The Biological Conception of Civilization

26 March 2016


Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

It was until recently uncontroversial that civilization begins with settled agriculturalism. The excavations at Göbekli Tepe have shown an unexpected light on some of the earliest human communities. The structures at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been been ritual spaces — perhaps the world’s earliest example of monumental architecture, one of the sure markers of civilization — but evidence suggests that the peoples who gathered at Göbekli Tepe neither cultivated grains nor actively engaged in pastoralism. If Göbekli Tepe provides an alternative to the agricultural model of what civilization might have been, it was not a model that was widely adopted; indeed, the site seems to have been not only abandoned, but purposefully covered over, and does not seem to have served as a social model for any other society except for the other hills in the immediate area that probably contain similar remains. An obvious alternative hypothesis is that Göbekli Tepe represents a transitional stage on the way to the development of settled agricultural civilization.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Thus while settled agriculturalism might not be the earliest or only model for the origins of civilization, it is unquestionably the most pervasive and the most successful. Independently in widely separated geographical regions peoples settled in communities and engaged in the production of staple crops. From these communities cities grew, and a network of such cities has meant civilization. Just as there were likely alternative paths to civilization that were abandoned in favor of the most robust path, so there have been alternative forms of the development of civilization. Several thousand years after the breakthrough to settled agriculturalism as a form of large-scale social organization, an alternative form emerged in Central Asia: pastoralism, in which the large-scale domestication and herding of animals substituted for the large-scale domestication of staple crops. This is not commonly recognized as a distinct form of civilization, because nomadic herders have rarely developed written languages, whereas settled agriculturalists did invent written languages, wrote histories, and called the nomadic pastoralists “barbarians” — a cultural slander that has endured to the present day.

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from

Common to both settled agriculturalism and nomadic pastoralism as large-scale forms of social organization is the coupling of the fate of other species with human beings. Domestication, whether of plants or animals, lies at the basis of civilization as we know it. This suggests what I call the biological conception of civilization. I first explicitly formulated the biological conception of civilization in my Centauri Dreams post Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation:

“Each biome into which human beings inserted themselves during our planetary diaspora out of our African origins has made available a unique cohort of species, some of which have been domesticated and the fates of which have thus become tied to human beings and their civilization (no less than our fate is joined to theirs). Terrestrial food production involves this tightly-coupled cohort of co-evolving species dependent upon one another as a consequence of domestication (which latter formulation would constitute a biologically minimalist conception of civilization). This species cohort varies according to endemic species, topography, and climatic conditions… Thus each region of Earth not only possesses a cultural diversity of civilizations, but also a biological diversity of civilizations, each of which may be defined in terms of the unique cohort of tightly-coupled co-evolving species. To date, this process has been an exclusively terrestrial one, but when cohorts of species representative of terrestrial civilizations leave Earth and establish themselves in other environments, the same principles will be iterated at higher orders of magnitude.”

Occasionally I refer to civilizations as “biocentric” (as, for example, in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization). Biocentric civilization can defined in terms of the biological conception of civilization: a biocentric civilization is a civilization that can be exhaustively described by the biological conception of civilization. As a civilization begins to transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization becomes less adequate for the description of that civilization. If a civilization were ever to wholly transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization would be wholly inadequate and would at that point fail to capture the meaning of civilization. Yet as long as civilization continues to be associated with the biological beings from which it originated, it will continue to have recognizably biocentric features.

One consequence of the biocentric origins of civilization as we know it (which I recently formulated in Another Way to Think about Civilization), is that the human control of the reproduction of plants and animals has led to a radical change in the biology of our homeworld. One way to understand this radical change in the terrestrial biosphere due to civilization would be to identify the advent of civilization with initiating the process of creating an artificial biosphere in which naturally occurring ecosystems are progressively supplanted by artificial ecosystems constructed for the purpose of meeting the needs of civilization.

The interpolation of artificially maintained ecosystems within a wild ecosystem would simply disappear if it were not sustained by the agents who originated it. But as the artificial ecosystem of civilization expands and supplants the wild ecosystem of the planet, its expansion becomes a selection event that selects for domesticated species (as well as a range of parasitical species) and selects against non-domesticated species. As civilization has expanded, wild ecosystems have been pushed to the margins of the civilized world and the greater part of the planet has become dominated by human activities that have shaped the biosphere in a distinctive way. Non-agricultural peoples have also been pushed to the margins. When artificial ecosystems were first introduced by human beings, almost all of the world was the province of nomadic hunter-gathers who wandered freely through a wild landscape. Now the entire surface of our homeworld has been meticulously divided up among nation-states that all have their origins in the states or empires of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

On Earth, the artificial biosphere created and maintained by biocentric civilization supplants a wild biosphere, but biocentric civilization could continue its development, facilitated by the resources of emergent technocentric civilization, through the extension of civilization’s artificial biospheres to other worlds or to artificial habitats. If the artificial biosphere of civilization is transitioned into artificial habitats, artificial ecosystems can be expanded without limit under controlled conditions that will allow for an even greater precision in the management artificial ecosystems. In so far as the initial creation of artificial ecosystems has aimed at greater human control over agricultural outcomes, we can regard this as the telos of agriculture, evident since the earliest stirrings of civilization, and the only context in which the implications of artificial ecosystems can be fully explored. Thus the departures from a strictly biological conception of civilization that point to a nascent technocentric civilization becomes another form of exaptation of coevolution, in which technology coevolves with biology by providing new scope to biocentric civilization.

The biological conception of civilization outlined above is neither anthropocentric nor necessarily tied to terrestrial forms of life, although we must express the concept by means of life as we know it; the biological conception of civilization is generalizable to any biota. Any biosphere that is sufficiently complex for the emergence of intelligent life will embody a high degree of biodiversity, i.e., a large number of distinct species forming complex biological communities, and we can furthermore expect that species will be grouped in the biomes to which they are endemic. Thus the same conditions as are found on Earth, and which have been exapted by human intelligence to produce civilization in the form of a cohort of coevolving species, will likely be present on any world with an intelligent species, and equally available for exaptation in the civilizing process.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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