Revising Civilization

I first encountered Icarus Interstellar in 2012 and thought, “Yes! This is awesome!” I should be more articulate about “awesome”: Icarus is ambitious and grassroots and exactly the kind of effort needed to sustain profound—even transcendent—goals. When Project Astrolabe advertised its agenda, I leapt at the call for contributions. Over the previous decade, I had developed an somewhat rarified hobby: collecting research related to humanity’s broad historical experience. World history, international theorizing and the like, all of which intersected my doctoral work in international relations and US grand strategy. Thus, in Astrolabe’s statement of purpose, I saw exciting potential. Inspired by the hard work of Nick Nielsen, Heath Rezabek and others, I believed that my background could offer unique insights.  What follows, then, is a two-part series proposing new approaches and shedding further light on how Project Astrolabe, Icarus Interstellar and the larger community can study and engage civilization, humanity’s most complex invention and its most necessary tool to know the universe.

My argument is that civilization must be revised. Of course, the concept enjoys a long history, and it has proven indispensable across generations grappling with the largest social, cultural and political questions. Far from arcane, it remains a live point of debate and discussion. The problem is that a science of civilization has proven impossible to pursue systematically because the concept is often loosely defined or, conversely, defined in a way that naturally suits a given researcher or, at best, a discipline. Project Astrolabe, however, offers a unique opportunity to evaluate how civilization has been studied and applied and then, out of that philosophical and methodological thicket, propose a definition of civilization that is a generalizable, discrete unit of analysis. 

Already, many discrete sciences of civilization do exist. Most notably, these include the traditional social sciences as well as attempts over the last generation to blend those established efforts with the natural sciences in order to work out unifying theories and project future trajectories.  In cosmological studies, projections about extraterrestrial civilizations or a future human civilization center on technological capacity and energy usage. There is a long history, here, stretching at least to the eighteenth century, but with expanding political openness, internet access and computing power over the last 25 years, these efforts have seen a massive growth. All of the constituent elements of civilization, however we define it, are actively studied, and there are a number of efforts to develop theoretically and empirically rigorous models or accounts of macro- and long-term human social behavior. 

“Newton” by William Blake, 1975

 Within the last generation, though, observers are increasingly able to blend theories and findings from across disciplines and begin building savvy master theories and narratives.  Earlier efforts at this kind of work tended to be limited to “Western civilization” or to be oversimplified. The mid-twentieth century’s modernization, secularization and development theories represent a classic example.  Even Max Weber’s older but still-compelling work on the modern state, which drew inspiration from China’s ancient bureaucracy, lacked access to truly global information. By contrast, recent generations can claim real progress toward methodological sophistication. Examples include credible data sets covering economics and demographics over centuries, even millennia; theoretically nuanced and cross-cultural case studies, world history and “big history;” and, of course, ongoing revolutions in computer modeling as well as astronomical observation. Crucially, though, much of this research is also tempered with at least some humility after previous generations’ failures and hubris.  In other words, researchers today are often well aware that past waves of big history and social theory (ranging from advanced Marxism to Whig history to early futurism) have collapsed because their broad assumptions, cultural monism and impetuous predictions undermined their claims. 


Previous waves of civilization research have collapsed. (Image: Hugh Ferriss, “Forecast of the city of the future,” 1928)

Arguably, then, the current wave is more sustainable and better informed because it has access to vastly more information as well as a self-awareness of past failures.  This wave is also dispersed rather than residing in a single school of thought or tradition.  A real, sustainable “science” of the human experience at the broadest levels may be emerging.  Notably, I’m not saying that we are moving toward a singularity or unified social theory; rather, I am saying that scholars in multiple settings are converging on a body of methodology, conventional wisdom, empirical knowledge and shared language that allows them to probe these questions systematically and in a way that interested outsiders or unrelated fellow travelers will recognize as legitimate, if not always correct. It is an ecosystem of scholarship.

