2.4 Civilization: 10,000 years ago to present

The Origins of Culture

Human civilization really began at about the same time that the human species started developing noticeably human traits several million years ago. For our purposes here, I am going to define civilization in terms of the presence and reuse of informational artifacts. An artifact is a pattern not found in nature, or, more accurately, a pattern created by cognitive processes using real-time information. In other words, we can exclude instinctive behavior that “seems” arbitrarily clever but is not a customized solution to a specific problem. Language is certainly the most pervasive and greatest of the early artifacts of civilization. For language to work, patterns must be created on a custom basis to carry semantic content. Humans have probably been creating real-time semantic content using language for millions of years, as opposed, for example, to genetically-driven warning calls. We have no real evidence of language or proto-language from back then; the first artifacts from which a case for language can be made before written languages are about 100,000 years old, but I think language must have evolved rather steadily over our whole history.12 Homo erectus used a variety of stone tools, and probably also non-stone tools3, and was able to control fire about a million years ago. This suggests early humans were learning new ways of getting food that had to be discovered and taught, and was thus able to expand into new ranges. Huts have been found in France and Japan that date back 400,000 to 500,000 years.

While we can’t say just how capable very early humans were, by about about 40,000–50,000 years ago humans had achieved behavioral modernity. While culture may take thousands of years to develop, it seems likely that some genetic breakthroughs facilitated later advancements. That said, I suspect that most people born in the past 100,000 years could probably pass for normal if born today. After all, all living races of humans alive today seem cognitively equivalent, despite having been separated from each other for 10,000 to 40,000 years. The range of human genes produces people with a range of intelligence which has gradually increased, slowly pushing up both the normal and the genius ranges. So rather than a night-and-day difference between early and modern man, we will see a shift in the bell curve to greater intelligence. But whatever mix of genes and culture contributed to it, we usually demarcate the dawn of civilization at about the 10,000-year point because that is about when the first large civilizations seem to have arisen.

According to the evidence we have, the large-scale domestication of plants and animals did not begin until about 12,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, although the Ohalo people of Israel were cultivating plants 23,000 years ago. This suggests that small-scale domestication may go back much further. Beyond Mesopotamia, ancient India, China, Mesoamerica, and Peru formed independent cradles of civilization starting around 7,000 to 4,000 years ago. These civilizations collectively comprise the Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution as they were founded principally on the stability of agricultural living and the cultural trappings that accompany it.

The Cultural Ratchet

A great deal has been made in recent years about the significance of memes to culture. While the word is most widely used now to refer to the catchiest of ideas, the idea that informational artifacts can be broken down into functionally atomic units called memes can be useful for discussing the subject. After all, if culture has a ratchet, then there must be some teeth (memes) that click in that don’t want to slide back. The only protection culture has from sliding back is memory; we have to pass our culture on or it will be lost. Every idea continuously mutates and is held in different ways by every person, but culture critically depends on locking gains in through traditions, which standardize memes. If I had to list key memes in the development of civilization, aiming for a high level of summarization, I would start with the idea of specialized tasks, especially using the hands, which are central to nearly every task we perform. The sharing of tasks brought about the development of language. These two metamemes drove cultural progress for the first few million years of our evolution in countless ways that we now take for granted, but they completely overshadow everything we have done since. Long before the establishment of civilizations, people made many hand tools from stone, wood, and bone. People also learned to hunt, control fire and build shelters, and they developed art and music. All of these things could be taught and passed down through mimicry; the power of language to describe events probably emerged only very gradually. An era of cognition in which people were learning to think about things likely preceded our era of metacognition in which reflections pervade most of our waking thoughts. As our innate ability to think abstractly gradually improved, mostly over the past million years, language also kept up and let us share new thoughts. Genes and culture coevolved, with the bell curve starting to overlap our present-day capacities between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

It becomes easier to call out the specific memes that were the great inventions of early civilization. Agriculture and the more sedentary and community living that it brought is usually cited first. Other key early physical inventions of early civilizations notably include textiles, water management, boats, levers, wheels, and metalworking, but they also depended on the purely functional inventions of commerce, government, writing, and timekeeping. Some of the most prominent physical inventions of modern civilization include gunpowder, telescopes, powered industrial machinery (first with steam, then with gas), electricity, steel, medicine, planes, and plastic. And increasingly relevant to technological civilization are physical inventions that manage information like the printing press, phone, television, computer, internet, and smartphone. And perhaps most relevant of all, but often overlooked, are the concepts we have invented along the way, which from a high level in roughly chronological order include math, philosophy, literature, and science. Within these academic disciplines exist countless specialized refinements, creating an almost uncountably large pool of both detailed and generalized memes.

