The Central Challenge Facing a Civilization-Creating Creature — Part I

This piece ran as an op/ed in newspapers in Virginia in February, 2022.

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In a previous piece – “What Rules This World?” – I suggested that Civilization can well be defined as “those societies created by a creature that has taken the unprecedented step of extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its way of life.” And I argued that, with that fateful step,

  • Such a creature will inevitably find itself beset by Anarchy, with its “war of all against all”;
  • And out of that inevitable Disorder, what might be called the “Spirit of the Warlord” (or of Gangsterism”) will emerge as a dominant force to shape how those civilized societies will evolve.

From such seemingly inevitable implications of a creature taking the step onto the path of civilization, it is possible to “derive” (as the mathematicians say) what is – ultimately – the Central Challenge facing any species that takes that step:

Will our species be able to order our civilization well enough – and soon enough – to avoid our civilization’s destroying itself?

Here’s why.

  1. Civilization Inevitably Creates Two Dangerous Kinds of Disorder.

“Order our civilization…” It is evident why the issue of “Order vs. Disorder” will be central to understanding the challenge facing any creature’s civilization, the reason being that:

  • Order is central to all of Life’s systems—from the intricacy of the arrangement of molecules in the cell to the structure of the organism to the overall flows of the biosphere. Good order is central to the Wholeness that Life manifestly depends on.

And because

  • Disorder is an inevitable consequence of the breakthrough to civilization. Indeed, there are two kinds of disorder that the emergence of Civilization would inevitably generate, each of them introducing Brokenness into the overarching systems of any creature’s civilization.

First, there’s the Disorder already discussed in “What Rules This World?” — i.e. the inevitable absence of any order in the intersocietal system to regulate the interactions among civilized societies . That’s the disorder of Anarchy, which inevitably generates the problem of war.

Second — and a nearly equally problematic consequence of the civilization-creating creature “extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically and inventing its own way of life” — – there’s the breakout from the ecological order. (I.e. the order I pointed to by a line in that earlier piece: “The lion and the zebra and the grass and the soil work together to create a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.”) 

The Disorder — resulting from absence of biologically evolved constraints on how these “invented” life-forms (civilized societies) interact with the surrounding ecological order– opens the door to the problem of environmental destruction.

Civilization emerges inevitably beset by both kinds of disorder. Achieving good order of either sort – throughout the planetary civilization – inevitably takes time. Much time.

  • It would seem to be more or less inevitable that the destructive powers of any such species’ civilization will keep growing, and thus in time will reach a level that threatens the survival of that civilization.

The emergence of civilization thus unleashes Forces of Disorder, meaning that the powers of civilized societies are potentially wielded in destructive ways.

Meanwhile, those powers are pretty well sure to grow over time. They will grow because:

  1. A creature that starts to invent its own way of life, and that thereby breaks out of the bounds that had previously limited its range of cultural possibilities (regarding, for example, the size, social organization, and means of subsistence of its societies), will have open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. And
  2. Not only will the innovative breakthroughs presumably keep coming, but also – because, as a cultural animal, the creature has the ability to transmit cultural innovations through the generations – the process of cultural development will tend to be cumulative.

Which means that, over the course of its history, the powers being wielded by that civilization – which includes the civilization’s destructive capabilities — will tend continually to increase.

Although the history of that species civilization will likely have its ups and downs — its rises and falls — the overall direction will be toward greater (potentially destructive) power. (Rome may have fallen, but the resulting retrogression of civilization — in Europe — was only temporary.)

Therefore, it’s likely that any creature, on any planet, that accomplishes the breakthrough into civilization will eventually come to possess powers great enough – if wielded destructively – to potentially bring its story to a catastrophic ending.

  • Therefore, meeting that central challenge is inevitably a race against time.

The points made above explain the inclusion of “soon enough” in the articulation of the Central Challenge – to order its civilization well enough to prevent its self-destruction — any civilization-creating creature must meet.

  • From the inevitability that any creature’s venture into civilization will start off beset by destructive disorder, which generates a Force of Brokenness;
  • And from the near inevitability that — as that civilization develops over time – that civilization’s power will overall keep growing until – eventually — the possibility of self-destruction emerges;

it follows that there is some uncertainty which will come first: whether the Force of Brokenness that arises out of civilization’s inevitable disorder will eventually bring that civilization down; or whether, before that catastrophe happens, that creature will be able to establish the necessary good order to enable its civilization to survive and thrive for the long haul.

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