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. 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 innate 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.(Note 1) 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.
Note 1: 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.
In the second part of this essay I consider how civilization could have come about even in the absence of evolutionary benefits, and what the future of humanity might be if it turns out I am wrong about our natural selves.