Uprooting Civilization (a.k.a. Are Humans Naturally Civilized?)

(Copyleft: Ruben Solaz via Flickr)

I have a great fear. It has been with me for years now, haunting the background to my thoughts. This fear surmounts climate change, deforestation, peak oil, global pandemic, soil depletion, indeed any worry that any reasonable person might keep at the very top of their worry-tree. It surmounts, but also encompasses these things, and more.

And it’s such a simple question that caused this worry. So simple that at first there doesn’t seem anything to fear from it at all, until you take a much closer look at its implications.

“Are humans naturally civilized?”

I want to look away from those words, because my fear is that the answer is “yes”, that we were always going to end up this way and there is nothing we can do about it.

Does This Matter?

If you are civilized and have never known any different, it’s possible — though I struggle to accommodate this point of view — to imagine there simply is no other type of human: We are a civilized species and that’s all there is to it.

Of course, this is blatantly not the case, as there is absolutely no evidence for civilization, in any form, having existed prior to about 10,000 years ago; whereas humans have been around for at least 200,000 years in almost precisely their current evolutionary state. This means that civilization has existed for about 5% of modern human history. Even then, when we say “civilized” we are really only talking about the types of civilization which encompass a number of key traits — accumulation of surplus; accommodation in areas of dense population; forms of government, also implying hierarchy and power structures; trade beyond the immediate community, and the specialization of roles aside from functional sex divisions.

That measure puts civilization being around for no more than 5000 years, or 2.5% of human history. So, humans are not, historically, a civilized species; although from a population perspective far more civilized people than non-civilized people have lived on earth. This latter point seems to skew the issue slightly, but it need not — more humans may provide more opportunity for mutation, but there is little evidence to suggest any significant evolutionary mutations have taken place. That said, it doesn’t mean that we are not already evolved to become civilized. Indeed, many anthropologists and social scientists would have us believe that civilization is the inevitable result of human evolution.

Why I am so very scared of this is because of what civilization has done to the global ecology, and what it is almost certain to do to the future of humanity if it continues. Much has been written about this, some of it by me, a great deal more (and better) by other people. Little more needs to be said. If we are naturally evolved to be civilized then our genetic “terminator code” — for that must be its primary function — looks destined to be something we cannot reprogram, and certainly not simply walk away from.

As Dave Pollard so tersely illustrates, it looks something like this — we are travelling from left to right, and are currently in the middle:

The push pin of human history.

On the other hand, if we are not naturally a civilized species, then we can be persuaded to shed the sarcophagus of civilization — the unnatural creation of a few toxic dreamers; even assisting with its termination and reconvening in other, uncivilized ways. The losses will, of course, be great, but far less dreadful compared to a world where humans will be civilized right up to the end.

I believe it is about time we faced up to this, and looked at the possibilities that arise from even asking this question, lucidly, and with grim determination to see it through to whatever consequences it leaves us to face.

Are We Naturally Civilized?

Here is a hypothesis: Through the processes of evolution, humans have ended up civilized.

Ok, how do we get to that point in a convincing way? Evolution in humans is a particularly slow process, to the extent that we can be almost certain of evolution having no active part to play during the growth of civilization.[1] If humans evolved to be civilized then we must already have been evolved that way by the time civilization began. This is entirely possible in a biological sense, just as by the time the first land-based animals wriggled or squirmed out of the sea they were already at least partly evolved to be out of the sea. Of course there had to be a hell of a lot of intermediate stages towards being land-bound, otherwise we would be talking about some kind of divine intervention, because a single mutation in a single organism would not provide the necessary genetic material for continued success in this new venture. This goes as much for potentially civilized humans as for potentially land-based animals.

Essentially, if humans evolved to be civilized, then there would have been humans before who were slightly less evolved to be civilized, and before then slightly less so, and so on. Similarly, there are a range of situations that could have arisen that made it possible for anything from the slightly “civilizable” humans to the ideally suited human, to make the next step to Homo sapiens civilis.

