Revision

November 6, 2002

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HUMAN CIVILIZATION AS LEARNING PROJECT

 

 

 

 

George Modelski

 

 

 

Conference on

Globalization: Science, Culture and Religions’

The Calouste Gulbekian Foundation,  Lisbon, Portugal,  October 15-16, 2002

 

 

 

Abstract:   Two distinct views of “civilization” are in common use:  the plural, and the singular.   The plural stresses differences, while the singular brings out commonalities, and makes possible a coherent conception of world history.   The singular view need not adopt either a “Western” or a “universalist” stance.   Rather viewing human civilization as a millennial learning project, of which globalization is the recent manifestation, would emphasize the civilizing process that humanity has experienced over the past five millennia and bring out the cooperative as well as the competitive features of human species evolution.  

 

 

                   In this short paper I have set myself a daunting task:  not only that of making the case for a “singular” concept of civilization but also of deploying it as a starting point for a reasoned alternative manner of defining and naming the condition  in which we find ourselves, a way that might also offer one answer to the now widespread notion of “the clash of civilizations”.      As this makes plain, my presentation takes off from  a reading of Samuel L. Huntington’s  book   The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order (1996) but is not primarily intended to be a critique of, or commentary on, that well-known work.   Rather it is a sketch of a different vision of the world and the possibilities of order within it, a new lens for looking at world affairs in a broad perspective, the guiding thought being that of a (singular) civilization as a millennial project of humans learning, and re-learning, the art of living together;  a project of which globalization is a recent, and most powerful, manifestation.   

 

Plural, and/or singular?

 

                   The idea of “civilization” is one of the ways our mind uses to make sense of the world we inhabit.   In recent experience, the “plural” usage of that idea appears to  be the more prevalent one.   In what we have recently come to describe as a multicultural context it seems appropriate to recognize the role, and the historical heritage, of a number of civilizations, even though their precise number and individual trajectories are not easy to determine.    Among historians, Arnold Toynbee was one of the first to place civilizations, and their rise and decline, at the center of the study of history.   Those he identified as the five surviving civilizations:  Western, Orthodox, Islam,  and the Hindu and Far Eastern societies (and these are Huntington’s chief categories too) , undoubtedly belong to the more important cultural configurations among the world’s populations.   The plural notion tells us that the world is a complex place, and that it harbors variety, and an evolving world thrives on variety.   Here the stress is on differences.

 

                   The alternative, and in fact the original sense of “civilization”  is the  singular one.   Its roots lie in the age of Enlightenment when the opinion gained ground that a single thread, a civilizational process,  connects the modern experience with the  achievements of the past.   The singular conception equated civilization, or culture, with the total social heredity of mankind, and made it possible to see humanity progressing, through successive stages, toward new levels of development. The marquis de Condorcet, for instance, saw mankind as advancing toward civilization  through a number of stages including savagery, and barbarism. That means that the singular concept also included judgements of quality and it tells us that the world, in spite of its complexity, might have a single, and possibly even simple, hence common, trajectory of a civilizing experience.   Here the stress lies on commonalities.

 

                   Is one of these two conceptions preferable to the other?   That is not our argument here.   Each satisfies a particular need, each creates its own problems, and both would be needed for a rounded picture.    In particular, the plural notion highlights variety and clarifies identity,  features that make it an asset for any society and enables evolutionary change even while risking to exacerbate conflict.    The singular notion conditions communication and cooperation  yet may also lend itself to manipulation.   But in his original (1993) article Huntington in fact entirely ignored the singular kind and that may have made his views appear more controversial.    In the book that followed he admitted that there is a valid case for both of these two conceptions  but he made it quite clear, too,  that his main concern is “civilizations in the plural”;  he dismissed the view that “there is a universal world civilization” as an “argument (that) cannot be sustained”.  As he wrote earlier “for the relevant future there will be no universal civilization” but in the book he did discuss it briefly in his last two pages as a matter of interest for the future.  

 

The present discussion  is a statement, and an interpretation of  the singular conception.   But in doing so we need to avoid past

mistakes, or confusion with earlier, unsustainable versions of that singular notion.   In particular we need not subscribe to the widely held 19th century view that European (or Western) civilization is virtually synonymous with civilization in general, nor are we ready to embrace late 20th century expectations that “universal civilization” is just about to spring in a finished form, as deus ex machina,  from the turmoil attending the end of the Cold War and recent advances in electronic and computer communications.   On the contrary, we propose a singular conception that understands human civilization to be a process that involves a variety of cultures and multiple exchanges, and one that has had a long lead time, and a long way to go still.

