An Essay on Civilisation

Behind the fun of creating such a library there is an underlying and important purpose: to help develop an understanding that our overall history is, over any extended period of time, a continuous, improving, upward progression, and that the word Civilisation, used properly, is the word that defines this phenomenon.


When Homo Sapiens first arrived we were already the only species on the planet that was free from a complete reliance on genetic evolution; that is to say we did not need to go through a lengthy process of change to adapt to any new environment we found ourselves in. Life, in general, evolves to better match the environmental niche on which it is dependent but human intelligence renders this imperative mostly redundant and frees humans from lengthy evolutionary time spans. For example, when humans move to a colder climate the evolution of warmer skins is unnecessary: just more clothes, more fires and better shelters. The development of tools, including weapons, meant that almost any environment could provide sustenance and the ability to control fire and cook made a range of foods available beyond the dreams of any other life forms. A few elements of Darwinian evolution were retained in our early days, as in the colour of skin to match the intensity of sunlight where humans lived. Now we use sun cream or vitamin D tablets. Other than in fictional storytelling it is impossible to forecast human advance in the next five hundred years, a time span that is but seconds in the broad sweep of genetic evolutionary development.


Free of most of the constraints of genetic evolution we needed our own unique form of evolution; not just to help ourselves and properly match human time frames, but to protect ourselves and all other life forms from the astonishing power, originally hidden, within our intelligence. It was not until very recently that we ourselves realised that intelligence itself would grant the power to unleash nuclear holocaust or catastrophic climate change.The progress of this new form of evolution, the cognitive evolution of human society, is itself the definition of civilisation.


We miss the true meaning of civilisation because of our lack of an overarching view of the phenomenon. We insist on breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces to suit our own prejudices and by defining it as Greek, Chinese, Western or Christian civilisation when all we can accurately consider is their individual contributions to the overall advance. We grant it mortality even though the ideas and understanding added to it do not die when the societies and individuals that spawned them fade into the past. Some argue that the core is to be found in Art, Architecture and beauty; others champion Literature or Philosophy and yet others Science. We add religion when we express such ideas such as Judeo-Christian Civilisation. Many misunderstand it to the extent of believing that it depends on well-educated scholars for all contributions, forgetting that its essential roots (common decency, empathy, kindness and all of our other developed virtues) are mostly passed on by everyday people who are not and never will be recognised. Civilisation is a growing, universal, human phenomenon, not the temporary, competitive plaything of any tribe or class or time.


There are other fallacious ideas that obfuscate it’s meaning — principle amongst them are the never ending attempts to divide us into different species: by race, sex, nationality, religion, tribe, social status and even intelligence. Unfortunately, even some scientists, primarily psychologists and geneticists, are willing to bolster the idea that some of us i.e. women, black people, the poor and various others are ever so slightly less intelligent than our own supposedly superior version: all argued with regret that this is so, such a pity! Idiots! This attempt to resurrect eugenics by subterfuge is a miserable blot on the name of both science and politics.


For an evolutionary system, civilisation has a very surprising attribute that we ignore all too often: it is constantly accelerating. Just a few examples make this very clear. To progress from our primeval needs — fire, cooking, language — we required tens of millennia to achieve agriculture and another ten to invent writing; a skill that itself required two and a half thousand years to travel from Mesopotamia to Britain. If someone dreams up an equally powerful idea today, the entire globe can be made aware of it this evening. In our own time, the twentieth century, it is not remotely hyperbolic to suggest that we have advanced more, despite two debilitating world wars, than in the entirety of our previous existence; not only in science and technology but in all aspects underpinning our common humanity. This includes the worldwide reduction in violence, our serious engagement with human rights and our long overdue assault on the pitiful obscenities of misogyny, chauvinism and racism. It is the difficulty of dealing with this tear-away acceleration that underpins most of our current political turmoil.


To many it seems that all has gone awry—chaos abounds. In reality this is just the runaway acceleration of our own evolution. Although the word Globalisation is purloined by economists, it is not an economic word but a Civilisational one. We are melding the world together— through commerce, yes, but also through literature, art, film, migration, travel, even pandemics — the list is endless. In addition, the overwhelming connections enabled by the internet and the deluge of information and misinformation that is now flowing around the planet are forcing us all to think about cultures that, heretofore, we barely knew existed and to empathise with those whose social and political difficulties were unknown to us just a few decades ago. Overall what we are learning is that our comfortable status quo cannot hold — that the existential threats we now face are too severe to allow our egregious inequality and consumption to continue. On a more cheerful note, we can see that the political and environmental turmoil we are all currently experiencing is driven, for the most part, by those who imagine they will benefit most from an unjust present. Despite their advantages of wealth and their manipulation of the human fear of change, their voices are becoming more uncontrolled. This is because the only real hope for their ambitions lies in the destruction of Democracy and this, despite their stunning successes to date, is an ambition too far. Democracy is now so deeply embedded in our psyche that the progress of Civilisation itself will not allow its demise. When this ephemeral nightmare ends, as such terrors always do, we will at last have to recognise the true reality that confronts us: a lack of time. If Greta Thunberg lives to be elderly and cannot at that stage find a history book that describes our ruthless deconstruction of insatiable greed and its soul mate, corruption, we will have lost. Muddling through is no longer an option. The future is no longer the present with a few adjustments. We face a tumultuous decade or two. There is nothing good to be said about Covid 19 but it may give us pause to reflect on our current societal trajectory.


Civilisation is the upward, cognitive driven evolution of human society. It is constantly striving to accelerate because of our ever increasing knowledge and understanding. Our current apparent hiatus is caused by the difficulties of adjusting to a globalised society and to find faster solutions to the problems of a fast changing world in danger. If, and this is a big if, we survive our all consuming need for excess, the phenomenon will bring us to where all evolution pauses: as near to a perfect global society as our species is capable of. When, as a worldwide community in search of truth and understanding, we can produce the beauty that even a third rate orchestra can, despite its disparate instruments, members and talents, then the cosmos awaits our attention: perhaps just intellectually… but the physical reality also beckons!


The very act of attempting to create a graspable sized library (about twelve hundred volumes) covering everything that we as humans have achieved — good and bad — is of necessity doomed to failure because of over ambition. But, however crude and judgmental the reality is, it still allows us to glimpse a shadow of the phenomenon that is cognitive evolution and shines a very bright light indeed on the acceleration that is integral within that same phenomenon: Civilisation.

Posted in Franks Library.