Most of history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.
— Will Durant
Every veteran Civilization player has had some unfortunate run-ins with the game’s “barbarians”: small groups of people who don’t belong to either your civilization or any of its major rivals, but nevertheless turn up to harass you from time to time with their primitive weaponry and decided aversion to diplomacy. More of a nuisance than a serious threat most of the time, they can spell the doom of your nascent civilization if they should march into your capital before you’ve set up a proper defense for it. What are we to make of these cultural Others — or, perhaps better said, culture-less Others — who don’t ever develop like a proper civilization ought to do?
The word “barbarian” stems from the ancient Greek “bárbaros,” meaning anyone who is not Greek. Yet the word resonates most strongly with the history of ancient Rome rather than Greece. The barbarians at the gates of the Roman Empire were all those peoples outside the emperor’s rule, who encroached closer and closer upon the capital over the course of the Empire’s long decline, until the fateful sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in AD 410. Given the months of development during which Civilization existed as essentially a wargame of the ancient world, it’s not hard to imagine how the word “barbarian” found a home there.
Civilization‘s barbarians, then, really are the game’s cultural Others, standing in for the vast majority of the human societies that have existed on our planet, who have never become “civilized” in the sense of giving up the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, taking up farming, and developing writing and the other traits of relatively advanced cultures. One of the biggest questions in the fields of history, archaeology, anthropology, and sociology has long been just why they’ve failed to do so. Or, to turn the question around: why have a minority of peoples chosen or been forced to become more or less civilized rather than remaining in a state of nature? What, in other words, starts a people off down the narrative of progress? I’d like to take a closer look at that question today, but first it would be helpful to address an important prerequisite: just what do we mean when we talk about a civilization anyway?
The word “civilization,” although derived from the Latin “civilis” — meaning pertaining to the “civis,” or citizen — is a surprisingly young one in English. Samuel Johnson considered it too new-fangled to be included in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1772; he preferred “civility” (a word guaranteed to prompt quite some confusion if you try to substitute it for “civilization” today). The twentieth-century popular historian Will Durant, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most readable holistic chronicler of our planet’s various civilizations, proposed the following definition at the beginning of his eleven-volume Story of Civilization:
Civilization is a social order promoting cultural creation. Four elements constitute it: economic provision, political organization, moral traditions, and the pursuit of knowledge and the arts. It begins where chaos and insecurity end. For when fear is overcome, curiosity and constructiveness are free, and man has passed by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.
“Civilization” is a very loose word, whose boundaries can vary wildly with the telling and the teller. We can just as easily talk about human civilization in the abstract as we can a Western civilization or an American civilization. The game of Civilization certainly doesn’t make matters any more clear-cut. It first implies that it’s an holistic account of human civilization writ large, then proceeds to subsume up to seven active rival civilizations within that whole. In this series of articles, I’m afraid that I’m all over the place in much the same way; it’s hard not to be. But let’s step back now and look at how both abstract human civilization and the first individual civilizations began.
Homo sapiens — meaning genetically modern humans roughly our equals in raw cognitive ability — have existed for at least 200,000 years. Long before developing any form of civilization, they had spread to almost every corner of the planet. Human civilization, on the other hand, has existed no more than 12,000 years at the outside. Thus civilization spans only a tiny portion of human history, which itself spans a still vastly tinier portion of the history of life on our planet.
How and why did civilized societies finally begin to appear after so many centuries of non-civilized humanity? I’ll tackle the easier part of that question first: the “how”. Let me share with you a narrative of progress taking place in the traditional “cradle of civilization,” the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, seat of the earliest known societies to have developed such hallmarks of mature civilization as writing.
For hundreds of thousands of years, the Fertile Crescent and the lands around it were made up of rich prairies, an ideal hunting ground for the nomadic peoples who lived there from the time of the proto-humans known as homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago. But around 12,000 to 10,000 BC, the Middle East was transformed by the end of our planet’s most recent Ice Age, turning what had been prairie lands into steppes and desert. The peoples who lived there, who had once roamed and hunted so freely across the region, were forced to cluster in the great river valleys, the only places that still had enough water to sustain them. With wild game now much scarcer than it had been, they learned to raise crops and domesticated animals, which necessitated them staying in one place. Thus they made the transformation from nomadic hunting and gathering to sedentary farming — a transformation which marks the traditional dividing line between non-civilized and civilized peoples. “The first form of culture is agriculture,” writes Will Durant.
Early on, the peoples of the Fertile Crescent developed what is, perhaps counter-intuitively, the most fundamental technology of civilization: pottery, an advance whose value every Civilization player knows. As is described in the Civilopedia, the pots they made allowed them to “lay up provisions for the uncertain future” out of the crops they harvested, sufficient to get them through the winter months when other food sources were scarce.
One might say that the invention of pottery — or rather the onset of the future-oriented mindset it signifies — marks the point of fruition of humanity’s psychological transition from a state of nature to something akin to the modern condition. Some of you might be familiar with the so-called “worker placement” school of modern board games — a sub-genre on which the city-management screen in the original Civilization may have been a hidden influence. In a game like Agricola, you know that you need to collect enough food to feed your family by the end of the current round, and then again by the end of every subsequent round. You can rustle up a wild boar and slaughter it to deal with the problem now and let the future worry about itself, or you can defer other forms of gratification and use much more labor to plow a field and plant it with grains or vegetables, knowing that it will really begin to pay off only much later in the game. Deferred gratification is, as you’ve probably guessed, by far the better strategy.
It was, one might say, when humans developed the right mindset for playing a game like Agricola that everything changed. Something precious was gained, but something perhaps equally precious was lost. I use a lot of loaded language in this article, speaking about “primitive peoples” and “barbarians” as I do, and, good progressive that I am, generally write it under the assumption that civilization is a good thing. So, let me take a moment here to acknowledge that people do indeed lose something when they become civilized.
It is the fate of the civilized human alone among all the world’s creatures to have come unstuck in time. We’re constantly casting our gaze forward or backward, living all too seldom in the now. What the ancient Greeks called the physis moment — the complete immersion in life that we can observe in a cat on the prowl or a toddler on the playground — becomes harder and harder for us to recapture as we grow older. To think about the future also means to worry about it; to think about the past means to indulge in guilt and recrimination. “Of what are you thinking?” the polar explorer Robert Peary once asked one of his Inuit guides. “I do not have to think,” the Inuit replied. “I have plenty of meat.” An argument could be made that the barbarians are the wisest of all the peoples of the earth.
But, for better or for worse, we progressives don’t tend to make that argument. So, we return to our narrative of progress…
Cities and civilizations are inextricably bound together, not only historically but also linguistically; the word “city” is derived from the same Latin root as “civilization.” Cities provide a place for large numbers of people to meet and trade goods and ideas, and their economies of scale make specialization possible, creating space initially for blacksmiths and healers, later for philosophers and artists, as well as for hierarchies of class and power. They mark the point of transition from Karl Marx’s “primitive communism” to his so-called “slave society” — “Despotism” in the game of Civilization. On a more positive note, one might also say that the first cities with their early forms of specialization mark the first steps in Hegel’s long road toward a perfect, thymos-fulfilling end of history.
By the time a game of Civilization begins in 4000 BC, the Age of Stone was about to give way to the Age of Metal in the Fertile Crescent; people there were learning to smelt copper, which would soon be followed by bronze, as described by another pivotal early Civilization advance, Bronze Working. At this point, small cities had existed up and down the Fertile Crescent for thousands of years. The region was now rife with civilization, complete with religion, art, technology, written documents, and some form of government. Multi-roomed houses were built out of compressed mud or out of bricks covered with plaster, with floors made out of mud packed over a foundation of reeds. Inside the houses were ovens and stoves for cooking; just outside were cisterns for catching and storing rainwater. When not farming or building houses, the people carved statues and busts, and built altars to their gods. Around Jericho, one of if not the oldest of the settlements, they built walls out of huge stone blocks, thus creating the first example of a walled city in the history of the world. By 2500 BC, one of the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent would be capable of constructing the Pyramids of Giza, the oldest of Civilization‘s Wonders of the World and still the first thing most people think of when they hear that phrase.
But in writing about the Fertile Crescent I am of course outlining a narrative of progress for only one small part of the world. Elsewhere, the situation was very different, and would remain so for a long, long time to come. By way of illustrating those differences, let’s fast-forward about 4000 years on from the Pyramids, to AD 1500.
At that late date, much of the rest of the world had still not progressed as far as the Fertile Crescent of 2500 BC. The two greatest empires of the Americas, those of the Aztecs and the Incas, were for all intents and purposes still mired in the Stone Age, having not yet learned to make metals suitable for anything other than decoration. And those civilizations were actually strikingly advanced by comparison with many or most of the other peoples of the world. In Australia, on New Guinea and many other Pacific islands, over much of the rest of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, people trailed even the Aztecs and the Incas by thousands of years, having not yet learned the art of farming.
Consider that in 11,000 BC all peoples on the earth were still hunter-gatherers. Since then, some peoples had stagnated, while others — in the Middle East, in Europe, in parts of Asia — had advanced in ways that were literally unimaginable to their primitive counterparts. And so we arrive back at our original question: why should this be?
For a long time, Europeans, those heirs to what was first wrought in the Fertile Crescent, thought they knew exactly why. Their race was, they believed, simply superior to all of the others — superior in intelligence, in motivation, in creativity, in morality. And, as the superior race, the world and all its bounty were theirs by right. Thus the infernal practice of slavery, after having fallen into abeyance in the West since the Middle Ages, reared its head again in the new American colonies.
In time, some European attitudes toward the other peoples of the earth softened into a more benevolent if condescending paternalism. As the superior race, went the thinking, it was up to them to raise up the rest of the world, to Christianize it and to provide for it the trappings of civilization which it had been unable to develop for itself. Rudyard Kipling, that great poet of the latter days of the British Empire, urged his race to “take up the white man’s burden” as a moral obligation to the benighted inferior peoples of the world.
If there was any objective truth to the racial theories underlying Kipling’s rhetoric, we progressives would find ourselves on the horns of an ugly dilemma, split between our allegiance to rationality and science on the one hand and the visceral repugnance every fair-minded person must feel toward racism on the other. Fortunately for us, then, there is no dilemma here: racism is not only morally repugnant, it’s also bad science.
