09 March 2007

What is civilization?

What is civilization?

A civilization is a living biological system. More about systems later. In the meantime we can approach the question: “what is civilization?” by taking a quick look at how we use and what we mean by civilization.

In our common use language, civilisation means cultural or intellectual refinement even good taste (thefreedictionary.com). Or: intellectual or spiritual enlightenment, as opposed to brutishness or coarseness (chambersharrap.co.uk). civilization, which comes from Latin, originally meant being a member of a town (city) and governed by the laws of that community.

We also use civilization (Wikipedia:civilization {the article}) in a broad sense to mean human society as a whole, as in “A nuclear war would wipe out Civilization.” it seems to me that in this sense, we are trying to distinguish between what is normally accepted as a human way of life or behaviour. Of course, an all out nuclear war would wipe out everything whether it was civilized or not, except maybe for a few cockroaches. Another example is to say coming back to civilization after some time in the wilderness.

But a technical meaning of civilization tends to remain faithful to the original roman definition of civilization, where people live in cities and get their food from agriculture. “civilizations are also characterized by a social elite, with inherited status inherited, determined largely from birth.” (the article) Presumably, in today’s capitalist societies this social elite would be those who are mega rich and maybe in the ex-communist block it would have been those who controlled influential networks of party members. Except, of course, that the demise of the communist system means that we are now limited to what research can be done in the field. However, if we take present day Cuba and North Korea, it is clear that power there has been transferred in the tradition monarchical method; i.e. keeping it in the family. The US presidential system has, on the other hand, demonstrated that it is the moneyed classes that have access to power. And in spite of the perceived political differences between the two political blocks, none seem to want to reform the system to make it less dependent on corporate and personal financial donations.

One of the on-going debates is what makes communities civilized as opposed to not-civilized. the modern need to be politically correct has led some to dilute the term civilization to include bush-people and similar tribes. But as the article points out, whilst everyone lives in a culture and society, not everyone live in a civilization.

Some of the characteristics of a civilization have been identified to include, apart from living in cities: a proportion of the population not devoted to agriculture, thus giving rise to division of labour; institutional control of food, by governments, ruling classes or bureaucracy; complex institutions such as education; complex forms of economic exchange; material possessions; development of technologies and finally development of arts and especially writing.

A moral dimension of civilizations is the influence these have on other communities. For example, the expansionist policies of the roman empire meant that many communities were displaced, enslaved and sometimes obliterated. However, civilization based on a strong religion justify similar activities on the grounds that they are spreading the word of god or some such dictum. However, what is clear is that civilization have both positive and negative effects on people.

much as we might detest such unethical policies, we are where we are today, because such unethical policies were sometimes practiced in the past. What is good about our society, from freedom of speech to medical advances, we owe to people whose rights and well being were trampled upon by the juggernaut western civilization. An encompassing term (western civilization) that includes amongst others, roman, Christian, Spanish, French, English, Italian and more recently American civilizations. The reason I have left Greek civilization out is because although such scholars as Plato, homer, and Aristotle have been studied through out the ages, it was not until recent times that we started including Greek civilization as something worth considering. Precisely at the same time when pirates and marauding invaders were becoming affluent enough to appreciate the meaning of respect and social elitism. Greek civilization offered these people a ready made mythological ideal of a civilized folk they could emulate, at least in word if not in deed. And, as they say, the rest is history.

However, we are at a serious disadvantage when we discuss civilization. We just don't know what it is like to be alive in one of these past civilizations? Sure, historical texts and archeologically studies can bring us closer to these people, but this no closer to know what it is like living in Madrid from reading a tourist guide. To use a rather banal example, what was it like to have a tooth ache in roman times? I don't mean the pain or the treatment, but the human angst. Did one feel old, seriously handicapped, did toothaches coincide with the advancing of age at the time; maybe in the same way we think of Parkinson disease or heart disease as a problem that arises from the advancing of age?

A second disadvantage is that we can only judge a civilization from what we inherit from them; what I will call the legacy of a civilization. These are usually the monuments which we go and visit as tourists or the texts we read as under graduates or the artefacts lovingly looked after by dedicated curators in museums. Sometimes, what we have from a civilization is nothing but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Another disadvantage is that we inevitably consider other civilizations from the vantage point of our civilization. Genghis Khan is regarded as a civilizing emperor for the Mongol peoples, however, from our point of view we might consider him as a barbarian. We might consider Queen Victoria or the Reyes Cathólicos as civilizing monarchs. The question is, can we overcome this subjectivity when we consider civilization? I don't, of course, mean adopting politically correct terminology, or administering self flagellation as a punishment for the deeds of our ancestors. What I mean is finding a philosophical and scientific explanation to what is civilization, at least a tentative or quasi philosophical or scientific explanation?

What I want to do now is to suggest areas where we can look for this object explanation of civilisation.

The question about what was it like to have a tooth ache in roman times is not as banal as I wanted you to believe. Moreover, I exaggerated the disadvantages mentioned above, it is true that these are legitimate disadvantages, but there are at least two very important advantages. These two advantages are what we share in common with members of other civilizations: evolution and genes. I want to argue that not only are evolution and genes common denominators in civilizations, but the only determining denominators of civilizations.

