Technological Civilization: Second Addendum to Part III

22 January 2019


Interior view showing the control room at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Receiving Station B.

Questioning the Marxian Thesis

In the final section of Technological Civilization: Addendum to Part III, I made the following tripartite distinction among civilizations, such that there are:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

To recap these theses, the Marxian Thesis is that the intellectual superstructure is largely determined by the economic infrastructure, while the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the economic infrastructure is largely determined by the intellectual superstructure. In a paradigmatic civilization, infrastructrure and superstructure are equally determined (to some degree) by the central project. Alternatively, in the language of Robert Redfield, the Marxian Thesis is that the moral order is determined by the technical order, and the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the technical order is determined by the moral order. We can give these theses weaker or stronger formulations depending upon whether we hold the determination of one institutional structure of civilization by other to be marginal or total (or something in between).

The Marxian Thesis is the most familiar and the most influential, having been promoted and argued by Marxists for more than a hundred years. I had to formulate the Burckhardtian thesis myself because no one (to my knowledge) has attempted an explicit exposition or defense of the idea. Since the Marxian Thesis still has considerable influence in some quarters, I want to explicitly confront it with a counter-example. This does not mean that I reject the Marxian Thesis or affirm the Burckhardtian Thesis. My larger point is that different civilizations in different stages of historical development might embody the one or the other by turns. I take on the Marxian Thesis now primarily due to its popularity.

If the Marxian Thesis were true, one would expect that the intellectual superstructure would track the development of the economic infrastructure of civilization, so that as the economy developed, and as sciences and technologies appeared and entered into the economic infrastructure, they would be reflected in the intellectual superstructure precisely for their contribution to the economic infrastructure. One can point out instances that seem to confirm this expectation, but there are also instances that seem to defy the expectation. In order to set aside individual instances that may or may not be representative of a general trend, I would like to paint with a broad brush (as indeed Marx was painting with a broad brush). I have been entertaining a thought experiment for several years that I only recently realized speaks to this assumption of the Marxian Thesis, so I will use this in an attempt to make my point.

The Thought Experiment: Euclid and Darwin

Suppose, across a gulf of nearly two thousand years, we swapped Euclid with Darwin. Suppose that an ancient Greek Darwin had lived in the first few centuries AD, while a Victorian Euclid had lived in the 19th century. Obviously (I hope obviously), I am here using Euclid and Darwin as symbols to evoke developments in science associated with the two figures. Euclid represents the growth of mathematical science in classical antiquity, culminating in a figure like Euclid who would rationalize and systematize prior centuries of mathematical research into a great synthesis. Darwin represents the emergence of a scientific biology in the wake of 19th century achievements in scientific geology. Hutton and Lyell had opened the deep past to geologists, and Darwin opened the deep past to biologists. Euclid and Darwin are not perfectly symmetrical figures. Euclid was a systematizer and and synthesizer, like Thomas Aquinas or Hegel. Darwin stood at the head of a new scientific tradition, that would later be systematized and synthesized by others (significantly, the early twentieth century joining of evolution and genetics is called the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”).

Though Euclid and Darwin were not perfectly symmetrical figures in intellectual history, both men were the authors of books that defined a discipline: Euclid’s Elements defined ancient mathematics, while Darwin’s Origin of Species defined evolutionary biology. Thus by invoking Euclid and Darwin as symbols, what I am suggesting is not merely swapping the historical order of Euclid and Darwin, but more-so transposing their respective sciences in history, so that biology, instead of becoming scientific in the 19th century, instead became scientific in classical antiquity. And that geometry, and, by extension, all of higher mathematics, mostly lay dormant during classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and only fully came into its own in the 19th century. Prior to this time there would have been a rudimentary mathematics, as there was a rudimentary biology in antiquity, but nothing like the sophistication of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.

Natural selection, despite being counter-intuitive (the human mind is deeply teleological), is a simple idea. Certainly, natural selection is sufficiently simple that, had the idea been formulated in antiquity, and had it become the focus of research in the way that mathematical (and astronomical) ideas had been the focus of multi-generational scientific research programs in antiquity, most of the ideas of Darwin’s Origin of Species could have been formulated in terms understandable in classical antiquity. Moreover, the kind of experiments that Gregor Mendel later performed, which were the foundations of genetics, could also have been performed in classical antiquity. However, there is some ambiguity here in saying that the experiments, “could have been performed.” The experimental programs of Darwin and Mendel required no high technology, and thus could have been performed in classical antiquity (i.e., the lack of experimental apparatus would not have prevented these experiments from being performed), but the idea of experimental research in science did not yet exist in classical antiquity. There are many intimations of experimentation in antiquity, but nothing as methodical and systematic as Mendel’s pea plant experiments.