Any attempt to measure intelligence is a problematic exercise on the face of it; there are many forms of intelligence, such as empathy and artistic intelligence, about which the standard I.Q. test has nothing to say. And even within the limited scope of I.Q., cultural factors are notoriously difficult to remove from the testing process. Nevertheless, to the extent that we can measure such a thing there seems little or nothing to indicate that the overall cognitive ability of, say, a primitive tribesman from New Guinea suffers at all in comparison to that of a “civilized” person. Indeed, in some areas, such as spatial awareness and improvisational problem-solving, primitive people are quite likely our superiors. When we think about it, this stands to reason. For a tribesman on a jungle hunt, an error in judgment could mean that he and his family won’t have anything to eat that night — or, in the worst case, that he won’t get to return to his family ever again. Against that sort of motivator, the threat of failing to get into one’s favored university because of an SAT score that wasn’t all it might have been suddenly doesn’t feel quite so motivating.
All of which is good for our consciences, but it still doesn’t answer the question we’ve been dancing around since the beginning of this article. If racial differences don’t explain why the narrative of progress takes root in some peoples and not in others, what does? Plenty of other possibilities have been proposed, all centering more or less around geography and ecology.
Climate is one proposed determining factor, upon which the citizens of Germany, Scandinavia, the United States, and Canada among other places have sometimes leaned in order to explain why their countries’ economies are generally more dynamic than those of their southern counterparts. The fact that residents of more northerly regions had to work so much harder to survive — to find food and to stay warm in a much harsher climate — supposedly instilled in them a superior work ethic — and perhaps, necessity being the mother of invention, a greater intellectual flair to boot. Will Durant expressed a similar sentiment on a more universal scale in his Story of Civilization, claiming that the “heat of the tropics,” and the “lethargy” it breeds, are fundamentally hostile to civilization. But such claims too often find their evidence in ethnic stereotypes almost as execrable as those that spawned the notion of a white man’s burden, and of equally nonexistent veracity.
The fact is that the more dynamic economies of Northern Europe and the northernmost Americas are a phenomenon dating back only a few centuries at most, not the millennia that would make them solid evidence for the climate-as-destiny hypothesis; ancient Rome, the civilization that still springs to mind first when one says the word “civilization,” was itself situated in the warm, lazy, lethargic, fun-in-the-sun region of Europe. Indeed, the peoples of Northern Europe are comparative latecomers to the cultural party. Until not that many centuries ago, Northern Europe was quite literally the land of the barbarians; the Visigoths who so famously sacked Rome, it must be remembered, were a Germanic people. In the Americas as well, the most advanced native societies, the only ones to develop writing, were found in present-day Mexico and Peru rather than the United States or Canada.
The credence given to the climate-as-destiny theory for many years in the face of such obvious objections, combined with the way that evidence of civilization decays much faster in tropical environments than it does elsewhere, caused archaeologists to entirely overlook the existence of some tropical civilizations. A dry desert environment is, by contrast, about as perfect for preserving archaeological evidence as any natural environment can be, and this goes a long way in explaining why we know so much about certain regions of the world in comparison to others. Michael Heckenberger caused a sensation in archaeological and anthropological circles in 2009 when he published an article in Scientific American about the ancient Xingu people of the Amazon rain forest, who lived in well-developed, orderly communities which Heckenberger compared to the Victorian architect Ebenezer Howard’s utopian “garden cities of tomorrow.”
Another proposed determining factor for civilization or the lack thereof, also prevalent among scholars for many years, is even more oddly specific than the climate-as-destiny hypothesis. Civilization develops, goes the claim, when people find themselves forced to settle in river valleys of otherwise arid climates — i.e., exactly the conditions that prevailed in the Fertile Crescent. The only way for a growing population to survive in such a place was to develop the large-scale systems of irrigation that could bring the life-giving waters of the river further and further from their source. Undertaking such projects, the first ever examples what we would call today public works, required a form of government, even of bureaucracy. Ergo, civilization.
In addition to the example of the Fertile Crescent, proponents of the “hydraulic theory” of civilization have pointed to other examples of a similar process apparently occurring: in the Indus Valley of India, in the Yellow and Yangtze Valleys of China, in the river valleys of Mexico and Peru. The hydraulic theory was very much still a part of the anthropological discussion at the time that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley were making Civilization, and likely informs the way that food-producing river squares are such ideal spots for founding your first cities, as well as the importance placed on irrigating the land around your cities in order to make them grow.
But more recent archaeology, in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere, has cast doubt upon the hydraulic theory. It appears that the first governments developed not in tandem with systems of irrigation but rather considerably before them. The assertion that a fairly complex system of government is a prerequisite for large-scale irrigation remains as valid as ever, as does the game of Civilization‘s decision to emphasize the importance of irrigation in general. Yet it doesn’t appear that the need for irrigation was the impetus for government.
In 1997, a UCLA professor of geography and physiology named Jared Diamond published a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel, which, unusually, created an equal sensation in both the popular media and in academic circles. I described in my previous article the theory of technological determinism to which the game of Civilization seems to ascribe. In his book, Diamond asserted that, before there could be technological determinism, there must be a form of environmental determinism. One could of course argue that both the climate-as-destiny and the hydraulics-as-destiny theories I’ve just outlined fall into that category. What made Diamond’s work unique, however, was the much more holistic approach he took to the question of environmental determinism.
We tend to see the development of civilization through an anachronistic frame today, one which can distort reality as it was lived by the people of the time. In particular, we’ve taken to heart Thomas Hobbes’s famous description of the lives of primitive humans as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” just as we have the image of the development of agriculture, pottery, and all they wrought as the gateway to a better state of being. What we overlook is that nobody back in the day was trying to develop civilization; for people who have no experience with civilization, the very idea of it is, as I’ve already noted, literally unimaginable. No, people were just trying to get to the end of another day with food in their bellies.
We moderns overlook the fact that primitive farming was really, really hard, while hunting and gathering often wasn’t all that onerous at all when the environment was suited to it. Being a primitive farmer in most parts of the world meant working much longer hours than being a hunter-gatherer. Even today, the people of primitive agricultural societies are on average smaller and weaker than those of societies based on hunting and gathering, tending to die much younger after having lived much more unpleasant lives. The only way anyone would make the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture was if there just wasn’t any other alternative. The first civilizations, in other words, arose not out of some visionary commitment to progress, but as a form of emergency crisis management.
With this wisdom in our back pocket, we can now revisit our narrative of progress about those first civilizations from a new perspective. Until roughly 12,000 years ago, it just didn’t make sense for people to be anything other than hunter-gatherers; the effort-to-reward ratio was all out of whack for farming. But then that begin to change in some part of the world, thanks to a global change in climate. The end of the Ice Age in about 10,000 BC caused the extinction in some parts of the world of many of the large mammals on which humans had depended for meat, while the same climate change greatly benefited some forms of plant life, among them certain varieties of wild cereals that could, once clever humans figured out the magic of seeds and planting, become the bedrock of agriculture. By no means did all tribes in a given region adopt agriculture at the same time, but once any given tribe began to farm a positive-feedback loop ensued. An agricultural society makes much more efficient use of land — i.e., can support far more people per square mile — than does one based on hunting and gathering. Therefore the populations of nascent civilizations which adopted agriculture exploded in comparison to those neighbors who continued to try to make a go of it as hunter-gatherers despite the worsening conditions for doing so. In time, these neighboring Luddites were absorbed, exterminated, or driven out of the region by their more advanced neighbors — or they eventually learned from said neighbors and adopted agriculture themselves.
All of these things happened in some places that were adversely affected by the change in climate, beginning with the Fertile Crescent, but in other, equally affected places they did not. And in some of these places, the reasons why have long been troublingly unclear. For example, the African peoples living south of the Fertile Crescent suffered greatly from the shortage of wild game caused by the ending of the Ice Age, and had available to them the wild cereal known as sorghum, one of the most important early crops of their counterparts to the north. Yet these peoples, unlike said counterparts, failed to develop agriculture. Similarly, the peoples of Western Europe had flax available to them, while the peoples of the Balkans had einkorn wheat, both also staple crops of the Fertile Crescent. Yet these peoples as well failed to adopt agriculture until having it imposed upon them millennia later by encroachers from the south and east.
What made the Fertile Crescent and a select few other regions so special? It was this confusing mystery that prompted many an archaeologist to reach for ideas like the climate hypothesis and the hydraulic hypothesis.
But what Jared Diamond teaches us is that there’s very little mystery here at all when one looks at the situation in the right light. What made the Fertile Crescent so special was the fact that all of the plants I’ve just mentioned were available, just waiting to be domesticated. A civilization can’t live by sorghum, flax, or einkorn wheat alone; it requires the right combination of crops in order to sustain itself. Agriculture in the Fertile Crescent sprang up around eight staples that have become known as the “founder crops” of civilization: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch, and flax. This combination alone provided enough nutrition to sustain a population, if need be, without any form of meat. No other region of the world was so richly blessed.
So, it was only in the Fertile Crescent that the people of approximately 10,000 BC had both a strong motivation to change their way of life from one based on hunting and gathering to one based on agriculture and the right resources at their disposal for actually doing so. In time, some peoples in some other parts of the world would encounter the same combination of motivation and opportunity, and civilizations would take root there as well. Many other peoples would remain happily committed to hunting and gathering, in some cases right up until the present day. One thing, however, would remain consistent: when civilizations which had developed agriculture encountered more primitive people and strongly wished to destroy them, absorb them, or just push them out, they would have little trouble doing so.
With this new way of looking at things, we understand that the reason so many of the first civilizations started in river valleys wasn’t due to the hydraulic hypothesis, or indeed to anything intrinsic to river valleys themselves. People rather moved into river valleys as their last remaining option when the environment outside them became uncongenial to their sustenance. And once they were there, circumstance forced them to become civilized. Thus the climate hypothesis of civilization is correct about one thing, even if it applies the lesson far too narrowly: civilization doesn’t arise in places of plenty; it arises in places where life is hard enough to force people to improvise.
But of course the development of civilization isn’t simply an either/or proposition. Even those civilizations which learned to farm and thus started down a narrative of progress didn’t progress at the same rate. Consider perhaps the most infamous example in history of a more advanced civilization meeting one that was less so: Hernán Cortés’s conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 1500s with a tiny army that was vastly outnumbered by the native warriors it vanquished. The Aztecs had spotted about a 5000-year head start on the narrative of progress to the Spaniards, who could trace the roots of their civilization all the way back to those earliest settlers of the Fertile Crescent. Yet the timeline alone doesn’t suffice to explain why the Aztecs were so very much less advanced in so many ways. Jared Diamond asserts persuasively that, not only was the Aztec Empire not as advanced as Spain and other European nations in 1500, but it would never, ever have reached parity with the Europeans of 1500, not even if it had been given many more millennia to progress in splendid isolation. The reasons for this come down not to race, to climate, or to some sort of qualitative difference in river valleys, but to a natural environment that was very different in a more holistic sense.
Europeans had been blessed with thirteen different species of large mammals that were well-suited for domestication; these provided them with meat, milk, clothing, transportation, fertilizer, building materials, and, by pulling plows and turning grindstones, the industrial power of their day. In all of these ways, they spurred the progress of European civilization. Central America, by contrast, had no large mammals at all that were suitable for such roles. And in terms of plants as well, luck had favored the Europeans over the Aztecs; the latter lacked the wide assortment of nutrition-rich grains available to the former, having to make do instead with less nourishing corn as their staple crop. All of these factors meant that the Aztecs had to work much harder than the Europeans to feed and otherwise provide for their people. And so we come again to this idea of specialization, and the efficiencies it produces, as a key determinant of the narrative of progress. Will Durant noted that in a well-developed civilization “some men are set aside from the making of material things, and produce science and philosophy, literature and art.” The Aztecs could afford to set far fewer of their citizenry aside for such purposes than could the Europeans — a crippling disadvantage.
And there were still further disadvantages. The wider variety of animal life in Europe had led to the evolution of far more microbes hoping to infect it. European humans had in turn developed resistances to the cornucopia of germs they carried with them to the New World, resistances which the native inhabitants there lacked. And then the fact that Europe’s habitable regions were smaller and more densely populated had resulted in much more intense competition for land and resources, spurring the development of the technologies of warfare. Between Cortés’s guns, germs, and steel, the Aztecs never had a chance. The inexorable logic of environmental determinism ruled the day.
Civilization can hardly be expected to capture all of the nuances of Guns, Germs, and Steel, not least because it was made six years before Jared Diamond’s book was published. Yet to a surprising degree it gets the broad strokes of geography-as-destiny right. Barbarians, for instance, are spawned in the inhospitable polar regions of the world — regions in which agriculture, and thus civilization, is impossible. (Maybe all those barbarians who are constantly encroaching on your territory are really just trying to get warm…) In our real world as well, the polar regions have historically been populated only by primitive hunter-gatherer communities. Thankfully, Civilization has no interest in race as a determining factor in the narrative of progress. The game has occasionally been criticized for stereotyping its various civilizations in its artificial-intelligence algorithms, but one could equally argue that it’s really the individual civilizations’ chosen historical leaders — Abraham Lincoln, Josef Stalin, Napoleon, etc. — that are being modeled/stereotyped.
Jared Diamond’s theory of environmental determinism remains widely respected today if not universally accepted in its entirety. Some have objected to the very spirit of determinism that underlies it, which seems to assert that all of us humans really are strictly a product of our environment, which seems to imply that human history can be studied much as we do natural science, can be reduced to theorems and natural laws. This stands in stark contrast to an older view of history as driven by “great men,” as articulated by Thomas Carlyle: “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” This approach to history, with its emphasis on the achievements and decisions of individual actors and its love for stirring narratives, has long since fallen out of fashion among academics like Diamond in favor of a more systemic approach. It’s certainly possible to argue that we’ve lost something thereby, that we’ve cut the soul out of the endeavor; we do suffer, it seems to me, a paucity of great tellers of history today. Whatever else you can say about it, Diamond’s approach to history doesn’t exactly yield a page-turner. Where is our time’s Will Durant?
Alexis de Tocqueville, that great French chronicler of early American democracy, mocked both politicians, who believe that all history occurs through their “pulling of strings,” and grand theorists like Jared Diamond, who believe all of history can be boiled down, science-like, to “great first causes.” He wrote instead of “tendencies” in history which nevertheless depend on the free actions of individuals to come to fruition. Maybe we too can settle for a compromise, and say that the conditions at least need to be right in order for our proverbial great persons to build great civilizations. Such a notion was articulated long before current academic fashion held sway by no less august a nation-builder than Otto von Bismark: “The statesman’s task,” he wrote, “is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” “It remains an open question,” allows even Jared Diamond, “how wide and lasting the effects of idiosyncratic individuals on history really are.”
For those of us who believe or wish to believe in the narrative of progress, meanwhile, Diamond’s ideas provide yet further ground for sobering thought, for they rather cut against the game of Civilization‘s spirit of progress as an historical inevitability. Consider once again that homo sapiens roughly equal to ourselves in intelligence and capability have been around for 200,000 years, while human civilization has existed for only 12,000 years at the outside. The auspicious beginning to the game of Civilization, which portrays the entire natural history of your planet leading up to the moment in 4000 BC when you take control of your little band of settlers, rather makes it appear that these events were destined to happen. Yet the narrative of progress was anything but an inevitability in reality; its beginning was spurred only by a fluke change in climate. On the shifting sands of this random confluence of events have all of the glories of human civilization been built. Had the fluke not occurred, you and I would likely still be running through the jungle, spears in hand. (Would we be happier or sadder? An interesting question!) Or, had that fluke or some other spur to progress happened earlier, you and I might already be living on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.
(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Story of Civilization Volume I: Our Oriental Heritage by Will Durant, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, The Face of the Ancient Orient: Near-Eastern Civilization in Pre-Classical Times by Sabatino Moscati, A Dictionary of the English Language Samuel Johnson, The Spirit of the Laws by Montesquieu, Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History by Ernest Gellner, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study in Total Power by Karl Wittfogel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism by Fernand Braudel, Souvenirs by Alexi de Tocqueville, and Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction by Steven Grosby; the article “Phantasms of Rome: Video Games and Cultural Identity” by Emily Joy Bembeneck, found in the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History; Scientific American of October 2009.)
April 6, 2018 at 6:13 pm
I’d say “great as always”, but this one was even more fantastic than usual. I have the Jared Diamond book in my to-read queue; it looks like I’ll have to move it some steps closer. :) I can’t wait for the next post in this series (there will be more, right?).
Progressives, plural? I don’t think using the singular there is exactly wrong, but the plural sounds better to me. Then again, you’re the native speaker, not I. :)
Missing “we”, I guess, unless you were going for “I”.
April 6, 2018 at 8:06 pm
Right on both counts. Thanks! And yes, several more parts to come…
April 7, 2018 at 5:01 pm
Pedro, definitely read GGS when you are in a mindset for heavy thought. It’s a great book, one thing Jimmy didn’t mention is the north-south vs east-west climate hypothesis. I put Diamond and Maher in the same category of contextual thinkers- people who really help me understand and integrate various systems.
April 11, 2018 at 8:21 pm
Pedro, I think both you and Jimmy might find Andre Gunder Frank, “Re-Orient” an interesting contrast/counterpoint to Diamond. Frank argues that China has actually been the “most advanced” civilization through most of human history, and only the accident of discovering the New World (while in the process of desperately trying to establish trade routes with China) put the West in the lead for the last few centuries. (Fair warning: Frank is an economist who uses lots of technical terms and also tends to cite his own research as evidence. He’s still got an interesting point to make.)
April 6, 2018 at 6:56 pm
“emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peras, chickpeas, bitter vetch, and flax”
peras -> peas?
April 6, 2018 at 8:13 pm
April 6, 2018 at 9:30 pm
“Early on, the peoples of the Fertile Cresdent” Cresdent –> Crescent
“The infernal practice of slavery, after having fallen into abeyance in the West since ancient times, became once again a pillar of Western economies as the European nations pushed into Africa.”
European countries didn’t push into the interior of sub-Saharan Africa until the late-19th century, by which time they were engaged in abolishing the slavery that had existed in this geography since time immemorial. You’re undoubtedly thinking of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the Americas that started in the 16th-century, which provided a source of labor for numerous European colonies in the Americas but was not “a pillar of Western economies”. As for slavery’s prevalence in the West, this ended in the Middle Ages (though replaced by various forms of serfdom) rather than in “ancient times”.
“In the Americas, settlers and soldiers committed deliberate genocide on the native populations by giving them blankets infected with smallpox”
The Spanish inadvertently brought smallpox and other diseases to the Americas, which resulted in the deaths of many millions of Native Americans. However, aside from the British military during the Seven Years’ War, there aren’t any cases of attempting to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox (at least not in Anglo-America), and the number of deaths resulting from such attempts pales in comparison with the millions killed from the general spread of disease that started in the 16th-century.
“while in Australia the demon rum, of which the aboriginal peoples had no knowledge and no resistance, became another weapon of mass destruction.”
Leaving aside the irony of your presenting a genetic explanation in regard to alcohol while dismissing it as a possible factor a few paragraphs later, alcohol had substantial deleterious effects on the indigenous inhabitants in many parts of the world, where humans hadn’t learned to create alcoholic beverages themselves and therefore lacked resistance to it, not just Australia. Moreover, it seems insulting to victims of actual “weapons of mass destruction” to use this term in regard to the voluntary (if addictive) consumption of alcohol.
“The fact is that the more dynamic economies of Northern Europe and the northernmost Americas are a modern phenomenon dating back only decades, not the centuries or millennia that would make them solid evidence for the climate-as-destiny hypothesis”
Although your general point about climate is sound, England and the Netherlands were already among the most dynamic economies by the 17th-century (by which time Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany also had fairly vibrant economies). The colonies in what are now the United States and Canada inherited England’s dynamism. This isn’t a matter of decades.
April 7, 2018 at 7:30 am
Thanks for this! Your points are well-taken. In my defense, I’ll only say that my claim that the aboriginal peoples of Australia lacked resistance to rum has nothing to do with genetics, simply with environment. It’s conceptually no different from the claim that natives of the Americas lacked resistance to smallpox and other diseases. But I excised both of those bits anyway, so no worries. ;)
April 6, 2018 at 9:41 pm
> Whatever else you can say about it, Diamond’s approach to history doesn’t exactly yield a page-turner.
I disagree. I found the book incredibly fascinating and quite a good read.
April 6, 2018 at 10:09 pm
This was another interesting piece, one that had me reflecting on the books on history I’ve read myself. In remembering them, though, I did contemplate my understanding that “the barbarians at the gates of the Roman Empire” and the following groups crashing into settled lands over the next millennium were no longer “hunter-gatherers” but nomads depending on the agricultural technology of domesticated animals (and the skills developed to follow and control those herds, which could be turned into riding down on and attacking agriculturalists; the first book I can think of that helped shape that understanding is Gwynne Dyer’s War: The New Edition). Now that I’ve said, that, though, I am concerned it’s just a picky note on an opening point leading into something different.
I’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (and some of his articles in “Discover” magazine in the 1980s and 1990s developing the ideas from that book, including a fairly critical look at the toll resorting to agriculture took on us), but I was definitely intrigued more lately to read Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which reported some recent arguments there might have been a considerable indigenous population in the Americas, making quite some use of agriculture (although without the domestic animals that helped breed the diseases Europeans brought over with them…)
April 7, 2018 at 3:46 am
Funny… as I read this, my first thought was that I should mention 1491 in the comments!
It’s a nice complement to Diamond’s book(s). I also recommend 1493, which is different in narrative, but a fascinating follow up.
Great work as always!
April 7, 2018 at 7:34 am
Interesting that the barbarians at the gates perhaps weren’t quite so barbaric as once thought — although I’m not quite willing to edit the article to change what was really just a rhetorical point. ;)
April 8, 2018 at 2:03 am
I was surprised when I found out that the “barbarians” who stormed Rome weren’t really barbarians at all. As I’ve read more history over the past few years, it is astonishing how much movement there was around the ancient world at times.
Loving the blog as much as always!
April 7, 2018 at 1:37 am
By the way, this is super off topic, but a lot of people used “Guns Germs and Steel” to advance some form of their agenda. Somehow all these people tended to not mention the sequel, “Collapse” which is about the collapse of societies. There’s actually an entire argument that hunter gatherer societies were frankly a more pleasant existence for the average person up until a couple of centuries ago, in terms of average life-span and amount of hours needed to work. They just couldn’t compete against agricultural societies who could out-breed them and developed significantly better fighting technology.
April 7, 2018 at 5:48 am
“In the Americas, settlers and soldiers committed deliberate genocide on the native populations by giving them blankets infected with smallpox,”
This particular myth is based on an actual event–it was one of British General Jeffrey Amherst’s methods of dealing with Pontiac’s Rebellion–but there’s precious little evidence that anyone else ever deliberately carried out this idea. The Europeans did a lot of nasty stuff to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Deliberate biological warfare for the purpose of genocide is not on the list.
“Central America, by contrast, could boast just one large mammal suitable for domestication: the llama,”
The natural range of the llama is entirely within South America. The Incas had llamas, but the Aztecs did not. Which makes the point even stronger–the Aztecs had no real potential beasts of burden available.
Overall, though, good article. While Diamond carries the geography hypothesis a little too far when he explains why some civilizations developed further and faster than others, it does serve as a good explanation for the opening stages of civilization.
Also, regarding the barbarian tribes that overran Rome, it’s worth noting that most of the first wave were actually farmers themselves, who had had contact with Rome, usually become more organized as part of contact with Rome, and then decided to take the riches of Rome for themselves–a tale not altogether dissimilar to what Rome had done in the Mediterranean Sea a few centuries before.
April 7, 2018 at 7:40 am
Thanks for this!
April 7, 2018 at 6:02 am
I think you’re really overselling “Guns Germs and Steel” here. It was hardly the first book to argue environmental determinism. And Diamond seems to have been very sloppy in his research, brushing over hugely complicated subjects and bringing everything back to his one thesis. See for instance: https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/guns-germs-and-steel-jared-diamond/
In my opinion the game of civilization actually does it better than Jared Diamond. Geography is important, sure, but it’s not the only thing. I’d bet on a skilled human player with crummy land over an AI with good land any day. The best tiles in that game aren’t even necessarily farming tiles- forests with game, or ocean tiles with fish can be just as good or better than farming grassland. This seems in line with the modern view that prehistory groups usually weren’t just hunters or farmers but switched between the two as necessary.
April 7, 2018 at 7:54 am
I’ve heard Diamond’s work criticized occasionally, but I’ve never seen a detailed, cogent critique of the *details* of what he supposedly gets wrong. I’d seen the article you link to before, and I’m afraid it’s just not very compelling. What with its charges of “academic porn” and the like, it’s a visceral reaction apparently motivated by ideology rather than a sober, rational critique. That kind of thing isn’t much more useful than Alan Emrich bellowing “politically correct!” at the game of Civilization over and over.
It seems that the real objection that’s being leveled, in this article and others like it, is to the thesis of environmental determinism and the removal of agency from individual groups. I did acknowledge that objection, which bothers me a little as well, in my article.
Probably the most interesting criticism of Diamond I’ve seen is from Tyler Cowen’s interview with Charles C. Mann, an author whom several other commenters have already mentioned favorably (I confess I haven’t read him yet): https://medium.com/conversations-with-tyler/tyler-cowen-charles-mann-environment-agriculture-engineering-621327588c64. He describes Diamond as “an interesting guy who should learn more about the social sciences” and one who “doesn’t do his homework.” But I suspect he’s talking more about Collapse there, which does strike me as much more of a problematic over-generalization than Guns, Germs, and Steel.
April 7, 2018 at 5:05 pm
People dismiss Malcolm Gladwell for similar reasons- it’s almost as if any attempt to bridge the academic gap is flawed by its premise.
Tyler Cowen. One of the greats. His new long form podcast is great.
April 7, 2018 at 8:14 pm
As I see it, it’s not so much *wrong* as it is under-argued. Jared Diamond is trying to tie together all of human history with one simple thesis, and argue it in the form of a bestselling pop-science book. It’s incredibly ambitious, but social science doesn’t really work that way- it would be *incredible* if one book could settle one of their oldest controversies.
My impression as a layman is that “Guns Germs and Steel” is much more like “The End of History” in its academic reputation than, say, “The Descent of Man.” Not *bad* but… incomplete. Try telling a group of anthropologists that Diamond proved the environmental determinism theory correct (or that he invented it!). I’ll bet that none of them would really agree with that, although they might all give different reasons for disagreeing, which might be why it’s hard to find any one definitive takedown of GGS.
It seems like Diamond built most of his thesis on just one event- the Spanish conquest of the New World. I don’t see how his thesis fits at all with the history of how the Middle East, India, and China all stagnated relative to Europe.
But I’m not sure the facts even fit his narrative of the conquistadors. The way he tells it, they showed up with such overwhelming military technology (as a result of their better food sources thousands of years earlier) that the natives never had a chance. That does seem like something out of Civilization, where you can develop tanks while everyone else is still using chariots and win wars effortlessly. But when I read about the Spanish conquest, they weren’t like that at all. Their technology was more medieval than modern, and could have been defeated by the native armies if they hadn’t exploited the existing conflicts among the natives to gain allies, as well as ruthlessly sneak attacking the native emperors. In that sense, it’s again more like something from Civilization, where tactics and diplomacy can be just as important as technology.
April 7, 2018 at 9:00 pm
Okay, this critique is much more lucid than the article you linked to. Thanks!
I think we might usefully divide Diamond’s theories into two pieces: why civilizations get started in the first place, and why they develop more or less hurriedly thereafter. From my perspective, environmental determinism as the sole or major agent is far more compelling in the case of the former than the latter. You didn’t mention the former at all, so I don’t know whether you’d agree or not.
As far as the question of development *speed*, I do agree that to boil everything down to environment is silly. (If that was the case, the rest of this series of articles, which will examine other influences on a civilization’s development, would be superfluous.) It’s my understanding that there’s some debate among historians as to how much of the conquest of the Aztecs was down to crafty strategy, how much was better technology, and how much was sheer blundering chance; I don’t know enough to take a stand on one side or the other. But even if we agree to agree that craftiness and/or chance played a more important role than Diamond seems to allow, the fact remains that the Spanish *were* a much more advanced civilization in technological terms, and it’s reasonable to ask why. And, having asked the question, it does strike me as reasonable to arrive at environmental determinism as a big piece of the answer.
Diamond does, for what it’s worth, address a lot more disparities than the case of the Spanish versus the Aztecs. Even leaving aside the fact that the Middle East was actually ahead of Europe in terms of culture for a fair chunk of history, and thus may not fit your description of a region of “stagnation,” I think Diamond would say that Europe had a perhaps uniquely potent combination of environmental advantages, and thus was able to advance the most quickly of all in the long run.
That said, I don’t want to carry his theories too far, and was careful to describe the second part of his thesis — about the *speed* of a civilization’s development — as theory rather than gospel truth in the article.
April 8, 2018 at 12:02 am
I got the impression from the article that you were treating Diamond’s theories as pretty much accepted truth. Maybe I misinterpreted some of what you were saying. I was surprised that you didn’t mention any competing theories though (other than the “racist theory”).
The trouble with talking about the “start of civilization” is that there’s no clear line. It seems as though many early farming sites started with migrant groups gradually staying longer in the same area. And then, many of the earliest farming sites were abandoned (https://io9.gizmodo.com/how-farming-almost-destroyed-human-civilization-1659734601), with the people going back to hunting/gathering for a few thousand years. Maybe this was all the result of climate change, but there are other theories too:
-Agriculture made top-down control easier- a government could collect taxes in the form of grain, and make big conspicuous feasts to show off their power
-Agriculture allowed fermentation into alcohol, for which hunting had no equivalent
-Religious/cultural reasons made people want to stay in the same land, no matter what
-World population growth made migration more dangerous, since it meant coming into contact with other groups
-Once they stayed in the same area and their population grew larger, *then* they had to develop agriculture to feed themselves, instead of the other way around
Since all of this was so long ago and the evidence is so scarce, I have a hard time taking any firm view on way or the other. I would agree though that there might be very different factors for the speed adopting agriculture vs more modern developments.
April 8, 2018 at 7:53 am
I did mention two other competing theories: the climate theory and the hydraulic (river-valley) theory. The fact that there’s usually not a bright line where a tribe says, “Now we start farming and become permanently civilized” — it’s more a series of graduated shades of gray — was something I choose not to dig into in the name of creating a readable general overview.