I started by saying that a civilization is a living biological system. Systems theory was proposed and made into a science by Ludwig von Bertalanffy (and others) between 1945-1955. For reference I am using (wikipedia;systems theory) and some of the material on the web site of The Primer Group*. A general meaning of a system in systems theory is, “a configuration of parts connected and joined together by a web of relationships.”

Von Bertalanffy came up with systems theory partly as a reaction to halt the rampant reductionism that was taking place in the early twentieth century. The idea was to study the relationships within a system ''from which properties of wholes emerge.'' To this end all possible disciples and sciences were to be employed in the modelling and analysis of systems.

Of course, I am not trying to be ironic is appealing to genetics (reductionism par excellence) and systems theory. To begin with, what we call generics today had not been discovered yet, although inherited trait (Mendel) and survival of the fittest (Darwin) had been round for quite some time.

For our purpose, we are interested in living systems theory; which is, ''open, self-organizing systems that have the special characteristic of life and interact with their environment. This takes place by means of information and material-energy exchange.'' (tpp14). James Grier Miller (tpp05) identified eight living systems of varying organisation and complexity. The cell was identified as the principle component of living systems; the eight systems are: organs, which are groups of cells; organisms which are fungi, plants and animals; groups of organisms, organisations which are made up if groups; communities; societies and supranational systems.

Living systems theory is concerned with how these biological systems maintain themselves and how they develop and change (tpp 05). If the processing of material-energy and information ends, life also ends. (tpp 14). A living system is also a self organizing system which is able to maintain a steady state because, “open systems …. exchange inputs and outputs of matter and energy with their environment.” (tpp14).

This exchange of energy operates in many kinds of systems such as population dynamics or species in evolution. However, this movement of energy has led some to model living systems as thermodynamic systems with the biological character of adaptability. And adaptability is defined (Conrad tpp05) as the use of information to handle environmental uncertainty. The final step of a living system is the, “struggle for survival to be essentially competitive for free energy, that is, energy that is available for work.” (Odum, tpp05).

We can safely assume, on this model that agriculture, and the supply of water, as the source of energy for the living organism of civilization: i.e. human beings. And by simply looking out of the metaphorical window, we can see that to transfer the agricultural produce to the mouths of the members of the civilization requires a complex and precise machinery. Hence, we don’t just need energy to grow the food but also to supply the food where it is needed. Thus, one requirement for civilization is the ability of the system to provide food for its members on a regular basis.

And because the supply of food requires a complex machinery it immediately introduces the idea of division of labour. This economic concept implies two important principles: the first is that some people are not directly involved with the production of food and the second is that people have to cooperate together. And maybe it is here that we get the erroneous idea of working for the survival of the group and which Dawkins has showed us is not the case.

Seeing civilization as a living system, also involves transfer of information. We can understand this activity in a conventional way. For example, the farmer would want to inform the people who want his or her produce that they are now available. But most probably in a civilised system the produce has to be delivered via brokers and agents and transported long distances. Hence, information is more complex than we might imagine. A system of payment has to be introduced and so on. The point is that information gives rise to some form of complex language and then some form of writing which is a more permanent way of holding information.

However, in 1960 (tpp05), Miller proved through experiments the hypothesis that information entering a single channel from an other living system at first increases but then starts to fall behind the rate of output of the transmitting channel, until the second channel breaks down or becomes confused through information overload. What this means is that the more we send out information those receiving the information must have the capacity to process this information at the same rate it is being received otherwise they would eventually become confused or the system breaks down. An angle to this overload, is when a system receives conflicting commands. “The more different the signals are, the slower its decision making.” Information overload can physically break down the system and conflicting messages can equally compromise a living system.

Hence, a second source of demise for a civilization is the failure to process information which, as I have mentioned above, is needed to adapt to the changing environment. I understand this to mean, that information can be compromised through inadequate means of communication, inability of the language to transmit new concepts and ideas, an inability of the people to adapt to new forms of information or even the unwillingness of those in control to allow such adaptation. I would say that religion based civilizations come to an end because of their inability to handle new concepts; I am thinking, for example, of Galileo and subsequent scientists.

There are, however, limits to this Newtonian model of civilization. First of all, it does not explain why certain civilizations or their influence seem to linger on even after they have long ceased to exist. In other world, how should we interpret and explain the legacy of other civilizations. The classical example is of course the Greek and Roman civilizations. The second problem with this model, is that it does not fully explain the role of the individual.

We know for a fact that the individual is the product of genes in an evolutionary process. The question we have to ask ourselves is how does the individual fit in a living system. The point is not that the individual has to change to fit within the civilization system, but that the civilization system reflects the evolving individual. We also know that the individual tries to survive against competition and we also know that one of the best strategies to survive is to cooperate.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (TSG; 30th Anniversary edition), spells out the best strategy for the individual to adopt for survival (in a group). He calls this the Evolutionary Stable Strategy (TSG p 69,;(ESS)). He defines ESS as, “a strategy which, if most members of a population adopt it, cannot be bettered by an alternative strategy.” In other words, the best strategy for an individual to adopt is the one the majority have adopted. Which probably explains why nasty regimes still have a large following. It probably also explains why there are so few geniuses and visionary leaders in any given society or civilization.