But that assumes it is possible to evolve in such a way. In order to gauge that possibility we need first to look at some of the key characteristics of Homo sapiens civilis. Below, I have made a list that I believe an inherently civilized populace must adhere to, in order for civilization itself to thrive. The analysis is very tricky, because it requires the extraction of some kind of inherent human characteristics from the characteristics of civilization itself.

I am going to take a stab at these, but they are open to challenge. What is far more important in the end, though, is whether these characteristics are natural to humans, through the evolutionary pathway.

1) The Desire to Accumulate

Civilization requires the accumulation and retention of surplus in order to maintain continuous habitation of a place, especially under times of stress. More than this, though, civilization needs people to want to keep accumulating even when there is no stress, i.e. proactive rather than reactive. This desire creates economies and, specifically, growth — which is what capital economies require in order to exist.

Storage of food surplus is a characteristic of very many species, particularly those that hibernate, and need to rapidly stock up on energy upon waking. To a lesser extent the same applies to those that have lengthy time periods between food availability, although that energy is usually stored internally. On the other hand, storage of surplus where there is little or no regular food stress is almost unknown in non-human animals, unless I am missing something significant. It’s simply not needed, and if utilised would be an inefficient use of energy; plus the risk of losing that surplus to external causes is extremely high. In fact, on that latter point, only with the advent of tools, and particularly the use of non-permeable materials, has mass food storage been effective against theft, rot, weather damage and so on.

In non-static cultures, storage of anything for much later use runs counter to the needs of regular movement. It is not useful to accumulate as it is too difficult to carry any more than a few days food around, unless you also include what is doing the carrying. Imagine transporting an armchair or a bed on a horse and you get the idea. So, it’s only as people started to settle that accumulation had any evolutionary benefit.

There are question marks over the time of the first properly settled humans, but most contemporary literature suggests settlement is synonymous with civilization, and it began in earnest around 10,000 years ago: which seems to answer the question of accumulation, regardless of whether you consider it to be a useful human trait or not. Humans could not have been genetically predisposed to accumulate before civilization because it had no evolutionary benefit. The response to stress in non-civilized cultures is to move on to where there is less stress.

Begging the obvious question, where could we move to now?

2) The Need for Hierarchy

Without hierarchy it is impossible to build structures (physical and political) and institutions at any significant scale — there has to be a power base, and those willing to carry out tasks on behalf of that power base, enforced by still others. A three level system is simple compared to even a small historical civilization. For this to happen people have to readily accept hierarchy, but more likely feel an innate need for it.

Pecking order comes close, as do insect colony structures, but these hierarchies are fixed in type — civilization allows for many different hierarchies, indicating that the type of hierarchy, if not the need for it, is not hard-wired. Non-civilized cultures have a wide range of structures, the vast majority at the egalitarian and/or titular leader end of the scale, as opposed to the multi-layered, fixed hierarchy the largest civilizations require(d) to maintain their size. And here’s the rub: small groups of humans don’t need complex hierarchies; as with accumulation of goods, a bureaucracy (for that is what hierarchy entails) is an inefficient use of time and energy with so few people. Of course, that could be argued for any hierarchy, and that may be a key point: they make large civilizations possible, but they don’t have any real function except to allow for the concentration of power over a large number of people. In an ant colony, where numbers equal strength and longevity in the event of great losses this is important; in human colonies, where vast collective numbers have only existed for the last 5,000 years or less, the evolution test clearly fails.

3) Disconnection from the Real World

This is not a classic characteristic of civilization but it’s inherent in allowing civilization to thrive, for without disconnecting then few or indeed, none of the destructive behaviours uniquely exhibited by civilized people would be tolerated — rather like shitting in your own back yard without a disposal system in place. Except the shit is happening on a much larger scale, and the back yard is formed of major habitats; the whole global ecology in the case of industrial civilization. Another key aspect of disconnection is the loss of community, but that is best addressed in the next section.

