Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What Lies Beneath – Looking for the Cause

I went looking for information on the Emergence of Civilization. Most of what I found had to do with some video game. I did come across the online class notes for Anthropology 341 © 2008 by Dr Bruce Owen. After contacting him and getting his permission to use them, I developed this summary of current theories.
1. Social Surplus (V. Gordon Childe)
• Agricultural technology appears and improves
• Production increases
• Increased production allows the formation of larger populations, settlements, etc.
• Lager populations require leadership etc. and civilization is the result (this process is complex and described in more detail in the notes.)

2. Hydraulic Hypothesis (Karl Wittfogel)
• Small-scale agriculturalists submit to a leader in order to build and maintain large-scale irrigation works or flood protections.
• Strong leadership makes these projects succeed and the leader then turns the workforce to other civilization building tasks.

3. Circumscription Theory (Robert Carniero)
• Population rises
• Rising population leads to competition for land
• Competition becomes warfare
• Defeated groups become lower class which develops class society

4. Success in Competition Theory (William Sanders and Barbara Price)
• “social Darwinism”
• Population growth leads to competition between groups for members and territory.
• Success in competition increases group size and success rate
• Group organization, structure, leadership increase success rate

5. War finance (David Webster)
6. Managerial Benefit (Elman Service)
7. Economics of Population Growth (Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle)
8. Resource-deficient Core (William Rathje)
9. Individual and class strategy (Elizabeth Brumfiel)
10. Cybernetic approach (Kent Flannery)
11. Evolutionary Convergence (Ronald Cohen)
Details of these theories can be found in Dr. Owen’s notes - Some theories of the origins of civilization and More theories of the emergence of civilization.

I’d like to advance another theory. For lack of a better name I’ll call it the
Fuzzy Logic Theory of the origins of Civilization (Alan Roberts)
1. Individuals, being true to their selfish, lazy nature, found that acquiring and storing some excess food was advantageous.
• Small increases in available food allowed better survival rate and population growth.
• Population growth provided more workers and allowed further increases in food production
2. Food production increases results in increased population
• Population increases allow specialization
• Specialization allows the development of technology to increase food production and defend surpluses
3. Increased population group develops group dynamic
• Leadership
• Culture

Dr Owen starts his notes with the following
“- A theory (in this context) is just a story that is supposed to explain how something happened. It has to make sense: the steps should follow logically one to the next. It should give us the feeling that we understand the process better because of it.
- A theory can come from anywhere. It is just made up, although in practice, a theory is usually inspired by something real.
- A good theory may or may not actually be true. That is an empirical question; we have to check the facts and see if the theory fits with the details in any given case.”

This has been a purely speculative exercise that, while possibly producing a working theory, is not be based on anything concrete or provable. So, I am going to take inspiration from the Artificer work of Dr. Paul Wildman and try to work back from the conditions on the ground now to find the cause. It will still be something of a mental excursion, but I think the process and the results will have more relevance and testability.

So, to start – Conditions on the ground:

1. Human population growth continuing at an exponential rate
2. Consumption of resources increasing at an exponential rate
3. New carbon being pumped into the atmospheric systems at an ever increasing rate
4. Available fossil fuel energy resources decreasing
5. Deforestation increasing, particularly in fragile rainforest areas
6. Biodiversity on land and in all the bodies of water on the planet decreasing at a faster rate than any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs
7. Food systems becoming more and more fragile, more prone to spreading food borne illnesses, and producing less diversity and lower nutritional quality
8. Soil degradation from erosion, buildup of toxins, nutrient loss, and development for human habitation increasing
9. Economic cycles getting shorter and shorter with wealth being built on credit and products with ever decreasing functional life
10. Potable water decreasing

Numbers 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, and 10 are tied to Population Growth. As the population increases these things all increase.

Numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 are also tied to the expansion of Food Production.

I’ve seen many theories that argue that food production increases to meet the demand from an ever expanding population. This is in fact one of the more common theories about the beginnings of civilization. As human population expanded more food was needed and civilization grew out of the organizations needed to produce more food. There is no evidence the field that this is true. In fact the evidence points to the opposite. Populations expand as their food supply expands. So, the sequence seems to be the expanding food supply causes the population to grow and causes an increase in the environmental impact of that population.

The second thing we have to look for is the immediate benefit for the individual. Since there is not now nor has there ever been a king of civilization driving humanity to conform, the impetus must come from individual actions. So, is there a benefit to the individual from increasing the food supply? The answer is YES. An increased food supply gives the individual more security, and more power.

So, increasing the food supply a little increased the population a little and allowed specialization and technical advancement. Specialization and technical advancement then allowed further increases in the food supply creating a positive feedback loop that was and still is the driving force of civilization.

Question – Is the production of excess, first food and then other ‘needs’, the driving force of civilization?

1 comment:

Sheria said...

fascinating, but I don't have time to do it justice! I'll be back on another day.