Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Bell Stops Here: The Advancement of Civilization

I stated that the philosophy of white supremacy is a toxic brand of ignorance. Let me elaborate. In doing so, I doubt that I will sway anyone with entrenched views, but I hope to do a small part to prevent those with open minds from accepting the wrong-headed tenets of such poisonous doctrines.

White supremacy is founded on notions of race, genetics, superiority and inferiority, intelligence, history and civilization. These are each complex matters, in fact, one of the pitfalls that leads to wrong conclusions comes from simplifying subjects. So, don't consider this a final word, only a primer. In this installment, I will deal with the rise and development of civilizations, the nature of progress and the role intelligence, crucial knowledge and other factors play.

The Bell Stops Here.

White supremacists are people who took a peek in the mirror and decided that others who look like they do are the smartest, most advanced people in the world. Because. . . Mozart. Or, rather their pale skin connects them to Mozart. Or rather, beneath the skin there swims a massive school of genes which combine to create a thing called race and their race has the better swimmers.

One point they make to support this argument is that a more advanced and technologically sophisticated civilization appeared in Europe before it appeared in other parts of the world. Depending on the supremacist, they might accept or dismiss the historical impact of China, India and various other elsewheres and focus on how some of the remaining areas lagged behind, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and the pre-Columbian Americas.

So, let's deal with the underlying question: why did technology advance in some places ahead of others? I am hardly the first to broach this highly charged question. My answers come from my reading and my own thoughts on the subject as they have accumulated over the years. I am a scientist who has researched among other subjects, genetics (non-human genetics, but the same principles apply). I have bachelor degrees in Biology and Psychology, a doctorate in Pharmacology and minors in Chemistry, English and Physiology.

The Nature of Knowledge, of Progress, and of Civilization.

What is deemed intellectual advancement is primarily the product of a cumulative and refined base of knowledge. The reason the internet didn't exist 2,000 years ago was not because the human population had a substantially lower intelligence, it was that there were many (many) incremental advances in knowledge and technology required for its creation, including the methods for testing the validity of such knowledge (the scientific process). Similarly, it was not Da Vinci's stupidity that had him fail to create the internet, or despite some elaborate drawings, a working helicopter. Genius is measured by what it can do given what it has, not by what it does. Otherwise, everyone who can punch numbers in a calculator is a greater mathematical genius than Newton -- certainly they can find mathematical answers faster than he could. Along these lines, the standard definition of intelligence is the ability to acquire, understand, and use knowledge, not the possession of knowledge.

I am going on about this at length to state that it is not superior to be born in a specific place and time. Even though the concept of genetic superiority agrees with this, this message is often lost. Look at how advanced my world is, is not the same as stating why the world is advanced.

Looking at the other side of this equation, much of Europe in the 14th century was primitive by today's standards. Agriculture often depended on either an ox or a horse, a plow, manure and lots of manual labor. Superstition led to a belief in flying witches and phony medicines. This same "primitive" society was mirrored in many parts of the world and continues today*. To redefine the question at hand, what happened that led to a greater surge of invention in some parts of the world over others?

*It might be noted that the advent of the internet has revealed how many people believe in things equally as silly as flying witches and whole industries have evolved around phony medicines. Also I will put aside for a moment, the degree to which advanced civilization did appear in the cities of Europe and in many parts of the world. That part of the story is important and telling, but it will be dealt with later.

What didn't happen. The difference between the 14th century and today was not a sudden explosion of genetic superiority. Genes, what they can do and what they cannot do, will be discussed more in the second part of this series of posts.

What did happen was an accumulation of knowledge made possible by a series of inventions. I've seen various arguments that the most important advancements of the past millennium were eyeglasses (extending by decades the productivity of scholars), the printing press (few would argue its impact), the scientific method, gunpowder, and advancements in nutrition and sanitation -- among others.

The contribution of these connects to a pair of very important points: knowledge is cumulative and the acquisition of knowledge is a feed-forward process. Let's compare feed-forward to feedback. Feedback is when a fever causes sweating which reduces fever. A feed-forward process can be seen in a fever that rises and shuts down the ability to sweat which allows the fever to rise even more. (In this analogy, death becomes the ultimate feedback system.) Extending this analogy in another direction, knowledge is an uncontrolled fever.

