Darwin’s Thesis on the Origin of Civilization

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

and its extrapolation to exocivilizations

In the scientific study of civilization we are beginning at the beginning because there is no established body of scientific knowledge about civilization — much historical knowledge, to be sure, but no science of civilization, sensu stricto, and therefore no scientific knowledge sensu stricto — and this demands that we begin with the simplest and most obvious propositions about civilization. The simplest and most obvious propositions about civilization are such as most discussions of civilization would simply pass over in silence as necessary presuppositions, or which would be dismissed by hand-waving and the assertion, “It is obvious that…” We will take a different point of view. Only a mathematician would think that the Jordan curve theorem was an idea in need of proof, and only someone engaged in attempting to formulate a science of civilization would think asserting that civilization originates in a pre-civilized condition was a condition of civilization that requires discussion.

Our point of departure in this discussion will be what I call Darwin’s Thesis on the origins of civilization, or, more simply, Darwin’s Thesis. I call this Darwin’s Thesis (and called it such in my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?”) because of the following passage from Darwin about the origins of civilization:

“The arguments recently advanced… in favour of the belief that man came into the world as a civilised being and that all savages have since undergone degradation, seem to me weak in comparison with those advanced on the other side. Many nations, no doubt, have fallen away in civilisation, and some may have lapsed into utter barbarism, though on this latter head I have not met with any evidence… The evidence that all civilised nations are the descendants of barbarians, consists, on the one side, of clear traces of their former low condition in still-existing customs, beliefs, language, &c.; and on the other side, of proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilisation, and have actually thus risen.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter V (I have left Darwin’s spelling in its Anglicized form.)

Darwin was here taking the same naturalistic stance in regard to civilization that he had earlier taken in regard to biology. Darwin made biology scientific by making it a domain of research approached by way of methodological naturalism; prior to Darwin there was biology of a kind, but not any study of biology that could be reconciled with methodological naturalism. Darwin applied this same reasoning to civilization, and this is the reasoning we must apply to civilization if we are to formulate a science of civilization that can be reconciled with methodological naturalism.

As far as ideas about civilization go, this is extremely basic. However, I will again stress the need to begin a science of civilization with the most basic and rudimentary propositions possible. While this is a proposition so rudimentary as to be mundane, there can be no more interesting question for the science of civilization than that of the origin of civilization (the question of the end of civilization is equally interesting, but I wouldn’t say it is more interesting).

While the simplest theses on civilization seem so mundane as to be uninteresting, they can nevertheless be deductively powerful in their application. We can only address the longevity of a civilization, for example, once we have established a point in time at which civilization begins, and counting forward in whatever temporal units we care to employ up to its demise (which also must be defined, if the civilization in question has come to an end), or up to the present day (if the civilization in question is still in existence).

According to Darwin’s Thesis, then, civilization is descended from a prior savage or barbaric condition (not terms we would likely employ today, but certainly terms we still understand). How are we to characterize this pre-civilized condition of humanity? What constitutes the non-civilization that preceded civilization?

A somewhat discerning distinction, albeit one with moral overtones, was made between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Like the “three age” system of prehistory — stone age, bronze age, iron age — we still find traces of these distinctions in contemporary thought. Here is how I described it previously:

“Edward Burnett Tylor proposed that human cultures developed through three basic stages consisting of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. The leading proponent of this savagery-barbarism-civilization scale came to be Lewis Henry Morgan, who gave a detailed exposition of it in his 1877 book Ancient Society… A quick sketch of the typology can be found at Anthropological Theories: Cross-Cultural Analysis. One of the interesting features of Morgan’s elaboration of Tylor’s idea is his concern to define his stages in terms of technology. From the ‘lower status of savagery’ with its initial use of fire, through a middle stage at which the bow and arrow is introduced, to the ‘upper status of savagery’ which includes pottery, each stage of human development is marked by a definite technological achievement. Similarly with barbarism, which moves through the domestication of animals, irrigation, metal working, and a phonetic alphabet.”