There is, however, no systematic science of “civilization” itself as a unit of analysis.  Archaeologists are able to develop narratives and theories about the emergence and perhaps collapse of civilizations; historians, humanists and some anthropologists similarly offer theories and narratives about the course—particularly the cultural course—of civilization.  Economists likewise describe the economic and productive logics of civilization, while political scientists and international relations scholars typically treat states and empires as a discrete and quantifiable form of “civilization.”  Cosmologists, meanwhile, calculate the requirements and probabilities of intelligent life both arising and developing a civilization capable of projecting outward into the universe. There are even a few associations that explicitly study and compare civilization at the broadest levels.  In all these instances, though, even where scholars are careful and explicit about their working definitions of civilization, the concept remains a loose term referring to some overlap of cultural affinities, economic integration and social organization. Furthermore, these schools rarely cross pollenate. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” accurately describes this situation. Thus, “civilization” is a dynamic and pliable notion, but it is also the analytical equivalent of goulash. [1]

A foundational problem, here, is that the term emerged in multiple contexts as a tool to indicate distinctions between “us” and barbarians.  China offers a classic example. Culturally and economically dominant, Han Chinese dynasties easily asserted an unchallenged claim to represent and defend civilization against all challengers. In turn, by definition, outsiders could be civilized only by becoming Chinese. Of course, nearly every human group is prone to this type of bifurcation. Unfortunately, it is not a rigorous analytical distinction.  In 19th century Europe and North America, a somewhat more precise notion developed, but again, it essentially continued as a chauvinist distinction that allowed early social theorists to describe European civilization as distinct and at the top of a hierarchy of human socio-cultural forms.  (The Europeans, I would argue, were neither more nor less ethically wrong than nearly every other human group that has made such visceral categorizations; however, they became uniquely able to expand their own formulation to the rest of the world.)


There is, however, no systematic science of “civilization” itself as a unit of analysis. Older definitions continued as a chauvinist distinction that allowed early social theorists to describe European civilization as distinct and at the top of a hierarchy of human socio-cultural forms. (Image: Hubert Robert, “Ancient Ruins Used as Public Baths,” 1798.)

 Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis is a recent and highly visible illustration of the topic’s analytical problems.  I will bracket the argument itself and focus on Huntington’s assumptions about civilization: it is, he said, the highest level of identification with which humans actively associate themselves.  If pressed, people are willing to defend “the West” or “Islam,” but Huntington thinks our affiliations will not move higher than that.  This identification is essentially cultural, but because religion and culture in most civilizations overlap, Huntington identified civilizations, such as the Hindu, Muslim or Orthodox Christian, with their religious infrastructures.  Notably, Huntington was a renowned political scientist, and much of his work was legitimately rigorous and important.  Unfortunately, though, while the “clash” thesis on its face feels intuitive, most international relations scholars agree that it is analytically weak, and perhaps even harmful.  First of all, there is as much or more conflict within civilizations as between them, which undermines Huntington’s empirical claim.  Second, there is no evidence suggesting that humans identify with a “civilization” above a local group, one’s state or, alternatively, humanity itself.  Third—and this is most important for the question of a science of civilization—Huntington’s cultural notion is almost impossible to track and is subjective relative to where the observer sits.  Sitting in Beijing, Riyadh or New York, civilization is going to take on rather different characteristics and implications.  In addition, this makes little reference to economic production (though that is not excluded) or archaeologists’ hard-won conceptualizations of the phenomenon and how it arises.  It also forecloses the possibility that the modern world might have become a global civilization with, as in early modern Europe or Warring States China, a system of subunits. 

Needless to say—almost—Huntington’s and most other mainstream approaches make little reference to civilization as a product of social intelligence which might be replicated beyond Earth.  Crucially, this question again underscores the basic analytical problem with civilization as it is typically defined: it is post hoc and typically in specific reference to a single or a handful of particular cases.  There is little effort to generalize civilization as a potentially universal phenomenon or develop generalizable variables related to the formation and expansion of civilizations.  With a single observation (humanity), this gap is understandable, but it also means that we lack a well-developed framework to evaluate interstellar, future or genuinely comparative civilizations.

