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Patterns of evolving civilizations in history and in our times

What is a civilization? According to Wikipedia, it’s a complex society with “urban areas, shared methods of communication, administrative infrastructure, and division of labor.”

What is a civilization? According to Wikipedia, it’s a complex society with “urban areas, shared methods of communication, administrative infrastructure, and division of labor.”

THE ANCIENT CIVILIZATIONS

What is a civilization? According to Wikipedia, it’s a complex society with “urban areas, shared methods of communication, administrative infrastructure, and division of labor.” It is an appealing and intuitively accepted idea that, if shown graphically, the accumulation of knowledge and moral progress in the history of civilizations would show an upward-oriented vector. But is this just a fallacy?

And what is progress?  The following are points I raised in an article published here in 2018:((Dulesh, Sophie. Western Civilization, part II. Humanist Perspectives, 204, 25-34, 2018))

The universe shows no evidence of any purpose or meaning, rendering inap­plicable the idea of historical progress in the sense of movement in a vector toward some supreme goal(s)…Thus, the very concept of progress was based on the success of the natural sciences in providing the only proven way to accumulate knowledge and serving as a directional ‘defining rail’– while not themselves being the essence of progress… European philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries believed that the conditions of human life were destined to improve over time, such that in the long run all humankind would share equally in the same advances. Their optimism and passionate belief in change and the progress of reason was a real breakthrough in itself, material­ized in the French Revolution, while Napoleon’s army spread the new worldview around Europe…Incomes, literacy and civility in the upper crust of Western society skyrocketed; violence faded.

At least five independent civilizations are considered to be the most ancient; all of them are based in river valleys. The civilizations of the Nile River and Indus River existed from 6000 to 600 BCE. China’s civilization arose along the Yellow River about 5000 BCE. The civilization of Sumer in Mesopotamia (4100-1750 BCE) arose on the Tigris River, while the Norte Chico/Caral empire of Peru (4000-2000 BCE) was located in the valley of the Supe River.    

Later, progress was grounded in the tectonic cultural changes of the Axial Age (800-300 BCE) when attempts at universalisation of their worldviews arose independently but roughly in parallel in the Greco-Roman world and in Persia, India, China and the Levant.

The West had at least two uniquely high intellectual and moral upswings, both with enormous lasting consequences in economics and culture, both striving to achieve liberty and equality for their citizens: the Golden Age in ancient Greece and the European Renaissance. The Golden Age of Greece would dominate the history of the following 26 centuries, greatly influencing pre-Christian Greece and Rome and Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment, during which the arts and sciences began to flourish, and whose intellectual questioning led to the Protestant Reformation that would give rise to the middle class and to the industrial revolution.1

In Asia, there was the Golden Age of China that began with the Song Dynasty in 960 ACE and ended in 1279 with invasion of the Mongols. The Song Dynasty unified China. Under it, art and science soared, and commerce grew enormously, accompanied by paper money, tea-drinking, and the development of gunpowder, the compass and printing. China became the source of much of Japan’s culture.  This Chinese Renaissance was ruined by the random accident of foreign invasion.

The Greek Enlightenment

“The roots of the Greek Enlightenment and humanism were laid in Ionia in the sixth century BCE. It was a remarkable century, including the lifetimes of Confucius and Buddha and the first turn to monotheism in the Judaism of Babylonian captivity. Athens’s bequest of democracy also began in the sixth century BCE. And it was the century when the Romans expelled their kings… It was the time and place when and where the classical virtues which would be inherited by Western civilization – balance, order and control – were first defined. Tolerance ruled: five of the six leading philosophers of the time, including Aristotle, were foreign-born, yet they were allowed to rightfully dominate the intellectual life of Athens… Plato, a student of Socrates, rejected the ‘justice’ of divine punishment of the sinner’s descendants. He asserted that human behaviour is governed by enlightened self-interest (this idea was resurrected during the Renaissance in the form of the “rational actor”) and that virtue is just a technique of leading a rational life”.((Dulesh, Sophie. Western Civilization, part I. Humanist Perspectives, 200, 10-21, 2017.))