Elsewhere I suggested that the non-civilization prior to civilization could be called proto-civilization. I just re-read my post on proto-civilization and now I find it inadequate, but I still endorse at least this much of what I said there:

“In the case of civilization, a state-of-affairs existed long before the idea of civilization was made explicit. But in projecting the idea of civilization backward in history, we already have the idea suggested by a particular cultural milieu, and the question becomes whether this idea can be applied further than the context in which it was initially proposed.”

This would be one methodology to employ: take the concept of civilization as it has been elaborated and seek to apply it to past social structures; determining at what point this concept no longer applies gives a point in time for the origin of civilization. This could be called the “retroactive method.”

Given the far greater archaeological data we possess than we possessed at the time the concept of civilization was first formulated, this method has new information to work with that it did not have at the time of its formulation. This is one of the points that I attempted to make, however poorly I did so, in my post on proto-civilization: we have an enormous amount of archaeological data on the Upper Paleolithic and Early Neolithic in the Old World, which is usually described in terms of “cultures” rather than “civilizations.” But when European explorers of the Early Modern period came to the New World, they encountered peoples that had social institutions that we today call civilizations, though these civilizations were closer to the “Stone Age” of the Old World than to the early civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia (to take to paradigm cases of civilization).

An alternative to the retroactive method would be to study the artifacts of the past on their own merits, to construct a definition of civilization on the basis of the earliest known human societies (on the basis of their material culture), and then apply this conception of civilization forward in time (for lack of a better term I will call this the proactive method, simply to contrast it to the retroactive method). It is arguable that some archaeologists do in fact follow this method, but I don’t know of anyone who has explicitly advanced this procedure as desirable (much less as necessary), although it does bear some resemblance to the implicit formalism of the cultural processual school in archaeological thought.

Both retroactive and proactive methods incorporate obvious problems that derive from parachronic distortions of evidence (the most obvious parachronism is the familiar idea of an anachronism, i.e., a survival from the past preserved into the present, where it is obviously out of place; the contrary parachronic distortion is that of projecting the present into the past).

To pull back from the provincial considerations of civilization studied by archaeology to date — that is to say, exclusively terrestrial civilizations — we can further develop the idea of Darwin’s Thesis in a cosmological context. Once we do this, we immediately understand that we have been asking questions focused on a particular set of conditions that are characteristic of civilizations during the Stelliferous Era, and our ideas worked out for terrestrial civilization (civilizations of planetary endemism during the Stelliferous Era) may not apply more generally to the largest scales of civilization achieved (or which may yet be achieved) in the cosmos.

Civilizations during the Degenerate Era may possess a different character due to their need to derive energy flows from sources other than stellar flux, which latter defines the conditions of the origins of civilization from intelligent biological agents during the Stelliferous Era, which might also be called the Age of Planetary Endemism. If the Degenerate Era begins with the universe having been exhaustively settled or inhabited by life and civilization, this densely inhabited universe not only would prevent the emergence of new civilizations, but also would mean an end to this living cosmos of starlight. In this case the Degenerate Era begins with what I have called the End-Stelliferous Mass Extinction Event (ESMEE), when widely distributed life and civilization of the Stelliferous Era, primarily supported by energy flows from stellar flux (and concentrated on planetary surfaces), comes to an end as the stars wink out one by one.

The cohort of emergent complexity that survives this transition is likely to be a post-civilization successor institution that is (by this time in the evolution of the universe) further removed from the origins of civilization than we are today removed from the origin of the universe. At this point, the origins of emergent complexity will be a distant question, largely inapplicable to contemporaneous concerns, and the central question will be what of the Stelliferous Era can survive into the Degenerate Era, and how it can perpetuate itself in a universe converging on heat death.

