Sharp Blue: Thoughts on the classification of civilisations


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Recently, I’ve been thinking about the classification of civilisations. There are really two types of classification scheme. The first type is descriptive and the second type predictive. Almost all current schemes fall into the “descriptive” category. These are systems that are really sets of labels for the successive stages in development of a single civilisation (or group of related civilisations). One well known example is the division of human prehistory and history in Europe and the Middle East into the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age (of which the last two are “Civilisation” proper). Each of these divisions is characterised by a certain assemblage of technological artifacts. For example, the Mesolithic involves fishing nets and lines, the Neolithic agriculture and pottery, and the two “Civilised” phases some combination of cities, monumental architecture, writing and metal-working. But even within the limited scope of Europe and the Middle East, the scheme is problematic. Anatolia, for example, had an “aceramic Neolithic”.

Attempts to transfer descriptive schemes “sideways” to other regions of the the world have essentially failed. It seems that in the past, almost all civilisations have developed along their own lines, as determined by their cultural biases, local environmental potentialities and perhaps more than a little chance. Archaeologists studying Meso-America, for example, have long since discarded the Mesolithic/Neolithic/Bronze/Iron progression in favour of their own scheme that divides history into the Lithic, Archaic, Formative, Classic and Post-Classic periods. As in Europe, these periods are based on developments in technology and social organisation, but they aren’t the same developments! One extreme example is the society of the Incas, which was generally comparable with those of Sumeria or Egypt in terms of division of labour, monumental architecture, area controlled, artistic sophistication and the development of knowledge, but which had no writing and so would only be borderline “civilised” by a strictly applied Old World classification scheme. Likewise, the Mayan civilisation, which was perhaps the most advanced in America before Columbus, had no cities.

Now, if we’re talking about classifying civilisations on other planets or in the future of the solar system then we’re in the realm of predictive classification schemes, for the simple reason that no such civilisations are available to study. The broad-brush division of civilisations into Kardashev types might serve as the model for such schemes. If we had data on a civilisation that developed to the point at which it controlled all the energy of a world, then its star system, and then a galaxy, we would be able to use the Kardashev classification descriptively. If we saw lots of civilisations at various stages along this route (as we might have done, for example, if the searches for Dyson spheres [PDF] in the IRAS data had come back positive), we would be able to use it not just descriptively but, more importantly, predictively! This would be analogous to the piecing together of the main sequence of stellar evolution from snapshots of different stars. (Converting a spatial sample of civilisations and their relics into a temporal sequence of development will be at the heart of my “Hyperconnected Universe” novel if I ever find time to write it.)

However, the naive Kardashev model might be wrong, and so the Kardashev classification scheme might be useless. This could happen, for instance, if civilisations tend to only ever utilise a small fraction of a star’s power output: a society that controls 1% of the output of a hundred stars would be very different to one that controlled all the output of one star. For that matter, perhaps civilisations tend to use the Penrose process to extract rotational energy from black holes, or extract vacuum energy, or… Similarly, any other such classification scheme for advanced civilisations would embody a general model of the development, and will only be useful to the extent that the model is an accurate description of how civilisations develop.

So how likely to be true are general models of development? (Or, alternatively, how useful will classification schemes for civilisations be?) On the basis of the past, as discussed above, not very. Even if the development of each individual civilisation has been determined by its initial culture and environment in such a way that the consequences can be predicted from the initial conditions, these initial conditions have varied enough between civilisations that none can serve as a template for the others. Even societies that started out with the same social, cultural and technological “package” have diverged rapidly under different environmental influences, as might be seen most clearly in the diversification of the societies that spread outwards across the Pacific in the “Austronesian expansion”.