“In the Greek world the idea of human excellence was freed… from determination by social position [it was determined by merit, not by noble origin]… A central feature of modern liberal conceptions of social justice can indeed be expressed by saying that they altogether deny the necessity of social identities…  It is a distinctly modern achievement to have even set this problem” wrote E.R. Dodds.((Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational. U-California Press, 1951.))

Dodds made his observation in 1951. By the 21st century, however, the understanding of “social justice” had made a 180-degree turn. As I describe in my article “Quo Vadis,” social justice is now 100% about identity politics – an example of a dogma that has erroneously been reversed in a process originating from the mass democratization of an initially highbrow concept.((Dulesh, Sophie. Quo Vadis. Humanist Perspectives, 212, 20-29, 2020.))

Meanwhile in Athens, already in the fifth century BCE, there appeared some symptoms of a recoil from its own spectacular Enlightenment. Previously unheard-of things were happening there: about 432 BCE, astronomy or the denial of supernatural forces were made legally punishable; heresy trials were taking place; at least five leading philosophers were exiled, and Socrates was made to drink the hemlock.((Dulesh, Sophie. Western Civilization, part I. Humanist Perspectives, 200, 10-21, 2017.))

Civilizational advances and retreats

Wikipedia describes the scale of the technological losses “after civilizational collapses like the Bronze Age Collapse (3300-1200 BCE) [and] the Fall of Rome… Europe forgot how to construct sewers for nearly 1500 years…  The art of masonry took about a thousand years to relearn to the same scale… Agriculture [did not improve] until the middle ages with the innovation of crop rotation… Horses were used to pull wagons for [Roman] merchants. In medieval Europe, the reinvention of the horse collar happened only by the 12th century ACE (though it had been known in China for 1500 years) and it freed people from slave work: now a horse could do the work of nine men but consume the food of three…”

We can state that the uphill-oriented graph of this ancient intellectual summit was changing its direction: flattening and turning downwards like a receding wave. It began to resemble less an upward-oriented vector and much more a sinusoid. This change would continue and deepen before a new summit of Western Renaissance turned it upward again, creating the next sinusoidal wave (of much higher amplitude due to scientific progress).

The anacyclosis theory discerns six political regimes that were identified by the ancient Greeks and by later philosophers. Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, and Machiavelli, among others, identified the political systems that we know today: monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and ochlocracy or mob/demagogue-rule. Ochlocracy leads back to monarchy and the cycle repeats endlessly in history, not unlike the circular pattern of time flow that had been the dominant idea in ancient timekeeping. This image was later transformed, but into a vector rather than into a sinusoid.

The 20th century with its colonial imperialism, two world wars, Holocaust, horrors of the Belgian Congo and the ‘rape of Nanking’, with its nuclear weapons and mass uprootings and migrations, marked the beginning of a retreat from the major moral values of the European Renaissance despite the continuing victorious march of the natural sciences and technology that provided unheard of prosperity (albeit not security) for more and more people on the planet.

It was only in the last several decades of the 20th century that the idea of democracy regained real popularity following the successful wave of liberation movements that swept the world and caused the colonial empires to collapse.  In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. As late as the 1990s, there was still a widespread belief that democracy for all would come as effortlessly as some law of nature. But the expected unity among nations (as  opposed to rabid nationalism) turned out to be wishful thinking: even on such transnational issues as diseases, poverty, and climate change, the UN Security Council of 15 members has been incorrigibly divided among the competing powers.  Since the 1980s, democracy has become the most common form of government in the proliferating nation-states. But the victorious march of global democracy has stalled since 2006: there has been no rise in the number of democracies during the last fifteen years.((Dulesh, Sophie. Western Civilization, part III. Humanist Perspectives, 206, 16-23, 2018.)) The graph  depicting the development of civilization in the post-Renaissance West has turned downward forming another sinusoidal wave. 

