"Pay my troops no mind; they're just on a fact-finding mission."

Civilization is Human Domestication

Human civilization is a fancy word for a survival strategy in which people get to together in hives and crush peoples living in smaller hives.
In the course of adopting such a strategy, we are no longer heavily selected for our abilities to survive as individuals but for those traits that allow us to thrive in groups.  We become more dependent on the communal barn for feed, ever less able to think or act on our own.
When I look at definitions of what fundamentally sets humans apart from animals, the ability to talk is always near the top of the list.  Talking, at its most basic level, though is just an ability that allows groups to coordinate better.  It is a highly sophisticated behavior.  But sophisticated behaviors are commonplace in nature.  How about eels, salmon, and numerous birds that can migrate with extreme precision, or parasitoid jewel wasps that can disable one precise part of a cockroach’s brain with its stinger, or any number of creatures that can make precise, powerful strikes in fractions of a second?  To name a very few…

A perfectly civilized state does not mean a race of enlightened of beings, it means a colony of eusocial insects, highly efficient but without consciousness or agency.
On another extreme we have impotent individuals never associating, easy prey to even the most dissolute enemy groups.

The accomplishments and qualities we associate with the best qualities of humanity, though, are not completely civilized but represent the Aristotelian golden mean between the virtues of individualism and the collective.
Individualists are easy meat for more organized foes.
Eusocial Zerg and Borg are vulnerable to reasonably cohesive groups that retain qualities of creativity and conscious will.

Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan understood something basic about humanity.  Our modern day barbarian trope is of a grunting musclehead, but a Howard-style barbarian while sparing with words is smart and quick.  Conan is a simple man compared to a merchant but he readily perceives that civilization promotes corruption and complacency of the spirit rather than greatness.
In real life, is it any surprise that the things we call the greatest accomplishments of civilization can be only a limited number of generations away from barbarism?

Barbarians in their natural state accomplish nothing.  Perfectly civilized people live in sophisticated stagnation.  But when history chances on a certain Aristotelian golden mean between the two states, we see great accomplishments and conquests.
But on its path to civilized domestication, a people always passes up the golden mean and sinks into a stable state where much remains the same for centuries and the few new ideas are crushed.

The early Mesopotamian peoples, the first to be civilized, lived in a system of highly dynamic city states making innovations for the first 1000 years or so.  They became relatively stagnant in their progress by 1000 BC
The Egyptians followed a similar, perhaps slightly later trajectory.
Then we see Chinese, Indians, and Greeks rise simultaneously to their heights between 400-200 BC, then stagnating ever since.  Today it amazes us that the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato were contemporaries, their world-changing ideas packed into just a couple human generations, coming from human populations that were puny compared to now, with far less wealth and technology.

If we likened innovation to a flame, we must notice it consumes its hosts and moves on to another, always to some barbarian neighbor on the fringes of the old civilization. The price of openness to change is instability.
When the Mediterranean world was thoroughly spent and domesticated, the forces of creativity moved into Northern Europe, and eventually into America, a colony of Northern Europe.  In the past there always seemed someplace new for these forces to move on to but is it so anymore?  Now there are no more new frontiers, the entire world has been explored.  Modern weapons prevent the easy rise of opportunistic conventional barbarian armies.  The same system of finance has spread across the entire planet.  Most of the world speaks a few standardized languages.  Never has humanity been more civilized and centralized.
One might wonder if the world is bound to sink into thousands of years of stagnant slumber.  Perhaps the future could be more like Dune or Star Wars where technology and political systems remain unchanging for thousands of years.
Maybe in 5-600 years the world is colonized and revitalized in the great African enlightenment?
But the same question remains until we progress to some sort of singularity event — who then raises civilization to its next stage when all the races of the world have been spent?

This leads us to wonder: why do civilizations after a certain point cease to innovate?
My guess is that it has to do with the intense competition that comes with any saturated ecosystem.  A relatively new civilization has its frontier period for some generations where everyone is filling a proliferation of new niches.  But once those niches are filled the system ossifies.
Innovation is the product of leisure, not of drudgery.  No one has time to think of something new when they are lost in competition, never more than a half step ahead of a gibbering pack of rivals trying to pull them down and outcompete them. Under these pressures people are forced to increasingly specialize until they no longer have the luxury of seeing more than their immediate field — until the man who is a wrench expert knows nothing of screwdrivers.  When everyone is micro-specialized, the puzzle pieces one must assemble to arrive at an epiphany remain lying scattered about untouched.

