August 10, 2012
to be posted on

Letters to the Editor
P.O. Box 441
Livingston, MT 59047

I enjoy your publication although it takes me far from my principle zone of interest, but in issue #95 William Stoecker ends his article raising a question I have thought about: how long does it take an advanced civilization to rise?  His estimate of 50,000 years is offered as making it possible that others have preceded us.  I think that estimate can be reduced.  First one needs to decide where to start.  During most of the last 50,000 years what is widely known suggests Paleolithic culture.  The iconic tool was a hand axe flaked to sharpness.  This technology seems to have been sufficient until the Neolithic era starting maybe 8,000 to 5,000 BC.  The reason for the change is not clear.  Hunting and gathering Paleolithic style had to be a lot less work than Neolithic farming.  I suspect the effort was made because a hunting and gathering culture necessitates walking off and leaving those too old and sick to continue.  For whatever reason, let’s say farming was available in 5,000 BC.  That means about 7,000 years from stone axe to moon walking. 

When I look at the length of time that Mesopotamian civilizations lasted, there is a surprise.  None outlasted 300 years.  I have seen it written that ancient civilizations “stagnated.”  But looking a bit more closely, I find that if you graph the age of each civilization in 50 year increments against the chance of it lasting another 50 years, (counting the Ottomans as two civilizations divided when the method of recruiting the Janissaries – their administrative class – changed) the chance of survival falls with mathematical precision.  That should be impossible.  If civilizations fall because of external circumstances the line should be horizontal.  If it falls because of internal conditions the line should rise as the less “fit” civilizations fail faster and the remainder are fitter.  Since the cause is neither within the population nor outside the population it can only be the very fact of a large population working in cooperation.  And the only agency that can affect every imaginable civilization must be infertility.  We can see that going on around us now.

So starting just before the Norman Conquest of 1066 England had an executive class, a “ruling class,” which was a minority and everybody else was a Neolithic farmer using technology little different from what had been available for thousands of years.  The rulers were replaced, and the resultant civilization should have died out within 300 years.  But somehow they managed to breach the 300 year brick wall.  There has not been a regime change now for over 900 years.  (Changes, yes, but the old ruling class has never simply been lined up and killed, which is usually the sign of a regime change.)  By year 700 after the conquest they were cranking up the Industrial revolution.  Nothing like it had ever happened.  But, except for Egypt, nobody ever lasted that long. 

Egyptians tended to marry kin.  It doesn’t matter how big your population is if your mating horizon is finite.  In England women could hold property, which meant it mattered whom you married if you were rich.  Again, that meant a restricted social pool. 

No matter how the English did it, advanced civilization could have been built in just 900 years by anybody with a Neolithic technology if they could handle the demographic issue.  And a Paleolithic society could build a Neolithic culture any time they wanted to.  Unlike the Industrial Revolution, it happened a number of times.  So all you need is 900 years somewhere in the world sometime in the last 200,000 years to build your vanished advanced society. 

Finding the evidence?  Ah, now that would be your specialty I should think.

Linton Herbert

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