Would these civilizations of the Degenerate Era be newly originating civilizations, or would they be derivative from civilizations of the Stelliferous Era? The obvious answer would seem to be that these civilizations would be derivative, except that over such cosmological spans of time the concept of civilization (and the threshold of what constitutes a civilization) is likely to evolve as much as, if not more than, civilization itself. As civilization develops, and a greater degree of science, technology, and intellectual achievement is believed to be indispensable to what constitutes civilization, civilization may be redefined as something close to prevailing conditions, and everything prior to this is redefined as proto-civilization. For example, civilization today might be considered unimaginable without the conveniences of modern life, and everything prior is consigned to barbarism. This reasoning can be extended to hold that civilization is unimaginable without fusion energy, without strong AI, without interstellar travel, and so on. All of this is entirely consistent with Darwin’s Thesis, which holds regardless of whether we consider the Upper Paleolithic to be utter savagery, or 2016 to be utter savagery.

If we consciously make an effort to formulate and to retain a comprehensive conception of civilization, that is not continually revised forward in time in the light of the later developments of civilization, we can avoid the above problem, and it is this approach that gives us longer ages for our civilization today. I have often mentioned that it was once commonplace, and perhaps still commonplace, to fix the origins of civilization with the origins of written languages (i.e., the origins of the “historical period” sensu stricto), but scientific historiography has been slowly chipping away at the distinction between history and prehistory until it is no longer tenable. Hence I identify the origins of civilization with the emergence of cities during or shortly after the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, which makes our civilization about ten thousand years old, rather than five thousand years old.

As our archaeological knowledge of the past improves, we may be able to set quantifiable conditions for the origins of civilization (say, a number of cities with a given population size, or a particular degree of sophistication in metallurgy, which latter seems to me to mark the ultimate origins of technological civilization). Again, Darwin’s Thesis is entirely in accord with this method also. Moreover, I think that this method gives a greater degree of independence to the determination of the origins of civilization, as it would also give us metrics by which we could determine the independent origin of a new civilization, say, even in the Degenerate Era, if this were to prove possible (which we really don’t know at present).

Beyond these concerns, and beyond the immediate scope of this post, we may need to posit a condition for the continuity of civilization — say, e.g., that metallurgical technological never lapses below a certain threshold — so that once given Darwin’s Thesis and some definition of civilization, we can determine when a civilization has originated de novo, and when a civilization is an evolutionary mutation of an earlier civilization, or a developmental achievement of an earlier civilization, rather than something new in history. This applies whether we take the threshold of achievement to be the smelting of copper or the building of starships. For example, if a civilization can smelt copper (or better), and never loses this technological capacity, it retains a minimal degree of continuity with the first civilization capable of this achievement, when an unbroken continuity of this capacity can be shown from the origins of this technology forward to some arbitrary date in the future.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Civilization and war go together like a horse and carriage.

Before being interrupted by a snowstorm, in The Lethality Peak I wrote, “The evolution of society is driving an evolution in the warfare that emerges from changing societies… we find that civilization and war are in a relationship of co-evolution, each driving the development of the other, and each being driven in turn.” This is an observation worth considering at greater length.

evolution in the dictionary

Coevolution has been defined in many ways, though all refer specifically to biological evolution. Here is a good example:

“coevolution is a change in the genetic composition of one species (or group) in response to a genetic change in another. More generally, the idea of some reciprocal evolutionary change in interacting species is a strict definition of coevolution.”

Here is a less biologically specific definition:

“The term coevolution is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

This latter definition is technically not biologically specific if we admit what chemists and geologists call mineral species. The above should be sufficient to give the reader a general idea of what I am talking about, and any similar definition can be generalized to cover the descent with modification of entities other than biological entities. Thus a generalized definition of coevolution might involve, “where two (or more) entities reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

Civilization and war are two such entities engaged in reciprocally affecting each other. Also, both civilization and war are temporal phenomena, so that both have histories and exhibit descent with modification. In the case of coevolution, histories are intertwined, and I don’t think it is in any sense a controversial claim to assert that the histories of civilization and war and profoundly intertwined. The social organization of civilization makes war possible; one could construct a Kantian transcendental argument to demonstrate that the very existence of war depends upon the existence of civilization.