This historical approach to civilization also hamstrings efforts to project how a human yet interplanetary or interstellar civilization might unfold.  Scholars and enthusiasts draw analogies with human colonization of Earth and European expansion, but such analogizing suffers from at least two major gaps. First, it has rarely, if ever, been rigorously, systematically tested. Second, it makes little distinction between the complex social and productive capacities of a civilization and general human social behavior.  In other words, observers may be correct that historical analogies are an effective means to speculate about both human and extraterrestrial civilization.  They are also probably correct that civilizations are the most likely social organizations to generate interplanetary and interstellar capabilities.  However, civilization is not inevitable.  How civilization is distinct from intelligence and the degree to which the human experience might track with future and alien civilization is underdeveloped.  This underdevelopment stems from, again, weak foundations. These include attempting to work with analytically thin conceptions of “civilization;” loose or inconsistent analogies of past experiences with current and future scenarios (or onto other, putative intelligent beings); and overly technological or reductionist approaches. 


Civilization is not inevitable. How civilization is distinct from intelligence and the degree to which the human experience might track with future and alien civilization is underdeveloped. (Image: The Standard of Ur, Sumeria, 2600 BC.)

 To take one illustration, that latter, technology-centered approach conflates civilization with technical prowess and simply assumes the sophisticated cultural and political underpinnings of this technological success. A typical approach within this framework might argue that human civilization can extend beyond Earth once we develop efficient energy sources, sustainable manufacturing technologies and more-or-less global governance. What is implied, here—and it is a massive implication—is that with enough time, humans will work out the political, cultural and economic challenges that allow for complex goal-setting and coordination. [2] Those conditions cannot be taken for granted. The Fermi Paradox, for example, relies upon a probabilistic model in which extraterrestrial intelligent beings, if they exist beyond Earth, should have existed for eons and, in turn, some portion of those should have developed the cultural, technological and institutional capacity to project themselves beyond their native planets. That assumption rests on the experience of modern humanity, which is, at most, no more than 500 years old. The Fermi Paradox and the work that it has inspired reflect serious insights into the cosmos. To assess their constraints and potential, though, we need to be clear that they are rooted in a specific type of historical analogy.

To address this systemic weakness, Project Astrolabe is seeking to evaluate and integrate various fields and approaches.  A good example is Nick Nielsen’s series on the Centauri Dreams blog addressing the ethical and technical questions of humanity as effectively the only intelligence in the observed universe.  This is a fascinating integration of established philosophy, practical astrophysics and futurist projection.  Notably, this kind of work may generate new categories rather than simply bridging old ones.  One implication, here, to return to the original question, is that a science of civilization may become—or must become—something new rather than an extension of old intellectual trajectories. 

In a post to follow, I offer suggestions about how to move forward with Project Astrolabe’s agenda and the larger project of systematically studying civilization. Such research, I believe, can and must develop a notion of civilization as a unit of analysis. It should also challenge as well as strengthen cherished theories that rest on simple or unexamined historical analogies. Perhaps more importantly, though, I believe that Astrolabe and others working along these lines can develop the intellectual infrastructure necessary to nurture a large and robust movement. 


A science of civilization may become—or must become—something new rather than an extension of old intellectual trajectories. (Image: Jules Verne, “Albatross Flying Ship,” 1886.)


[1] The author is grateful to Nick Nielsen for the Wittgenstein observation. Using slightly less culinary language, Nielsen also details this family resemblance issue: “One of the consequences of approaching civilization by way of an eclectic grouping of disciplines or areas of study is the de facto use of recursive definitions, implicitly taking the form of ‘X is a civilization if X has f and X has g, and so on,’ for some finite list of properties. Cultural imperialism (‘cultural monism’ above) comes from appending an extremal clause to a recursive definition such that, ‘X is a civilization if X has f, g, h, and nothing else is a civilization.’ The ‘and nothing else is a civilization’ is the extremal clause. The use of an extremal clause is the attempt to close off an open-textured concept.”

[2] This is arguably attributable to oversimplified applications of evolutionary theory and liberal progressivism. However, that is grist for another paper.