The Historical Process of Human Civilization

by Hugh M. Lewis


Humankind's first fire may have been extinguished, but the fire of the imagination that it ignited has never since stopped burning


We have so far been considering primarily the cultural process I have termed "culturation." It is now worthwhile to consider a complementary and derivative process that I call "trans-culturation"--it is the "civilizational" process, or the process of human civilization and is basically culture historical in its sense of evolutionary development. It is the process and patterning which results from cross-cultural contact and inter-group relations which are in a sense a special case of inter-human or interpersonal relations which involves some sense of appreciable cultural or historical boundary or distance.

We must disinvest this notion of human civilization from the received, ethnocentric notion of an evolutionary framework of human culture along which we can locate various peoples in terms of their technological advancement, barbarism or savagery. We will not contrast the civilized with the primitive though in an implicit sense primitive might be construed simply and tautologically as anything that is not civilized.

Human civilization has been the special prerogative of no single power or people in the world. It is the common heritage of all of humankind, whether they possess its elements or not or even are aware of it. Civilization is an inherent trans-cultural process. It can be taken as the measure of the cultural achievement of humankind in terms of our science, our arts, our religious and moral beliefs, our technology and even our anthropology. In this regard the human ancestor who first played with the idea of fire was the first scientist on the dawn of human civilization. Once the idea of fire was invented, it quickly caught on in a way that would be essentially irreversible and fundamentally transformational for human civilization. Its spread throughout all cultures was an inevitable matter of time, because the obvious advantages of fire far outweighed the disadvantages of remaining without it. The idea of fire not only transformed human civilization, but the human imagination as well. It was one of the first elements of a growing fund of human knowledge that we can now call the "Mind" of humankind.

Fire was a basic element of human civilization, one of the first many such basic elements to come, from which many derivative elements have been subsequently elaborated. We need only mention a few--the bow and arrow, the flaked stone, the wheel, silk and sinew, metal, the arch, the concept of zero, counting, inscription, the graphic image, money, God, the Bomb, etc.

Once invented, we cannot simply go back to a time, either in our daily lives or in even in our imagination, to a world before fire. These elements of civilization serve to create the basic boundaries of our human imagination and our reality. And though conditioned by human agency and power, civilization as a panhuman, trans-cultural process remains basically beyond the purview of any power that be to prevent its diffusion or reverse its development. Thus the perspective of human civilization and the historical process of trans-culturation basically transcends the structural horizons placed upon knowledge by power. Civilization has been a process of augmenting human empowerment, whether we measure this in terms of energy amassed or expended, anti-entropic efficiency, or in terms of number of human "bytes" stored. This empowerment, in the long term, is never the exclusive monopoly of any single power or set of powers--though many may try to appropriate it and make it so.




Part of what defines us anthropologically as human beings is our common capacity to create and share in human civilization. Our human "genius" that is the creative mark of our special sentience and world openness. The defining mark of any civilization at any particular point in place or period is the frequency of Genius that it has cultivated and achieved in expression. When we speak of such "Genius" I do not mean to imply an Hegelian Geist, but rather am referring to what Alfred Kroeber has referred to as the particular and historically unique style patterning of different cultural orientations that is coordinate with a unique kind of human character. We can speak of the Genius of the Kung bushmen to track large game and to find water in the middle of an arid landscape, or the Genius of the Australian Aborigine for their sophistication in kinship organization, as much as we might refer to the Genius of the Americans to invent televisions or reapers, or for violence, and the Genius of the English for their literature and Rock music, or the Genius of Afro-Americans for Jazz and the Genius of the Japanese for corporate organization or the Genius of the Germans for leadership and making war--and these are not superficial stereotypes of national character--the oral French or the materialistic American or the ambivalent Japanese or the lonely Russian or the anal German or the cunning Chinese or the indolent native nor are all Englishmen Shakespeare's or all Americans violent inventors or all Germans Hitler.

Each cultural orientation must allow for and encourage or discourage among its constituency certain kinds of talents and abilities in ways that are culturally defined in form and function, and it is by the genius of a cultural orientation that we may know it.

The sense of history and civilization that is the distinctive mark of a cultural tradition comes to constrain and influence the on-going cultural forms and identities of the people in a basically dialectical and cybernetic way. Shakespeare has been a model for generations of aspiring English writers and poets, and the functional presence of such models serves as templates for the continuing reconstruction of a tradition.




Basic designs implicit in a particular patterning of civilization may fall into rather stable states of acceptance--something like the fundamental stability of the basic morphological forms of life on earth which guarantees that human's will not likely soon evolve a third eye or a spineless back or a third arm protruding from its chest.

Basic forms of patterning among cultural orientations determines a relational paradigm of possibilities which will constrain in basic ways all subsequent developments. Traditions may elaborate in an endless patterning of expression its same basic Genius and its derivative meta-themes, and may even exhibit some degree of "Drift" by which its focus and "style-patterning" gradually shift. But when left on their own, all such orientations seem, from an endogenous perspective, inherently conservative and "tradition-bound."




We must see trans-culturation as an inherently destabilizing force of cross-cultural contact which leads to irreversible changes among the cultures involved. Such trans-culturation is usually accomplished in contexts involving the asymmetry of power, and thus tends to "flow" down the human hierarchy of power. By and large the history of acculturation has born witness to the tragically destructive effects of such uneven processes in human history. Though sometimes culture contact may take the form of diffusion, selective borrowing, stimulus generation and lead to the creation of new forms from the amalgamation of older ones, it more often seems to result in the destruction of one tradition and its substitution by another. But in the longer term, trans-culturation can be seen also to be primarily a creative process that is the source of new patterns and designs in human civilization. It leads to the transformation of human reality and to the realization of new possibilities for human development in the world. We may not like how it's being done or who is doing it, but we can be assured that, whether we think it necessary or not, it will eventually happen somehow by someone.

The overall trend seems to be something like the following scenario. Though whole groups may be induced to commit murder or genocide, or compelled to mass suicide, and whole nations can and have marched down the imperial path of war to utter self-destruction, if and when people are given a choice, they will select those forms which, from an adaptive standpoint, are the most apparently sensible and which lead to either their own empowerment or else liberation from constraint. In the long term, the optimism of human history has been that people can be counted on to choose freedom over security, sanity over simplicity. In terms of human civilization making sense of the world, our science has led the way.

All peoples exhibit some threshold value to the resistance to change and the force of the new. But once overcome, people can prove to be quite accommodating.




Given this optimism and the inevitability of trans-culturation, its acceptance in no way implies that we cannot or should seek to exercise greater restraint in its praxis or seek in every way possible to prevent or ameliorate the tragic mistakes which such processes are prone to. If recent world history teaches us anything, it is that we must be sober about our optimism. Humankind may be sentient, but it is also inherent myopic. We must learn to proceed with caution and exercise greater control over the forces of change in our world, and we should not be so willing to rush headlong to our own premature destruction or stagnation, or others to theirs. Trans-culturation in the world is reaching a state of supercritical mass--changes are occurring at an accelerated rate that is proving more and more beyond our limited ability to predict or control. We should greatly appreciate the value of a human tradition of conservatism that teaches us to proceed slowly, if at all.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05