 

 

Evolution and learning

                  

                   A singular account of human civilization must satisfy at least two essential requirements:   it must relate to the great variety of experience of potentially, and in the end, actually, of the bulk of humanity, and it must also be capable of embracing the great transformations that human arrangements have undergone over the past millennia, and the possibly even greater changes they may face in the future.   Such an account is most likely to be social evolutionary, (because representing the story of the human species, and of the social and cultural changes it has experienced)  and it will therefore include both a concept of social and of cultural evolution.

 

                   The idea of a singular  evolutionary account is by no means new.   It was devised in the 19th century and became the common currency of such important figures as Comte,  Spencer, Darwin, Marx, Tylor, or Morgan,  but it lost traction in the course of the 20th  because the terms on which it was constructed proved inadequate for more modern minds, and in consequence it  has lately lain dormant.   Yet the idea of a singular conception of civilization is too important to be ignored just because early formulations had been found wanting.

 

                   Our own account of human civilization as a singular process may be described as an evolutionary-learning one.   Our main focus will be world system evolution, that is the process by which at a certain point in time humans began to relate to each other in ways that raised the possibility of species-wide social organization, and have continued on that road to this day in ways that might extend into a future beyond the range of to-day’s social sciences.   We assume moreover that cultural evolution broadly parallels such social evolution, that culture is transmitted through social organization and that the world cultural inheritance roughly matches the main lines of world system evolution.

 

                   Taking humanity as the unit of analysis, we ask:  what has been its evolutionary trajectory?   To answer that question, let us conceive  of civilization (and including its cultural patrimony) as the art of living together in a large society,  to be a millennial learning project:  members of the human species bound together in a community of common fate, learning to live with each other, and in increasing numbers,  evolving new forms of coexistence ultimately workable on the scale of the planet.   In contrast to simple 19th century conceptions of lineal development we might see it as a cascade of non-linear and self-similar evolutionary learning processes at several levels of organization,  nesting in a cybernetic hierarchy (in which processes rich in information have systematically longer periods hence greater reach than those rich in energy).   As an array of processes of long periodicity, such a cascade inspires the need for patience and a capacity to see the big picture and take the long view.   Learning is a universal process found in a multitude of situations:  in  children learning new words, in factory workers building a new model aircraft;  in the way innovations diffuse in their domains, and even in the ways rats find their way through mazes.   It is snot therefore all that surprising if human civilization is presented as a learning experience.

 

                   That is of course an important claim that calls for substantial backing.   On this occasion let us content ourselves with three exhibits:  one, presenting world history as an evolutionary learning process of millennial dimensions;   two,  showing, in particular, democratization to be a learning process of centennial scale, and  three, proposing that this cascade of processes at several scales evinces power law behavior, that is a condition of potential for evolution and learning.   The purpose of these “exhibits” is to demonstrate that the concept of a learning civilization is not just an attractive metaphor, but has a basis in the historical record, and in systematic approaches to the study of human experience.

 

 

Eras of world history: phases of evolutionary learning

 

                   First, let us propose that processes laying the groundwork for species-wide organization have their origins in developments, some 5,000 years ago, in the irrigated river valleys of Southern Mesopotamia (Sumer)  and Egypt.   That is where we find the creation of sets of innovations whose joint effect put in place the infrastructure for civilization as we know it:   a system of cities, as focus for social organization in space,  and writing and calendars, for the control of social organization in time.   Irrigated agriculture, enhanced metal working (bronze), and elements of political organization developed around them.   That much has been familiar, and conventionally accepted in the 20th century as marking the onset of civilization (whose root lies in the word for city).   Moreover, the civilization then set in motion is still with us to-day.   What is a less familiar is the proposition that these developments are the essentials of the initial phase of world system evolution.

 

                   The two millennia (approx. 3,000 to 1000 BC) that extend from Sumer, to the end of the New Kingdom in Egypt, and the Shang in China, are now called by historians the ancient era.  In the following two millennia we know that the human species moved into the classical era, ultimately to be dominated by the Roman and Chinese  (Han and then Tang) empires, at the two ends of the Eurasian landmass.   We might see the modern era as starting at about the year 1000, with a surge of activity at the eastern end soon transiting to the western, and in the process, by seizing control of the world ocean,  establishing a planetary system at the global level.   And might we not see the fourth such era, even before 3000, reaching out into space, into a spatial age?   Do we not see, even in this summary account, world events being shaped by species-wide processes unfolding on a very large canvass?

