Thesis #13: Civilization always pursues complexity

What is “civilization”? When asked this question directly, many people answer that a civilization is simply a synonym for “society”–that a civilization is simply a group of people living together. This definition is betrayed when you press the point with borderline examples. Are you comfortable with the phrase “Inuit Civilization”? Or “!Kung Civilization?” Or “Australian Aborigine Civilization”? Most people are not. There is no doubt as to whether the Inuit, !Kung or Aborigines constitute societies, but we waver on the question of their civilization. Obviously, then, the two words are not the synonyms some would claim.

WordNet provides four definitions for the word:

  1. civilization, civilisation — (a society in an advanced state of social development (e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations); “the people slowly progressed from barbarism to civilization”)
  2. civilization, civilisation — (the social process whereby societies achieve civilization)
  3. culture, civilization, civilisation — (a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization”)
  4. refinement, civilization, civilisation — (the quality of excellence in thought and manners and taste; “a man of intellectual refinement”; “he is remembered for his generosity and civilization”)

The third definition is the synonym of society discussed previously (are not all societies in some particular time and place?). The other three all have a common root in nineteenth century ideas of unilineal cultural evolution. Fundamental to this idea is the notion of a society’s progression from savagery to civilization: “the people slowly progressed from barbarism to civilization.”

Progression, though, implies the reality of perfection. For societies to “progress,” there must be some single goal to move towards. Every culture believes itself to be superior to all others, but even after centuries of philosophical theorizing on the subject, we have yet to develop any objective criteria that do not require us first to accept the superiority of our own culture. We can prove our superiority only when it is taken as a premise, making the entire argument moot. Given that such ethnocentrism is a universal among all human cultures, we should not count our own for anything more than that. Ethnocentrism once had its place: a smug sense of superiority could help keep people from wandering off by themselves and dying alone. Usefulness should not be mistaken for truth.

So we see that none of the four definitions provided are really meaningful. One fails to capture what we really mean by the word, and the other three are based on a deeply flawed premise.

Etymologically, the origins of the word “civilization” lay in the Latin word civis, often translated as “city,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “city-state.” The Roman Empire was a patchwork of civitates, fulfilling a role not terribly far removed from states in the U.S., though the Roman Empire was less influenced by notions of Cartesian space and more interested in spheres of influence. The Roman Empire was, in fact, a hierarchy of such smaller imperial dominions; the *Pater familias* was emperor of his family, and the magistrate was the emperor of his civitas. Strictly speaking, a *civis* was the “citizen” of such a civitas, but the word was also applied to the sense of “city-ness,” as well as the city itself.

Etymology, then, gives us our first workable definition: “civilization” is a culture of cities. Working more along these lines, and trying to identify a set of defining criteria among those cultures we can comfortably call “civilized,“ Vere Gordon Childe defined a set of criteria still taught in introductory anthropology courses and widely accepted as *the*criteria for civilization:

Primary Criteria

  1. Settlement of cities of 5,000 or more people.
  2. Full-time labor specialization.
  3. Concentration of surplus.
  4. Class structure.
  5. State-level political organization.

Secondary Criteria

  1. Monumental architecture
  2. Long-distance trade
  3. Sophisticated art
  4. Writing
  5. Predictive sciences (math, astronomy, etc.) 

The secondary criteria have a general correspondence with civilization, but are not definitive. There are plenty of civilizations that lack one or more of them (Teotihuacan most likely lacked a writing system), two out of five (predictive sciences and sophisticated art) are human universals, and two of the remaining items (monumental architecture and long-distance trade) are known among non-civilized societies.

The primary criteria, though, help us to begin to understand the true nature of civilization. These five criteria are, however, bound to one another through causation. Thus, they always appear together, and never without the others–forming a clearly defined cultural package that we can call “civilization.” This should not be terribly surprising, because culture is a reflexive system, and changes to one part of that system will cascade throughout the whole. In thesis #8, we saw how formative subsistence strategy is for a culture, and how the precarious nature of food production limited cultivating societies to a very narrow range of possible diversity. We saw that Service’s traditional breakdown may be somewhat biased to tease out greater distinction among those societies more like ourselves, while lumping together far greater diversity among foragers not like ourselves. The differences between industry and agriculture are differences of scale, not kind. The Industrial Revolution did not fundamentally change the nature of agricultural society, it merely accelerated it along previously defined lines. Also, pastoralism is an extremely unusual option, confined almost entirely to the Middle East and Africa. Moreover, such societies cannot exist independently of an agricultural society. I tend to think of them more as an unusual case of symbiosis with agricultural societies: a remora to agriculture’s shark, if you will.