All of these products of civilization are memes struggling to stay relevant to survive another day. They all roughly have a time of origination and then spread until their benefit plateaus. But they also often have multiple points of origin and evolve dramatically over time, making it impossible to describe them accurately using rigid buckets. (Internet memes and fads are memes that spread only because they are novelties rather than providing any significant function. Ironically, it is often their abundant lack of functionality that drives fads to new heights; this perversion of the cultural ratchet is funny.) So while we can equate genes to memes as units that capture function, genes are physically constrained to a narrow range of change (though any one mutation could make a large functional difference), but memes can be created and updated quickly, potentially at the speed of thought. The cognitive ratchet improved our minds very quickly compared to the scope of evolutionary time but was still limited to the maximum rate of evolution physically possible. But the cultural ratchet has no speed limit, and, thanks to technology, we have been able to keep increasing the rate of change. Like the functional and cognitive ratchets before it, the cultural ratchet has no destination; it only has a method. That method, like the other ratchets, is to always increase functionality relative to the present moment as judged by the relevant IPs. The functional ratchet of genes always fulfills the objective of maximizing survival potential, but the cognitive ratchet maximizes the fulfillment of conscious desires. Our conscious desires stay pretty well aligned with the goal of survival because they are specified by genes that themselves need to survive, but, just as no engine is perfectly efficient, no intermediate level can exactly meet the needs of a lower level. But our desires do inspire us pretty effectively to stay alive and reproduce. Though we tend to think of our desires as naturally meshing well with the needs of survival, the feedback loops that keep them aligned can also run amok, as is seen with Fisherian runaway, for which excessive plumage of the peacock is the paradigmatic example. This effect doesn’t override the need to survive, but it can amplify one selection pressure at the expense of others. Could some human traits, such as warlike aggression, have become increasingly exaggerated to the point where they are maladaptive? It is possible, but I will argue below that it is much more likely that human traits have been evolving to become more adaptive (by which I mean toward survival). But if we act to fulfill our desires, and our desires are tuned to promote our survival, do we deserve credit for the creation of civilization, or is it just an expected consequence of genetic evolution? The surprising answer is yes to both, even though they sound like opposing questions. Even though civilization in some form or other was probably inevitable given the evolutionary path humans have been on, we are entirely justified in taking credit for our role because of the way free will and responsibility work, which I will cover in Part 4.

From the beginning, I have been making the case that we are exclusively information processors, meaning that everything we do has to have value, i.e. function. The practical applications of cooperation and engineering are limitless and reach their most functional expression in the sciences. Science is a cooperative project of global scope that seeks to find increasingly reliable explanations for natural phenomena. It is purely a project of information processing that starts with natural phenomena and moves on to perceptions of them which, where possible, are made using mechanical sensors to maximize precision and accuracy and minimize bias. From these natural and mechanical perceptions and impressions, scientists propose conceptual models. When we find conceptual models that seem to work, we not only gain explanatory control of the world, but we also get the feeling that we have discovered something noumenal about nature (although our physical models are now so counterintuitive that reality doesn’t seem as real anymore). But in any case, our explanatory models of the physical world have enabled us to develop an ever-more technological society which has given us ever-greater control over our own lives. They have fueled the creation of millions of artifacts out of matter and information.

I have said little about art, but I am not going to make that case that it is highly functional. Art is fundamental to our psychological well-being because beauty connects knowledge. It pulls the pieces of our mind together to make us feel whole. More specifically, the role of beauty is to reinforce the value of generalities over particulars. The physical world is full of particulars, so our mind is continuously awash in particulars. And we already have great familiarity with most of the particulars we recognize. When we are very young, everything is new and different, and we are forming new general categories all the time, but as we get older, everything starts to seem the same or like a minor variation of something we have seen before. We can’t stop knowing something we already know, but we need to stay excited by and engaged with the world. This is where art comes in. A physical particular, by which I mean its noumenon, is mundane (literally: of the world), but generalities are sublime (literally: uplifted or exalted) or transcendent (literally: beyond the scope of), both of which suggest an otherness that is superior to the mundane. Thus art is sublime and transcendent because it is abstract rather than literal. While any physical particular is only what it is, and so can be reduced to hard, cold fact, our imagination is unlimited. We can think about things from any number of perspectives, and we do like to engage our imagination, but not without purpose. To better satisfy the broad goal of gratifying our conscious desires, we have to understand what we want. We can’t depend on raw emotion alone to lead the way. So we project, we dream, we put ourselves in imaginary situations and let ourselves feel what that would be like. The dreams we like the best form our idealized view of the world and are our primary experience of art. We all create art in our minds just by thinking about what we want. For any object or concept, we will develop notions about aesthetic ideals and ugly monstrosities. Although the world is ultimately mundane and becomes increasingly known to us, the ways we can think about it are infinitely variable, some of which will be more pleasing and some more displeasing.

When we produce art physically, we give physical form to some of our idealized notions. The creation is a one-way path; even the artist may not know or be able to reconstruct the associations behind each artistic choice, but if they are good then many of their considerations will resonate with our own ideals. When we appreciate art, we are not looking at physical particulars, we are thinking about ideals or generalities, which are both the groupings in which we classify particulars and the way knowledge is interconnected. Generalities are all about patterns, which is the substance of information at both a high and a low level. Patterns of lines and colors charm or repel us based on very general associations they strike in us, which are not random but link to our ideals. Art can be very subtle that way, or it can directly reflect our strongest desires, for example for sex, fun, and security. By helping us better visualize or experience our ideals, art helps us stay interconnected and balanced and prioritize what matters to us. Art lets us know that the representational world in our heads is real in its own right, that our existence depends as much (or more) on generalities as it does on particulars. So its benefit is not direct; by glorifying patterns, ideas, and abstractions for their own sake, art validates all the mental energy we expend making sense of the world. Its appeal is both intellectual and visceral. Art stimulates the gratitude, interest, and enthusiasm, emotions which keep us engaged in life. Art seems inessential because its value is indirect, but it keeps our cognitive machinery running smoothly.

In summary, while we could view civilization as a natural and perhaps expected consequence of evolution, we have expended great conscious effort creating the arts and sciences and all the works of man. Before I can consider further just how much credit we should give ourselves for doing all that, I need to dig a lot deeper into our innate human abilities. In Part 3, I will look in more detail at the evolution of our inborn talents, from rational to intuitive to emotional. Then, in Part 4, I will look at the manmade world to unravel what we are, what we have done, and what we should be doing.

  1. Vyvyan Evans, How Old Is Language?, Psychology Today, Feb 19, 2015
  2. Philip Lieberman, Language Did Not Spring Forth 100,000 Years Ago, PLoS Biol. 2015 Feb; 13(2): e1002064.
  3. Dennis O’Neil, Early Human Culture, Behavioral Sciences Department, Palomar College, San Marcos, California, 1999-2014

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