It’s difficult to envisage any organism on Earth that is disconnected from its ecological partners. To be sure, humans are not actually disconnected in a physical sense — habitats disappear and ecologies change, humans suffer; the larger the habitat loss and ecological change, the greater the human suffering. This is really about mental disconnection, for which sentience is required, i.e. a conscious effort to disconnect, regardless of physical realities. Human definitions of sentience are obviously human-centric; we can never appreciate with any accuracy what it means for, say, a tree or a toad to have knowing awareness. What we can do, though, is appreciate whether any non-human species is knowingly disregarding its natural connections with other organisms for some purpose.

I am yet to see any evidence this is the case. Mental disconnection may imply some recent re-wiring to permit our ignorance of the real world, but it serves no evolutionary use and so cannot have led to us becoming civilized.

4) Individualism over Collectivism

The term “selfish gene” has been used and misused countless times as a way of justifying individual action by civilized human beings — the claim being that we act in a certain way to benefit ourselves alone because that’s the way we are genetically programmed. Civilization appears to be successful because of the isolating methods used by those in power, urging us to aspire, strive and achieve. Always implicit is for this to happen at the expense of others. Thus, as successful individuals we can uniquely be the best within our social set, or whatever grouping we attach ourselves to. This, we are told, drives humanity forwards towards whatever goals are set for the next stage in our development.

What is never clarified is that human genes, as with all social animals (and, surprisingly, most “solitary” animals) cannot successfully propagate beyond a generation or two in isolation. For one, genetic diversity is required to reduce the risk of dangerous mutations; further, all organisms to a greater or lesser extent, require a level of collaboration in order that the selfish gene pool is successful. The distinction between the gene and the gene pool is critical. Individualism can get you so far, in very particular situations that, usually, require rapid decision making. Collectivism, however, is the only way humans can genuinely thrive for any significant period of time.

And this has been demonstrated repeatedly, even within a civilized environment. As Rebecca Solnit has shown in A Paradise Built In Hell, the natural reaction of even civilized people in crisis situations is to help each other and, in the longer term, build protective communities. We could call this “uncivilized” activity, but really it’s human activity. Collective behaviour is only curtailed where authority is enforced. Humans never evolved to be individuals.

Humans never evolved to be civilized.

Indigenous Andamanese (from http://ian.macky.net)
“There were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane”
Francis Ford Coppola

The Non-Evolutionary Perspective

We now know, perhaps with some relief, that evolution was not a key factor in creating a form of humanity that is now dominated by industrial civilization. To that argument I would add the critical caveat that because civilization is the primary reason for population growth and, as much as the great organs of the industrial world would like us to think otherwise, it is only this huge population — skewed in favour of civilization — that gives the impression of humanity being a civilized animal. Much like the USA claiming that Hawaiʻi is American because it is full of Americans.

But there’s little doubt that civilization is a significant, if recent, part of human history. It is also true that civilizations of many different varieties, sizes and timescales, have cropped up, apparently spontaneously across the world. This gives the impression that, if not a natural attribute of humanity, the “need” to be civilized is strongly built into the cultural make-up of a great number of humans. If one were to take the pragmatic approach then you could say that humanity is civilized, at least in terms of numbers and dominance. That doesn’t mean it is a good thing; it’s just a fact. Why this has happened in the absence of an evolutionary drive is an obvious question, and one that is very closely linked to how this happened in practical terms.

The “how?” part of the question is essentially a matter of brute power, the harnessing of nascent hierarchies and the exploitation of human vulnerabilities to benefit a burgeoning elite. I am not going to get into a discussion about the history of global civilizations, nor the impact of them on humanity and the wider environment — A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright is an excellent primer if you want to know more. What I will attempt is an explanation of why civilization happened in the first place, the spark that lit the fire that has now engulfed the Earth.

