The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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