Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Difficult Truth

I have been traveling for the last week or so. Mostly Southern California which also seems like some kind of weird, alien landscape for my Northeastern sensibilities. If you come from industrial New Jersey, having all that beach unoccupied seems post-apocalyptic. Where are the wall-to-wall blankets? Where are the boom-boxes every 5 feet? Even with the miles of highways that double as parking lots its hard not to see what drew so many people to LA and its environs.

Which brings me to a point I have been thinking about as I start working on my next book. Sedentism, Agriculture and City building. The last great sheets of glaciers receded about 12,000 - 10,000 years ago. As the impossibly vast and mile high planes of ice retreated back to their polar warrens our ancestors slowly began a shift in culture that shifted the balance of Earth's biological force.

From archaeological digs in the hills of Israel to the plains of France a portrait of our transition from small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gathers to large dense populations of hierarchical structured city dwellers is emerging. The change in consciousness which came with this transition is also being explored as scientists try to piece together how value became materialized in objects like gold amulets conferring status and power. Finding measures of value, systems of weights for example, constituted both technological and conceptual revolutions. The world went from a matrix we were embedded in to a reservoir of materials that served our purposes.

As the small collections of permanent dwellings that characterized the beginning of agriculture transformed in permanent villages which then became complex cities the framework for our globe spanning culture was laid. Now from space the spiderweb of lights illuminating how city building consciousness has transformed the globe can be seen from orbit. We have come a very long way, in a very short time.

As with all things scientific the purpose, for me at least, in these archaeological investigations is to make the mundane stand out, to make what is right beneath our noses become strange again, become worthy of notice. What we call civilization was not pre-determined, it is not the result of an inevitable progress of evolution. Instead what we inherited is the results of a long series of choices. This is an important point because we have some very hard choices staring us down right now. These are choices about how we want to live, how we want to structure our civilization so that it might become sustainable for the long run. That is what sets this moment apart from all those which preceded it.

Our city building ancestors make their choices deliberately but without a planetary context. And so we ended up with London, LA, Tokyo, Hong Kong and the 100,000 kilometers of industrial supply chains which feed them. Now, in just a few short decades we have woken up to the consequences of our choices for the blue world which supports all this frenetic activity. Those choices for the next civilization will likely not be so unconstrained.


  1. Your post brings up the question of our role in evolution as human beings.

    Merlin Donald, a neuroscientist from Canada who also utilizes the work of other disciplines like archeology is making a theory which says that biologically, our current brain evolved into existence about a 180,000 years ago; therefore, the underlying mechanism of our evolution since then has been culture.

    An aspect of this theory which is interesting to me, is when he argues that language is not brain based, but culture based; while the brain has an innate capacity to process language, it doesn't have a language "module" in the same way a brain has a visual "module.

    So it seems to me, when I read the research and the ideas of Merlin and yourself, that to see the ultimate context for human being as one of being in the role of a co-evolutionary, such an idea looks quite grounded.

  2. Mike

    I have just encountered some of his work. I am also reading a book "After the Ice" by Steven Mithen right now. Its a really amazing tour of what is known about human communities between 20,000 and 5000 years ago. The way in which culture played an essential role in taking our already developed brains and making our modern version of consciousness is fascinating - coevolution indeed!

  3. I'll look into that book. I'd like to get your feedback on this idea. I would like to refer to evolution over all as 'evolutionary dynamics'. To me, when we say evolution, it strikes me as a thing; something that is a completely understood with the familiarity of owning a chevy; without the word dynamics, evolution feels like a past tense event that we learn about, but don't participate in.

    I would like to think about evolution in the same manner as I would thermodynamics. Does this make any sense to you as a scientist? I want to think of evolution in terms of depicting a state of process and not just an explanation of origins.

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