But the reason why the strategy is stable is not (TSG, p72), “because it is particularly good for the individuals participating in it, but simply because it is immune to treachery from within.” Which also explains why pacts and conspiracies (TSG,p73) do not survive, because they constantly “teeter on the brink of treachery from within.”

In the context of the Selfish Gene, treachery means cheating. For example, someone might accept the help of others, but never help others. But how can we interpret treachery in the context of a living system?

One way we can interpret this is to remind ourselves that conflicting commands (signals) reduce the efficiency of the system. in our case, the individual or, for all that matters, groups within the target civilization. Hence this is one way of compromising the civilization. We can safely say that the more channels a message has to pass through, the more the chances are it gets corrupted or overwhelmed with noise. This might arise through making the system more complex than it needs to be.

But the system might be compromised because, “often altruism within a group goes with selfishness between groups.” (TSG, p9) Dawkins gives trade unions as an example of this feature. But it can also be politicians who compete aggressively within their ruling party, or managers within an organisation and so on. Thus the pursuit of greater wealth by one group, might easily compromise the whole system.

Of course, maybe a civilization will prosper if positive manipulation was used. In fact we can find this idea of positive manipulation on page 59 of The Extended Phenotype, R Dawkins, 1999. The question this passage answers is, how can a cricket make a female cricket go to him without having to use force. The answer for the cricket is to sing for the female. Admittedly, the context is a bit different from ours, but the principle is the same. The best way to make people do things for us without using force, which is not very efficient anyway, is to reward them with emotional satisfaction. Which probably explains why civilizations tend also to have a thriving art and literature culture, a luxury goods industry and other pleasure activities such as gastronomy, recreational facilities and decadent dwellings. Making people feel good is a good way to make them do what you want.

Hence, a civilization is a complex living system which is constantly at the behest of competing interests. civilizations are changing systems with the various groups within it having to constantly adapt to new situations. It is not surprising that one of the early pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 - 475 BC) should have advocated that everything was in constant flux. It is that evident that anyone can see it; and everyone usually does.

As I said, one of the shortcomings with the living system model is that it does not explain why civilizations or their influence seem to linger on or to have a legacy in other civilization when it is clear that the original civilization has disappeared. For example, I have just referred to Heraclitus, who lived during the Greek civilization, more than 2500 years ago to enforce a point which I had arrived to from scientific thinking less than sixty years old. Why does it make sense?

Dawkins in the selfish gene might have an answer to this question. Dawkins introduces the idea of a replicator, something that, “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” (TSG, p192.). Dawkins calls these units Memes, which “ just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body…… memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via processes which in a broad sense, can be called imitations.”

I think that this partially answers our query why we inherit certain legacies from a civilization that has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Memes require brains to survive. However, the legacy of a past civilization is not found in brains but in archaeological artefacts, documents, or scientific inferences. For example, bone structures can tell us about certain health and nutritional condition of a person. Although memes survive in brains, why do memes from other civilizations survive?

These artefacts or legacy from other civilizations are none other than sources of information, or rather information about the civilization. In the context of the mathematical theory of communication (Shannon; Information Theory) information is physical. Hence, it must in the context of living systems, have been part of the energy input and output that a living system employs to maintain itself. Strictly speaking, this information is data. To become information we need a code to interpret the data; this code also validates the data to become semantic information (see L Floridi; Philosophy of Information). Which explains why we can understand some monuments, such as the pyramids in Egypt, but not others, for example the face statues on Easter island.

This legacy serves a number of purposes.

This legacy has a curiosity value. At our stage of development, we can afford to indulge ourselves to be interested in these curios and artefacts. They certainly have an economic value in terms of tourism and cultural standing. Even you must admit that knowing what Henry VIII used to eat by examining the remains of his chamber pot is interesting and entertaining.

Our ability to interpret the legacy from other civilization can help establish which societies were civilized and which were not so advanced. On the one hand, having access to information from a past civilization means that they have also transmitted the code in a permanent form for us to be able to use it. On the other hand, just because we don’t have the code it does not mean that these people did not leave a permanent code. Maybe, we can interpret a lack of code not to mean that these people did not leave a code, but maybe that we are not advanced enough to know what the code is.

Another purpose this legacy serves is that it might teach us something about how civilizations develop, prosper and die. We might even be able to recognise the early signs of civilization decay. But this depends on whether our civilization is advanced enough to learn from the information left to us by other civilizations or whether we are only advanced enough to just process such information to entertain ourselves.

Take care


11 March 2007

* The Primer Group: http://www.newciv.org/ISSS_Primer/

Seminar: http://www.newciv.org/ISSS_Primer/seminar.html

tpp05: Applications of Living Systems Theory James Grier Miller and Jessie L. Miller


tpp14: The Living Systems Theory of James Grier Miller, By Elaine Parent


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