However, the future might be different: there might be increasingly strong attractors in societal development that kick in with technological advance. One possible example is artificial intelligence: superhumanly intelligent machines might all arrive at a set of universal principles (which are reached from all starting points) that then strongly channel social development. Another example might simply be the interconnections between technologies. If all you’ve invented is pottery, the wheel and writing then your society will likely be very different to one that has invented pottery, the wheel and the stirrup, whereas if you’ve invented many millions of things then they are each likely to be less important and at the same time more dependent on the others. (Perhaps the resolution of the mystery of the Great Silence is that there is such a strong attractor, and it’s a highly fatal one…) On the other hand, we can’t currently discern such attractors, so any classification scheme must be more nearly science fiction than futurology!

You are a gloomy old thing, Rich. You should spend less time worrying about classification schema for civilisations, and more time thinking about what's for dinner.

Come to think of it, I talk freely about alien civilisations, yet I would be hard pressed to define such an entity. Would I even know one if I saw it? (Aye, but there's the rub.) Has anybody ever tried unpacking our implicit assumptions about what makes an alien civilisation... um... civilised?



What a joy to read you. I will return again and again. Please write away and more, Dear Rich.

Why are you still stuck in that old rut of typing civilizations by their technology? The technology is only the outward product of the culture's empowerment of individuals. Likewise the group dynamic mindset of individuals both determines their total political structure and the extent that technology can progress and be used without incurring extinction.

It's said that the South American civilizations often collapsed when they had exhausted their environment. However clearly another invisible factor was at work - a collective cultural and group dynamic that made it impossible to adapt and continue.

Applying this to the dominance cycles of hegemons and empires, we can see the same pattern playing out. The group dynamic isn't static, there's a feedback system, and this can cause an evolution to the point where it suffers structural collapse and recedes. When it happens really badly you get a dark age. Theoretically it could happen so badly you reset the whole cycle of development, like survivors crawling out of a bomb shelter the day after a nuclear armageddon.

It's the consciousness that matters, the produces tools and tech and limits their uses.

I wouldn't say that I'm stuck in a rut at all. This post was focused on technology simply because Kevin Kelly asked me for my thoughts on classification schemes for technological civilisations as part of the research for his new book.

I am aware that there are classification schemes based on other dimensions of social variation, but these are less widely used and also, alas, less familiar to me. And, of course, for many of the older civilisations we only have access to their artifactual remains rather than directly to their mentalities. This would presumably be the case for extrasolar civilisations too, at least at first.

So you're saying the old adage again, that we're like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp-post even though he lost his keys by his car door because the lamp-post is where he has light to see by.

It's also like your review of the consilience work. If what you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Scientists are trained far more heavily in reductionism than synthesis. Hence the perchant for reductionist explanations.

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Yes, you're right, of course. But my life is so empty and meaningless that I think I might carry on writing articles for my site anyway, just to kill time.

I've more or less been doing nothing worth mentioning, but eh. My life's been really bland today. I don't care. I've just been letting everything happen without me these days. That's how it is.

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I suspect that the only way for anthropology to come up with a truly descriptive system of classifying civilizations will be if we end up starting a lot of interstellar colonies on habitable planets that then collapse into Stone Age nomadism for extended periods. Which seems unlikely.

Otherwise, our data set is never going to be big enough and there's never going to be enough information on how many of thse societies actually worked. We can guess at things like how the Chavin culture operated on a sociological level, but we'll never know enough to be able to compare that sociology to the sociology of other nonliterate civilizations.

The problem is similar to that of trying to reconstruct the ecology of extinct species from their fossils- we can't be sure that we haven't reassembled the iguanodon backwards, so to speak; and there's always the risk that we've missed some critical part of the food chain.

From the perspective of a pan-species system of classification similar in motive to Kardashev's, the difference between Chavin culture and ancient Sumeria or the monolith builders of pre-Indo-European Europe may not be significant. But it would be nice if we could create subcategories down to the point where such differences could be handled intelligently, if only we had enough information to identify the underlying themes.

At a guess, one of the big ones is going to be the availability of animal power. In the general case, intelligent beings who aren't strong enough to move everything they'd like to be able to move easily (such as humans) will have a need for something beefier than themselves to move it for them. Where such creatures are available, civilizations will take on a very different character from regions where they are not availablle.

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