Let me put this another way. If I were to present two equal persons the objective of building a house and gave one an iron hammer, nails and a saw, and the other a rock and an obsidian knife, the first person would be able to construct a sophisticated shelter. The latter could, with more work, put together a livable hut. The one who put together the sophisticated shelter would be better protected against the elements, would live longer, would be able to store seed more safely, and would have more time to contemplate things other than survival. Over centuries and over a great number of people, such advantages increase like compound interest.

Each piece of knowledge becomes a brick toward building a higher tower, or as Isaac Newton put it, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." (And Newton was not a modest man.)

So, again, let's rephrase that original question. Why did some places develop (or take advantage of) inventions which facilitated progress that allowed them to advance more quickly? Why did some have the iron hammer and the others have a stone?

The Essential Elements.

Jared Diamond has pondered these matters most particularly in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel in which he looked at how geography shapes civilization. His work is profound and worth reading.

One of my favorite of his arguments is how much easier it is for civilization to advance along latitude, (east-west, west-east), than it is along longitude (north-south, south-north). This is due to the fact that more similar climates and growing seasons exist along latitudes. Winter's length is very different in the tundra than it is in the are surrounding the Mediterranean. The same sort of wheat which will grow in one area will not necessarily grow in another.
An East-West Axis more readily allows for agricultural advancement and agriculture was the most significant determinant of civilization for millennia.

This is significant because the initial impetus for civilization was agriculture. The same essential plants that created a stable diet moved humanity beyond hunting and gathering and allowed for the growth of urban centers and a hierarchy for the specialization of work. You had the farmers, the merchants who bought and sold the extra grain, the carpenters who built the homes for the merchants, etc.  All of this relied on the sort of planting seasons that could be found along the lines of what we think of as horizontally stretched areas (e.g., Europe through Asia), in preference to those along vertically stretched areas (e.g.,South America). Parts of Argentina have a wonderful climate for agriculture, not too hot, not too cold, and an excellent length to the growth season. But to spread its agricultural advances the people would have to pass the Amazon jungle, the jungles of Central America and the Sonoran desert before they could find broad stretches of similar temperate climates and growing seasons in North America (or leap over the Andes and the Atacama desert for a small bit of Chile). Africa, to a great degree, stretches north to south. The broadest east-west area is the inhospitable Sahara.

Diamond also argues how the influence of the horse could not be matched by other animals in other places (horses were not native to the pre-Columbian Americas). Zebras, reindeers and llamas don't nearly match up. Camels are better than the previous three examples, but they have their own limitations.

Diamond makes similar arguments for the advantages of wheat in its range of growth and in its use as a staple over corn. The minerals and metals available provided a further advantage.

These are but examples, and there are many others. All in all, Diamond makes the argument that most of Europe, the rim of North Africa and parts of Asia as having those essential elements that helped boost it on its way to civilization.

Agriculture, farming and herding, has dominated much of human history. Consider this: in the Bible, there are many parables of seeds, harvests, and shepherds. The 20th Century was the first time in history when these stories became abstract to the majority of people in the world rather than part of daily life, the first century wherein more of the population was urban rather than rural.

Putting together several of the major points from Guns, Germs and Steel.

The Compilation of Knowledge.

In the 1400s, Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, up to that time, the single greatest advancement in the compiling and dissemination of knowledge and maybe the single greatest impetus for the progress of civilization as a whole. More readily available books became the catalyst for the Reformation, for modern education, for modern democracy and for the scientific method to take hold. Most all of the later inventions have relied on a foundation of readily stored knowledge.

This invention appeared not only because of a bright idea which many could have had before, but because all of the elements were available to make the machine work. These included: an alphabet where you could arrange letters in different orders to create different words, a paper that would be receptive to the creation of books, ink that would stamp the letters and advances that enabled the production of the metals and gears that would constitute the bulk of the machine. Innovation requires more than necessity or an idea. It requires the tools and parts to be available.

As one of the most important inventions in the service of creating further inventions, let's look at paper. Before paper there was writing on animal hides. Animal hides had a variety of competing uses including mukluks, groovy jackets, and the walls of teepees. The material, however, tended to decompose over time and more quickly in tropical environments.

There was writing on stone and clay tablets. You could store information for centuries, but not a lot of it and walking to school with your textbooks was back-breaking. You didn't need a permutable alphabet for this sort of writing: you just couldn't write that much, in fact, pictures could convey more information in a small space.