 

Figure 1

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CIVILIZATION EVOLVING

 

 

 

 

World Economy

 

Active Zone

World Socialization

World System

-3000

 

 

 

BRONZE

MIDEASTERN

CLOSED SOCIETY

Concentration

WORLD SYSTEM

Infra-structuraL

(ANCIENT ERA)

-2000

 

 

 

FERTILE CRESCENT

 

Dispersal

 

-1000

 

 

 

IRON

EURASIAN

 

Concentration

Solidarity-building

(CLASSICAL ERA)

1

 

 

 

SILK ROADS

 

Dispersal

 

1000

 

 

 

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

OCEANIC

Transitional

 

Atlantic-Euro

OPEN SOCIETY

Concentration

Organizational

(MODERN ERA)

2000

WORLD MARKET

Atlantic-Pacific

Dispersal

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global

 

 

3000

 

 

 

 

SPATIAL

Concentration

Consolidational

4000

 

 

 

 

 

Dispersal

 

 

PERIODS:   in CAPITALS;   period phases:  lower case.

 

Mechanisms:

World system process:  shift of agendas

World socialization:   alternation of concentration and dispersal (innovation v. equality)

Active zone:   shift in locus of innovation; 

World economy:   alternation of production-distribution (investment v. consumption)

 

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This four-eras perspective, ancient, classical, modern, “spatial”, each about 2000 years in length, is basically standard to students of

world history (except perhaps for the last of these) , and is  also validated by systematic evidence of the growth of world population, or world cities.   But it might also be viewed as the unfolding of a four-phase learning process that programs world social and cultural evolution.   Let us conceive of such a process as consisting of the standard four phases of a learning process:  definition of the situation, mobilization, selection, and implementation.   We can extend this conception to humankind travelling by means of stages that begin with infra-structural development in the ancient era, go on to solidarity-building via the world religions in the classical era; and turn to organizational selection in the modern era.   This programs the journey in the sense that each succeeding era prioritizes one major set of innovations central to that particular era (and to a particular process, be it economic, political, social, or cultural) in a sequence appropriate to learning.   Thus the ancient era gives pride of place to urbanization, and writing;  the classical era brings forth the world religions;  and the modern era lays the foundation and selects for world organization.   On this account, the 21st century is situated just past the critical point of that third phase.

 

                   How do we account for this “programming”?   No need to postulate either a programmer, or a final goal.   Basically, we assume the human species to possess the property of self-organization, and more specifically the propensity for social organization, and culture.   Five thousand years ago, human already had language, family, settlements and tribal organization, as well as agriculture, and tentative beginnings of long-distance trade.  These were particularly pronounced in the Middle Eastern area, giving rise to a zone of high evolutionary potential.   In those conditions, trial-and-error experiments in social organization created at least some successful nuclei - cities - soon jelling into a system of cities - around which the process of world system formation could accrete, and expand.  Given a specialized nucleus, the logic of learning would take over, leading from one phase to the next, not all in the same place but rather after searching out successive zones favorable to innovation.   A world system process was born in which   “events are in the saddle, and ride mankind” as the poet (Emerson) would declaim.

 

                   This exceedingly brief, even sketchy, account of the learning process scarcely does justice to its complexity, but even at this early stage it is possible to maintain that human civilization has evolved,  in a singular trajectory. as a continuum.   No single area or location can lay claim to be its sole originator because all parts of the world system partook of that process, as its active zones, the loci of innovation,  in a regularly paced manner.   This civilization basically had its origins in the Middle East, and then spread over Eurasia, in a wide arc extending from Europe all the way to East Asia, its modern form being principally based upon the world ocean.   Continuity has been particularly evident in the extent of cultural inheritance.   This civilization has been, in plain daylight. a cooperative enterprise, with contributions from a variety of cultural areas  and only in the previous two-three centuries has it shown a specifically strong European influence and in the last one, also a North American, impact.   “Clashes of civilization” are in fact hard to find in the historical record.

