On The Evolution of Civilization
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Once upon a time, a very long time ago, someone discovered that seeds buried in the ground grew as plants that yielded more seeds. They could bury more seeds in the soil and come back to the spot some months later to gather the new seeds. If they were lucky, other animals or people would not take the seeds before they came back. If enough seeds had been buried, it would be worthwhile for a few members of the hunting/gathering clan to remain at the spot once the plants had grown and guard the plants from those who would take the seeds.
With nothing better to do, those guards might have removed other plants (we would call them weeds) from around their favored plants, giving them more room to grow. They discovered ways to nurture their plants, such as by burying their waste and other animal droppings near them or bringing them extra water. Over time they would build a hut for shelter and grow more plants. Eventually some members of the clan would stay on the site permanently, growing food for themselves and the rest of their extended family. Thus someone invented the farm, the one institution that, more than any other, separates Humanity from the other animals.
The clan built more huts, making a tiny village, as more members began cultivating their own plots of land. Other clans got in on the act and a large territory came to be speckled with villages surrounded by fields and pastures. Then, very slowly, the people engaged themselves in a stereotypically human act – invention: they began to make new things and new kinds of things.
Someone noticed that a sharpened stick pulled sideways would loosen the soil for the easy planting of seeds and thus invented the plough. Someone else noticed that round things move easily and invented the wheel, using it to make a cart as a means of moving heavy loads without people having to carry them. Little improvements in things accumulated. The villages grew larger and people cultivated ever larger plots of land. Eventually they began growing surpluses.
They invented non-material things as well. Predators – lions, hyenas, and so on – and animals that ate the crops were a major problem for the farmers. They solved that problem by sending the clan’s best hunter and his buddies out to spend their time hunting and killing dangerous and annoying animals. The farmers and the villagers contributed food and other goods to support the hunters and their families. Thus was kingship, an army, and the beginnings of government and taxation created.
Institutions start small and then grow in complexity and size. They also change in what they do. Religion gives us a good example.
In the temple, evolved from the house of the spirits, the village shaman, who dealt with spiritual matters, had become a priest, mediating with the Gods, a combination of nature spirits and ancestral spirits. The priest’s primary function, certainly, is to induce the Gods to use their magic powers to make the world work to the benefit of his people, such as providing enough rain for their crops and healing disease. His secondary function is to keep the religion alive by telling stories about the Gods and their interactions with humans. In Ancient Greece that function was fulfilled in part by a chorus of priestesses singing hymns. During the performance the chorus would pause and a priest would deliver an homily or several priests would conduct a dialogue to illustrate the subject of the hymn. Over time the spoken part of the performance expanded and the chorus only emerged to sing commentary on the god play. The plays became sufficiently popular that some writers began writing plays on secular subjects and the chorus was replaced by an orchestra. The play became the primary performance art in the growing cities and, over time, variations came into existence; ballet, in which the action is carried entirely by dance, and opera, in which all of the dialogue is sung. The movies are only the most recent variation.
Innovation expands to fill opportunities and thus civilization evolves.
When people produced more of some commodity than they could use themselves, they traded the surplus for things they lacked. A farmer might trade surplus grain for a woolen blanket, for example. For convenience, people would bring their surpluses to the village on certain days (market days) and gather in a designated marketplace to trade with their neighbors. This necessitated more innovations. Among other things, people had to invent numbers in order to enumerate the days between market days and to count quantities of goods for fair barter. Thus began the development of mathematics, an important factor in the improvement of civilization.
Travel was rare. Few people had the time or the inclination to leave their villages and surrounding areas. Those few who did travel to faraway villages saw goods that were not produced in their home villages. The travelers discovered that they could trade goods from their home villages and acquire the new goods to trade with their neighbors. Thus began commerce and the travelers became the first merchants.