That leaves us with a simplified model of just three subsistence strategies: agriculture, horticulture and foraging. This can be simply explained by two, irrefutable bits. Either you grow plants to eat, or you do not. If you do not, you are a forager. If you do, you either work above or below the point of diminishing returns. If above, you are an agriculturalist; if below, you are a horticulturalist. Consider the graph below, where “utility” is the ratio of calories obtained versus calories spent, and “production” is simply the number of calories obtained:

The Point of Diminishing Returns in Cultivation defines Agriculture and Horticulture

The concept of diminishing returns was first developed in the context of agriculture. After a certain point, simply applying more labor yielded less and less benefit. In fact, from a caloric viewpoint, *all* agriculture is beyond the point of diminishing returns. Even in agrarian societies, it takes more calories of work to farm a field, than is returned in calories of product. Among simpler agrarian societies, this shortfall is made up with the use of tools and animals. The plow uses the fundamental physics of a lever to lessen the workload. Animals can leverage energy sources humans cannot–by grazing in lands too rocky or infertile to be cultivated. In modern petroculture, fossil fuels make up the shortfall. Petroleum doesn’t just power tractors, it also forms the basic ingredients for everything from fertilizer to packaging, and the fuel for transportation.  We now burn between 4 and 10 calories–mostly in fossil fuels–for every 1 calorie of agricultural product we produce.

The slope becomes sharper as more labor is applied–the process becomes increasingly inefficient–but the absolute number of calories yielded always goes up by *some* amount per unit of labor. So, production can still be increased even past the point of diminishing returns by applying more labor. It just becomes increasingly inefficient to do so.

Forager populations are very dispersed, because their food is very dispersed. Foragers gather food from the wild, whether by hunting, fishing, gathering, or simple scavenging. These resources are not collected in any one space, so every forager band requires a significant range of territory. This makes forager society very sparsely populated.

By comparison, cultivation converts a specific area of biomass into human food, raising the edible ratio of that area to 100%. In swidden (a.k.a., “slash-and-burn”) horticulture, for example, an area of rain forest is cut down and burned, and a garden is planted in the ashes. This is the only way to practice cultivation in the rain forest, as the ground is about as fertile as cement–all of the nutrients are locked in the trees. This very clearly illustrates the conversion from biomass into human food, as the biodiversity of some area of rain forest becomes fertilizer to grow a horticultural garden. This is the essence of all cultivation. With a denser food supply, cultures that depend on cultivation for their food can support much denser populations. Horticultural societies typically live in villages, even complex networks of villages. Agricultural societies practice even more intense cultivation, producing even more calories–and thus, producing an even larger population, because human population is a function of food supply (see thesis #4). These populations are even larger, and even denser–leading to cities, the first of Childe’s five primary criteria.

Foragers enjoy a naturalistic social arrangement. Their life is sufficiently comfortable and easy to simply handle things naturally. Decisions are made by consensus. Infractions of social norms can be handled on a case-by-case basis, by the community as a whole. Circumstances and personalities can be fully considered, and rather than focusing on “punishment,” such societies can instead address the harm done directly. Where most civilized societies simply ritualize a sanctioned form of vengeance and mob rule, these “primitives” enjoy true justice.

The number of infractions of social norms–“crimes”–is always some fraction of the total number of interactions between individuals. In a pairing of two individuals, there is only one interaction. Add a third individual, and there are three possible interactions. A fourth raises the number to six; five, to ten; six, to fifteen, and so on. As the number of individuals increases, the number of interactions increases exponentially, and as that number increases, so, too, do the number of infractions. Before long, the community is so large that individuals are no longer universally known, circumstances are not appreciated by all members of the community, and the number of such incidents is too great to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The essence of “law” is the abridgment of justice–to resolve cases more quickly, by compromising fairness. Most legal systems attempt to abrogate this essential fact, but it remains the basic truth of law. Justice is a luxury only the sparsely populated can afford.

