The Meaning of Civilisation: A Paper Delivered at the Launch of the Library of Civilisation


  • Voltaire wrote, over two hundred years ago, that he would like to know the steps by which we came from barbarism to civilisation. An impossible idea in his time, but not quite so now. The library is an attempt to follow that path and to do so in what could be called a manageable or graspable size, limited to about a thousand volumes, what you can see here on the ground floor. The books upstairs are related material. The volumes chosen are examples of the discipline they represent; so if, say, the discipline is that of novels, some are there because of being the first of their kind, some because of their polemical effect and the rest because they are examples, examples only, of the heights the metier can reach. The project is still embryonic; we still need a lot of help with the choice of entries.

    I do need to get rid of one niggle that has beset the project since its inception; the idea that some disciplines have more value than others. The most honest expression of what I mean comes from a book written twenty or thirty years ago by a scientist called Michael Harte. It was titled “The One Hundred” and it gave potted biographies of his choice of the most important people in world history. He even had the nerve to rank them. He apologises for the lowly ranking that he gives to Shakespeare and it is that apology that I want to quote to you. He writes that “Although he loves the beauty and entertainment of Shakespeare’s works, he ranked it where he did because of his belief that, in general, literary and artistic figures have had comparatively little influence on human history”. This kind of sentiment is all too common, although nowadays science has to share this elevated notion with business. Beauty and entertainment were not all that Shakespeare did for us. They were his hooks to keep our attention; but what he really did, whether intentionally or not, was to greatly enrich our language and thereby our ability to communicate and, by giving us an unparalleled insight into the consciousness of others, enhanced our capacity to empathise, an attribute we could not survive without. For example, modern weaponry, a by-product of science, combined with a medieval mind-set, would be a recipe for catastrophe. Even my own beloved Stephen Pinker manages to paint himself as a philistine when writing about art, forgetting, in my opinion, that cave paintings in Altamira and elsewhere, are the very first sign that something quite extraordinary was happening in the world.

    It would probably match your expectations if I said that the library came about because of my love of books and of history, but it would not be true. It exists because of anger, rage almost, that the word civilisation, the single most important process that humanity engages in, is reduced to being a catch all word with no specific definition. Just last month an American politician, I think apropos the fracas about gay marriage, said that we are destroying civilisation, or at least, what is left of it! He obviously knows what it is but unfortunately nobody asked him to elucidate, so he never got to enlighten us.

    Before telling you what I think it is, I would like to talk a little about genetics from a layman’s perspective because it is the science that I will refer to most and the one that as laypeople we are easily misled about; conned even, not by geneticists but by ourselves. Generations are a geometric progression, two parents, four grandparents, eight, sixteen and so on. It does not take long to get to astronomical numbers. Anyone who lived in these islands during the first millennium, and has direct descendants; well you are one of them, thousands of times over. The trick you need to give you a long, distinguished, individual lineage is primogeniture, a medieval legal construct. It works easily. Remove from the record of your line all of the women, even mothers, then all of the sons except for the first born and there you are; you too can have an ancient, proud lineage. A funny sort of way to carry on in our times. We do not come from long lines of distinguished ancestors but from a gene pool. The ridiculous concept of a natural aristocracy or of blue blood or of any other such concept is rank nonsense. For millennia we have been granting utterly spurious authority to individuals on the basis of their supposedly illustrious families. If you try to skim just the edges of the gene pool, as royalty and the aristocracy were wont to do, then you run the risk of skinny genes and we all know how bad they are for your health.

    When it was thought that Napoleon was safely exiled to Elba and the remains of the ancient regime were back in town, the poor bishop of Paris managed to say in his sermon to the lineage rich congregation in Notre Dame, that “not only was Jesus Christ the son of God but, equally, he came from an excellent family. The equally possibly explains the earlier French revolution. Remember also, the absolute mayhem that even one improper liaison can inflict on that much loved family tree. However, as you all know that does not apply here, we have never had any hanky panky in Catholic Ireland; but the neighbouring island, oh heavens!

    There is a much less innocent approach to misleading us about human genetics. Last year, a man called Vincent Wade published a bestselling book called “A Troublesome Inheritance”. In it he, first of all makes clear that racism gets no validation from genetics, but he then goes on to hypothesise, among other things, that perhaps the Industrial Revolution started in England because of the spread of the cautious and patient genes of the English middle class; that Jewish people are cleverer than the rest of us because the ones who did not enjoy Talmudic studies, deserted the race and thereby improved the remaining members genetic component and that Iraq and Afghanistan are genetically (Genetically!!!) incapable of forming their own democracies. Utter twaddle! This sort of nonsense is commonplace in popular science books, but in this case the author is the ex-science editor of the New York Times and this year Time Magazine synopsized it under the title of “What Science says about Race and Genetics”. What it actually leaves us with is a very large group of seriously disgruntled eminent geneticists, whose work was misused and, because of Time, millions of people who will go to their graves believing that it really is what science says.