 

                   Viewing a singular civilization as a continuum is more fruitful and instructive  than the notion, inherent in the “plural” approach, of the objects of our inquiry having a circumscribed life-span, that allows for births and deaths, and even for generations of civilizations.   One wonders what destiny awaits, on that view, those civilizations that are still “surviving”?   What is their expected life span, what rules govern therir interactions, and are they moving toward “universal empire”?

 

 

Global evolutionary processes

 

                   For those who might hesitate to indulge such long-perspective, macro-models, we might consider examples closer to our daily experience, processes that also belong to the evolutionary cascade,  and that, at a more micro-level, shape our lives as globalization: in the global economy, in global politics, and in global civil society.  

 

                   Closest to our daily experience are K (for Kondratieff) waves that regularly reshape the global economy.   They bring to life major industrial and technological innovations, and put them into circulation.   The set of innovations that is currently transforming economic life is the information revolution based on computers and on the Internet.   It is an evolutionary learning process (with a period of about 60 years) in which mankind is acquiring greater connectivity and cultural interchange than ever before experienced.

 

                   In global politics, the basic agent- driven process has centered, for several centuries past, on the institution of global leadership, that is on the rise and decline of world powers that have occupied that position and the challengers that confronted them.   \Here again we have an event sequence with the characteristics of a learning process (some 120 years long) by which successive nation-states ascended to global leadership.   It is the process by which the United States, at the close of World War II, reached that position, having succeeded Britain which had held it for the previous two terms.

 

                   There is also the process of formation of a global democratic community, at whose basis is the world-wide spread of democracy over the past two centuries. By mid-nineteenth century Britain and the United States both reached a condition of democracy such that we can say that a “nucleus” of a global community shaped by democratic principles and practices came into being, and “world democratization” took off in what we can describe as innovation-diffusion (period of up to 240 years).   Figure 2 charts the world-wide diffusion of democracy by showing the measured “fraction democratic” (percentage of world population living in democracies) at decennial intervals  between 1840 and 2000.   A curve best fitting these points is a logistic (an S-shaped line representing a function involving an exponential), a learning curve that allows us to project this basic trend into the next century.   Visually it offers a striking picture of humanity climbing up the learning curve of democratization.

 

Figure 2:   to view it, press here:   Worlddemo.htm

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          We have here three examples drawn from the cascade of global processes driving world system evolution.   Not one single movement but rather a multi-level, and structured array of nested, self-similar, and synchronized learning process.   That same process that has been with us for several millennia, one whose essence is not the boast of achievements at each particular point - and the achievements have been many and multi-sourced - but the promise of continued growth as it moves along its civilizing path.  We learn from history because history -and civilization in a comprehensive sense - is a learning process.   Such is the promise of a learning civilization.

 

                   Those who would savor the curve of world democracy might also be willing to take a close look at the possibility that civilization as we know it - what Toynbee in a felicitous phrase described “as a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor” - might be a cascade of processes whose combined action constitutes humanity’s learning experience.

 

 

Human civilization as self-organized criticality?

 

                   One particular way to concretize this conception is to say that such a cascade exhibits what students of complex systems (i.a.  Per Bak , or Stuart Kauffman), (and civilization is, after all, a complex system) call “power law behavior”.   That is, the cascade is not just a bundle of unrelated or randomly connected event sequences but rather an artfully structured array of processes such that the more numerous and  energetic processes are also shorter,  while others, information-rich, are longer and less frequent.   A system is at the “critical” state if it shows waves of change and turmoil at several scales, and if the size of changes  follows the power law.   A “critical” system (and only a critical system) is capable of evolution and learning.   Power law functions that are mathematically equivalent to learning curves depict such “critical” systems as poised on the edge of order and chaos, that is on the boundary between supra-criticality, and a sub-critical (ordered) regime.

 

                   Complexity theorists maintain that such “self-organizing” criticality is the condition that makes possible learning and evolution, and serves, in effect, as a regulator of the speed and rate of innovation.   Social systems do, of course, require order and predictability but they must also adapt to change through timely innovation, and for that they need flexibility.  They are driven toward criticality by variation and selection.   Too much innovation - too fast an evolutionary rate - means veering onto chaos (supra-criticality);  Too much order (lack of evolutionary change) means stagnation and a frozen status quo.   We can now demonstrate (Devezas and Modelski 2003) that world system evolution shows waves of change, and incident turmoil, at three scales or more (two of which were discussed above) and that the size of these changes follows a power law.   Self-organized criticality of world system processes is a fine balancing act that shows that the human species as such is subject to evolution, and that human civilization can be interpreted as a learning project.