I notice rice valley civilizations of India and China, or the wheat floodplains along the Nile were especially densely populated very early in their histories.  Thousands of years of crowded living barely subsisting off their one staple crushes liberty and creativity.  Worse, one despot can easily dominate a river valley and keep millions in thrall with his edicts.  People from these kinds of civilizations are the most domesticated of all, the world’s best specialists, more able to devote themselves tirelessly to one task than any other, but their relentless minds are also the most rigid and unimaginative.
It surprises me little that the one great flash of genius China had since its ancient period of warring states was during the Ming dynasty, after Mongol rule and then the black plague had reduced the population by about 50 million people(about 1/3rd), freeing up the space required to try new things.
Then, for once, China showed significant interest in world exploration and trade launching entire treasure fleets before turning inward again for good.  Maybe slightly more favorable conditions would have resulted in a 15th century Chinese industrial revolution and colonization?  Or perhaps Chinese by that point already civilized for a couple thousand years had already lost too much of that barbarian fire of inspiration.
We see a similar emptying out of Europe in the black plague and turmoil of the 14th century after which European nations began their rise to prominence.
But Northern Europe at that time in contrast to the Chinese was just a few centuries removed from barbarian tribes. Given a push by similar forces, they also turned outwards and began to innovate, but they didn’t stop.
It is also notable that Europe has never been dominated by just a few river flood plains with all human affairs governed by the distribution or withholding of the one staple food source.  It’s a region that has never been politically united, there have always been kingdoms forced to compete against one another, ready to adopt change that might give them an advantage.
Europeans are fairly unique in that they have lived off a variety of grains and supplemented them with dairy products and significant amounts of meat. Across much of the world, dairy is more typical of a staple for nomad pastoralists than for settled people.
It occurs to me that yogurt, butter, and cheese is used from India to the Middle East, but I would think it plays a relatively minor role in the diet outside of traditionally nomadic regions compared to Europeans. An Indian might use ghee or butter for a curry, milk or paneer cheese to make their pistachio and rose water sweets, or load up their chai with heavy cream, but rice remains their overwhelming staple. They have, to my knowledge, no equivalent to Europeans downing entire glasses of milk and eating entire cheeses straight in their civilized core regions.

Northern European nations and colonies now seem they may be going the way of civilized people before them.  Enough generations that reward rule-following, shop-keeping, credential-accumulating, and school-attending more than risk and invention.  Soon enough, the fiery free spirits have been culled whether from the battlefields or the laboratory.  After all, civilization is a system that selects for those sheep who benefit the king, who sit still in one place to be sheared year after year.
The stability that comes with complete domestication is inimical to the qualities we value most, which we suppose are uniquely civilized — when in fact, they result from an ideal balance of qualities.

Historical trends of Chinese population

13 responses to “Civilization is Human Domestication

  1. Pingback: Civilization is Human Domestication | Neoreactive

  2. Koanic September 17, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    The Internet is the frontier. Neo-Spartanism solves the riddle.

    • Giovanni Dannato September 17, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      I agree, that internet is the new printing press.

      But what exactly do you mean by Neo-Spartanism?

      The Spartans had a small, highly cohesive elite caste that spent most of its energies controlling their own helots and close neighbors.
      Only as one part in a vast alliance with other Greeks and equipped with Persian cash did they pose a mortal threat to the Athenians’ commercial might.
      And then their short-lived triumphed was followed close by their eclipse.
      We idealize them for what they did best but also recognize their inevitable extinction.

      • Koanic September 18, 2015 at 12:44 pm

        You miss the primary attraction of Sparta – it is the only empire to beat the Glubb 250 year limit. By a wide margin.

        Neo-Spartanism is my project for destroying the toxic effects of the agricultural revolution. It’s fully developed but scattered through my blog. is the beginning of the process.

        Here’s the latest post where I worked out the final bit of math.

        This is what I was thinking about in the long gap between Neanderhall (version 2.0, 1.0 was the email list / Google group) and version 3.0, Altugenics/Forerunner/Neo-Spartanism.

        The immediate mechanism for implementation is the Threshgorithm, described on the Neanderhall immediately before transition to Altrugenics.

      • Giovanni Dannato September 18, 2015 at 3:08 pm

        The Spartans were a major power for about 300 years, a similar time frame as other empires, though on the long side.
        I enjoyed reading Glubb’s essay but even Glubb himself sees it as a tentative venture and hopes others will continue to develop the sort of inquiry he has begun.
        To begin with, Glubb only concerns himself with periods of prominence. He only counts the last 250 years of the Roman Republic though the republic and Rome itself was around before that. He also treats the Roman Republic and Roman Empire as two completely separate entities, though the transition wasn’t complete until after the time of Augustus. And he ends his consideration of the Roman Empire after Marcus Aurelius’ a couple of centuries before the complete disintegration of the Western Empire. Not to mention, the Eastern Empire survived for another 1000 years.
        In China the Han dynasty lasted about 400 years, an unusually long time.
        In general, though, I like Glubb’s ability to recognize patterns. He may be right most of the time that any one government or dynasty won’t dominate for longer than his 10 generations.

