Friday, March 10, 2006

Redefining Civilization Essay

There is only one problem with using the word civilization; it has been left open to interpretation and vulnerable to games of semantics. The word civilization should be a specific and concise term. Because of its deficiencies, this word has become more of a philosophical idea rather than a scientific classification. Controversy and disagreements over a particular group’s status as a civilization can be avoided if the ambiguity in its definition is rooted out.The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language describes the word civilization this way: “An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.” The first half of this definition becomes problematic with its use of the word advanced because it is a relative term and leaves a great deal of room for personal interpretation. Take, for example, judging the intellectual superiority of the United States, Mexico, and Mesopotamia against each other. If they were classified as civilizations based on this criterion, who would end up advanced, and therefore a civilization? To answer, there are three questions which must be asked: (1) what defines intellectually advanced? (2) Who meets this definition? And (3) are any of these groups too intellectually primitive to be considered civilizations? Is Mesopotamia intellectually superior to the United States because it was the first society to develop cities and a writing system, while the United States merely builds on Mesopotamian ideas, or is Mexico superior to Mesopotamia because it has reached a level of technology beyond the comprehension of the Mesopotamians? These are all valid arguments, and it is unlikely a consensus on this matter alone could be reached. Then there would have to be agreement about what constitutes an advanced culture? Is it how a culture treats its people as a whole? Does a system that accepts slavery and capital punishment imply a primitive culture, in which case Mexico, at least on paper, outpaces Mesopotamia and the United States? The American Heritage definition is not only too broad, but also too narrow because its definition is limited to humans. In Star Trek the Enterprise’s mission is to “explore strange new worlds, seek out new life, and new civilizations”. While not an official definition, this phrase provides insight into the general understanding of what a civilization is. It isn’t, as this phrase implies, a world, as an interplanetary nation, federation, or republic can comprise many worlds, nor is it life as life can consist of mindless bacteria and plants, and as the premise of the show implies, does not limit its idea of a civilization to consisting of humans.In order to move the word civilization into a solid, concrete idea and away from being a debatable concept, the word civilization must have a standard definition from which yes or no questions can be derived that test whether or not something is or isn’t a civilization. The best standard definition of a civilization is “a group of two or more life forms that consciously think and whose actions affect one another.” Now these two questions can be asked to determine if something is or isn’t a civilization: “are these things alive and thinking?” Does one life form’s conscious decisions affect another conscious life form? If the answers are yes, then you have a civilization.By not basing the definition of the word civilization on criteria open for interpretation and personal opinion, and not constricting the definition to humans, the controversies of something being or not being a civilization can be ended. Then it would merely be a simple matter of classifying these formerly debated civilizations, then labeling that civilization in a fashion similar to the way Nikolai Kardashev did when he classified the three different types of technological civilizations.

No comments: