Thursday, August 6, 2009

Refuting Type 1 Civilization Theory

Recently I read and commented on Michael Shermer’s entry about a Type 1 civilization. The core problem with the theory, as I see it, is that it presents the evolution of culture as a linear progression from simple to complex. The evolution of culture climaxes in the development of a type 1 civilization. The characteristics of a Type 1 civilization, as Shermer defined it, is as follows:
“Globalism that includes worldwide wireless internet access, all knowledge digitized and available to everyone anywhere any time, a global economy with complete open economic borders and free markets where anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments, and where all states are democracies in which everyone on the planet has the franchise.” (Type 1)
Of course, this Type 1 utopia only exists after society has progressed through all the stages. In Shermer’s model of civilization that means the progression of society from lower Paleolithic cultures, to hunter-gather societies, followed by the formation of tribes, then chiefdoms, states, and so on. The chronicle of actualized societies ends with a .9 society, (the theoretical stage that us Americans happen to be at) which Shermer defines as “Democratic-Capitalism, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements and free trade agreements.” (Type 1)
The first and most glaring problem with this theory is the astounding, mind-boggling, ethnocentric arrogance required to make such a generalization. The idea of a Type 1 civilization assumes that somehow the natural progression of human events culminates in a Western society, with Western values, that bares a rather strong resemblance to American ideas and values. Hence, any society that does not have these characteristics is somehow “less advanced” and ranking far lower on the evolutionary scale.
It is tempting to place oneself as the ego, and define ones’ own culture as the pinnacle of evolution, but are there facts to prove that Western societies are the best? Ultimately, cross-cultural study and analysis suggests that all societies (including tribal ones that would be considered primitive in Shermer’s classification scheme) are equally effective at meeting the particular needs of their members. All societies possess areas where they frequently struggle to meet the individual needs of their members, and areas where they excel at meeting a given need. One of the primary assumptions of anthropology is that culture is generally adaptive (Anthropology). This means that it is relatively safe to assume that cultures currently in existence possess adaptive traits particular to their circumstance- after all, if their culture were maladaptive, it would be extinct.
It is quite possible that many cultures might benefit from being more Western, but might is hardly a statement of fact. We don’t know how they would fair- and we cannot make a definitive statement in absence of evidence. Presuming an idea is true merely because we don’t know that it’s not is hasty at best. In fact, I can think of several examples where introduction of Western values and culture have been detrimental to other societies: the Aborigines of Australia whose acculturation left numerous in desperate poverty and with their own cultural heritage in tatters, the Samoans whose familiarity with Westerners introduced them to obesity and hypertension (Anthropology), and the American Indians whose unsolicited contact with Europeans left them a marginalized subgroup, ravaged by disease, and often living in poverty.
Is globalizing the world, and hence making everyone into a Westerner, really win-win? Unavoidably, someone must lose, just as many indigenous cultures already have. That is simply the obvious reality of that plan, and how Shermer could have overlooked it is beyond me.
Furthermore, Shermer frequently (and sometimes dubiously) asserts that science is on his side. This time he is simply wrong. The idea of a linear progression of society from simple to more complex was the popular notion of anthropologists in the early history of the discipline. Early Evolutionism, whose major proponents included Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward B. Tylor, proposed that all societies pass through the same basic stages of development. It was thought that simpler peoples had somehow failed to reach higher stages of development- but ultimately that all societies would end up with essentially the same form. However, their theories didn’t account for why some societies skipped stages, others regressed to simpler stages, and some simply failed to evolve at all or became extinct. (Anthropology)
In fact, another anthropologist known as Leslie A. White (often times referred to as a Neoevolutionist) even suggested that the amount of energy a culture could harness governed the evolution of culture, but ultimately it succumbed to the same basic failures as early Evolutionism. It could not account for why some cultures advanced, others did not, some regressed, and others went extinct. (Anthropology)
The bigger lesson here, outside of all the obvious, is that no one is immune to his or her own ego- not even Michael Shermer. It’s ironic that, as a champion of skepticism and destroyer of those who make unverified claims of the extraordinary, he would turn around and do precisely the same thing. Shermer should realize have access to information makes no difference if the information is simply bad (as is the case with many information source online). Written sources are only as useful as the person who writes them. Even access to good information is no guarantee that anyone will necessarily access the information. After all, how many non-fiction books have been written? When was the last time you heard of a rush on the library to get the latest taxonomy supplement? The internet has existed for quite sometime now, and the only thing people seem interested in accessing on it is porn. Why do we have a reason to believe that in some vague time in the not-too-distant-future people will be miraculously more enlightened?
It just goes to show that even on the internet (golly gaspy jeepers!) you can’t believe everything you read… so you might as well surf for pron!

Works Cited

Type 1 Civilization. Michael Shermer.

Ember, Carol R. Ember, Melvin. Peregrine, Peter. Anthropology. “Theoretical Approaches in Cultural Anthropology”. “Culture Change and Globalization”. Prentice Hall. Jan. 2007. pgs. 232, 236, 237, 504


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