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Chapter 4: How to Run a Civilization

Now things are getting interesting.  In Chapter 1, I defined what I mean by civilization.  In Chapter 2, I established that the big payoff for having a civilization is an exponentially growing energy budget because of the possibility of reinvesting surplus for growth.  And in Chapter 3, I established that civilization doesn’t naturally arise from humans because the human EEA is non-civilized in some crucial ways, so some other mechanism is required to instantiate civilization on human hardware.

That mechanism is religion.  I define religion here not in terms of doctrine or theology, but in opposition to generic spirituality.  I postulate that spirituality (or animism, in anthropological terms) is the default human sensibility for supernatural matters, stemming from the application of the built-in human sociality module, along with the naïve theory of mind, to the natural world.  Religions use this spiritual sense as an interface into the typical human brain to deliver a payload of beliefs and incentives that have the effect of overriding default human behaviors, changing them to ones more conducive to civilization.  In Hanson’s terms, spirituality supports forager norms and religion encourages farmer norms.

From this perspective, sin or wickedness are those behaviors that people really want to engage in because they were associated with success in a prior evolutionary epoch, but that interfere with the operation of civilization.  Let’s analyze the traditional Catholic seven deadly sins as a concrete example of what I’m getting at.

Lust – In the EEA, what a civilized society would usually consider sexual infidelity appears to have been relatively common.[1]  However, in agricultural societies where the expectation is that parents will invest heavily in their own young, sexual infidelity – especially female sexual infidelity, with the concomitant paternity doubts – has significant externalities.  Enter religion, which universally supports some form of marriage rites that link pair-bonding with children and property, and which castigates extramarital sexual activity as sinful.

Gluttony – In the EEA, eating one’s fill whenever food is available is usually a good idea.  Hunts are fairly rare, there isn’t a good way to store food, and privation could come swiftly.  In civilization, this logic is turned on its head.  Food storage and rationing is key to the whole enterprise, since the expectation is that most of the calories for a person-year will be gathered in a couple of bursts, instead of gradually over the course of the year as a forager might.  If a person were to eat their fill since so much food is available, they could easily run out before they can get to the next harvest, leading to starvation.

Greed – In the EEA, it’s not possible to amass any significant amount of personal possessions.  Wealth is a super-stimulus that only comes about as a byproduct of civilization.  Thus, regulating people’s relationship to it is a constant struggle.

Sloth – As mentioned before, agricultural society demands much harder work than makes sense in the EEA.  Injunctions against sloth are needed to get and keep people working at a surplus-generating clip.

Wrath – In the EEA, violence (or the threat thereof) was often an excellent strategy to improve a person’s standing or to redress a grievance, if one was good at reading and manipulating the coalition politics of one’s tribe.  But when expanded to civilized society, wrath has horrible externalities.  There are two reasons for this.  First, a civilized society will need some sort of coordination mechanism to deal with grievances (like some form of law or custom), to prevent blood feuds from tearing everything apart, and a civilized society will need some way to keep angry people in the system.  And second, because of the authenticity problem mentioned in Chapter 3, people constantly feel like they are surrounded by people who are outside of their monkeysphere, which triggers the associated xenophobia and increases wrath incidents well above what you’d expect at the forager baseline.

Envy – People really hate significant disparities in material possessions.  In the EEA, it appears that envy was an effective strategy to prevent individuals from claiming much more than their fair share, by serving as a rallying point for the other members of the tribe to form a coalition to demand what they felt was theirs.  In civilized society, though, much wider disparities of wealth and status than exist in any hunter-gatherer society always appear and seem to be necessary for the proper functioning of a civilized order.  Thus, a religious injunction is necessary to prevent the natural envy response from tearing down the system.

Pride – If there’s anything people hate more than material inequity, it’s substantial status inequity within one’s monkeysphere.  In primate tribes (and presumably the human EEA), low status males tend not to reproduce at all, while low status females and their children are at the end of the feeding queue and are the first to starve when things go bad.  Status was literally a matter of life and death.  I think that this is why studies report that people fear public speaking on average more than physical death.  My guess is that the point of an injunction against pride, functionally, is largely to smooth these status mismatches in a way that prevents destructive intra-group competition.

As an aside, David Wong brings up an excellent insight in his Monkeysphere article about the function of the concept of a personal God in respect to a person’s monkeysphere.  He claims that the neat thing about considering God a person is that it serves as something akin to a virtual node in a person’s social graph.  Even if you’re surrounded by thousands of people who aren’t really people and you’re tempted to mistreat them, because, you know, they’re not really people, if God is telling you that messing with those people is equivalent to messing with Him, you’re a lot less likely to do it.  Similarly, if God is a fully-fledged individual in your monkeysphere, and he has the maximum status imaginable, it makes the status differences between yourself and the other people around you seem a whole lot less important.

OK, this is a pretty audacious claim.  It’s not a wholly original claim, though.  That’s a good sign.  Lots of thinkers, religious and otherwise, have analyzed this pattern and have come to the conclusion that religion (regardless of the truth claims of any particular theology) serves a critical social purpose.  But I think I can go further and explain why and how this works.

