What makes civilization worth the trouble?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2005


At the beginning of the 21st century, only about five percent of mankind is living in Neolithic-style hunter-gatherer communities. The rest of mankind is living in various degrees of civilization that are more advanced than that.

Why is this so? What are the advantages that most of mankind sees in civilized living?

The question is serious. I think of it because the following are reasons why mankind might not have chosen to become more civilized:

The following are universal traits of mankind that are valuable in both civilized and Neolithic environments. These are the traits that drive mankind to civilize.

Reduce the risk

The drive to reduce life's risks is something all people strive for. Mankind lives in a risky place. There are all sorts of ways mankind can be damaged by the environment, and that damage can be disabling-to-lethal. Accidents, diseases, and famine can lead to crippling, which can lead to death. Floods can lead to drinking bad water and more biting bugs, which can lead to crippling and death. And there are the threats caused by other humans. All of these combine to give Neolithic mankind a life expectancy of around thirty-five years, whereas civilized mankind has a life expectancy of around seventy years. Reducing risk is a powerful incentive to developing civilization.

More kinds of Cooperation

In Neolithic communities, 90% of the cooperating a person does is with other family members and other community members. Strangers are generally prey or predators -- which they are depends on the numbers of friends and strangers present. Civilization allows cooperation with strangers, and the more advanced the civilization, the more forms of cooperation are possible. In the Neolithic framework, only barter is possible, and only when both strangers and friends are well protected. Compare barter with early banking and precious metal transactions, and finally, with modern credit cards. Each step in expanding cooperation has opened up new possibilities for cooperation, and each step has changed who it is possible to cooperate with. It is now possible to eat hamburgers without growing beef.

Each widening of cooperation has changed the relation of the community to itself, which has also changed how the community is structured. It is now possible to raise children without a spouse or extended family to help out.

This acceptance of extended cooperation as a virtue directly springs from the assisted childbirth --> arranged marriage --> more cooperative community members -- virtuous circle.

More pleasant and fulfilling choices

The final change -- more pleasant and fulfilling choices -- falls out of the first two. Low risk and high variety in cooperation gives a community member many, many more ways of spending time and resource. If you're a hunter-gatherer Neolith, you spend time hunting, gathering, and procreating, and you have a good time at it. You are also doing just about all you can, given the resources available to you. If you're a 21st century civilized person, you spend time reading, watching TV, computer gaming, working out at the gym, attending yoga classes, vacationing, and so on, and you have a good time at it. But you have barely scratched the surface of the activities possible to you. This variety of experiences available to a person is another difference between Neolithic and civilized living.

How has Mankind's Evolution supported civilizing?

The heart of evolution's support for mankind civilizing is the virtuous cycle mentioned earlier: The assisted childbirth, arranged marriage, more cooperative people cycle. Assisted childbirth, the business of having the mother's community help a mother with childbearing and child raising, is something distinctive about human communities and is a powerful tool for improving mankind's survivability. One of the things this allows is children with the potential for more intelligence, but more immaturity at birth, and these are powerful pluses to survivability.

One of the pluses that comes from assisted childbirth is well-developed language skill, and once well developed language skill becomes established, then parental-arranged marriage is possible.

What parents look for in a potential suitor is slightly different than what the person directly involved in the mating looks for. One of the big differences is that parents look hard for a mate who will "get with the program" -- a cooperator -- which means that arranged marriages have been pushing mankind strongly into more cooperative thinking. This building of cooperation is what has laid the foundation for civilization.

So, civilization is an outcome of arranged marriage, which is an outcome of strong language ability, which is an outcome of supporting assisted childbirth. This is how mankind got into the civilizing business in such a big way.

-- The End --