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A Better Human Story #4-- Humankind's Perilous Step into Terra Incognita: The Rise of Civilization

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And indeed, all these developments took place in all the places on the planet where this transition independently took place: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley, as well as the two areas in the New World (Meso-America, and Peru). (These are all the places where civilization emerged in pristine form, not by transplantation.)

Free to invent new social and political structures. Free to invent and utilize new technologies not only for food production but for a host of other purposes. Free to expand.

Human societies emerge into this full range of possibilities, free of any firm limits imposed by the human creature's place in the evolved biological order.

But that freedom turned out to be an illusion. And, if we look at this unprecedented experiment in the history of life through the evolutionary perspective, we should not be surprised that it did.


The issue is, fundamentally, a matter of order versus disorder.

Order is essential to life, and what biological evolution selects for is order--from the intricate order of the cell all the way up to the order of the biosphere.

The living order of nature, though it has no ruler, is not in the least anarchic. Each pursues a kind of self-interest, each is a law unto itself, but the separate interests and laws have been formed over aeons of selection to form part of a tightly ordered harmonious system.

The elements interact -- some of them in highly conflictual ways -- but the selection for "what works" means that over time that interaction is rendered orderly. (Fungus on the Chinese chestnut.)

A force from outside the living system can introduce disorder, and destruction is the result. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs is one famous example. Another is the coming together of North and South America, through continental drift, which brought about the sudden interaction of species that had not evolved together. The result was a wave of species extinctions.

So, looking forward at the rise of civilized societies from the standpoint of the order out of which they were emerging, we might well have seen a big problem coming. They were stepping out of an established order into an altogether new situation.

No niche, no order. No order, then a terra incognita in the history of living systems.

Here we have these living entities -- civilized societies -- each one of which has no inherent limit to its ability to expand. Add to that the fact, observed by the archaeologists and anthropologists, that these emerging societies tended to arise in clusters within a circumscribed area of land. The inevitable consequence is that these societies would be compelled to interact with each other.

We will leave till next installment a discussion of what should be obvious at this point: a cluster of entities developing within reach of each other, with each having no inherent limit in its ability to expand, would inevitably lead to their interaction consisting largely of a struggle for power. For now, we will just stop the train where we note that these entities will have to interact with each other--somehow.

And here's the crucial issue: What is there to regulate their interactions to assure that whatever happens is consistent with the requirements of that kind of wholeness that had previously been essential to the evolution of life?

There is no biological order to regulate those interactions. For these social organisms had escaped from their biological niche. And there is no man-made order to regulate them, because the system is altogether fragmented into many such societies with no power whatever above them to govern such an order.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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