We think of papyrus, an Egyptian invention, as being the first paper, however, it is of a limited utility: fine for scrolls, problematic for books.

Modern, fiber pulp paper was invented in China in 100 A.D. Variations on its formula slowly spread over the coming centuries, first to the Middle East where it helped establish and codify the Islam faith and create an Islamic scientific revolution and then on to Europe with the dawn of the second millennium. This paper could be pressed into smooth sheets and could be bound and handed over to scholars who meticulously hand-copied and decorated important texts. It was thin and lightweight, allowing for thick volumes with what were at that time massive amounts of information. These books stored knowledge and allowed knowledge to readily move.

When this paper was used with the printing press, a large number of identical volumes could be printed. Paper illustrates the steps involved: an innovation (100 AD, China). Its movement, albeit over centuries, in part because China was isolated from western Asia and Europe. Finally, its adoption and addition to other technologies. Let's talk about the spread of knowledge.

The Spread of Knowledge.

The single most important factor in the advancement of civilization is the spread of knowledge. You don't have to invent paper from scratch if you adopt the process from elsewhere. This principle could be seen in hundreds of examples. There have been cases of simultaneous inventions, but much more often history is dictated by the arrival of gunpowder or steel or paper from one place to another.

As mentioned above, the book was one of the significant inventions forwarding this, but as to where knowledge spread, that is a matter of geography, its conduits and obstacles and the means of transportation.

Generally speaking*, until the development of the telegraph, knowledge had to be passed along from place to place by human movement. You needed a ship to haul communications from the king to the colonies. You needed the Pony Express line to deliver mail cross-country (quickly made obsolete by a telegraph line).

*There are exceptions with limited utility including smoke signals, pigeons, or floating a letter down-river.

The movement of knowledge therefore followed the patterns available for human movement and was blocked by the obstacles to human movement. As a result of this, many of the great civilizations were built at the crossroads of human travel.

Until the twentieth century and the advent of the airplane, humans traveled by land or water. Land passage was by far the less efficient of these two. Beyond dealing with deserts, mountain ranges, and difficult to cross rivers, the humans and their beasts and their carts had to carry most things necessary for the trip along with whatever cargo they were transporting.

Commerce* and trade grew up along waterways and ports. In contrast to land, the barriers over water were significantly fewer. The vessel could carry a mass of supplies and cargo. The seascape was relatively flat, as were often the broad rivers, at least until they encountered the obstacles of rapids or waterfalls.

Travel by water had some other difficulties. In the northern and mountainous areas, rivers froze, shutting down traffic and perhaps delaying the development of these areas. Long distance travel over seas was limited for many centuries. This had problems including a lack of landmarks, the lack of a safe port to ride out storms and having sufficient space for fresh water and other supplies.

*Although I am talking about commerce which drives the development of cities and states, it is the exchange of information and innovation that moves with commerce that is my ultimate point.

So, for a very long period, the interchange of commerce and the growth of civilization centered around bodies of water, the optimal port being at the outlet of a river providing fresh water for drinking and agriculture and serving as a nexus for upriver commerce. There are several corollaries which flow from this. Until ships could be made to travel great distances, the ideal place for travel would be in an enclosed sea where you would never be days away from land. A purely coastal commerce would exchange less than a commerce between differing lands. If the place had a relatively more tranquil sea that would provide more reliable passage, for example, the Mediterranean versus the Baltic. Sites with the greatest degree of exchange of communication and permeation of knowledge would be of two sorts: peninsulas (or long islands, in both cases, more coastline and less distance overland) and those positioned at the gateways to the rest of the world.

Those areas which are isolated were penalized. This isolation can be due to geographical barriers: being landlocked (the middle of the Himalayas), being separated by a great desert or jungle (sub-Saharan Africa has both obstacles) or mountains or tundra, being a faraway island (Iceland), or just plain not being in the middle (Australia as any Risk player knows). Such sites often grew individualized great civilizations, but did not gain the advantage of cumulative knowledge that comes with the interchange of information. And as noted, any one piece of progress can greatly impact further progress.

Before I weave these pieces together, let's look at two more interrelated factors. The maintenance of information and climate.

Knowledge and its Maintenance.

Almost as important as acquiring and storing knowledge, is maintaining the stores of knowledge. Great civilizations bloomed in the jungles of the world and then were overtaken by the jungle. Some examples of these are the Mayan culture, Angkor Wat, and the pre-Columbian kingdom of Zimbabwe.