Thus, large populations require a legal body, and judges to execute that law. The nature of agricultural production also demands defense. While ideas of property and ownership are essential to an agricultural society, they are alien to the rest of the world. The gross inefficiency of agricultural life puts the agricultural society in a very tenuous position. This is why only agricultural societies suffer famine. When Richard Lee made his famous study of the !Kung and calculated their average work per day to be three hours, the Kalahari was suffering one of the worst draughts in living memory. The !Kung’s Bantu neighbors–pastoralists–were dying of starvation, while the !Kung complained of having to work so hard–three whole hours–to gather their food. Humans are omnivores, and it would take nothing less than a mass extinction to threaten our survival as foragers. We risk starvation only when we culturally redefine “food” to a small number of closely related, domesticated species. Because of this, any agricultural society that does not protect its fields from animal predators–both human and otherwise–will not last very long. Even worse, the inefficiencies of agriculture require constant expansion in order to continue (see thesis #12).

The need of agricultural societies to defend, expand, and enforce law requires the formation of state-level political organization. So far, we have seen two of Childe’s primary criteria–1 and 5–as unavoidable consequences of sufficiently intensive agricultural production.

Of course, standing armies and state-level political organization already demand the second criterion: full-time labor specialization. Soldiers in a standing army are, after all, specialists in combat. Politicians and rulers are specialists in administration; judges specialists in law, etc. Such complexity in labor division can easily be extended. Such specialists produce no food of their own, and so are dependent on others for their subsistence. This builds an innate inequality to all agricultural exchange, as one party posesses something needed, while the other merely posesses something desired. That inequality can be shifted through threats and coercion–either of physical violence on the part of a military-backed secular force, or of spiritual retribution on the part of a religious organization. This brings us Childe’s third criterion–concentration of surplus–and its consequence, class structure, Childe’s fourth criterion.

So we see that all five of Childe’s primary criterion–cities, full-time specialization, concentration of surplus, class and the state–are all necessary consequences of sufficiently intensive food production. This kind of escalation is, itself, an example of a much more basic phenomenon: increasing complexity.

In his 1983 paper, “Breaking down cultural complexity: inequality and heterogeneity,” (in Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, vol 6), McGuire provides this definition of complexity:

Complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society. Hunter-gatherer societies (by way of illustrating one contrast in complexity) contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while modern European censuses recognize 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupational roles, and industrial societies may contain overall more than 1,000,000 different kinds of social personalities.

In “Complexity, Problem-Solving, and Sustainable Societies,” Joseph Tainter reiterates a point he makes in greater detail in his 1988 classic study, The Collapse of Complex Societies:

As a simple illustration of differences in complexity, Julian Steward pointed out the contrast between the native peoples of western North America, among whom early ethnographers documented 3,000 to 6,000 cultural elements, and the U.S. Army, which landed 500,000+ artifact types at Casablanca in World War 11 (Steward 1955). Complexity is quantifiable.

The conventional view has been that human societies have a latent tendency towards greater complexity. Complexity was assumed to be a desirable thing, and the logical result of surplus food, leisure time, and human creativity. Although this scenario is popular, it is inadequate to explain the evolution of complexity. In the world of cultural complexity there is, to use a colloquial expression, no free lunch. More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita. A society that is more complex has more sub-groups and social roles, more networks among groups and individuals, more horizontal and vertical controls, higher flow of information, greater centralization of information, more specialization, and greater interdependence of parts. Increasing any of these dimensions requires biological, mechanical, or chemical energy. In the days before fossil fuel subsidies, increasing the complexity of a society usually meant that the majority of its population had to work harder.

Tainter recognizes five primary subcategories of a culture’s complexity: subsistence methods, technology, conflict, sociopoltical organization, and research and development. Each area can be made more complex by an investment of energy; each can open up access to greater sources of energy by becoming more complex. Complexity is an investment that requires a given input, and makes a given return.

Civilization is a culture which adopts some key element of complexity for which more energy can be gained simply by intensifying input. Agriculture is the classic example: more intensive cultivation will yield more food. This is not necessarily true of foraging, which includes much more of a gamble. This creates a positive feedback loop by kicking off a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Failing to intensify production puts one at risk from those who choose to do so. Thus, all civilizations become compelled to grow at all costs (see thesis #12). Because of this, civilizations are forced to constantly increase their complexity whenever possible, whether by refining bureaucratic or administrative functions, increasing agricultural yields, using military force to secure new energy resources (whether this is expressed in Roman conquests explicitly made to acquire new farmland, or contemporary U.S. military involvement in the Middle East), inventing new technology, or any other form of complexity.

So, at last, we have a working definition of civilization. A civilization is any society which chooses to answer all stresses with an increase in complexity. As such, the seeds of collapse are sown in civilization’s very nature, because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns, and pursuing *any* one strategy as the response to *every* stress will suffer the same fate.