Direct barter is not an efficient way to conduct commerce. If someone has something that I want, he may not want what I’m offering in trade. A smooth commerce needs a tradable good that everyone wants. Gold and silver work very well in that role, so people began using gold and silver nuggets to trade for things they wanted and accepted them in trade for their own produce. In the Sixth Century B.C. the government of one Greek city-state began making pebbles of gold and silver of standard weights and stamping patterns into the metal to identify them as such. Those pebbles were the first coins and marked the invention of money, which made commerce much more efficient. Eventually money itself and its abstractions (checks, letters of credit, etc.) became commodities to be traded and the institution of banking arose.
As life became more complicated, as new activities came into being, the elders of the village became less able to devise just solutions to conflicts on their own. The kings asserted their authority (and their dominance), the elders became judges, and the kings gave them courts to assist them in mediating disputes and in keeping the peace in the society. The advent of writing, the ability to draw pictures of words, enabled court scribes to record the decisions of judges for future reference. Such precedents became the basis for laws, which could be published for all to see (the Code of Hammurabi provides a good example). The rule of law came into existence, however imperfectly, and helped people to maintain stable and prosperous societies.
Villages grew into towns and farmlands grew into states. More people traveled and traveled farther to find more new things to trade. Kings found new ways to enhance their own authority, in particular by organizing the building of infrastructure.
Road building would be one obvious project for a king to instigate. All that was required was for someone to find a convenient route, remove obstacles to the movement of people, animals, and wheeled vehicles, perhaps build a few small bridges, and mark the track by laying objects, such as stones, alongside it. It was a relatively easy thing to do (most roads were not paved prior to the Twentieth Century) and it improved commerce. And, like America’s Interstate Highway System, it facilitated movement of the army.
Along rivers flowing through deserts (Egypt and Mesopotamia) kings could increase productivity and, thus, enhance their power by organizing the construction of irrigation canals and the distribution of water. Increased productivity enabled increases in population. Towns grew into cities and large city-states absorbed smaller ones to create empires. As empires waxed and waned across the land the idea of a nation began to evolve.
Ernest Renan (1823 Feb 28 – 1892 Oct 02), a French philosopher, gave a lecture, Qu'est-ce qu'une nation? ("What is a Nation?"), at the Sorbonne in 1882 in which he said,
"A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. This is made up of two things which are really only one. One in the past, the other in the present. One is the collective ownership of a rich legacy of memories, the other is the present consent or desire to live together, the will to continue to develop the inheritance it has received intact.... The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of striving, sacrifice and dedication."
Renan's definition of a nation has been influential. Whereas German writers like Fichte had defined the nation by objective criteria such as a race or an ethnic group "sharing common characteristics" (language, etc.), Renan defined it by the desire of a people to live together, which he summarized by a famous phrase, "avoir fait de grandes choses ensemble, vouloir en faire encore" (having done great things together and wishing to do more). Writing in the midst of the dispute concerning the Alsace-Lorraine region, he declared that the existence of a nation was based on a "daily plebiscite".
Karl Deutsch (in "Nationalism and its alternatives") suggested that a nation is "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours." This phrase is frequently, but mistakenly, attributed to Renan himself. He did indeed write that if "the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common", they "must also have forgotten many things. Every French citizen must have forgotten the night of St. Bartholomew and the massacres in the 13th century in the South."
A large society follows a dominant narrative, a story that people tell themselves to explain whence they came, whither they are going, and why they must do so. Such narratives are organic things that evolve with the passage of time – modern Italy’s story is not that of ancient Rome – and several narratives may compete with each other at any given time. Nonetheless, one dominates the culture.
Beginning in the Fifth Century, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Europe entered the Medieval Age, when the Catholic Church kept Europe more or less unified as a single culture in accordance with a single interpretation of Christianity. One thousand years later Europe entered the Modern Age with the Protestant Reformation, which ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly on the control of society. The Age of Faith evolved into the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason.
The Medieval worldview was based on the idea that reason without faith is incapable of properly answering life’s primary questions: For what purpose are we here? Whither are we going? Reason appears unable to answer questions about values, but faith leaves us open to deceit and fraud. Corruption in the Church demolished faith.