        The Spartans however, may be more of a cautionary tale rather than role models. At their height, there may have been as many as 20,000 citizens, all comprising their army. A couple centuries later there was less than 2,000 of them.
        The Spartan system forced citizens to reproduce late in life so that their system was bound to lead to demographic disaster.
        The Spartans for all their supposed disdain of cash rose on Persian gold and when they became an unchecked power like Athens before them, the Persians sent their gold to other states, content to play Greek against Greek.

      • Koanic September 20, 2015 at 1:11 pm

        “Ten generations of human beings suffice to transform the hardy and enterprising pioneer into the captious citizen of the welfare state.”

        This did not happen to Sparta. That is what makes her so interesting. She breaks Glubb’s pattern completely.

        She does not even belong to Glubb’s roster of empires, for she never grew beyond a single city. However, she enserfed Messenia from 724 BC to 350 BC. That’s a 400 year stretch, including a peak in 494 that saw her ruling Greece until 371. Such wealth and dominance relative to size should be more than sufficient to destroy the benefiting party. Yet she remained uncorrupted by the typical Glubbian effects.

        The average Glubbian length of empire is 238 years; the maximum is 267 for the Mamelukes. Sparta beats the average by 1.7x and the max by 1.5x.

        Most importantly, every single other empire failed the same way but one. Thus at minimum Sparta is just as interesting as all the other empires put together.

        The problems that caused all other empires to fail are impossible to solve. Whereas the problems that caused Sparta to fail are fixable, some obviously so. I have already done so on my blog; you managed to point a few things out here in a brief comment.

        To create the ultimate state, I propose a hybridization of Sparta with the Dark Enlightenment and anthropometric micro-segregation.

  3. Sam September 18, 2015 at 10:29 pm

    I think you’re right. The big question is why is this so even today? You can make a very good case that someone living at subsistence never has enough capital to change things but what about now? Is subsistence now a house, two cars and a big screen TV?

    There’s two significant technologies that could cause extreme change and expansion I know of off hand. Cold fusion which works consistently for an Italian guy

    and the inertia drive that has been tested by NASA and the Chinese.

    On your books of influence you have Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill(great book). McNeill also wrote a book. “The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000″(another great book), that talks about how the Chinese came very, very close to being the ones to start the industrial revolution. A iron maker started mass producing iron for armor. I can’t remember the date but way before the English he was producing quantities that were equivalent to the early industrial revolution. Unfortunately for the Chinese the Emperor had no competition and when the man got too much power he had him offed.

    I think the Spartans died because their Women just refused to reproduce. Very much like American Women. They had great advantages and no duties of any significance. They were…liberated. Spartan numbers became smaller and smaller until one day there was just not enough for even supermen to prevail.

    • Giovanni Dannato September 21, 2015 at 5:36 pm

      The bar for even subsistence rises because we have to do much more than just eat. Our foremost obstacles involve social competition. So we have things that are technically luxuries so others do not banish us from their sight and their women spurn us.

      I think the decline of the Spartan elite had to with their reproductive lives being highly restricted marrying as late as age 30. Apparently it was also fairly easy to be demoted into a lower caste, but nearly impossible to advance into a higher caste. Not to mention casualties in chronic war. Taken over generations, this only decimated the number of elites loyal to the system until finally Sparta had to start training even their helot slaves as hoplites.

  4. Giovanni Dannato September 21, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    As you say, Sparta never was a true empire, their system worked for a city state that dominated a few local city states. Glubb does not count similar states such as early Rome as empires.
    Spartan armies were actually reluctant to stay away from home for too long out of fear of slave revolts.
    By the time the Thebans destroyed Spartan power for good the Messenian helots had actually prospered and grown more numerous while their masters had shrunk into insignificance.

    Sparta tried to become an Empire when they finally beat Athens as part of an alliance of other Greeks with copious Persian financial aid and failed at it miserably. They collapsed within one generation.
    The Spartans proved susceptible to the luxuries of other peoples once they got out into the world as peoples with no experience with alcohol might swiftly become drunks.

    I think there’s something to be said for pondering the revival of caste systems. The most superficial observation tells us American society already is divided starkly into castes. To pretend the reality doesn’t exist then is to surrender the field. Perhaps caste and controls in how they interact is a good thing, if it reflects reality and makes the society more effective. Having arbitrary castes only infuriates the population and foments internal conflict.

    • Koanic September 22, 2015 at 3:27 pm

      They didn’t dominate Messenia as hegemon. They ruled over serfs. Rome is not comparable.

      Sparta was not corrupted according to Glubbian pattern. Individual Spartans living outside Sparta are irrelevant. Fighting to attritional annihilation, incompetent foreign policy and training up competent enemies is not Glubbian.

      Castes won’t work. You are already accepting a scale beyond human organizational capacity, involving unavoidable corruption and the 10 generation law.

  5. T Maker September 22, 2015 at 6:42 am

    “Ron Howard, the creator of Conan understood something basic about humanity.”

    R. E. Howard did not call himself “Ron.”

    “Ron Howard” played Opie on the Andy Griffith show.

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