The key, I believe, is found in the shift from the Late Neolithic to the Bronze Age, which happened around 3,300 BC in the Near East and made its way to China by about 2,000 BC.[2]  Neolithic cities appear to have topped out at around 5,000 individuals, regardless of the particular location, which indicates that there was a fundamental limit to the scale that could be achieved at that level of organization.  I hypothesize that this limit stems from the fact that the complexity of the social network grows as the square of the number of people.  Each person may be usefully linked to each other person, so the complete social graph must be maintained.  People can handle the complete problem purely in their native hardware at the Dunbar limit.  When close cooperation and intense social grooming are not routinely required, there’s some give, allowing societies to scale to the larger Neolithic limit.

This makes the subsequent Bronze Age a terribly exciting time.  For it’s here that we first see evidence of truly scalable societies.  Individual city sizes grow to the tens of thousands.  Empires arise to encompass substantial area and unify up to a dozen cities under the same political rule.  And intra-city, there’s a much more substantial division of labor, with dozens of distinct crafts pursued as full-time vocations.

The key innovation underpinning this explosion appears to be the development of a strict, vertical hierarchy.  Hierarchy is such a powerful advance due to its algorithmic superiority over egalitarianism: the number of relevant social links can shrink from O(N^2) down to O(N).  This greatly reduces the cognitive burden on each person, relieving a major limiting factor on group size.

As theorized earlier, the human mind is spending a significant amount of its processing power on solving the social graph.  Here’s a rough outline of what goes into accomplishing that, from the point of view of a given individual:

  1. A model needs to be built of the other person as an agent with his own desires, personality, and capabilities.
  2. The other person’s importance must be determined.  How much do I need to care about him?
  3. The other person’s loyalties need to be ascertained.  Is he on my side?  If not, what, if anything, can I do to secure him as a potential ally or isolate him as a potential enemy?
  4. What do third parties think of him?

Since these tasks are so fundamental to the human experience, these extremely complicated calculations feel like simple mental primitive actions to neurotypical sorts (as opposed to autistic types, who can be much more intelligent when it comes to raw brainpower, but are socially retarded because they lack this specialized social brain function).  So it’s natural for most people to apply them outside of the domain of human relationships.  Hence: anthropomorphism.  When these questions are applied to natural phenomena (like, say, a river or a tree) with some rigor, I’ve argued that animism immediately follows.  Each spirit has some degree of agency and, through the shaman, can be appeased or allied with.

Bronze Age civilizations scaled up this basic animist pattern, replacing the shaman with a dedicated priestly caste who could serve as the community’s interface to the gods.   Everywhere, priests used this authority to build up and support an extreme hierarchical social organization, commonly headed by a literal god or demigod.  And it turns out that, though people find hierarchy quite onerous, they are typically willing to put up with it if they believe that the system is divinely sanctioned.

The new hierarchical systems had another key advantage worth noting here.  By enabling such large inequalities of status and resources, it became possible to accumulate capital on a larger scale.  Before, any marginal surplus would be eaten by each individual, resulting in population growth and perhaps a diffuse increase in quality of life.  But after, it was possible to use taxation to harvest and concentrate surplus resources on specific projects (such as large temples or irrigation canals).

Over the course of a couple thousand years under this new model, the cities of the Middle East built upon the earlier Neolithic kernel to implement several foundational advances.  So much was accomplished that it’s illustrative to just list some of the new inventions of the era.

  • The eponymous metal came in to use.  Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, meaning that its manufacture requires something resembling an industrial base.  The source metals have to be mined separately as ore, refined into purer metals, and then added together in order to create the alloy.  This is a decidedly non-trivial accomplishment.
  • Systems of writing were developed, running from cuneiform and hieroglyphic, to alphabetic at the end of the period.  The implications of this invention deserve to be discussed at much greater length than we have time for here.  But, for our purposes, it’s sufficient to note that writing represents a massive increase in the cognitive ability of the literate, because it becomes safe for an individual to forget.  The written word abides.
  • Dependent on the above, formal codes of law and conduct were set up and enforced during this period.
  • Mathematics.  Math makes everything better; including, but not limited to: construction, trade, taxation, surveying, and time measurement.
  • Astronomy, the first pure science, began to be codified.  Events like eclipses were observed and predicted successfully.
  • Wheels came into use, for both vehicular transport and the creation of pottery.
  • Long-distance trade.  There is considerable evidence that Bronze Age civilizations were trading for goods that originated thousands of miles away.  In particular, the tin needed to make bronze was not available in large quantities near the core cities of Mesopotamia or Egypt.  It likely had to be imported from Western Europe or Central Asia.

Looking at that list, it seems like pretty much everything that comes to mind as a feature of civilization that isn’t a bare requirement (agriculture, construction of permanent dwellings, etc.) has its roots in the Bronze Age.  And, crucially, it all happened either contemporaneously with or soon after the imposition of priest-supported hierarchical organization.

Going forward, I shall define the role of priest, functionally, as the vocation which is tasked with stabilizing and legitimating a civilized order by influencing the thoughts of the other people in society.  In different places and different times, this role takes on radically divergent cultural trappings.  But the common thread is that priests work to establish a civilized order as right and good in the minds of their fellows.  Given the typical human’s spiritual inclinations, this is usually accomplished by developing, extending, and promulgating some form of theistic doctrine, though this is by no means a requirement of the form.

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