Let us suppose, then, as part of our thought experiment to transpose modern biological thought into antiquity in exchange for transposing ancient mathematical thought into the modern world, that Euclid’s axiomatization did not exist prior to being formulated in the 19th century, so that it did not appear as a method in antiquity, while experimental scientific method (at least in biology) instead appeared in antiquity. In a sense, this is not so far from what did happen, in terms of mathematical development. Axiomatics appeared in antiquity, but was little developed as a discipline, and was essentially static until the revolution in rigor in the late 19th century which brought a new urgency to axiomatics, which then developed rapidly thereafter, especially in the 20th century.

An Interpretation: Relevant and Irrelevant Scientific Developments

A fully developed evolutionary biology available in classical antiquity would have had significant ramifications. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this would have radically altered the course of the development of subsequent civilization. For example, to take a truly radical scenario, it might have taken human beings and our civilization in the direction of greater eusociality as a species; the understanding of natural selection would have provided the conceptual framework to go about selective breeding in a way that human beings did not undertake. With the knowledge of how species evolve, but without the biotechnology made available by technological civilization, the knowledge would have been there to manage selective breeding to accomplish what could not have been accomplished by biotechnology, and human beings might have bred themselves into multiple castes, phenotypically distinct, and serving functions as distinct as the classes in Plato’s Republic.

This scenario highlights an easily overlooked aspect of modern history: one of the consequences of the world wars of the 20th was a social and political regime of containing and limiting technologies. Global treaty regimes based on moral concerns to limit certain technological developments (paradigmatically, nuclear proliferation, but also chemical and biological warfare, etc.) were the result of a long historical development, and this development had not yet occurred in classical antiquity. (I do not say that this development was good or bad, or that it helped or hindered the development of civilization, I only say that it is.) If ancient civilization had had the power to shape species implied by a knowledge of natural selection, but had not possessed the subsequent history to appreciate the dangers inherent in scientific knowledge and technological power, civilization might have developed in a way that could not be undone, and that would have put humanity of a different course than that which we did in fact take.

One could modify the thought experiment in any number of ways, so, for example, we might have had an ancient Darwin but not an ancient Mendel, which would have meant that the idea of natural selection was available, but the technological application of genetics was not, which would have greatly limited the application of ancient biotechnology. This would be something like the stagnation of axiomatics after Euclid’s use of it. Natural selection as an idea might have lain stagnant for two thousand years before being revived at a later stage of history, and very little would have been changed in subsequent history, especially compared to the radical scenario above.

However, even a level of practical biological knowledge such as represented, for example, by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have made a great difference in the subsequent development of civilization. One of the things (inter alia) that made western European civilization so stagnant during the Middle Ages was the conservatism of agriculture. A better agriculture would have meant a much richer society, with much less likelihood of starvation, hence a lower likelihood of disease, better infant nutrition, and higher IQs as a result. Over hundreds of years, this would have had a significant impact on social development.

To mention the British Agricultural Revolution suggests something about the limitations of thought experiments such as this. It is arguable that Darwin’s work would not have happened without the backdrop of the British Agricultural Revolution; Jethro Tull may have been as important an influence on Darwin as Charles Lyell (whether or not Darwin knew it). After all, Darwin’s Origin of Species begins with a long chapter on selective breeding. It is an act of historical violence to disentangle the history of science from its actual course and to transpose it into another period of time, in which it is not native, and therefore considerable changes must be made in order to naturalize this science in another era.

Back to the Marxian Thesis: a Refutation?

The point of this thought experiment was to examine the Marxian Thesis critically. What I want to suggest with this thought experiment, then, was that classical antiquity did not develop a biological science that would have had a large and significant influence on a biocentric civilization that primarily derived its energy flows from the ambient environment through agriculture. A more sophisticated biology, even a practical biology as represented by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have been immediately applicable to civilization on a large scale, and would have altered the fates of civilizations that used a more sophisticated biology to its ends.

Instead, classical antiquity developed mathematics to a high degree of sophistication and precision. The achievement of Greek mathematics, later to be supplemented by the Hindu number system and Arab algebra, was so far beyond applicability in its time that many of the discoveries of ancient mathematics would not find application until after the scientific revolution, and some not until after the industrial revolution. While the biological thought that could have transformed civilization in antiquity did not develop, a body of mathematical thought virtually without application did develop (a mathematical body of knowledge that would have been highly useful to a technocentric civilization). In this sense, not only did the intellectual superstructure of scientific knowledge fail to track the development of the economic infrastructure, it arguably achieved the antithesis of tracking the economic infrastructure, neglecting knowledge that would have been applicable while developing knowledge that was largely inapplicable.