Anyway, all of the things you mention could very well have been factors, but they fail to address a big anomaly that Diamond’s theories do: the fact that modern humans have been around for at least 200,000 years, but human civilization only about 12,000 years. If it was just one civilization that sprang up it could be regarded as a random event, but in actuality quite a number of civilizations sprang up completely independently over the course of just a handful of thousand years. This is statistically *extremely* unlikely absent some precipitating cause.
April 7, 2018 at 8:47 pm
So as you say, the original Civilization couldn’t include Diamond’s ideas because it came out before his book. What about the later versions? Or can the basic Civilization model not co-exist with GGS?
April 7, 2018 at 9:07 pm
Honestly, I’ve only played a couple of them, and not for a long, long time. We’ll have to readdress the issue when we get there, unless any other readers have ideas. ;)
April 17, 2018 at 10:11 pm
I’m not sure how a game design could allow both environmental determinism and player authority. Certainly some resources are particularly important – horses, iron, and oil come to mind. Players have to ensure access to those resources to build certain units and improvements or see themselves militarily disadvantaged.
I think map generation has always been fair and put horses on all continents on the map, even in the real-world maps. There may be scenarios which restrict this.
April 7, 2018 at 8:51 pm
There is another, subtler importance to pottery beyond the obvious “good at storing food” one.
When people make tools out of stone, or bone, or wood; when they weave plants into baskets or cut up animals for food and leather; or even when they make certain rocks very hot so that the copper comes out, they are just adapting natural materials.
Pottery isn’t an adapted natural material. It is the result of taking one natural material (clay), shaping it just right, and permanently transforming it into something new. Pottery is the first known artificial substance.
April 8, 2018 at 7:54 am
This is a really interesting insight. Thanks!
April 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm
A minor correction:
“Fortunately for us, then, there is no dilemma here: racism is not only morally repugnant, but it’s also bad science.”
“Fortunately for us, then, there is no dilemma here: racism is not only morally repugnant, it’s also bad science.”
April 8, 2018 at 1:12 pm
December 17, 2020 at 10:06 am
I apologize for commenting years after the fact, but I really enjoy this blog and often go back and reread parts of it. This series, though, gave me a lot of trouble when it was first posted– it was the first time I felt myself totally at odds with the conclusions you were drawing (I very much enjoyed your Trinity series, though I am still undecided on how I feel about your ultimate conclusion, but that’s unsurprising given what a complex moral topic it is. Regardless, my uncertainty doesn’t diminish my enjoyment.) At the time I had trouble formulating what my issues with this series were in a coherent way, so I didn’t enter the discussion, but now I’m excitedly returning to it in hopes of figuring out how I feel about it a few years later.
I think my chief problem with this post in particular, and maybe the series in general, is the implicit idea that there is something that all civilizations share in common. I think this in itself, not just the notion of deterministic progress, might be a case of an America-centric worldview. Civilizations that exist now, and more ancient civilizations that are viewed by us in the modern world through a certain lens, seem to share much more in common than they actually do. Jared Diamond’s theory leaves me cold not because I think it’s wrong, but because I dispute the idea that you ever COULD come up with a correct theory that applies to all civilizations.
As you said the boundaries of what a “civilization” actually is is very slippery, but despite this you seem to take for granted that there IS something essential to all civilization that binds them all together and allows us to come up with a single explanation for how they arise. And to your credit the single explanation is more nuanced and interconnected than a lot of competing explanations that want to boil things down further to one singular cause. I think it is right to distrust those kinds of explanations, but I also think that the more nuanced single explanation is simply a somewhat better approach, not a correct one. There can be no one correct explanation, because as a prerequisite to that all the things we call “civilization” would have to in some way have the same core essence.
You list some traits that civilizations possess, and of course there is something to this: some civilizations certainly possess some or all of these traits. We would not be able to group civilizations together at all if we could not find any commonalities. The mistake is in treating this as a list of traits civilizations MUST posses, rather than as a list of traits civilizations MIGHT possess, among others. There are many things that make up a civilization, and things that might appear similar are actually revealed to be very different in the full context of the civilization to which they belong. A way to combat this is abstraction: assuming that the specifics of a civilization don’t matter, and isolating certain attributes. I understand the need to do this when you are writing in order to draw certain comparisons or highlight certain similarities, but the problems begin when people forget that they are using a rhetorical device and start thinking that these traits are things that actually have an independent existence. Needless to say, this does not get us closer to the truth, but instead confuses things considerably. There are many more differences between modern day America and ancient Babylon than there are similarities. (And conversely there may be many similarities between civilizations and the communities of “barbarians.”)
Of course the different stages of progress maybe account for these differences in your conception, but the concept of progress is if anything more slippery than the concept of civilization. With civilization at least I am with you when you point to certain traits, with progress I cannot even conceptualize it as anything but a sort of wind that sweeps us through history. I find myself totally unable to argue against it, because I have no idea what you are even on about here. Maybe this was part of my issue in formulating my thoughts on this series when it was first posted: the abstract idea of progress just isn’t anything. Is it things getting better? For who? In what way? There are more questions than reasons for me to take the idea of progress seriously. All counter examples fall short when they are put to work trying to disprove nothing.
None of this is to say I don’t think the term civilization is useless or anything, or that talking about them is a mistake. The mistake is looking at a group of things (and who can say where the boundaries are without a purpose or agenda?) grouped together for various reasons at various times and places, and assuming that we can meaningfully talk about what they all share in common. There is nothing of the sort. It’s ridiculous to talk about a general explanation for why civilizations arise, because there is not one thing called a civilization, but a group of incredibly varied things that share certain things in common, but not others. If there isn’t even a single reason that I might play a game of Civilization (e.g. I am bored, I want to show it to a friend, I want to write a paper on it, I want to make my own game in the same style, etc.) then why on earth would there be one explanation for why all the infinitely more complex things we call civilizations arise?!
You seem to come to the conclusion that there are two camps when it comes to the origin of civilizations: environmental determinism and the great man theory. You place yourself, it seems, somewhere in the middle, allowing that both things can have an impact, but leaning considerably more towards environmental determinism. I hope this is a fair characterization. Again I think this is a better approach than more narrowly focused theories, but still not correct. One thing that puzzles me is where communities fit into this. Surely communities are an incredibly important factor in establishing a civilization and driving its development, but they seem to go entirely ignored. Are you forgetting about them, or are you lumping them in with environmental determinism? If it’s the latter, then is the implication that while individuals can think, make decisions, and drive events, communities are mindlessly propelled by outside forces, or maybe themselves act like a force of nature? This seems extremely questionable to me, but then again so is leaving them out of the conversation entirely. And again where does the great man end and his community begin? Or for that matter where does the environment end and the community begin? I cannot any more draw an absolute border here than around civilizations.
In another comment chain a commenter pointed out that there is not one moment where a civilization can be said to have started, and you acknowledged this while saying you left out this consideration for the sake of not getting too bogged down. I can understand this, one article can’t cover every nuance of a topic, but I still feel like in this particular case you are tossing this problem aside too quickly, as it’s actually quite crucial. After all, how can we even talk about the beginning of a civilization in such scientific terms (for you yourself acknowledge that environmental determinism is grounded in a scientific worldview) without knowing what it “beginning” consists in? Is it happening continuously? When does it stop beginning? If we don’t appeal to a scientific view in this case then plenty of things, or nothing too specific, might suit us just fine as a definitional border, depending on our needs. In neither case does it make sense to look for a single global explanation for this beginning that we have defined, at best, provisionally.
I think there is worth in talking about civilizations, certainly, and even talking about their origins. It’s also interesting and worthwhile to compare civilizations and their origins to one another. But once you slip from talking about particulars and into talking about civilizations as a general concept you are slipping into talking about nothing at all. Jared Diamond’s book is nonsense, because of its insistence on finding the one explanation behind a dizzying array of different things, each individually more complex then a 1000 books could do justice to. Unfortunately, by extension, this post is largely nonsense as well. Your blog is usually grounded in context and particulars, and I think the failure to do that in this series is what makes it so unsatisfying in comparison to most of your other posts.
December 17, 2020 at 4:22 pm
Thanks for your thoughts. I remember this series as an extremely difficult one to write, maybe the most difficult I’ve ever attempted. I was never entirely satisfied with the end result, nor were all of my readers by any means. In addition to the ones who would prefer me to stick closer to a more conventional style of gaming history and criticism (which is of course a perfectly reasonable desire), there were others who were willing to take this journey with me, but wound up finding some of my conclusions a bit suspect, perhaps even glib. Mea culpa.
Having said all that, some thoughts:
I don’t see a big difference between “great men” and “communities.” To my mind, this is just a more wide-angle version of the longstanding nature-versus-nurture debate in psychology. In general, you’ve summarized my take on the subject pretty well. I see history as formed of long-term trends which are quite determinative, punctuated by inflection points which are less so. In many cases, the figures we call “great men” are not truly essential. Certainly this is often true in the history of technology; if Gutenberg hadn’t invented the printing press, it seems safe to say that someone else would have done so. In other cases, though, this is not the case; if Winston Churchill hadn’t been around to urge his countrymen to continue to defy Nazi Germany, I’m not at all sure that history wouldn’t have taken a radically different path. I think largely the same formulations apply to communities; it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the British public would be receptive to Churchill’s message.
A rather shocking number of arguments wind up hinging on semantics; they go off the rails because the parties involved are operating with different understandings of what the words they use actually mean. I sense some of that — or at least the potential for it! — here. I notice here that you talk about “civilization” as a word that has some predetermined meaning, but complain that that meaning is “slippery.” It may be more useful to *provide* civilization with a meaning, by stating explicitly what we mean when we use the word. That way, we know we’re on the same page. Yes, this is made more difficult by the cultural baggage and value judgements that come attached to the word. But I do believe I tried to explain somewhere in these articles proper that I don’t intend the adjective “uncivilized” as a pejorative.
In the spirit of the above, then, I would make the invention or acquisition of writing the dividing line between civilized and uncivilized. I think writing tends to bring with it a lot of the things that are implied when we use the word “civilization” more vaguely: a method of passing down facts and memories outside of the oral tradition; a degree of systematized education for at least some of the people; principles of ownership and property (writing was first used in many places just to mark what belonged to whom); an orientation toward the past and especially the future rather than the present; eventually systems of laws and a literary culture. Many of my thoughts on this subject have evolved since I wrote these articles and started writing The Analog Antiquarian, where I’ve now addressed the origins of several ancient civilizations. I may very well not have defined the term as carefully as I should have — or at all? — here.