The Black Death in the Fourteenth Century led, through the victims’ inherited wealth and the space that they left clear, to the Renaissance. The Church’s effort to keep up with the growing splendor of secular society, largely through the sale of indulgences, led to the Protestant Reformation when a German monk took offense. The subsequent existence of many different interpretations of Christianity led people to begin using reason to decide on matters of faith.
The dominant narrative of the contemporary West, the story of human progress, reigns through the Establishment – society’s political, economic, intellectual, entertainment, news distribution (media), and educational (students learning how to be a public vs. class division) institutions. That progressive narrative came from the Enlightenment, which rests on four foundation stones:
1. The Cartesian notion that reason alone leads to truth.
2. Lockean sensationalism, which argues that we can know nothing beyond what we are able to detect with our five senses. In science the senses can be mediated by instruments.
3. Newtonian physics, which depicts the Universe as a clockwork that could be extended metaphorically to humans and their society.
Thus we get the framework of the progressive narrative – If we apply reason to observable phenomena through the scientific method, we can gain the knowledge that we can then use to engineer a society in which everyone is treated equally, thereby achieving the summit of human happiness.
The Black Death came to European Humanity as a great betrayal of trust and that betrayal destroyed the medieval worldview. By sometime in the fifteenth century that worldview was being replaced, bit by bit, by the ideas that comprise modernity. Whereas medieval Christian culture, an extension of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, sought to understand the world so that people could conform their ways of life to that understanding, the thinking behind modernity sought not only to understand the world in its totality, but to control it and use it for human benefit. Medieval thinking resulted in metaphysics, which attempts to obtain a full understanding of Reality, part of which remains mysterious and can only be known through its putative effects. Modernity relies on empirical-inductive logic, which narrows the focus of inquiry to the world which is available to the five senses (augmented by instruments, perhaps) with the intent of discovering "what Nature does or may be made to do". Accordingly, in 1600 the Scientific Age began with the publication of "On Magnets" by William Gilbert. In that book Gilbert exemplified what we call the scientific method, which replaces supernatural explanations of phenomena with considerations of mechanism.
That mechanical understanding of Reality led to vast improvements in people’s ability to provide food, clothing, shelter, and health. The empirical-inductive method enabled people to use Reality to achieve practical ends but left a spiritual emptiness, a lack of meaning. In the medieval worldview everybody played an important, if minor, role in a grand cosmic drama. An overwhelming presence made life worth living, provided justification for the suffering that people endured, through Its love for them.
Empiricism brought about material abundance and improved physical well-being through the progressive mastery of Nature. In so doing in minimized the author of Nature and took meaning out of our lives. The cosmic drama was relegated to the realm of myth. The meaning of people’s lives was diminished to their roles in society, what they did to earn the love of others. The unconditional love of the abstraction of the parents was replaced by the conditional love of other players in the game of life.
Money and its abstractions became the chief measure of value. A system of investment enabled the growth of businesses and government took as its primary task the protection and encouragement of that growth. Thus we got the "Tyranny of The Middle", which is related to the Tragedy of The Commons. The popular demand for more of everything leads government to take as its most important task the maximization of economic growth. In that quest nothing, not truth, not goodness, not beauty, not honor, not law, nor justice can be allowed to interfere with the cause of economic growth. The doctrines of capitalism and cancer are the same - endless growth leading to destruction and death. The allure of capitalism reflects a sense of deficiency and the consequent triumph of greed.
Thus far the primary effort of civilization has been aimed at satisfying our animal needs. We now have the technological means to achieve full satisfaction of those needs and to keep our numbers low enough that we do not destroy Earth’s biosphere in doing so. What we lack is the social means to provide for a proper distribution of those goods that satisfy the needs. Devising a good social system to ensure the proper care of Humanity is the challenge that has faced people for the past few centuries.
