- . . . law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice . . . [Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.]
“Why should I be good to others? Why should I care about anyone else?” Skeptics of a Humanist values system pose these questions regularly. As with the origins of life and evolution of species, we have not had the answer for most of history but it is beginning to emerge.
Steven Pinker has written a “supremely important book“, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), in which he presents first a statistical and then an analytical case that specific factors and developments have produced a decrease in violence and a corresponding increase in human well-being as civilizations have evolved. He argues that crucial factors in the “civilizing process” have included “the consolidation of power of the state above feudal loyalties, and . . . the spread of commerce.” Other factors include “the rise of agriculture and the spread of feminism and democracy.”
The essential point of Pinker’s book is not whether a lesser percentage of people are victims of violence than before, but what factors reduce violence and contribute to well-being. It is here, as Pinker discusses, that values such as empathy and reason play a central role. This work appears to be a major contribution, and perhaps a spark plug, to our understanding of civilization in evolutionary terms. Because civilization is a dynamic system, that point may seem obvious; yet we only seem to appreciate the importance of the evolutionary dynamics of systems after someone such as Pinker has made some sense out of the apparent chaos. No doubt, the knowledge explosion, made possible through the internet, is another tool for us to use in becoming more civilized: civilized in a sustainable way, perhaps, with large populations and advanced technologies. As Pinker points out, we have no guarantees.
As a nation, a people or a world community, can we prevent climate change from having catastrophic, world-wide consequences? Can we control the human population with a minimum sacrifice of freedom? Can the ideal of universal human well-being be anything more than a fantasy? We may have gained new ways of considering those questions and thereby new ways to answer them.
At least five essentially non-violent and non-political revolutions shaped civilization as we know it. These include the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and the digital revolution.
The cognitive revolution: The earliest evidence we have for the cognitive revolution consists of paintings and drawing on cave walls from 100,000 years ago, or earlier. By then, obviously, the human mind had developed sufficiently for people to think abstractly, plan for the future, and innovate in a uniquely human way.
- Clive Finlayson, The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2019).
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015): Part One is on the cognitive revolution.
- Lee Berger and John Hawks, Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Huan Story (National Geographic, 2017).
The agricultural revolution: Also called the Neolithic Revolution, “the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering changed humanity forever”. The first evidence of this development is from the Fertile Crescent, in the Middle East, approximately 12,000 years ago, and then later in other parts of the world. In addition to transforming daily life, this revolution increased the number of people Earth could support. This in turn led to the growth of cities and the revolutions that followed.
- Graeme Barker, The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: When Did Foragers Become Farmers? (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Peter Bellwood, First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).
- Colin Tudge, Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began (Yale University Press, ), arguing that farming began earlier than is generally believed.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015): Part Two offers a lament that the agricultural revolution occurred.
The scientific revolution: The five great revolutions that transformed and in a sense created civilization took place in near-geometric progression over time, with roughly 100,000 years between the first two, 12,000 years between the second and third, 200-300 years between the third and fourth, and 150 years between the final two. Once science took off, relatively rapid progress to the next two stages apparently was inevitable.
The scientific revolution began approximately in the mid-1500s, led by Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Newton and others. We think of it as having occurred mainly in Europe but of course it extended elsewhere too. The scientific revolution represented a new way of thinking, and spawned a masterful dissertation in 1962, in which Thomas Kuhn explored the interplay between established and novel thinking in science.
- David Wooten, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (Harper, 2015).
- Ofer Gal, The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
- William E. Burns, The Scientific Revolution in Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 2015).
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015): Part Four is on the scientific revolution.
- Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
The industrial revolution began in Britain approximately in 1760, and picked up speed over time. It saw the development of the steam engine, internal combustion engine, large-scale manufacturing, and a plethora of other developments. It ushered in the transformation from rural to urban societies, and completely changed the character of daily life. However, because it relied on fossil fuels, it also produced consequences that may haunt humanity for centuries.
- Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History (Routledge, Fifth Edition, 2020).
- Robert C. Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
- Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution (The New Press, 1999).
The digital revolution: We are in the digital age. Scientific research that took months to do twenty-five years ago can now be done in a few hours or couple of days, from the scientist’s or student’s living room. Medical research and library science are completely transformed. Lawyers no longer need or use law libraries, or those impressive-looking casebooks; everything is online, and available not only to lawyers also to the general pubic, usually free of charge. We no longer listen to records, or even compact discs; a wealth of music that would have been impossible to accumulate is available to every with a computer. All our relationships are transformed, “as the silicon chip’s reach permeates almost everything we do—from buying groceries online to finding a partner on a dating website”. In broad historical perspective, all of this is happening at lightening speed, challenging policy makers to address the power dynamics of gigantic corporations that control markets that are now used by billions of people worldwide. Artificial intelligence technologies are emerging, with consequences we cannot reliably predict. More than ever before, humanity is challenged to devise responses to these developments, lest we be consumed by them.
- Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
- Arash Shaban-Nejad and Martin Michalowski, eds., Precision Health and Medicine: A Digital Revolution in Healthcare (Springer, 1st Edition, 2019).
- Bill Kovarik, Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age (Bloomsbury Academic, 2nd Edition, 2015).
- Claudia Rijcken, ed., Pharmaceutical Care in Digital Revolution: Insights Toward Circular Innovation (Academic Press, 1st Edition, 2019).
- Mac Sullivan and Johannes Kern, eds., The Digital Transformation of Logistics: Demystifying Impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Wiley, 1st Edition, 2021).
- Jake Ryan, Crypto Asset Investing in the Age of Autonomy: The Complete Handbook to Building Wealth in the Next Digital Revolution (Wiley, 1st Edition, 2020).
- Tsedal Neeley, Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding from Anywhere (Harper Business, 2021).
- Kimberly Rosenfeld, ed., Gender, Communication, and the Digital Revolution (Cognella Academic Publishing, 2019).
- Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 2011).
- Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (Little, Brown & Co., 1974).
- Carroll Quigley, The Evolution of Civilizations (Liberty Fund 1979).
- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011): Pinker employs exhaustive scholarship to argue that advancing civilization leads to less violence.
- Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (The New Press, 2014): “ . . . he argues that the high culture that was once the basic diet of the European bourgeoisie is shriveling fast — either unknown to new generations or else swamped by today’s deluge of permanent, round-the-clock electronic entertainment, ‘the great simultaneous circus show of sound, shape, image, color, celebrity and spectacle that constitutes the contemporary cultural experience.’”
The following histories of our brutal primitive past support the dark side of Pinker's thesis.
- Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). "Crucifixion was so common in the ancient world . . . that Jews and gentiles alike had taken to wearing nails from victims as charms . . .."
Technical and Analytical Readings
Humans are uniquely able to develop cultures. Approximately 200,000 years ago, in Africa, homo sapiens began making and using stone tools, developing symbolic language, and engaging in unique social practices and organizations. On this foundation rests social/cultural transmission of information and practices, which then became a robust means for social evolution. Boyd and Richerson make five basic points about human culture: (1) it is information that people acquire through social learning; (2) it is best modeled as an evolutionary process; (3) it has its roots in human biology; (4) it distinguishes human evolution from evolution in other species; and (5) genes and culture co-evolve. Tomasello expands on this final point, explaining that while social evolution explains how the human condition evolves, it does not explain how we humans acquired our unique capacity for culture in the first place. “. . . the traditional notion of culture as something apart from biology and evolution will not do. Human culture is the form of social organization that arose . . . in response to specific adaptive changes.” With those changes in place, humans began to form our civilizations.
- Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press, 2000).
- Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Michael Tomasello, Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (Belknap Press, 2019).
- Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Huan Evolution (University of Chicago Press, 2006).
- Robert Boyd, A Different Kind of Animal: How Culture Transformed Our Species (Princeton University Press, 2017).
- Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012).
- John Armstrong, In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea (Graywolf Press, 2011).
- Michael C. Corballis, The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization (Princeton University Press, 2011).
- Jeremy Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).
- Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Tarcher, 2009).
- Ellman R. Service, Origins of the State and Civilization (Norton, 1975).
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
Documentary and Educational Films
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Molto allegro: the mood is one of controlled tension.
- Andante: a bit more reassured at first but then the tension returns.
- Menuetto (Allegretto): as in the first movement, this is the sound of controlled tension but then we hear a more typical menuetto, suitable for fine dancing. The tension returns.
- Allegro assai: This concluding movement offers another theme in the same vein. As Mozart resolves the theme, we get the sense that he is telling us to learn to live with a certain amount of tension in the civilized world.
- R. Strauss, La Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, Op. 60
- Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2, “A London Symphony” (original long version)
- Two orchestral works by Jennifer Higdon evoke a modern urban landscape: Concerto for Orchestra; Cityscape (a musical portrait of Atlanta): 1. Skyline; 2. River Sings a Song to Trees; 3. Peachtree Street.
- Glazunov, Symphony No. 7 in F Major, Op. 77, "Pastorale" (1903): “a pastoral” symphony for city dwellers
- David Haney, Birth of a City, for string quartet and improvising quartet: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6.
- Jazzmob, “Infernal Machine”