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Any attempt to separate the histories of civilization and war and to see them in isolation creates a chicken-and-egg scenario in which one goes round in a circle fruitlessly attempting to show that either civilization or war emerged first in human history. In prehistory, we can identify both proto-civilized institutions (such as art, as evidenced by the material culture of a people) and proto-military institutions (such as raiding parties that hunter-gatherer peoples might send out against rival bands of hunter-gatherers). By the time human history laboriously makes its way into the historical period proper, among the earliest texts are inscriptions commemorating conquests.

Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10,0x11,5x4,7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

ROYAL INSCRIPTION OF KING SHAR-KALI-SHARRI OF AKKAD, DESCRIBING HIS CAMPAIGNS AND CONQUESTS: Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10.0x11.5x4.7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

The steady advance of technology throughout the historical period has lent its power both to civilization and war, making possible both the raising and the razing of great cities. Cities have growth in size and magnificence, while war has grown in scope and ferocity. It has long been a point of fascination for me that civilization creates the forces that make possible the destruction of civilization. (1) (2) That is because war is impossible without the organization provided by civilization (allowing for the phenomenon of proto-war in pre-historical societies). And it may be equally true that civilization (as we know it today) is impossible without the spur to action provided by war. War may be seen as one of many challenges (in a challenge and response theory of civilization) that prompts a people to greater efforts and achievements.

Besides being involved in a relation of coevolution, civilization and war are both what I call social technologies. Several times in this forum I have referred to “social technologies”. This is a concept, like that of the coevolution of civilization and war, that deserves further expansion.

What is technology? It could be defined adequately in many ways, but I will take the definition from Frederick Ferré’s Philosophy of Technology as a convenient place to start. He defines technologies as, “practical implementations of intelligence.” (3) Primarily when we think of implementations of intelligence we think of what an archaeologist would call “material culture”. But human forms of social organization are as much implementations of intelligence as are machines. Indeed, there is a sense in which human institutions are social machines. (The historian John Roberts said that the Byzantine Empire was “a machine for getting people into heaven” — this captures our meaning of social technology quite nicely.)

the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Both civilization and war arise from and require in turn extensive social organization, that is the say, the implementation of intelligence in the organization of human activity as well as the creation of special institutions devoted to particular purposes. This makes them social technologies. Moreover, two social technologies in coevolution are two sets of practical implementations of intelligence with their histories intertwined. The coevolution of civilization and war together constitute human history.

Hittite chariot archer: war and civilization were born twins.

One practical consequence of this observation is that civilizations will make war based upon the assumptions, presuppositions, meanings, values, and purposes of that civilization. In other words, war is a cultural expression. We find this most obviously exemplified in highly isolated civilizations and the forms of ritualized violence that they have perfected when spared the immediate pressure of an external enemy (I am thinking, inter alia, of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance). However, even in cases in which an external enemy demands a strictly utilitarian approach to warfighting, a given civilization’s way of making war is still profoundly specific to its culture.

an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

Ritualized violence as a cultural expression: an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

This observation in turn has profound implications for strategic thinking. External enemies that derive from distinct civilizations present not only a military danger, but also the special danger of the unexpected. When Germany and France bled each other white during the First World War, such unexpected dangers were not part of the strategic calculus as both nation-states came from the same civilization. But when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001, it came like a bolt from the blue. Both the methods and the motivations of the attackers constituted a strategic shock of the first order.

A paradigm case of 'strategic shock' as well as of the clash of civilizations.

To fight such an enemy effectively, we would need to understand their civilization, and we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors. If taken seriously, this proposal would be controversial in the extreme. It has become a commonplace for politicians to reassure both their constituents and the world that, when they take military action, they are not acting against a people or a culture or a civilization, but only against violent militants whose grievances have turned deadly. But the controversial nature of war against an enemy civilization should not be rejected tout court simply because it is controversial.

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(1) Poetically, one can say that civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Psychodynamically, one can say that civilization, like the individuals who bring it into being, has both a life force, a creative urge, as well as a death drive, a destructive urge.

(2) I should point out that war is not the only force that can threaten the existence of civilization. Probably most civilizations have met their end due to incremental environmental degradation leading to a collapse of food production.

(3) Frederick Ferré, Philosophy of Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 23

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Grand Strategy Annex

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