 

                   An apt analog of this problem on the scale of world politics is balance-of-power theory in International Relations.   Political thinkers have long lauded it as a condition of  international order but were also hard put to explain the awkward fact of major wars (hence instability) attending its operations.   The search for permanent forms of world order suffers from similar disabilities.   The other view,  holding international politics to be inherently anarchic, or inherently turbulent, is equally flawed because a condition of chaos does not adequately describe the course of world affairs.   In fact, global politics might be most fruitfully thought of as finely but firmly situated on the fluid boundary between organization and opportunity but also veering, from time to time, and ever so slightly, in one or the other direction.

 

 

Closing thoughts

 

This all-too-brief review of a grand theme yields the following reflections:

 

                   First,  on the feasibility, and practicability of the singular learning concept of human civilization.   It highlights the commonalities of the millennial human experience on this planet and supplies the broadest conceptual foundation for world organization in the 21ast century.   It is not conducive to seeing clashes of civilizations as the greatest threat of global war, and it questions whether an international order based on civilizations has the capacity to guard against world warfare.    It puts learning, hence also the possibility of cooperation, at the heart of the civilizational process.

 

                   Second, on the plethora of contributions, from a number of major cultural areas,  that make up this singular learning civilization.   It recognizes variety to be a critical component of evolutionary processes.   It denies civilization to be a uniquely European, or “Western” product, as some were wont to assert in the last two-three centuries.   It does look forward to building, upon a common experience of democratization, and in an emerging democratic community,  not homogeneity but increased opportunities for interchange.

 

                   Third,   viewing civilization as a process with a clear course but with an uncertain destination  - for  “no known civilization has ever reached the goal of civilization yet” (Toynbee) - we may still conclude from this analysis that the 21st century holds the prospect of some dramatic developments.   Globalization - be it economic, political, or cultural -  is a sign not of a sudden surge of computer connectivity - even though that matters - but one of the ripening of significant long-term trends from which there is no turning back.   The learning civilization is well into the decisive phase of world organization.

 

                   What might be the outlines of this now maturing learning civilization?   We would expect it to grow upon a foundation of an inclusive democratic community, an increasingly coherent world governance, intensifying economic exchanges, and vastly enhanced connectivity.    But we must not overindulge by simply extrapolating recent trends.   It could be, and an evolutionary analysis suggests,  that following a millennium of tremendous expansion and path-breaking innovations, the world system is due for a substantial respite, an opportunity, by dispersal, for digesting and internalizing those great achievements.   That, too, is a part of learning.

 

 

 

References

 

Bak, Per   (1996)   How Nature Works:  The Science of Self-Organized Criticality,  New York:  Springer

 

Braudel,  Fernand   (1980)   “The History of Civilizations:  The Past Explains the Present”  at pp. 177-218 of  F. Braudel,  On History,   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

 

Devezas, Tessaleno and George Modelski (2003)   “Power Law Behavior and World System Evolution:  A Millennial Learning Process”    Technol. Forecasting and Soc. Change  

 

Huntington,  Samuel L.   (1993)   “The Clash of Civilizations?”   Foreign Affairs,   Vol. 73(3), Summer, 22-49.

 

Huntington,  Samuel L.   (1996)   The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,   New York:  Simon and Schuster.

 

Kauffman, Stuart   (1995)   At Home in the Universe:   The Search for the Laws of Self-organization and Complexity,   New York:  Oxford University Press.

 

Modelski, George   (1996)   Two Lectures on World Politics.   Lisboa:  Academia de Marinha e Fundacao Luso-Americana para o Desenvolvimento.

 

Modelski,   George   (2000)   “World System Evolution” at pp. 24-53 of   R. Denemark, J. Friedman, B. Gills and G. Modelski eds., World System History:  The Social Science of Long-term Change,   New York:  Routledge.

 

Modelski,   George and Gardner Perry III   (2002)   “’Democratization in Long Perspective’ Revisited”,   Technol. Forecasting and Soc. Change, Vol.69, 359-376,   May

 

Toynbee,  Arnold J.    (1948)   Civilization on Trial,   New York:  Oxford University Press.

 

Waldrop, M. Mitchell  (1992)   Complexity,   New York:  Simon and Schuster