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Beyond Adolescence--a Positive Human Future

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One of the most interesting aspects of writing and posting an article is reading and responding to the commentary about it submitted by readers. This was certainly true for my recent essay "In Defense of Civilization" posted on One reader, Daniel Geary, made the very good point that to effectively discuss "civilization" it needs to be defined. What, precisely, does the author mean by "civilization?" Mr. Geary noted that this term is about as loosely defined as is, say, "God."

One web definition of the term is "Civilization is the process of civilizing or becoming civil. A civilized society is often characterized by advanced agriculture, long-distance trade, occupational specialization, and urbanism. ..."[i]

However, this is not the exact definition which I would use. My definition is as follows:

Civilization is socially organized complexity, intersubjectively negotiated among self-conscious entities, and characterized by substantial differentiation of occupational specialty. These characteristics must be sufficiently developed to allow for a significant enough degree of emergence for the social system as a whole, to grant it noticeably greater survival advantage than that possessed by groups which lack sufficient complexity for emergence to be a significant factor with respect to their individual or group survival.

The advantage of civilization, seen from this viewpoint is that it fully utilizes the scientific miracle of emergence. The properties of the whole system are greater than the sum of its constituent parts. This allows for not only more of whatever the constituent parts possess, but, more significantly, for wholly new properties to emerge at the systemic level. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms combined, allow for the property of "wetness' to emerge from their close interaction to form a molecule. Wetness is not reducible to the properties of its constituent atoms. It "emerges" from the organized complexity of its constituent parts.

In the case of human civilization, emergent properties include science, art, philosophy, mathematics, high technology, sophisticated culture in general. Such phenomena are non-existent, or exist in only rudimentary form among non-civilized humans.

True, our Upper Paleolithic ancestors created magnificent cave art. They possessed a variety of manufactured tools and undoubtedly, a complex culture as well. However, they never understood what the stars were. They knew nothing about quarks, and sub-atomic structure. Algebra, trigonometry, calculus were beyond their wildest conceptualizations. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was an impossibility for them, as were the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare.

Complex thought requires a critical mass of human interactivity to emerge. That critical mass simply does not occur at the hunter-gatherer level of organization. I think of this stage of humanity's history as being our species' childhood. (The Lower and Middle Paleolithic, before language was fully developed, would correspond with our species' infancy.)

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Michael P Byron is the author of The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad. This book is a manual for taking effective action to deal with the crises of our age including (more...)
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