpose. This could be a civilization at any stage of development or evolution, and indeed it could pass on to a later developmental stage at which it ceases to be a suboptimal civilization. This could be taken as a description of every civilization on our planet today.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Second Order A civilization that has passed through an entire developmental arc and has apparently completed a life cycle (and is possibly extinct) without however having fulfilled or brought to maturity the essential idea that drove its emergence and development.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Third Order A network of related civilizations that fails to exhibit full development of individual civilizations within the structure and which fails to exhibit any evolution of the structure of civilization on the whole. In other words, the rise and fall of a series of civilizations that accomplish nothing individually or collectively.

That is a lot to think over, and as many of these ideas are almost as new to me as they may be to the reader (if the reader has not come to them through his or her own reflections on supercivilizations and suboptimal civilizations), as I only arrived at these formulations as I was taking a walk yesterday, it will take time to assimilate this conceptual framework and to see whether or not it is useful for the analysis of civilization. But I might mention that it is a certain satisfaction for me that the idea of orders of civilization lends itself so well to this extrapolation, which implies that this idea is useful in the exposition of other ideas.

If I can continue to develop these ideas in the light of each other, as is suggested by the above exposition, they will prove themselves useful as analytical tools in the study of civilization.

. . . . .

If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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