    Since the discovery of the Double Helix, genetics have taken the limelight in science. What we have learned from them is astonishing and the insight they have given us into the past is astounding. Neither of those words is an exaggeration. Yet, almost in their entirety, they belong to our past. Our physical beings are what they are because of our genetic past, but with the arrival of human cognition, genetics started to lose their influence. In reality we have been playing with them from the very dawn of agriculture. Nowadays we do this as genetic engineering. Even our hopeful optimism about the possible future wonders of gene therapy is about fixing the genetic mistakes of the past. (In genetic terms, mistake is the wrong word. Unsuccessful mutations or whatever is better but humans do not accept, or at least, should not accept, the brute reality of survival of the fittest, when applied to our own species.) When phycologists explain to us the workings of genetics on our very nature, as in say, the gene favouritism of kin, our own genes first, then siblings because they share our genes, then cousins and then tribe they are pointing out some of the animal characteristics that civilisation is trying to rid us of; selfishness, nepotism, tribalism and racism. We do not even care about the absolute genetic imperative of passing on our genes. Millions of people, for multitudinous reasons, decide not to pass their own genes on at all. Countless others do not pass on as many as they could. Being intelligent of course, most of us do not sacrifice ourselves to the pain of celibacy; we split the imperative and keep the fun bit.

    What I am really saying is that human, societal civilisation is a continuation of evolution, but it is driven, not by genetics but by intelligence. A new type of evolution that was and is essential. When human cognition first arrived we were like comic book characters; Super Predators. For all intents and purposes we were still animals, with full animal instincts but wandering around with this enormously powerful brain and virtually no data to use it on. We were positively dangerous, to each other and to life itself. Further evolution was vital and genetics were far too slow to do anything for us. Civilisation is the evolutionary edifice we are building, constructed on data, then knowledge, plus an understanding of one another’s consciousness and tolerance of our differences. Cognition trumps genetics so comprehensively as to render them almost totally obsolete for further human development.

    Initially this was a fairly lonely idea. What was a geriatric layman from Laois to do with it; build a library, as one does, and give a talk? I did not remain lonely for long. When Nigel Copage saw what I was thinking, he sent me back to read Dawkins properly. You all know who Richard Dawkins is, the chap who spends an inordinate amount of his time trying to dis-prove the unprovable but for all that, a great scientist. I want to quote a passage from his book “The Selfish Gene” He writes, “But we do not have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new type of replicator has recently emerged on this planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy; still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture.”

    He had it, dammit! So I find it incredibly unfortunate that he uses the word replicator and then obfuscates his entire idea by calling the new type of replicator memes and then diverts to talking about them rather than about his basic idea. To be honest, this would seem to be a very, very clever scientist, who had a great idea, but decided to solve it by applying a genetic system to intelligence. This cannot be right. Trying to understand our immensely powerful, freewheeling, chaotic human intelligence by applying the lessons learned from the study of genetics is akin to studying a night light in the hope of figuring out a blast furnace. The relationship between genetics and intelligence is as close as that between a jet plane and a child’s wind up train set.

    I think the reason that you are hearing this kind of idea from a layman is that the evidence for it is not entirely to be found in a science laboratory; it lies in the storey of our past, in all of the interconnected branches of our history, our development of philosophy, our politics, of everything we have done. Simply put it is the storey of our accumulation of data and knowledge and of our greater understanding of each other.

    In spite of the almost daily obituaries for past and current civilisations (and that should always be singular, there is only one global one) civilisation never dies. The power structures, often nasty, that surround them and allow the wealth for some to wonder about things, those power structures die. The elements of civilisation that were developed during the life of the power structures, they do not die with them. We retain a great deal of classical thought, of early Chinese thought, the glories of Sanskrit and of medieval Arabic scholarship. When Germany collapsed beneath its own, self-induced, maelstrom in the last century, we did not lose the thinking of Kant, or Goethe, of Schiller, Schumann, or Planck. When the British Empire folded in on itself, we did not lose Newton or Darwin or the language of the Book of Common Prayer. The process of civilisation continues, heedless, throughout the rise and fall of individual empires.

    Leaving teleology, the idea of ultimate purpose, in its own entirely separate arena, our immediate aim would appear to be the combination of individual free will with recognition of our responsibilities to all other humans and to the rest of life. The most recent affirmations of this can be seen in our embrace of both human and animal rights, the global reduction of violence, (counter intuitive as that might seem, it is nonetheless true.) Even in our willingness to become part of wider political communities. I do not want to go too far with that one because we all know that when we do get to the stage of having a world government, and we will, Britain will opt for associate membership.

    Whether I am exactly right about how it all works does not particularly matter. What does matter is to understand that civilisation is a process and an accelerating one. Even if you had lived to the age of Methuselah in Ancient Egypt, you could have passed your whole life without being much disturbed by changes. Even the changes in my parent’s time were a meandering steam compared to the torrent of new ideas engulfing us now. The causes of this modern, intensifying acceleration are many, but amongst them are the increase in global literacy and communication; computers, particularly because of their ability to hold and widely disseminate gargantuan amounts of data and of course the necessary wealth to have a world awash with scholars and academics; all beavering away to increase our edifice of data and knowledge. On top of all that we have a new society; as you are all well aware we, the long put upon, middle class, heterosexual white males have always had to carry the burden of civilising the world on our own. Now, quite suddenly, other races and classes and even women have started to pull their weight.

    You now know that I believe that civilisation is a process, a continuation of evolution but driven by intelligence, not genetics. That it is an essential process and an accelerating one. That it began with the arrival of human cognition and has continued ever since. That genetics are part of our animal past and not our future. That it is global and universal. It concerns all members of our species equally.

    We all have a great love of our own pixilated, specialist areas of interest but some of us, even just a few, should be standing back and looking at the entire. The library is an attempt to encourage such a view.

    Of more immediate cogency, you also now know why restorative wine is on offer. Thank you for your patience.