There are three types of evolution that have driven the development of human societies. The first of these is biological evolution where nature very slowly adapts us physically to our changing environment. Whether one believes in the theory of dynamic biological change and evolution or a more static creationist model of biology, one cannot deny we are biological beings with certain characteristics that largely distinguish us from other animals. There are five major characteristics that make humans unique. One is our binocular and color vision that gives us depth perception and a more detailed view of our surroundings respectively. This sends a lot of information to our brains for processing, making us very much a visually oriented species with 90% of the information we take in coming in through the eyes. Second we have upright posture, which frees our hands. This brings us to the third factor, our hands with opposable thumbs, which allow us to manipulate various objects and our environment. That in itself would be worth very little if it were not for the fourth characteristic, our brain that allows us to use our hands in intelligent and creative ways. The brain also makes possible the fifth characteristic, speech which allows us to share knowledge and ideas quickly so each generation does not have to rediscover that knowledge on its own, giving it time to discover and develop new knowledge and ideas.
This unique combination of biological characteristics is the basis for two other types of evolution: cultural and technological. One can see cultural evolution as how people adapt their behavior to the environment. Since these are conscious rather than totally random, or non-existent, changes, they occur at a much faster pace than biological change. However, the force of tradition typically keeps people from rapidly changing long-standing cultural traditions that generally have served society well in the past. This is because people through most of history have barely survived with little or no surplus, giving them little or no margin for error if the new change does not work, and making them reluctant to change cultural norms very rapidly.
Technological evolution enables people to adapt or change their environment to meet their needs. This is often something that can be done without immediately changing cultural norms. Therefore, it tends to happen at a much faster rate than cultural change. Not only that, but each new invention, being developed consciously and often based on previous successful inventions, is likely to improve the standard of living. This makes people more likely to develop new inventions, further improving their standard of living, and so on.
The “Rubber Band Theory”
One of the most important concepts to understand about history is how any particular event or development rarely has just one cause or just one result. Typically, if one part of a culture changes, it leads to changes in the other parts of the culture. One can visualize each part of a culture (social structure, political structure, technology, the arts, religion, economy, military institutions, etc.) as being connected to each of the other parts by rubber bands. If one part (e.g., the economy) changes and moves forward, it tries to pull all the other parts along with it. If any, some, or all the other parts do not move, the rubber bands connecting them stretch as the distance between them increases. If the distance and tension become too great, one or more of the rubber bands snaps, signifying some form of breakdown or dramatic change, such as a revolution.
An overview of the flow of history
The combination of cultural and technological change along with the Rubber Band Theory helps explain the overall flow of history. The process driving this comes increasingly from technological change. This leads to surpluses that lead, among other things, to wars and conflict since people have typically fought over material wealth. These surpluses and the wars they cause lead to efforts to find new and better technologies. These create even more surpluses and wars, more new technologies, and so on. Since there are more technologies on which to base new ones each time this feedback cycles around, technology growth continually accelerates in speed and intensity. This process has created four successive stages of development in human society, each of which feeds back into the cycle of technological growth, thus leading to the next stage.
First, through the vast majority of our species’ existence our ancestors followed a hunting and gathering way of life, with men typically doing the hunting and women gathering fruits and grains while watching the children. Such societies were highly mobile as they pursued wild game. They had little or no surplus and therefore virtually no private property since, being mobile, they could carry very little with them. By the same token, they had to be highly cooperative and share freely, since a man or the men as a group did not always bring home any meat and had to rely on what the women had gathered. All this made for a somewhat egalitarian society with little difference in status between men and women. At this early stage, with little previous technology to draw upon, new technologies developed slowly.
That changed somewhat with the next stage: the invention of agriculture (c.8000 B.C.E.). This forced people to settle down as they generated progressively larger surpluses. For the first time, people could amass private property, which led to different social classes distinguished by wealth. That in turn triggered conflict within the society and wars between societies. With survival based increasingly on brute strength, men emerged as the leaders and women’s status started to drop.
Social stratification and conflict accelerated during the next stage, pre-industrial civilization, which started c.3000 B.C.E. Two new inventions especially distinguished this stage. First of all, metallurgy, provided new forms of wealth and weapons with which to fight over that wealth. Writing helped people keep track of and amass larger amounts of wealth. More wealth led to wars of much greater intensity, frequency, and destructiveness. It also further reduced the status of women who had lost virtually all control over property by now.
The fourth stage, industrial society, started in Britain (c.1750) and has spread rapidly across the globe since then. This period has been especially marked by the rapid acceleration of technological growth. Unfortunately, this has been particularly true of military technology, which has increased the destructive power of warfare by several quantum leaps as seen in the two world wars which dominated the first half of the twentieth century. Ironically, the status of women has risen dramatically in industrial societies, largely because machines have reduced the need for or value of brute muscle, thus making women more competitive for jobs and opportunities, even in the military.
The challenges of modern society: the rubber bands stretched
Technology is a double edged sword that has helped generate by far the highest standard of living and longest life expectancy in human existence. But the spiraling rate of technological growth over the past 200 years has created progressively greater stresses on the “rubber bands” holding human society together. This is because, compared to technological growth, all the other aspects of society (social structure, religion, morals, etc.) are much more dependent for their rates of change on cultural evolution which, as mentioned above, is very traditional and slow. This growing gap between the rate technological change and that of other parts of society has created ever mounting stresses and strains, and continues to do so as technological growth continues to accelerate. These problems break down into three main categories.
First of all, most aspects of society, being more bounded by traditional rates of cultural change, cannot keep up with and adapt to the rate of technological growth. All too often, new technologies are introduced without studying or trying to anticipate their long-range effects. An example of this is the birth control pill introduced in 1960. While the Pill did free women from being burdened with large numbers of children, which was the goal of its inventors, few, if any, people gave serious thought to how the Pill would change people’s attitudes toward sex and marriage, or how that would affect the status of women and the raising of future generations of children.
A second problem lies in the unbelievable destructive power of modern weapons, in particular hydrogen bombs. Before the industrial revolution, the destructiveness of war was largely proportional to the number of men directly engaged in it, and the number of those men was largely determined by the relatively low productivity of the pre-industrial societies that had to support them over time. This put distinct limits on how long and destructive wars could be, thus giving societies time to recover. Modern warfare, however, is by no means limited by such factors. A relatively few men can launch devastating destruction upon the planet totally out of proportion to their numbers. The technology of destruction has grown even faster than the technology of production, making total war as we understand it obsolete.
Finally, modern technology has transformed our economy from being mainly concerned with producing enough for everyone to being concerned with selling all it produces. This has spawned a pervasive culture of materialism and consumerism heavily influenced by advertising. Modern economies rely on more sales and consumption and sales to make the money to expand their production, which requires more consumption, and so on. Given the vastly larger population that is involved in this cycle and the ever growing levels of per capita consumption, there is no way the environment can support this level of growth.
All this adds up to a fairly grim prospect for the future. However, we are an ingenious and adaptable species that could very well see us successfully through our technological adolescence. For example, during the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union did manage to avoid a catastrophic third world war. While we are not out of the woods yet, there is still hope while there are still some woods left for us.