Taking the Marxian Thesis in the abstract, one might have expected that an agricultural civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated agricultural science, while a technological civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated industrial science. In the former case, this does not seem to have occurred, and, in the latter case, it occurred assisted by the mathematics of an earlier civilization which developed mathematics as an end in itself, and not out of any practical concern for application. While we could try to explain away the absence of a sophisticated agricultural science in pre-modern agricultural civilizations, and appeal to the prominent role of agriculture and pastoralism in ancient mythology and religion (which are other expressions of the intellectual superstructure), this should at least give the advocate of the Marxian Thesis pause.

Part of this disconnect between the knowledge of the intellectual superstructure and the practices of the economic infrastructure may be put to the overall progress of human social and technological development. Any science, such as Darwin’s biology, that was formulated after the scientific revolution was able to be developed much more rapidly, and with greater practical effect, than any science formulated prior to the scientific revolution, which might lie fallow for centuries or even millennia without practical application. The scientific method itself is a triumph of the human intellect, and its formulation, while several hundred years old, is far from complete. We have a lot yet to learn about how to do science. Because modern science is historically recent, one might argue, no science of evolutionary biology could have existed in classical antiquity. There is some validity in this argument, but I do not think that this fully accounts for the disconnect between the infrastructure and superstructure of classical antiquity, which could simply be put to suboptimality.

Arguably, mathematics was developed in antiquity because this was a science that could be developed on a purely intellectual basis with a minimal level of technology, and a minimal, perhaps absent, sense that scientific knowledge would have any application at all, especially to economics. Education in classical antiquity was about preparing an élite class to give persuasive speeches in a public assembly or a law court, and not about advancing knowledge. Moreover, there were any number of simple mathematical ideas that did not appear in classical antiquity. Obviously, the Greeks did not formulate the numbers we use today, which seem to have originated in India, and which are perhaps the most effective and intuitive formalism ever invented by human beings. I noted above that natural selection is essentially a simple idea; for that matter, set theory is also based on very simple ideas that ancient mathematicians could have have grasped, but the idea did not appear until the late 19th century, after Darwin. It would make another interesting thought experiment to ask how history might have been different if set theory had been introduced in classical antiquity. Maybe it would have made no difference at all; maybe not.

Another Take Away: Human Technophilia

However flawed this thought experiment, another take away from it is the extent to which human beings might be called a technologically adept species. We are interested in and express ourselves through technology in a way that suggests that the peculiarities of the human intellect have a particular affinity for technology. We have had many opportunities in our history to go in a more “biological” direction, but we have almost always taken the technologically intensive path. This has been recognized in the past, when human beings have been called homo faber in addition to homo sapiens: man the builder, the doer, the maker, the innovator, and eventually man the engineer of machines. Now that we possess the technological capability to do so, we build entirely artificial environments in which we live, which is why I have argued that Wilson’s biophilia needs to be supplemented with an understanding of technophilia.

Technological civilization, in all its contemporary scope and scale and sophistication, may be a consequence of the peculiarly technological bent of the human mind. And this may be sufficiently peculiar that it happens infrequently in the history of the universe. That is to say, it may be common for biology to evolve into more complex forms, and common even for intelligence to emerge from biology, but uncommon for that intelligence to take the form of a technological interest. It was the human use of technology — spear points, canoes, the bone needle, form-fitting clothing, the use of fire, and so on — which made it possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to settle the planet entire even before we developed civilization. Another way to think about this is that our technological impulses are stronger, and were expressed earlier, than our eusocial impulses. This in itself is an important observation, and may suggest why human eusociality attained the level that it did, but it did not go further, as it has with bees and termites and ants.

Even if my thought experiment does not show what I hoped it would show in regard to casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis (by which I mean, casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis as describing the only or predominant permutation of civilization), it may have some value on shining a light on the peculiarly technological character of the human intellect. Philosopher of technology Don Ihde has identified a technological texture to contemporary life; he is right to make this observation, but we might ask whether this technological texture of life is a result of our lives being unexpectedly transformed by technology since the industrial revolution, or whether human life has always had a technological texture, expressed with the materials on hand, and is due not to some accident of history like the industrial revolution, but is an inevitable projection of the human mind, which is a technological mind. In the latter case, it is the technological character of the human mind that is the accident of history, and, given a mind of this cast, the industrial revolution was an inevitable expression of a mind of this kind.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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