Origins of Civilization: Practical

It’s important to get this one out of the way first. The reason I want to address practical origins is because they are often seen as the primary reason for civilization’s birth, without actually addressing the root causes. In a way these “origins” are merely a link between the deeper reasons for humans becoming civilized, and the practical outcomes, such as agriculture, deforestation, large settlements, war, slavery and imperialism. But there is a key “why?” and that, I believe, takes its cue from the end of the last glacial period, approximately 12,000 years ago. For around 100,000 years prior to the recent retreat of northern hemisphere glaciation, there existed a state commonly known as the Ice Age. Paleoclimate analysis vividly shows the changes that took place in the heartlands of civilization, such as the Near East and southern China as the glaciers retreated. From mainly desert conditions, there rapidly developed significant areas of lush forest and others with a relatively temperate climate, peaking between 10,000–9,000 years before the present day. Under such conditions of biological plenty, formally nomadic people had less of a need to move in search of water, in-situ vegetation and, perhaps critically, building and fire-making materials. Humans are social creatures; they are also opportunistic. Under such conditions staying still for a while made perfect sense.

But that does not explain the rise of civilization.

We know from Part One of this essay that there is no natural urge to accumulate surplus, form hierarchies or allow oneself to exploit the land to its limits; the urge would have been to move on as a collective band of humans once things became leaner, but they didn’t become leaner, at least for those in power, because, agriculture rapidly took hold, storage became a basic task and a few people found they were able to dominate many. From this came imperialism, or at least widespread trade, and so it goes…

Despite the obvious conjunction between newly greening lands and a roaming population, or at a least a population that only stayed in loose settlements as with many current indigenous people, civilizations only sprung up in a few specific areas. From these they were able to spread, and the ideas of civilization started to dominate wherever they touched. This would indicate a natural pattern of human cultural development if it wasn’t for the fact that non-civilized populations still exist in relatively resource plentiful conditions all over the world. It seems, then, that civilization — or the urge to become civilized — bears more resemblance to a disease, such as cancer, than a gene. Could it be that although eventually conditioned to become civilized, the initial urge to move towards this state was the result of a flaw in a few humans that found an opportunity?

Origins of Civilization: Psychological

Humans are, like many other mammals, communal animals that innately protect the collective above the individual. This is demonstrated by the presence of banishment in tribal peoples as the most severe form of punishment for a transgression against the tribal body, and the absence of selfishness or pride in ancient tribes. Contrary to what writers such as Jared Diamond[2] continually suggest, growth in population or resource hardship — while causing stress — does not cause major conflict in uncivilized, settled, human groups; instead, in the absence of other limiting factors, it leads to migration, or alternatively the splitting off of a group from the main tribe, much as bees swarm when a hive becomes overcrowded. This resistance to conflict and the development of a larger, more hierarchical population, has its roots in natural human connections. Extensive anthropological study[3] has shown that the optimum size for thriving human groups is between 100 and 300, beyond which dependency connections become weaker and splitting off becomes almost inevitable. The corollary of this is that even though humans are more than capable of living in large populations, they will not be connected to each other in the same way than if they were living in smaller groups. Where populations cannot easily disperse, hierarchies will inevitably develop which, like disconnection, is anathema to evolutionary behaviour.

The fact that hierarchies have developed, contrary to natural human behaviour, indicates something acting against our evolved need to be connected and communal. And this is where the “fatal flaw” comes in. I don’t believe for a moment that there was some spontaneous, innate urge to resist natural human behaviour; instead we have a situation that seems to relate to psychopathy — the mental state in which humans lose the need to relate to others, instead being solely driven by their own, often material, self-interest. Psychopathy has repeatedly been shown to go hand in hand with a high level of persuasiveness and authority, possibly enough to change the dynamic of a group from equitable to authoritarian, and then to one with layers of control, i.e. a hierarchy. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s see whether there is a possible model of the Psychopathic Origins of Civilization.

Let’s suppose an individual within a tribe has psychopathic tendencies. The first instinct, from a civilized point of view is perhaps that he (for it is predominantly men who exhibit such behaviour) will use their influence to rapidly establish power over the tribe. There are two flaws here. First, the concept of “power” in an ancient tribe is a non sequitur — there are no structures to ascend, beyond titular leadership, no ladders to climb, so there would have to be some kind of precedent to first establish the concept of power. Second, such obvious behaviour that could easily be hidden in a civilized society as “mere” ambition would be anathema to the collectivism of the tribe; thus such a person would likely find themselves ostracised or even banished.