My argument has been that civilizations bloom based on knowledge. Before modern technology, knowledge was maintained either by word of mouth or else by writing it down. Oral communication has obvious limits, including the amount of information and its decay over time. Homer and the early Greeks tried to overcome the scarcity of writing by transforming history into poems that could be memorized. (It helped for the sake of posterity that many of important works did make it into writing.)

Stone tablets and carving or painting information on stone walls had a permanency, but were restricted as to how much information could be conveyed. Papyrus was an important advance and was a reason for the rise of Egypt as one of the early world civilizations, but was inferior to later paper forms.

As discussed above, improved paper was a significant contributor to the rise of modern civilization. The technology of paper penetrated some areas far better than others and this was based on both the pathways of human movement and climate. In the case of the latter, in the jungle and very humid areas, paper quickly rots. Animal hides also rot and are consumed by fungus and insect. In contrast, in relatively dry areas, knowledge written on paper continues on for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. This is one reason why Israel, Egypt and the desert worlds were cradles for history and why, occasionally, pre-Christian crumbling documents are still found.

Furthermore, the tropics, both then and now, have pernicious diseases. The moistness allows for the growth of most anything, including organisms that infest the water supply. By having water that is close in temperature to that of human blood, organisms can more readily jump from the environment to humans. In my laboratory work, the standard temperature for growing up a batch of bacteria is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius), that of human blood. Other malevolent creatures have evolved around this. The life cycle of mosquitoes include standing water and they become the carriers of a variety of human pathogens.

Why is this important? This gets back to the two men who built the house and how much time they ultimately have to pursue other aspects of life beyond survival. That time is both measured in day to day survival and in life span. If you look at a map of the world and ask which are the least prosperous countries, the large majority of poorer countries and disease-devastated countries are south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

An Aside: Peninsulas and the Tropics.

The peninsula and long stretched-out bits of land, such as a long island, allow for a greater degree of access to the sea and possess a greater ability to have knowledge permeate their land-masses. With several exceptions in places which suffer from isolation and/or inhospitable climates, e.g., Kamchatka, the Aleutian peninsula and Baja Mexico, if you look at the major non-tropical peninsulas and longish islands of the world you will find many of the most successful nations from history and those which are successful today.

Non-tropical peninsulas: Greece, Italy, Denmark, Europe as a whole, Scandinavia, Turkey, Qatar (highest per capita GDP in the world), Korea, Florida.

Non-tropical elongated islands: Japan, England, New Zealand.

Although I do not intend to go into the military matters at great length, islands and peninsulas are easier to defend against invaders, islands in particular being natural forts. Germany was able to march across most of Europe but did not invade England. The difficulties of making a beachhead along the north of Europe during World War II limited the Allied advance.

Putting This Together.

Here is a list of the ideal factors that historically went into whether a site is ideal for the growth and advancement of civilization.

  • Location, location, location.
  • Centrally located in terms of being a crossroads of commerce and knowledge.
  • Not being in an extreme location.
  • On the water, preferably a seaport.
  • Being next to an enclosed sea rather than one that requires distant passages.
  • Being on a peninsula or longish island.
  • Temperate climate but not too dry to inhibit agriculture.
  • Less inviting to tropical diseases.
  • Stored information will not disappear due to rot.
  • Stretching east to west rather than north to south.
  • Luck: having horses instead of llamas.

Applying These to Civilizations.

Let's look at some ancient and not-so ancient civilizations in terms of advantages and disadvantages as to growing an advanced civilization.


Advantage: at a time when being a center of agriculture was good enough to be a world center, they had the fertile crescent of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Furthermore, with nearby deserts, the people were pressed together in this area. The dry climate of the area limited tropic diseases (still a delta has swamps).

Disadvantages: A time of stone writing, inefficient, although somewhat permanent and that is one reason why we know of them. Symbolic characters for writing limit what can be conveyed. Isolation.

Verdict: Early civilization bloomed around agriculture which was fed by the rivers which traversed the desert. A great place to start, but not much more.


Advantages: At the cross-roads of two continents and not that far from a third. Relatively mild and dry climate. Papyrus and the library of Alexandria. At the mouth of a great river which provided fertile land.