Seeking explanations

“To understand the reason for the long-drawn-out decline is one of the major problems of world history,” says Arthur Koestler.((Koestler, Arthur. The Sleepwalkers. Hutchinson, 1968.)) Many attempts have been made. Some schools of history blame frequent wars and pandemics for the decimation of populations. These traditional evils pushed people to pauperisation, insecurity and a quest for protection in religious fanaticism and occultism. Others blamed slavery and the inevitable technological stagnation that it brought. And another suggestion from Jonathan Sacks: “A journey down the road to moral relativism and individualism…no society in history has survived for long. It was the road taken in Greece in the third pre-Christian century and Rome in the first century CE: two great civilizations that shortly thereafter declined and died”.((Sacks, Jonathan. You can not have a society without a shared moral code. Debates in the House of Lords: UK values. December 2, 2016.))

The Golden Age in ancient Greece and China each spanned over three centuries. The Golden Age of the European/Western Renaissance extended to 5-6 centuries. We are now witnessing its decline. Humanity so far seems doomed to repeat these cycles over and over…

Another idea came from Dodds,((Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational. U-California Press, 1951.)) who suggested that the self-liberation from irrational fears and imagined punishments, brought about by rationalism, could be misinterpreted by the unschooled masses as freedom for unlimited self-assertion, as rights without duties, ever unwelcome but particularly so during wartime. This might help to explain not only the recoil from rationalism in ancient Greece but also the drawback from the Western Enlightenment that has been going on since the 20th century and into the early 21st century.

Brexit, Le Pen in France, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, and Trump in the United States all come to mind, as does the global resurgence of radical Islam; the latter, of course, sinking orders below the others, down to the very bottom of the heap. A Pakistani nuclear physicist and ex-Muslim, Pervez Hoodbhoy, wrote, “A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the [Western] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US NSF [National Science Foundation] records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC”.((quoted from MacEoin, Denis. What Might be Missing in the Muslim World? Gatestone Institute, June 28, 2017.))

In an attempt to understand the decline, I suggested yet another critical factor that may drive civilizations down from their cultural summits. After a major new invention (like agriculture or a steam machine) provides higher prosperity, it is invariably followed by disproportionally more babies surviving, leading to a population explosion, while mass education inevitably lags behind. Every time such a population boom occurs, the mass influx of these poorly educated newcomers to the culture contributes to dogmatization and the simplification of its highest moral and intellectual maxims, turning them into slogans accessible for mass consumption,((Dulesh, Sophie. Quo Vadis. Humanist Perspectives, 212, 20-29, 2020.))

a development that slows and brings down the top cultural achievements. This is an unintended but inevitable consequence, to which the high moral and ethical standards would understandably be more vulnerable, as they would be more difficult to preserve unaltered than intellectual, technological, or artistic ones. This is what is happening now before our eyes with the mass perception of concepts like ‘social justice’, ‘Progressive Left’, etc. – dogmatization is the way that highbrow maxims become accessible to the least educated. The process may turn them into anything from uninspiring platitudes to concepts that are plainly opposite in a dizzying 180-degree reversal. Even well-established historical terms such as ‘Democrats’ or ‘Conservatives’ become as changeable in their meaning as quicksand. 

Social media as drivers of decline

If the influx of untrained-to-think masses is the cause of temporary cultural declines, then the social media network of today ought to be considered a threat to intellectual and ethical progress by providing global platforms for conspiracy theories, disinformation and plain old homophobia (“the amplification power of… a social media platform”). Max Fisher writes:((Fisher, Max. The Chaos Machine. THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW SOCIAL MEDIA REWIRED OUR MINDS AND OUR WORLD. Little, Brown and Company, 2022.))

