The course of human history from the dawning of agriculture in the Near East about ten thousand years ago, to the present, can be understood as embodying the progressive development of ever more complex political economies. Developing this complexity has required coordinating the actions of ever larger groups of humans together for collective purposes.
After 10,000 years of this process of political and economic complexification, civilization now finds itself confronting fundamental crises of survival due to peak oil, global climate change, and political and economic failures to deal with these crises. Given this reality, an understanding of the dynamics of this process, using systems theory offers considerable insight into our history. Furthermore, it offers insights into what we must do in the here and now to ensure that civilization can transform itself to survive and thrive in the face of these ever intensifying challenges.
Most accounts of ancient societies present them as being centered upon their unique pantheon of gods and goddesses. Across the planet, the rise of civilization is centered upon the rise of that civilization’s gods. The center of each civilization is the place where its gods were worshipped. The unification of a cultural region into a unified political body required the unification of the pantheon of gods for that civilization. The story of civilization is the story of civilization’s gods.
For example, at the dawn of history, by about 3200 BCE, ancient Sumeria possessed a common language and culture shared between diverse, often warring, city-states. In conjunction with a common pantheon of major gods, each city state had its own unique patron deity. The massive ziggurat near the center of each of these city-states was dedicated to this patron god. For example, in Lagash the patron deity was Ningirsu. In nearby Uruk it was Inanna. Not only were these cities physically built around the temple of their patron god, so also was their political economy organized around the cult of this god as well. The cult of the chief god, in conjunction with those of the lesser gods, unified the city’s population.
Following the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3,000 BCE, a composite pantheon of gods and goddesses for all Egypt was established which provided the basis for Egypt’s unity and cohesion for 3,000 years.
The different agricultural regions of China developed a variety of gods. These came to be merged into a unified pantheon during the Shang Dynasty beginning about 1750 BCE. This pantheon of gods included Le Kun god of thunder, Kuan Ti, god of war, Kwan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion, and many others. With this religious unification came the political unification of China over the next millennium.
I could go on and on and on.
Looking at this relationship from the perspective of systems theory offers considerable explanatory utility. A system is any group of elements which interact with one another in such a manner as to give the group on interacting elements a group identity. Systems possess three fundamental characteristics:
Every element in a system is connected to, and so is affected by, every other element in that system. Every system possesses a boundary, which distinguishes the area that is inside of a system and the area which lies outside of it. The system’s boundary can be either open or closed to this surrounding environment, either allowing movement through it or closing the system off from outside influence. Systems can be either simple, in that they follow invariant, deterministic behaviors, or they can be complex in that their behavior at any future moment is not knowable.
Finally, systems possess group properties which cannot be attributed to the composite influences of their elements. Emergence is a true scientific miracle of nature. Consider the simple system formed by two hydrogen atoms combined with one of oxygen into a molecule of water. This molecule possesses the group property of, call it, “wetness”. Wetness cannot be reduced to the individual properties of its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Consider also a single neuron. It is not aware of anything. Yet billions of these neurons combined together into your brain—a complex system—possesses consciousness and self-identity. These cannot be attributed to its constituent neurons. Rather, consciousness is an emergent property of complexly interconnected neurons. As these neurons are made of ordinary atoms, consciousness is an emergent property of matter, complexly arranged.
With emergence, the whole is greater than the sum of the system’s constituent parts. Understanding this critical concept is the key to understanding the central role of gods in the emergence and subsequent development of human civilization towards increasing complexity. It is also key to understanding what we must do now to preserve civilization at this moment of supreme crisis.
Organizing early agrarian societies required regulating and coordinating the behaviors of large groups of people who were not directly related. Family hierarchies were not adequate for this purpose. However, if everyone in a geographic community would not only speak the same language, but also worship the same gods, organizational problems could be resolved. If the gods represented sacred Authority, and all members of a community acknowledged this sacred Authority, then earthly Representatives of these gods—Priests and or Kings, could command everyone in Their name. A unified political economy could then emerge.
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