Civilization is a manifestation of order.
- . . . 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.’”
- Ronald Brownstein, Rock Me On the Water: 1974 – The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics (Harper/HarperCollins, 2021): the author has “expertly knit the scenes together, giving the reader a plus-one invite to the heady world of Hollywood parties, jam sessions and pitch meetings, as well as a pointed demonstration of how culture can be made and unmade.”
- Martin Puchner, Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop (W.W. Norton & Company, 2023), “is a forceful rebuke to those who argue that culture can be owned by groups, nations, religions or races.”
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
- “The Ascent of Man”
- “Civilization” (BBC series)
- “Legacy: The Origins of Civilization” (6 documentaries)
- Ancient civilizations
- “Birth of Civilization”
- “The Ancient World”
- “The Advanced Pre Ice Age Civilizations That Vanished from Earth"
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
In 1788, Europe was in its Enlightenment period. In that same year, the composer and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was entering a dark period in his life, and his final three years. This darkness is palpable in his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550 (1788) (approx. 26-32’). Written in conventional sonata form:, it “is among those great works of Mozart that look forward to the passionately charged music of the 19th century while epitomizing the structural elegance of the waning Classical era. 'It may be . . . that the G minor Symphony is the work in which Classicism and Romanticism meet and where once and for all we see a perfect equilibrium between them, neither outweighing the other by the tiniest fraction. It is in this respect, at least, the perfect musical work.'” “Formally, the Symphony is firmly rooted in the classical tradition. Yet, within this established structure, it opened the door to powerful new currents which anticipated music to come.” In this way, Mozart expressed two great eras in music history, hinting at the culture that underlay them both. Top recorded performances are conducted by Beecham in 1937, Furtwängler in 1948, Barenboim in 1968, Britten in 1968, Szell in 1970, Harnoncourt in 1983, Bernstein in 1984, Menuhin in 1989, Norrington in 1991, Gardiner in 1991, Pinnock in 1994, Mackerras in 2008 ***, and Jacobs in 2010.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Symphony No. 2, IRV 41, “A London Symphony” (1914) (approx. 46-50’) (original long version) (1913) (approx. 65-70’): “The Symphony’s opening bars emerge from a murky London fog. We sense the quiet, nocturnal expanse of the Thames River. Out of the mist rises the warm, distant tones of the Westminster chimes, striking the half hour. As the first movement (Lento – Allegro risoluto) unfolds, daylight brings the hustle of quickening footsteps on pavement. In a way similar to London itself, the music is majestic, soaring, and vibrantly colorful.” ”One feels as if one walks through the city and comes across something new as one turns the corner. However, there's also a greater melancholy, a spiritual lassitude, about the work.” Excellent recorded performances are conducted by Barbirolli in 1958, Boult in 1971, Haitink in 1986, Andrew Davis in 1994, Thompson in 1989, Hickox in 2007, and Elder in 2011.
Aleksandr Glazunov, Symphony No. 7 in F Major, Op. 77, "Pastorale" (1903) (approx. 32-36’), is a “pastoral” symphony for city dwellers. “Best of all is its gorgeous slow movement, which opens with a noble brass chorale that sounds like a Russian Orthodox church choir, festooned by the cheerful piping of woodwinds.” Best recordings are conducted by Neeme Järvi in 1986, Anissimov in 1996 ***, and Serebrier in 2006.
Richard Strauss, La Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite (Der Bürger als Edelmann Suite), TrV 228c, Op. 60 (1917) (approx. 34-38’), “was one of (Strauss') own favourite scores, an absolute jewel of incidental music that combines the composer’s romanticism with his love of the Baroque music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.” “The original idea of Hugo von Hofmannsthal was to revive Molière's 1670 play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, simplify the plot and introduce a commedia dell'arte troupe, add some incidental music and conclude matters with a one-act opera Ariadne auf Naxos.” Notable performances are conducted by Strauss in 1930, Krauss in 1952, Reiner in 1956, Maazel in 1966; and Kempe in 1971.
- Two orchestral works by Jennifer Higdon evoke a modern urban landscape: Concerto for Orchestra (2002) (approx. 35-41’); City Scape (2002) (approx. 31’) – a musical portrait of Atlanta)
- David Haney, Birth of a City (2019) (approx. 37;), for string quartet and improvising quartet: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8.
Jazz, big-band style: Big band jazz influenced culture in the United States, playing a significant role especially during the New Deal. Leading exponents include:
- Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, the birth of big band jazz – a collection of tracks
- Glenn Miller, various tracks
- Stan Kenton, “New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm” album (1951) (48’)
- Woody Herman and the Herd, 125th Street Prophet - a collection of tracks
- Gil Evans, “The Individualism of Gil Evans” album (1964) (68’)
- Buddy Rich Big Band, “Swingin’ New Big Band” album (1966) (63’)
- The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, “Presenting Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra” album (1966) (45’)
- Maria Schneider, “Maria Schneider & SWR Big Band” (2018)
- Ron Carter, “Finding the Right Notes” (2022) (73’), from a PBS film.
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: “We believe jazz is a metaphor for Democracy. Because jazz is improvisational, it celebrates personal freedom and encourages individual expression. Because jazz is swinging, it dedicates that freedom to finding and maintaining common ground with others. Because jazz is rooted in the blues, it inspires us to face adversity with persistent optimism.”
- Jazz Night in America
- “Untamed Elegance” concert, October 28, 2016
- “The Life and Music of Dave Brubeck” concert, April 12, 2014
- “Lush Life – Celebrating Billy Strayhorn” concert, June 10, 2016