Though the role of the platforms remained poorly understood, it was already clear that Trump’s rise had been abetted by strange new grassroots movements and hyperpartisan outlets that thrived online, as well as Russian agents who’d exploited social media’s reality-distorting, identity-indulging tendencies. This global pattern seemed to indicate something fundamental to the technology, but exactly what that was, why it was happening, or what it meant, nobody was able to tell…

…In Myanmar, the United Nations had formally accused Facebook of allowing its technology to help provoke one of the worst genocides since WWII… An American iteration, which had first appeared… under the label “QAnon,” had recently hit Facebook like a match  to a pool of gasoline. Later, as QAnon became a movement with tens of thousands of followers, an internal FBI report identified it as a domestic terror threat… The new decade brought a wave of crises. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial reckoning and backlash in the U.S., the accelerating rise of a violent new far right, and the attempted destruction of American democracy itself… Its policies permitted rampant misinformation that could undermine elections. Its algorithms and recommendation systems were “driving people toward self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism,” training them to hate.

Or consider the overwhelmingly popular social networks that call for diversity [in the workplace]. It would have sounded really appealing if it were not dangerously incomplete: it ought to be complemented with “NEPQ”.

“Diversity-NEPQ” stands for “Diversity-Not-at-Expense-of-Professional-Quality” –  as meritocracy remains the fundamental trend naturally preserved in evolution, the foundation of productive relations in both politics and economics if we want stability, security and material abundance for all.((Dulesh, Sophie. To Kill a Mockingbird of Merit. Humanist Perspectives, issue 217, 2021, online.))

And what is our radical fringe (right and left) social media today at its ‘septic’ facets on both – collective and individual – levels? “The Jan. 6 committee’s final report said little about how social media helped spread misinformation about the 2020 election, even though that was considered a key question when the committee began its investigation. But transcripts and documents released since the final report was made public show committee investigators learned a lot about social media’s role, including that Twitter had exempted Donald Trump’s account from the routine monitoring every other Twitter account was subject to,” reported the Washington Post.((Washington Post, online. January 17, 2023.))

And more from Luke Mogelson:((Mogelson, Luke. THE STORM IS HERE, Penguin Press, 2022.))

The more I learned about QAnon, the more I was reminded of the millenarian theologies promoted by America’s most committed  foreign adversaries. Many Islamic fundamentalists anticipated a climactic battle between Muslims and infidels that would trigger Armageddon and usher in a day of judgement. There was even scripture that identified where the confrontation would occur: a small town in northern Syria called Dabiq…Jihadi writers explained that their objective was to create a world in which practicing Islam in Western democracies was untenable, thereby obliging Muslims everywhere to join the caliphate. The British antisemite and frequent Infowars guest David Icke contended that our planet was infiltrated by shape-shifting reptiles from outer space.  In 2019, a Proud Boy in Seattle became convinced that his brother was one of David Icke’s lizard aliens and murdered him… That same year, the El Paso shooter took 23 lives in hopes of stemming an ‘Hispanic invasion in Texas’.

The Antifa-led riots of 2020 following the death of George Floyd caused over $2 billion US in damages and resulted in several deaths. “Radical acts perpetrated by individuals associated with left-wing causes are less likely to be violent. In the United States, we find no difference between the level of violence perpetrated by right-wing and Islamist extremists. However, differences in violence emerge on the global level, with Islamist extremists being more likely than right-wing extremists to engage in more violent acts”.(( Jasko, Katarzyna, LaFree Gary, Piazza James, Becker Michael H. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2122593119, July 18, 2022.)) 

Can we get back on track?

The Golden Age in ancient Greece and China each spanned over three centuries. The Golden Age of the European/Western Renaissance extended to 5-6 centuries. We are now witnessing its decline. Humanity so far seems doomed to repeat these cycles over and over: successful leaps forward to social justice, economic harmony and high moral standards, only, at certain point, to have them all inevitably reversed by another backlash. We are currently in a downward branch (that started with WWI) but not yet at the bottom. Things will get worse before they get better (providing life on our planet – as we know it – survives climate change, nuclear threats, overpopulation, and antibiotic bacterial resistance). Hence, the graph of our current civilization is turning sinusoidal. But maybe it is the last downturn in history: if indeed economic collapse due to overpopulation has been the cause, then our astounding scientific progress, AI, GMO, nuclear energy replacing fossil fuel, all at our doorstep, may cushion and even insulate humanity from future downturns.