The notion of progress, which you state is also too amorphous for your tastes, perhaps just craves a similarly rigid definition in this context; you’re definitely right that it’s been used almost as one might a term of religious faith at times, particularly in the late nineteenth century. I would say that we could determine the existence and degree of Progress in any given social group by taking the median person — the proverbial 50th percentile — from that group and looking at her overall quality of life now as compared to some point point in the past — ten years, 100 years, whatever scale we’re measuring on. Can she expect to live longer? How are her hours waking hours divided between work and relaxation? Can she expect to suffer from chronic disease, hunger, or other forms of deprivation? How much opportunity does she have to pursue those activities, in both her work and free time, that are satisfying to her personally? Etc., etc. Yes, some of these things are judgment calls, but I don’t think they’re overly *hard* judgment calls for a person of good faith.
Judged by those metrics, we can firmly state that Progress has occurred, at least in what we call the Western “developed” nations — another loaded term! — for the last 700 years or so. No “wind that sweeps through history” is required. However, there’s also a sobering element here. Going by the same metrics, we know that Progress not only stopped but regressed for a period of almost 1000 years before that. So, it’s not an inevitable quality of history.
I sense that the core of your objection to everything about this series may be the exception you take with Jared Diamond’s view of history. So, let me say something about that:
Diamond was the first person to offer a plausible answer to a question which has vexed us for a long time: why did it take humans so long to settle down in sedentary communities, a necessary precursor to (my definition of) civilization, given that the evolutionary biologists tell us there just wasn’t that big a biological difference between the humans of 100,000 years and those of 10,000 years ago. “Plausible” does not necessarily mean “correct,” of course, but his theory of climate change as the impetus strikes me as the best one we have by far. I cannot praise Diamond enough for providing it.
In just about all other respects, however, I’m a Diamond skeptic. I agree that he tries too hard to fit all civilizations into rigid rubrics of rules that leave no space for the vagaries of individuals, of cultures, even of blind chance. I find his books after Guns, Germs, and Steel to be thoroughly unconvincing, as I do pretty much every part of the aforementioned book that doesn’t bear directly on its one great insight. If you left this series believing I was a thoroughgoing Diamond acolyte, sharing his one-size-fits-all notion of historical development, that’s unfortunate, as that’s never the impression I meant to convey.
December 17, 2020 at 11:36 pm
I appreciate your reply, and actually I have to say I may have weighed in prematurely because after commenting here I continued reading and found most of the remaining posts in the series more to my taste. Certainly I don’t agree with everything you say in them, but they’re not nonsense by any stretch, and in fact you talk about your topics in a less generalized way that I still feel like these first few posts fail to do. That’s what I get for speaking in sweeping generalities myself! But in my defense I was planning on commenting on the series as I went through it, but ended up saying most of what I had to say about my conceptual issues with the series in this first post.
I guess I should clarify what I meant, though, because it was not my intention to imply that “civilization” has a pre-existing meaning exactly. I do think that any word must have meaning in order for us to use it, but there is also nothing inherent in the word that prescribes a certain meaning, rather the meaning is the use the word is put to. That’s why there’s not one thing called a civilization, because we don’t use the word in one context and one context only. The idea that there is something outside of these varied uses that ties the concept of civilization together as presented in this series is, I believe, wishful thinking.
As for this being a question of semantics for me, well it’s not untrue, but unlike Haraclitus, who you mention in a later post, who thought that words were a system imposed by humanity onto the real workings of the world, I don’t believe that we can really escape or see past our words to the concepts behind them, because there is no fixed thing that our words point to or represent. (Or again maybe this is not really totally unlike Haraclitus so much as subtly different.) I hope this doesn’t sound too ridiculous, and of course I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s out of place when talking about a concept as high-falutin’ as “civilization” to question what we actually mean when we say it and how we mean it. Defining terms is useful in a limited way for particular purposes, but when you want to talk about civilization in very general terms, applying it to everything anybody has ever called a civilization in every context, I think a definition of any sort only confuses and misleads. It seems more useful to talk of specifics, present as many good, varied examples as possible, and employ various ways of looking at them. Of course this is outside the scope of one article, but talking about civilization in general outside of any particular context is, as I see it, an attempt to fold all these aspects of civilization into one piece anyway. So I guess my ultimate point is that abstraction and generality is not the best way to go about doing what you’re attempting to do here, and that the actual method would require something, yes, I guess closer to what you are doing with your wonders of the world series, which I think I will dive into after this. I guess my criticism is already taken before it even arrived, but I am not really even trying to get you to change anything about this series, of course, though I know you do often incorporate reader criticism. I think it is a noble effort with much to recommend it (especially when you dig into more specifics later) even as I have to think that it is in some
ways a doomed effort from the start. I am more trying to figure out for myself what my problems with it are, and I appreciate the back and forth, it is definitely giving me incentive to think more about it and refine my ideas.
To get a little bit more into the specifics of your reply, I am glad to hear that you are not so fully convinced by Diamond either, and in fact I started to get that sense from your later posts as well, though this post still seems particularly enthusiastic about his view as the true one. I’ve already covered why I don’t believe a true view can exist, but I am certainly willing to go as far as to say that the things Diamond mentions as the main motivating factors may be important contributing factors in some, but not all, cases. I would not go any further than that, but this post appears to hold that it applies more generally. It’s also certainly true that many of my criticisms are directed at Diamond moreso than they are at your series in particular. I see now this is a bit misplaced, since my intention was to engage with this series moreso than Diamond’s book, but I still feel like there is in both the desire to find the one unifying explanation for, if not all of history (you make it clear elsewhere that you don’t subscribe to the idea that there could be such a thing,) but for the origins of civilizations as a general category. The answer to the question: “Why did civilizations start when they did and take the form they did?” Again I feel it makes more sense to ask this about a particular civilization than civilizations taken as a whole, and even with a single civilization you’re bound to run into trouble, though the insights I believe would be more useful on this scale.
The distinction between great man and the community not existing in your conception makes sense, I am content to let that one go. Probably more a case of me balking at the term than anything.
With regards to progress… (and I hope it’s okay if I take this opportunity to reply here to the other comment on my post here at the same time) I am still unconvinced. Again I don’t think a stricter definition would help matters. It of course makes perfect sense to look at progress in a particular case. Here I would say, a history of the progress of women’s rights or queer liberation or technology all make perfect sense to me. We can meaningfully talk about these things, even in cases where progress seems to regress or take detours, but only because we are talking about a particular thing and have a particular idea in mind what progress means for this thing (though we easily could have a different idea.) What doesn’t make sense to me is assuming that progress has some independent existence, or that it somehow reveals itself when all of the varied things we call progress are taken in aggregate. I don’t think I am speaking in bad faith when I say I don’t know what progress even MEANS on this scale. There is just too much complexity here and I don’t know what average to take or how to take it or if doing so is even desirable. I don’t want to go back and reverse progress, but it’s not because I don’t think progress occurred or because I think it has actually been a regression, I don’t want to reverse progress in the abstract because I have no clear idea of what I would even be reversing! I long for more specifics here as well. Of course if you asked me specially,
“Do you wish for the progress women’s rights have made to be reversed?” I would easily answer, “No.”
Appealing to quality of life, which I think is just a more scientific way of saying overall happiness, is I think a Utilitarian impulse, and that is a philosophy I find deeply useless. There is just no way to measure happiness (or quality of life), or even define clearly what is being measured, and how can you average something that you can’t even calculate the raw numbers for? You may have a vague sense, and call this an average, but you don’t even have access to the same vague sense for all the different places on earth in all the different eras! Appealing to average happiness/quality of life, or average anything, to justify a generalized view of progress is I believe just punting on having to explain one abstract concept by appealing to another and hoping that people won’t pry further.
Averaging is of course also a way of avoiding dealing with the details. Take the early American colonies, and let’s say we have an instrument for measuring their quality of life. My assumption would be that the instrument would probably show that the average colonist’s quality of life was about average compared to, say, England at the time, maybe a bit higher or lower. The slaves that worked the plantations in the Americas, by contrast, unquestionably had a terrible quality of life by any metric. But if you average them the suffering of the slaves would certainly drag down the overall total, but the resulting average would only show a population that was on average somewhat less happy than they were in England. This average I believe completely erases the true suffering and shows that there exists some discomfort, but nothing too important. The solution would be to skew the average in favor of taking the suffering of the slaves into account to a greater extent than the middling happiness of the colonialists. But this is not really taking an average anymore, this is taking a side or adopting a perspective. And this is exactly what I believe should be done! Only by taking the particular perspective of a person or people can you see what progress means.
There is also the possibility of somebody skewing the average in the other direction, being overwhelmingly more happy than the rest of the population to the extent that it skews the average. The classic argument against Utilitarianism: the Happiness Monster, a creature that can feel more happiness than the average person and is made happy by the suffering of others. You can object to me using quality of life and happiness interchangeably here so far, though I believe I am not unjustified, but here I believe talking about quality of life is a bit more useful, because it allows us a real world example. What I mean is, while we can’t measure happiness we can hone in on particular aspects of quality of life and compare them. I am thinking of the example of Trump and people like him receiving the best covid treatment available at no cost to them while people die without treatment or health care. While I am not willing to say that Trump has a better quality of life than the average person necessarily, he seems like a miserable trash bin of a human being that I can’t imagine is ever happy or content in any way, I can conceive of him as a sort of Quality of Life monster in the particular context of him receiving life- saving treatment while immense numbers of people die and suffer, only to fuel his mythmaking among his devotees. Of course if we took the average of how all people with covid were treated, Trump and his friends would only bump up the positive total slightly, but they would bump it up. The average would seem to imply that things improved, however slightly, but it doesn’t tell the real story– that this increase is actually negative, a monstrous injustice. We can only arrive at this conclusion by taking a particular perspective on the matter: that of the underprivaledged people who die from, suffer from, or are in danger of contacting covid. I hope I have adequately explained why I find the abstract concept of progress so useless, I’m afraid -I- was being glib in my original post when I just dismissed the idea of progress out of hand.