During the Enlightenment the idea of the perfectability of humans was extended from the religious realm into the secular realm. Whereas the medieval worldview left the perfection of humans to the realm of the spirit, the secular view makes it a matter of politics. Humans become mere clay to be reshaped by the power of government.
By using the power of the state to build what its leaders conceived as an earthly utopia, the French Revolution created ideology, all of the hideous isms that have plagued Humanity since 1790. Impatience and the vanity of ideologues has led to some of the most appalling atrocities in history, perpetrated in the name of some ideology. An obsession with perfection and absolutes leads all too readily to violence.
Such errors are nearly impossible to correct. The state conducts its improvement program in the name of the whole people: anyone who disagrees becomes an enemy of the people. Lord Acton observed in 1877 that, "It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. ... from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason."
To avoid the errors we must eschew ideology and limit what government does. We must reconceive government as an entity that does only what individuals or private groups cannot or should not do themselves.
In order to have a viable state we must have necessary constraints on total liberty. We must establish and maintain the rule of law, with law intended solely to protect people from the mistakes or malice of others. The Pure Food and Drug Act provides a ready example of such law. Thus we have courts and a police force to uphold the law. On the other hand, Prohibition provides an example of what government should not attempt to do. There were better ways to deal with the problems of excessive alcohol use and they would not have promoted the growth of organized crime.
Infrastructure provides another example of what government should do. The construction and maintenance of roads, water supply systems, sewage removal systems, and electric networks provide some examples of what government can do to assist people in conducting the lives and their businesses with maximum efficiency. A national public health system serving as a national insurance policy provides another example of what government can do, using the proceeds from taxes to cover citizens’ medical costs so that people are not ruined by an illness.
Exploration of new possibilities provides another example of the proper use of government power. It was the government that sent out the Lewis and Clark expedition. Now it’s the government that sends people into space to discover new opportunities, such as communication satellites. Such will be the proper role of government until private companies can build and use their own spaceships.
But this is all intended primarily to satisfy our animal needs. We are more than animals and we have needs that go beyond the merely physical. From time before the beginning of civilization, those needs have found people willing and able to satisfy them – artists, musicians, philosophers, and so on. The Scientific Age has given us the means to satisfy our basic animal needs and also the means to satisfy the needs that go beyond those. Those latter are needs based in the fact that we are different from most animals in our mental processes. The need to be loved, to be valued (for what we do for others), to feel that we are a valued part of something larger than ourselves. This is to be expected from a social animal with advanced intelligence.
Our animal aggression has brought us government and the rule of law. The use of violence or the threat of violence has been used to organize people into a functioning society, in which people apply their labor to provide the goods and services that satisfy people’s needs, both animal and human. On the other hand our human needs have brought us religion, that which ties us together with the bonds of affection reflecting an assumed kinship.
Religion began in grief. People could not accept the loss of their elders, so the elders remained alive in people’s minds as guiding spirits. The ancestors thus guided extended families. Tribal chiefs became leaders in the spirit world and eventually people imagined a Great Spirit who dominates the entire world.
In their efforts to deal with the spirit world, our ancestors created art, such as plays, paintings, sculpture, and music. To refine their understanding of the spirit world, they devised philosophy. They used religion to develop their human nature over their animal nature.
In psychological terms the spirit world corresponds to the superego. The superego is the community of our ancestral spirits as derived from our memories of those ancestors. It also incorporates our memories of encounters with our neighbors. Eventually the superego evolves into The Gods. It comes to represent civilization itself. Thus civilization, properly understood, takes the place of the traditional deity. It inspires our imagination and our creativity.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry described civilization at its best when he said, "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." In modern literature science fiction provides the prophecy that creates the longing. To create a fully human civilization we must apply social choreography, rather than social engineering.
Provide the tools, the infrastructure that enables people to pursue their dreams. And make those dreams worthy of an intelligent species. We must strive to free all people to pursue philosophy, that ancient search for truth, goodness, and beauty. Science, ethics, and art must flourish and mark Humanity’s existence in this Universe.
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