How does the current downward branch reveal itself in reality? This topic is very recent, it came into focus for the first time only in the second decade of our century. Below are quotes from a few papers documenting the newly registered pattern of the recent decline in innovation within many specific fields.

In 2009, Benjamin F. Jones((Jones, Benjamin F. Review of Economic Studies, 76, 283-317, 2009.)) wrote, “If knowledge accumulates as technology advances, then successive generations of innovators may face an increasing educational burden. Innovators can compensate through lengthening educational phases and narrowing expertise, but these responses come at the cost of reducing individual innovative capacities, with implications for the organization of innovative activity—a greater reliance on teamwork—and negative implications for growth”. A paper published in 2016 warned of a shifting incentive-and-information landscape in biology, particularly neuroscience, that has reduced the number of high-impact discoveries.((Geman Donald, Geman Stuart.  Science in the age of selfies. Proc Natl Acad Sci. USA, 113(34), 9384-9387, Aug 23, 2016.))

A more likely reason for the change, the researchers argue, is that scientists and inventors are producing work based on narrower foundations… The cause of it is a mystery… Here is an argument for the rebirth of the Renaissance human.((Economist, online, January 4, 2023.))    

The journal Nature analysed 45 million papers and 3.9 million patents published and filed in various fields between 1945 and 2010.((Park, Michael, Leahey Erin & Funk Russel. Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature, 613, 138–144, 2023.))

“Recent decades have witnessed exponential growth in the volume of new scientific and technological knowledge, thereby creating conditions that should be ripe for major advances. Yet contrary to this view, studies suggest that progress is slowing in several major fields…We find that papers and patents are increasingly less likely to break with the past in ways that push science and technology in new directions. This pattern holds universally across fields and is robust across multiple different citation- and text-based metrics… We find that the observed declines are unlikely to be driven by changes in the quality of published science, citation practices or field-specific factors… Although the past century witnessed an unprecedented expansion of scientific and technological knowledge, there are concerns that innovative activity is slowing. Studies document declining research productivity in semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and other fields. Papers, patents and even grant applications have become less novel relative to prior work and less likely to connect disparate areas of knowledge, both of which are precursors of innovation”.

In our times, the threat of socially harmful economic downturns is becoming  less and less relevant. The more relevant it makes the threat of prospective social distortions  spawned by conspiracy theories and dis- and misinformation on social platforms and the urgent need of succeeding in the grand task of proper mass education. Generation Z spends too much time on social media.  

In pursuing mass education and fighting conspiracy theories and disinformation, as well as in our struggle for globalisation, efficient social media becomes the highest indispensable priority, even though today the critical goal to make it an efficient directing rail seems mostly elusive.((Ardia, David, Ringel Evan, Smith Ekstrand Victoria, Fox Ashley. Addressing the decline of local news, rise of platforms, and spread of mis- and disinformation online. https://citap.unc.edu/local-news-platforms-mis-disinformation.))

If (when) achieved, it may greatly enhance human intellectual/moral progress and for the last time reverse its now receding sinusoidal curve into an upward-soaring vector. However, so far and up to current times “…the greatest fallacy of our era has been the belief that a liberal international order rests on the triumph of ideas and on the natural unfolding of human progress. It is an immensely attractive notion, deeply rooted in the Enlightenment worldview of which all of us in the liberal world are the product”.((Kagan, Robert. The return of history and the end of dreams.  Alfred Knopf, 2008.))

  1. Dulesh, Sophie. Quo Vadis. Humanist Perspectives, 212, 20-29, 2020. []