The idea of progress as a goal rather than a description of a force or trajectory is of course much more sensible, but still here I have to bring up all the same problems. How do you even conceive of such an abstract, generally applied goal among so many real life complexities? You say that at some point you have to make a judgment call and that a person acting in good faith should have little trouble doing this. I think I more or less agree with this, except that I think ALL you can really do is make the particular judgement calls. The abstract leadup to this that is summed up in the idea of progress here is just an empty waste of time. The real thinking about progress begins when you take a particular perspective that is rooted in a particular context. You can think of it as being rooted in some essence that is contained in other things that we call progress, but this I think IS religious feeling (something that I have no objections to, and as a side note have to say I enjoyed your treatment of in a later post.)
December 18, 2020 at 10:01 am
I have trouble with the idea that “a definition of any sort only confuses and misleads.” I’ve written a series of articles about “civilization,” and I think it’s fair for me to define what I mean by that word. Ditto a word like “progress.” To deny me the ability to do this is to drift into the territory of postmodernism, which is a worldview that I don’t find terribly useful for much beyond impressing earnest young graduate students with “the instability of meaning” and all the rest.
I do fear that you’re overlooking an important detail in my use of Diamond’s theory about civilization’s beginning. I do not use it as a universal rule, as a way of saying, “This is how human civilizations do and must begin.” I rather use it to address a specific instant in time, about 4000 to 6000 years ago, when multiple civilizations suddenly sprang up at multiple locations on the planet, without being in direct contact with one another, following at least 100,000 years when genetically modern humans failed to form any civilizations at all. In other words, there’s no qualitative difference with any other theory of cause and effect in any other specific — *not* universal — historical instance. In fact, I feel that Diamond goes off the rails when he tries to extrapolate universal, “scientific” rules from the specific, as so many grand theorists of history have done before him.
Because in the end, history is a humanities discipline, not a scientific one. We cannot run experiments, cannot formalize immutable theories, much less laws. Doing history requires wisdom as well as raw intellect, and demands that the historian make personal judgments. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t good and bad history, or that some judgments aren’t better supported than others. But it does mean that Absolute Truth is not part of the equation. We’ll be arguing about the past as long as we study it — but I do feel the arguments themselves are useful.
I would guess that you agree with the above in the broad strokes — which is why I’m a little bemused by your tying yourself into intellectual knots over the notion of Progress, almost as if you’re trying to give it a scientific definition with scientific metrics. You spend a lot of time stressing over the enigma of Happiness, a metric I would never touch. Of course we can never know whether any given person — even a person close to us, much less one separated from us by hundreds of years — is truly happy inside; there will always be examples of Richard Corey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAGKpoVFbmw). And yes, if I was so inclined, I could make an argument that people are actually less *happy* today than they were 200 years ago because so many of them have lost a sustaining faith in God. And this argument, conveniently enough for me, could never be proven or disproven for the simple reason that we can’t get into other people’s heads — not even the living ones, much less the long-dead.
But that’s not really what we mean when we speak about Progress in an historical context; there it almost always carries the implied prefix “material.” And in that case, there are a lot of useful specifics we can look to to make a judgment on its presence or absence — the same ones that I mentioned in previous reply, and that Mike Taylor mentioned in his comment. Yes, it’s a judgment call — but, again, I don’t think it’s an overly hard one to make.
Your concern that measurements of Progress may hide the fact that some people are doing markedly better than others strikes me as equally confused. We are free to define our data set here, to use a scientific term. The answers to whether and how much all Americans felt the benefit of Progress, versus whether and how much black Americans did the same over the same time period may very well be dramatically different. This is only natural. We can ask about Progress in the world as a whole, in specific regions, in specific nations, in specific ethnicities and other sub-groupings within those nations, and get different answers. This doesn’t invalidate the notion of Progress. It’s just changing the frame of reference to suit different purposes or to highlight different concerns. You keep returning to the notion of Progress as “a force or trajectory,” apparently in some overarching metaphysical sense, but that’s not the way I define it at all; thus I’m afraid you’re arguing with a straw man there. At bottom, Progress is a quite plebeian notion in my book, applicable to many different frames of reference.
December 17, 2020 at 6:20 pm
Wait wait wait …
“The abstract idea of progress just isn’t anything. Is it things getting better? For who? In what way? There are more questions than reasons for me to take the idea of progress seriously. All counter examples fall short when they are put to work trying to disprove nothing.”
Five generations ago, my ancestors didn’t have running water, they had to leave the house to go to the toilet, no-one had central heating, diet was limited in range and nutritional value, life expectancy was a fraction of what it is now, opportunities for women were very limited, opportunities for non-whites even rarer, and childbirth was a dangerous process with a high risk of death for mother, child or both. Today, none of those things are true.
I can’t think of any definition of “progress” that doesn’t include that change. Of course there is progress. We may with good reason differ about some of the edge-cases of what constitutes moving forwards or backwards, but compare life five generations ago with life now, and … Well, would you want to go back?
December 17, 2020 at 11:51 pm
I hope you don’t mind, I responded to your concerns in one section of my reply to Jimmy. It’s not my intention to disrespect your comment, I really appreciate the engagement, I just did not want to write out essentially the same thing twice in two different posts, as my reply to you and Jimmy seemed to go together to me. I hope I have clarified my view of progress to your satisfaction!
April 8, 2018 at 12:38 pm
Although I find discussions about the emergence of civilizations interesting, I haven’t read much of the popular literature around the subject, so I’m sure what I’m about to ask is covered extensively elsewhere.
How much of the development of civilization is attributed to communication and trade between different groups, and how much of that is accelerated by environment and technology? Once certain groups acquire certain skills and technologies, those can be spread through interaction with other groups; by trade and migration as well as war and conquest. Also, once civilizations develop boat or ship building, interactions between groups can occur over much greater distances and shorter timescales than was previously possible. In that sense, perhaps there is an environmental factor that favours coastal civilizations.
April 8, 2018 at 1:13 pm
I’m going to punt on that for right now, as a later article in this series will address that question more directly…
April 8, 2018 at 2:43 pm
It’s good to know you’re ahead of me on this topic. :-)
And I should have mentioned rivers and other waterways as well as coasts – just look at how many cities are built on, over or in proximity to rivers.
April 8, 2018 at 3:44 pm
Actually, this is an area that Civilization gets right: You get to move units 3 squares on rivers, which makes them strategically important. In real life this is similar; the most strategically important city in North America is arguably New Orleans because it controls access to the Mississippi. Note also how many borders have been rivers because they are defendable.
April 8, 2018 at 4:10 pm
“The colonial debate can perhaps wait until we get to another Sid Meier game” – perhaps! Though that game might delimit the frame overmuch, since it’s modeling a very particular form and phase of European colonization, and gives a pretty sanitized version of such. IIRC it does not include slavery, which is completely bizarre since in our world continental North America’s colonization made economic sense only as a source of supplies for the huge Caribbean sugar colonies, based entirely on slave labor, where the real money was. (See Eric Williams’s classic account – but even an elementary school textbook’s sketch of the “triangle trade” makes clear that we can’t divorce the tidy little New England towns from Caribbean slave labor.) It’s understandable that Meier wouldn’t want to make “Sugar Plantation Slavery: The Game!” but maybe it was just not a historical period worth adapting as a fun-time strategy game. Just throwing this in as grist for your mill when we get there.
But as for the observations here about Civilization I do feel an obligation to push back a little at the preceding statement – “The more primitive peoples of the world often suffered horribly after their first contact with the white man, but the progress the latter brought with him would also in time bring to the colonized peoples longer life spans and a standard of living that was vastly improved by many measures.” This rests upon some problematic assumptions (that “primitiveness” can be measured and that we have access to non-biased accounts of these societies) but also suggests we judge exploitation and violence at one moment retroactively according to whether, centuries later, there are some people living in the place where the violence was done who seem to be doing all right for themselves. This is a convenient standard for the colonizers. Indeed, in the wrong hands, formulations like yours are used in the present to justify and excuse present day crimes – white supremacists are fond for example of waving away structural racism in America by asserting that really slavery was good for people of West African descent in the long run.
Obviously that is not where you’re going with this!! But it bears repeating that many of the colonized and their descendants themselves, when asked what they think about it, contest these narrative and offer a variety of accounts of their own. The violence and exploitation is not contained to some originary moment as 20th century liberation moments evince. Algerians and Vietnamese in the 1950s and 1960s would be the first to tell you that their suffering went much beyond their “first contact” generations before, and people from all over the formerly colonized world have carefully analyzed how much their ongoing difficulties stem directly from the needs of the colonizers. A great example, which could easily have slotted into a simulation games like this one, is infrastructure; the British in India didn’t neutrally improve existing systems, they actively disrupted them, simplifying and shattering existing economies in order to make the colony functional from their point of view. Ravi Ahuja’s wonderful book “Pathways of Empire” provides a great case study (you may or may not want to skim the opening chapters laying the theoretical groundwork, to get more quickly to the account itself): pre-colonial Orissa had a thriving economy and infrastructure of its own that linked settlements along the coast to each other, as well as the coast to the interior. The British were only interested in extractive infrastructure: roads and railways to get goods out of the interior and back to England, and to force British products (kept cheaper than local ones by policy) onto the market. A rich web of production and a formerly robust economy that enabled communities to specialize and service each other’s needs was simplified and streamlined in ways that led directly to, for example, the inability to weather a bad harvest without being overtaken by famine.
Civilization as a game basically dodges all this by having the “barbarians” exist as civilization-less, independent units and in very small numbers; the peoples you’d be “colonizing” are just other Civs treated as identical to your own, and the conquest just amounts to swapping their cities out for your color of cities with no sense that the conquered peoples are treated differently or that their cities function differently in your growing empire. Basically, if we play the game focused on military expansion, it’s Risk: the color of the occupying units flips over but we don’t have to get into anything else that goes with building a Civ on conquest. Civ’s roads and railways just increase productivity (and in the latter case, pollution) for everybody involved; a different game might think of them as tools of extraction, so here we have another one of the unconscious progress narratives of this game, where the growth of infrastructure is a capitalist rising tide lifting all boats equally. In real life, building a road can mean some people win and some people lose.
Just to finish out the point, if you flash forward to post-Independence India, the fact that major infrastructure was still oriented towards the needs of Western corporation was a continuing stumbling block even for a country that was more successful than many others at resisting the total replacement of political colonization by economic neocolonialism (often propped up by brutal dictatorships and/or massive debt servitude to Western banks necessary to jump-start these deliberately hobbled economies). The ongoing problems experienced by many nations in the developing (postcolonial) world – debt crises, poverty, corruption, massive gaps between rich and poor – are the *legacies* of colonialism, not the lingering conditions of a “primitive” condition that just await further Europeanization to be considered fixed. If these things are going on in Civ, it’d be up to the players to imagine them for themselves: “ah yes, Babylon, once a great city and still one of my empire’s largest, but the high unrest there reflects the locals’ recognition that they have never been treated as equals by the British or by the Romans before us – – – to the extent that surplus from their plentiful ore comes back to the city, it falls mainly into the hands of the elite.” Not impossible to do, but it’s a story the player has to actively bring to the game, not one of the ones it has baked into its logic.
All offered in good faith – I hope you take my (long) comments here as attempting to extend the articles’ spirit of peeking beneath the hood and reminding ourselves that the way the game describes history reflects numerous assumptions and values, and that there are other accounts available.
April 8, 2018 at 8:02 pm
Thanks for your thoughtful take on this. I wound up excising that digression entirely. It didn’t need to be there, and to whatever extent it might be taken as a justification for the worst sins of the colonizers, it was wrongheaded as well.
For what it’s worth, I am very aware of how deeply problematic Colonization is. Even some of the ordinary computer-game magazines that first reviewed it in 1994 felt compelled to push back against its whitewashing of history. If you’ve ever seen those magazines, you know how badly a game must have had to go off the rails thematically to make even them sit up and say, “Hey, something’s wrong here.” It begs the question why Sid Meier would have chosen to make a mainstream strategy game about such a problematic historical subject. I think it probably goes back to his well-known love for Seven Cities of Gold, a constant touchstone of his work which to some extent informs each of Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization, his great trio of timeless masterpieces. He was going to the same well again with Colonization… but this time was once too many.
April 8, 2018 at 9:11 pm
You are fair and gracious as ever!
That is quite remarkable about the 90s gaming magazines. To extend a little charity to Sid, his subject matter is *right* in line with countless other game designers who also generally don’t get called out on it, mainly in the world of European boxed games, with which I gather you have some familiarity, and which Meier surely knows well. There have to be dozens of very highly-rated and popular games that have the players inserted into say, the world of the Amsterdam stock exchange in the 17th century, speculating on shares in colonial commodities, or as 20th century traders trying to bleed every last resource out of some desperate colonial or postcolonial setting (Cuba! Puerto Rico!).
In a weird way I find some of these games more objectionable than Meier’s occasional blunders; as you point out with Pirates!, he’s not really interested in real pirate history (though the manual is – albeit still sanitized) but rather with a set of genre tropes from movies, comic strips, etc., and the game is a distillation of *that*. It’s very obviously not about the real Caribbean antecedents of today’s Cuba and Puerto Rico, but about Disney’s pirate ride and its ilk. Whereas these board games with colonial trappings can’t claim to be just riffing on the popular genre of colonial-era stock market fiction. (I think there are limits to the “just riffing on a popular trope” defense, mind you – but I do think it’s something Meier could claim.)
I remember Colonization, the game, also just having some serious gameplay and conceptual faults unrelated to its politics or its historiography. Reviewers are probably less forgiving when confronted with an average game than with a masterpiece.
April 9, 2018 at 8:14 am
Yes, there’s that too. Computer Gaming World concluded their review by saying, “It [Colonization] lacks the design elegance, play balance, and addictiveness of Sid Meier’s previous games,” and that is has “more tedium and less care.” A pretty good summation.
April 10, 2018 at 8:36 am
I always saw Colonization as more of a Brian Reynolds game than a Sid Meier one. Reynolds would also later design Civ 2 and, more importantly to me, that which is still my favorite 4X game of all time, Alpha Centauri, so maybe in Colonization he was just less experienced?
I think what Colonization does best is providing the feeling of arriving and discovering a new world, especially in your first playthrough. In my case, I didn’t have the manual at the time (original games only really started being easily available in Portugal near the late 90s), so I went in even more “blindly”. Not knowing yet what you could do, learning the game as I went, meeting natives for the first time, struggling with my first colony, all to the tune of the period music soundtrack on a Roland SCC-1… *that* was an experience I’ll never forget.
Of course, it’s not so rosy in subsequent playthroughs, when you mostly know what to expect, and it becomes mostly a question of optimizing a strategy. The game certainly has less replay value than any Civ, IMO. And I found the more recent remake (with the Civ 4 engine) completely soulless (although I’ve heard that there are mods that make it a lot better… I have to try them at some time.)
April 10, 2018 at 7:53 pm
This is a fascinating and insightful comment. Thanks, doctorcasino.
April 8, 2018 at 6:17 pm
“The word “barbarian” stems from the ancient Greek “bárbaros,” meaning anyone who is not Greek, and thus by definition inferior; a connotation of contempt existed already in ancient times”
Well, “bárbaros” is not by definition inferior, it’s the one who does not speak greek. Copying from wikipedia, since most of my sources are in greek:
“The term originates from the Greek: βάρβαρος (barbaros pl. βάρβαροι barbaroi), which in turn originates from the incomprehensible languages of early Anatolian nations that were heard by the Greeks as “bar..bar..” In Ancient Greece, the Greeks used the term towards those who didn’t speak Greek and follow classical Greek customs.”
The term might even be older than that, since another source (in greek unfortunately http://blog.panosterz.de/?p=2772 ) believes it was borrowed from Hittites or Hurrians.
In the early modern period and sometimes later, the Byzantine Greeks used it for the Turks (not the people of present day Turkey, but the nomadic tribes used as shock troops, by their Muslim opponents in the wars of the 8th to 11th century AD, who lived by plunder and were very hard to control ), in a clearly pejorative manner ((https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarian))
April 8, 2018 at 8:10 pm
I’ll defer to the Greek and remove the aside about the “connotation of contempt.” ;)
Although the word does have an etymology in Greek, the English word “barbarian” does pretty clearly stem from the Greek rather than any of those earlier sources, so I think it should be acceptable to let that part stand. Thanks!
April 9, 2018 at 5:25 pm
I feel like you might find the book “Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny” by Robert Wright to be interesting.
I don´t quite agree with everything it says, but it is a good book, and seems to fit with the theme of this post.
April 10, 2018 at 7:56 pm
Re: the problem of making non-“Great Man” history interesting to read, you might like Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m generally skeptical of these big glossy popular-science tomes, but I found it lively and thought-provoking.
April 26, 2018 at 3:59 am
I realize I’m a bit late in my reply, but…
I have actually wondered about that. We homo sapiens evolved for a particular niche– the jungles and savannas of Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Stone Age in general. A lot of our problems seem to be the result of our not living in our “natural habitat”. That was, in fact, the point the Unabomber tried to make. He was an anarcho-primitivist, and he warned that if we didn’t halt technology, we’d eventually reach a crisis due to not having anything to do (like in the movie Wall-E actually). Even though I think his quest was Quixotic, it does make me wonder if he had a point.
Random Spanish Guy
June 16, 2018 at 8:02 pm
Very late reply, but oh well :)
I thought this post was very interesting, and was going to add a few comments, but most of them have already been written, so I will just add one.
I am not sure I agree about your comment on worker placement games being inspired by Civilization, despite the similar concept. In Civilization, “worker placement” in a city is a book keeping measure to represent what the city prioritizes, with the options available being exclusive to that city. On the other hand, in board games, all options are available to every player at the same time, but once a player has taken an option, it can’t be taken by anyone else. It’s this blocking of other players that is the central “innovation” of worker placement games, which is not present in Civilization.
Wouldn’t have said anything if it weren’t the second time you made that point :)
June 17, 2018 at 7:19 am
Sure, the competitive element isn’t the same, but Civilization remains the first game I’m aware of that had you moving little meeples about to assign them to different tasks. That said, the link is conjectural rather than absolutely confirmed, so I softened the wording a bit. Thanks!
September 8, 2020 at 7:10 am
Coming in late here, as I’ve only recently discovered your blog (which I greatly enjoy).
One interesting aspect I’ve noticed in how Civilization handles progress is the way it assumes that all the playable civilizations follow more-or-less the same model (that of Eurasian sedentary societies). In fact, several of the playable civilizations in the various games themselves stayed nomadic!
As you point out, agriculture does provide a decisive advantage to any society that adopts it. However, it’s worth noting that for much of recorded history, sedentary civilizations were often at a disadvantage when facing nomadic groups. The Mongols are merely the best known of the Central Asian nomads who brought ruin and devastation to Eurasia: there were also the Huns, the Xiongnu (who were kind of related to the Huns), the Turks, the Hepthalites, the Scythians, and others.
Sure, the sedentary civilizations had more people, but there was no way to really catch up to the nomads once they reached the open steppe. Nomads destroyed many of the great cities and empires. It wasn’t until the invention of gunpowder that sedentary civilizations were able to mount a reliable defense.
I just wanted to bring this up as another fascinating wrinkle in the assumptions Civilization makes about development and progress (I debated between posting this on Part 3 or Part 4 of your series). Assuming you had horses and enough room to run around in, going nomad was in some ways a better choice up until about the 15th century.
It would have been interesting to have a nomadic option in Civilization, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t really be compatible with the game as a whole (plus, what happens when someone invents gunpowder?).
September 19, 2022 at 9:27 am
I am of course coming back to this much much later, but I think this piece somewhat overstates the strength of Diamond’s claims in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
“Jared Diamond asserts persuasively that, not only was the Aztec Empire not as advanced as Spain and other European nations in 1500, but it would never, ever have reached parity with the Europeans of 1500, not even if it had been given many more millennia to progress in splendid isolation. The reasons for this come down not to race, to climate, or to some sort of qualitative difference in river valleys, but to a natural environment that was very different in a more holistic sense.”
That “never, ever” is a very strong claim, and I don’t recall Diamond making it.
Much as Fukuyama has become remembered as “the End of History guy” by a lot of people who have never read his work and are only vaguely familiar with the highlights reel related to them by someone else (who may themselves be relaying it second- or thirdhand), Diamond has become remember as “the ecological determinism guy.” This sometimes leads to exaggerations of his actual claims.