Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cultural Evolution

Ideally, the natural evolution of culture would refine us all for the better. Cities would become better places to live, countries would prosper, and the world would be a better place.  At least that's the evolutionary process we're encouraged to believe, but look beyond to the larger context of civilization.
As a rule, civilizations rise, stagnate, and decline.  That inevitable fall is commonly devastating with displacement of populations and economic collapse.  That which might have been considered social progress can be offset by death and suffering.  A vibrant culture can become insipid.

The Babylonians

In 2000 BC, Babylon was a city-state in ancient Mesopotamia.  It became the largest city in the world, and by the 5th century BC, Babylon had grown into an empire. It was captured by the Assyrians, but the citizens rebelled and established the empire again under Nebuchadnezzar. Later, Babylon was conquered by the Persians and then by the Macedonians. The region flourished under Alexander the Great, but after his death in 323 BC, it collapsed.  In the modern era, nothing remained of Babylon but ruins until Saddam Hussein built the city again. 

What happened to the Phoenicians?
Why did the Ottoman and Persian empires fail?
Why did the Greek and Roman empires disappear?
The Yuan and Qing Dynasties came and went.
The Mongol Empire was the largest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, ending after centuries in 1783, but why?

What might they all have in common?           
Most cited, a natural sequence of rise and fall.                 
"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long." [GibbonDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (London, 1788, ed. 1909)] 

To that immoderate greatness, Arnold Toynbee adds:  The fall of a civilization occurred when a cultural elite became parasitic elite, leading to the rise of internal and external proletariats (working class folks, grouped).  I.e., revolution follows.

Joseph Tainter observes:  There are diminishing returns to increased complexity.  After a civilization reaches some maximum level of complexity, further increases produce a negative return and decline.  When there are too many hands between the crop and the table, too many layers between work and the product, and too many rules regarding day to day life and business, perhaps the threshold has been reached.

It raises the question, just how complex (and sustainable) is our civilization?  There are obviously many elements in a civilization's durability, yet one can't help but wonder about our 'parasitic elite' and extraordinary complexity.  If there is such a threshold, we have certainly passed beyond the first risk level.  Well beyond.

Solutions?  Are democracy and a free market economy the solution?

Our second president John Adams warned, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

How well do we understand the world, the daily life of others and our place in it all?
Perhaps he's got a point. The evolutionary changes our culture has undergone in the last century or so suggest that the wealthy have left common folks behind. The GAP is widening rapidly.  In our country, wages for the bottom 90% have stagnated, opportunity has declined as have mobility, family, and community coherence. Economic inequality plagues a large segment of our population; one in five children lives in poverty.  As for complexity, our subsistence pipelines for food and water, energy and transportation, all are fragile to some degree.  Can we step back and see the larger view?  How might we behave more reasonably? 

And how about that 'parasitic elite' idea?