So, how could psychopathy work in an uncivilized context? As we have seen, any activity that does not benefit the whole community is not an evolved response to a situation. But, what if certain non-collective activities could be sold to others as being of longer term benefit to the tribe? In other words, could a person driven by personal gain persuade others to do things that could benefit that person alone, in the belief that everyone would gain from these things? This is tricky as there is conflicting evidence as to whether ancient societies had (have) a concept of the future, but there are societies that do exhibit a greater level of forward planning for whatever reason, for instance forest “gardens” and more established settlements. This type of environment would provide a better platform for the psychopath than tribes that predominantly live in the now. So, it may be that a select group of hunters are instructed to stockpile food for themselves, rather than the whole tribe, in the belief that some hunters need to be better fed. In lean periods those select few would be stronger and, as a result of there being less food available, the remaining people weaker.

It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see the beginnings of a hierarchy here. As this key behavioural change — note, we are still talking about something that is not innate — starts to appeal to a wider group of people who experience short-term personal gain, the simple change in behaviour develops into a cultural change. Acceptance in a small group may bleed down to the tribe as a whole, and thus become embedded in that society; inequalities notwithstanding. The normalisation of having one group benefitting more than others makes more complex hierarchies a possibility, not least because the more advantaged “upper tier” can impose their will upon those lower down. Any tribe that has embraced a culture of power over equality would not be averse to imposing that culture upon others — the belief that whatever is predominant must be morally right is endemic in all modern societies, and thus it is likely to be true in the earliest hierarchical systems. It must, therefore, be “right” to impose its beliefs on all other societies.

Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
Source: http://www.context.org/iclib/ic07/schmoklr/

I didn’t write this essay with the Parable of The Tribes in mind, but it seems I have been led there through logic. Does this make the Psychopathy Hypothesis correct, or could this situation have been reached through other means? Whatever the precise cause, we appear to have a situation where civilization is not inevitable, and instead — shocking to many — the result of a damaging psychological flaw in a very small number of people. This is dramatically different to the myth that the powers that be would have us believe; that civilization is both an inevitable, and a welcome development in human history, and that we should never question the reasons it came about for fear of finding some very unsavoury answers.

A Niggling Doubt

But what if I am wrong? Let’s say we did evolve to become civilized. Maybe the increase in our frontal lobe size, perhaps due to the uptake of cooked meat, created a natural propensity for power and hierarchy, the acquisition of material goods, and the desire to live beyond the beyond the means dictated by our connected selves. Would we be stuck in this terminal situation, or could we evolve again?

In fact this need may be inevitable, for the civilized human is not a natural survivor. Established civilizations thrive where resources are plentiful, including vast numbers of human slaves, and crises for the ruling classes are absent. In the absence of such human and non-human capital, and in the presence of unmanageable crises, civilizations fail…and those who are not adapted to uncivilized living fail with them.

On the other hand, those people who have thus far escaped the hand of civilization have remained connected and more than able to survive in uncivilized conditions. In all likelihood, many people who live within civilization may still be connected, or have the will to become reconnected and relearn the lessons of our ancient past. Those who survive will be the new seed of human evolution. Whether humanity evolved to be civilized or not, the future of humanity appears, in all cases, to be uncivilized.


This was previously published in two parts on The Earth Blog, trackback link: https://originalearthblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/uprooting-civilization-part-1/

Note: Recent work on megafauna being killed, apparently with no regard for the future by ancient societies does not imply disconnection from the real world. It could imply a lack of knowledge about wider ecologies or a false supernatural belief, for instance a herd coming back year after year from an unknown place, but that is not the same as purposeful disconnection such that civilization creates.

[1] For various complex reasons related to recessive tendencies, we can’t write-off evolution leaving us stranded when civilization collapses.

[2] This is the same person who claims that all tribes can benefit from the input of civilization.

[3] see, for instance Dunbar’s Number — http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/004724849290081J

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