Monday, 7 January 2013

An Organism is determined by three things….

The analogy between organisms and civilisations is a useful tool, not because it’s perfect but because they share important traits. Both are adaptable in that they both respond to their environment and have variation upon which natural selection works, civilisations however work on the cultural level rather than the genetic and, like bacteria, traits can be transferred between civilisations. DNA and cultural heritage also work in similar roles, a store of instructions and responses that change slightly with each generation. The main differences are in the time-scales and exact roles, but overall they are similar enough for this analogy.

Important rule of thumb: Since this post is only worried about the broad differences of human civilisation types, it is assumed that that each civilisation type (tribal, hunter-gatherer, nation-state, city-state etc) is homogenous, even though they aren’t in real life.

So what are the three things that determine an Organism?

The environment: What biomes does a civilisation live in? what are the local resources? Who are their neighbours and what are they like? Are there any natural barriers and if so, what kind? Is there a coast or is it landlocked? Is there an important river system? And if so, how is it structured and act? These are all-important questions to answer what environment a civilisation occupies. Hard limits and possibilities come from this element and much of what a civilisation is is how it responds and adapts to the environment. In our case we inhabit a mostly desert environment, with settlement focused around a thin stretch of coast primarily in the southeast while also counting as a mega diverse country and with no land neighbours.

The DNA of an Organism: What options and adaptations an organism possesses. Civilisations have a much broader range of traits they can posses than a single organism, their more like an ecosystem in this way, and the equivalent is the technologies (weighted towards ones in living practice), lifestyles and cultural heritage available. What level and type of metalworking? What types of agriculture are remembered and used? What are their buildings made of? How is the society organised and how fractal is it? And other questions need to be answered if a civilisations ‘DNA’ is to be examined. Since this element naturally contains variation and changes over time, it will be the most affected by natural selection while also being able to absorb traits from surrounding civilisation. Our civilisations ‘DNA’ is mostly technic and city based European culture, primarily Anglo but with a strong continental influence (South Australia’s second language used to be German) and an advanced industrial and technology base.

How the environment affects DNA: If you climb a mountain and live there for some time, your body begins to adapt in several ways, this is on the somatic level as opposed to the genetic. If however, you happen to be an Andean (or of other mountain population) living in the mountains, then you will already have the adaptations. This is how the same trait (e.g. intensive gardening or skin colour) can look and function differently depending on where you are, the general form has changed into a specialised form suitable for the local environment. E.g. if an African has children in Scandinavia, there not going to be dark black because their skin has adapted to the different UV levels. This is why the outback has large cattle stations as opposed to desert nomads or mobile ranchers, it is the agricultural style that the white settlers had that worked best there, and not that it’s the best style for the area. The more internal variation there is, the more the cultural heritage can adapt to the environment and be changed by it. How this element will play out, well that’s what future posts are for.

This means that if only one factor is changed the organism, or for our purposes a civilisation, will act and look differently. For analysing the potentials of Australia’s future, this presents a problem that isn’t found in either Asia or Europe and to an extent in the Americas. The Australian Aborigines had a completely different civilisation type, and if you go by complexity levels it’s about 3-4 levels lower depending on how you count (population, population density etc). They roughly lived as Stone Age Hunter-gatherers without crops or animals and only the barest elements of agriculture existed. Modern Australians live in cities or towns, have access to metal tools, have access to a wide range of crops and animals (sheep, horses, alpacas etc) from all other the world and have world-crossing boats. In Europe, Middle East and Asia, the same civilisation types have been present in the same areas for thousands of years, Hellenic Greece was city based, just like modern Greece. The Native Americans had crops, cities and in some places animals, so while they used vastly different crops and practices their civilisation is closer to modern Americans than the Australian Aborigines is to ours.


  1. Hi Leo,

    Quote: "They roughly lived as Stone Age Hunter-gatherers without crops or animals and only the barest elements of agriculture existed."

    Perhaps it is both yes and no. I've read accounts that they spread edible plants quite far and wide. It just may not have looked like agriculture as we know it. They were probably excellent gardeners, but used the whole of the state to practice their techniques in. Dunno?

    Two examples spring to mind:

    The native yam daisy (murnong) was planted far and wide across Victoria and is a very hardy staple carbohydrate (similar to a potato). I've got my eye out for them as the dandelions here whilst being similar aren't quite as large a root crop.

    Another example is the cabbage tree planted in the far east of the state. These were deliberately brought down from the northern coasts and established along waterways. The heads of the palm trees are edible.

    Over in the south west corner towards Warnambool too I believe there was permanent habitation and a series of highly complex fish traps around some of the creeks and rivers.

    I enjoyed your post and had never quite thought about systems that way before. Good work.

    Hope you got the placement that you were after.


  2. The Aborigines in parts of Australia were progressing towards agriculture, 'Guns, Germs and steel', and its a kind of grey area. They also modified their enviroment with fire, its more they had some of the tools, but the package wasn't complete. If i remeber the timeline (based on the middle easts progression), without European intervention they would have had definitive agriculture in 3000 years, rather than parts of agriculture.

    Like a lot of societies, they weren't completly one type, just overwhelmingly one. Since i was only concerned with broad differences, i used stone-age because they were closer to stone-age than agricultural. Further down the track, they'll probably be herders, gardeners and so on.

    Got the placment, now i just got to enrol and organise the apartment i'm staying in.