Disadvantages: Hieroglyphics, although advanced for their time, could never be the equal of a permutable alphabet. Although at the crossroads of Africa and Asia, these two continents involved crossing the desert. A great river, but a single river, constricted their spread.

Verdict: the love for knowledge as evidenced by the library of Alexandria allowed Egypt to be an early advanced society with fantastic feats of architecture. Israel possessed several of these qualities including being at a crossroads and in a dry climate.


Advantages: A long coast for water commerce along with fat rivers. North of the tropics and south of very cold territories. Some advances in technology helped promote further advances. Rice is one of the world's great grains.

Disadvantages: For many centuries, isolated from much of the world except by a difficult journey overland. Isolated from India by the Himalayas and from southeast Asia by jungles. A non-alphabetic script could not match the versatility of an alphabetic script.

Verdict: China provided us with paper, the clock, gunpowder, pasta (thank you) and other advances. They were limited by their isolation and the less flexible character-based script. Still, within these limitations, they did a lot to advance the world.

India has many of the same advantages and disadvantages as did China, however, with a more tropical climate.

Sub-Saharan Africa.

Advantages: Some good rivers. Some isolated areas with a positive climate for agriculture.

Disadvantages: Isolation by the world's largest desert and by a large jungle. Tropical diseases. Rot of documents.

Verdicts: Great civilizations bloomed and died off in sub-Saharan Africa. The wisdom was there, but did not stand a chance to accumulate or cross-pollinate with others.

North, Central and South America.

Advantages: Some areas with very reasonable climates. Some major rivers for commerce.

Disadvantages: Isolated from the rest of the world. One part isolated from another by formidable geographical boundaries including the Mojave-Sonora desert, the Arctic, Central American jungles, the Amazon and the Andes. Large areas with tropical climate. Large portion with tropical diseases. Oriented north to south. Llamas are poor substitutes for horses, and buffaloes can't replace oxen. The Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico are not equal to the Mediterranean in promoting commerce due to tropical climate, greater distances and hurricanes.

Verdict: Some great civilizations. Some bloomed and died off. Some were killed off by the conquistadors. The less threatening were allowed to continue on.

The Mediterranean.

Advantages: Temperate climate. Enclosed sea. Some great peninsulas, including Italy, Turkey and Greece (which, not coincidentally, became three great empires and places where civilization advanced, one topping the other). True permutable alphabet with the letters representing sounds. Borders three continents and ultimately benefited from world trade. Italy had the advantage of being centrally located and the Iberian peninsula had the disadvantage of being on the extreme.

Disadvantages: Although the Mediterranean was great for internal commerce and exchanging information among the different local cultures, it was isolated from the advances that went on in most parts of Asia. In fact, it was the crossing of these barriers that initiated great historical advances. (e.g., Marco Polo.) The Alps were a moderately strong barrier to parts of the north.

Verdict: Of all of the regions of the world, this area had the most advantages involving sea commerce, a less hostile climate and the passing on of knowledge.

Northern Europe.

Advantages: The Baltic is fairly well enclosed, Denmark and Scandinavia are peninsulas. England is a long island. Borders southern Europe which dictated culture and religion for centuries, including religious scholars. The cold could help with food storage.

Disadvantages: This area had to fight the elements of cold and a wilder sea passage (North Sea especially) than southern Europe. The rivers froze over for the winter. Moderate growth season, harsh winters. Mountains dominated the center of Scandinavia and the Alps limited overland travel to the south.

Verdict: Northern Europe became important for the progress of history, especially as the technology for sea passage increased (Vikings), and the ability to fight back against the cold improved.

Race and Racism and Genetic Supremacy Theories.

This first section was dedicated to the arguments as to how geography and the movement of knowledge affect the advancement of civilization.

There are probably some who are reading this and who are chomping at the bit. I've not discussed race or racism or colonialism or how one human might prevent another from advancing. Sometimes these obstacles were explicit. Pre-Civil War, in every state in the Southern US, it was against the law to teach a slave to read. Might not that have had some effect?

Short answer: Yes, absolutely. However, this comprises such a long discussion that I would prefer to leave it for a subsequent post.

On the other side of the coin is the even thornier topic of race and IQ. What is race? What is IQ and does it measure intelligence? What is intelligence and how is it connected to genetics?

These questions I'll also leave for the upcoming post: Genetics, Intelligence and Race and the third installment, God, Democracy, Evolution, Human Migration and Prehistory.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
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