I have been pondering this question: When, if ever, is it meaningful and fair to say that one culture is "more advanced" than another?
(Disclaimers: This blog entry is sketching out ideas for future articles and books. I'm trying the ideas on for size, not propounding them. I may abandon them. I'm not trained as an anthropologist or historian. Don't quote me as an authority. But please do respond, if you feel so moved.)
It's a profoundly difficult question. Claims of "superior advancement" have been used many times to justify brutality. Many Americans justified slavery on the grounds that Africans were "less evolved." The Nazis justified mass murder by calling Jews a "degenerate race." So the project of claiming any kind of advanced status is rightly viewed very suspiciously these days.
It's also hard to define what "more advanced" means. By what criteria can cultures be compared to each other? Who's to say which criteria should be preferred? And wouldn't any person's preferred criteria suspiciously match his or own culture's attributes? For example, one measurement tool might privilege technological sophistication, while another artistic advancement, another religious devotion, and yet another the richness of familial and communal ties.
And it's hard to define culture. Societies aren't monolithic. Not every Catholic thinks alike; not every Arab thinks alike; not every American thinks alike. Cultures also influence each other, blurring the lines between them. Defining what a culture is and does has always been a vexedly difficult job.
Some anthropologists have tried to steer around these problems by creating putatively "objective" measures of cultural complexity. In a review article, Garry Chick surveys a number of measurement tools, one of which measures (or claims to measure, at any rate) 618 traits in 14 categories, including economics, social organization, law, warfare, religion, and various kinds of technology. While arguing that such criteria can be of some use, Chick acknowledges that all of them are still ethnocentric.
Is there a way to say that one culture is more advanced than another in a way that is not racist, ethnocentric, or uselessly broad? Some basic ideas in biology and thermodynamics may help.
For example, consider Kleiber's Law. When it was first developed by Max Kleiber in the 1930s, it was used to describe animal metabolism. It says that that the bigger the animal, the more metabolically efficient it is. An elephant that is 10,000 times the mass of a guinea pig will not consume 10,000 times as much energy. Rather, it will consume only 1,000 times as much energy. Pound for pound, it is a more efficient energy user.
This isn't surprising. But the law also applies to cities, which is very surprising. When a city doubles in size, it only consumes 85% as much energy. It becomes more efficient. The fact that the law works across completely different entities - plants, guinea pigs, elephants, cities - makes one wonder if it applies to all organized entities. To skip a number of qualifiers and exceptions, here's the question I'm asking: Could it be said that the more metabolically efficient a society is, the more advanced it is?
To be sure, you will puzzle over the way I am using the word "advanced." Set that aside for a moment and consider another example. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute has shown that with each doubling of a city's population, the inhabitants become 15% wealthier, more productive, and more innovative. If one regards a city as a distinct culture, then one could say that larger cultures are inherently more advanced than smaller ones - assuming that by "advanced" one means greater productivity per capita. (The advancement is not always to the comfort of its inhabitants; West shows that crime also goes up by 15%. That is, the criminals become more productive, too.)
Whatever measures of productivity you look at, it seems reasonable to say that in general, greater productivity increases the number of things a society can do. It makes the society better able to meet human needs. It makes it physically and informationally more complex. It increases its power to make new things. Can we say that is a law of nature that the larger a society becomes, the more advanced it is?
I'm intrigued but not yet convinced. For one thing, there's enthnocentrism in equating advancement with material wealth and productivity. For another, not all cities of the same size are equally well-off. Mexico City and New York City have about the same population, but New York City dominates world culture in a way that Mexico City does not. They are both far ahead of smaller cities, but there is a considerable difference between them. Clearly, population size alone is not an especially accurate measure of complexity or sophistication.
There is another possibility: to define advancement in terms of communicative capacity. I don't mean bandwidth or media. Rather, I mean human communication, that is, the capacity for empathy.
To begin understanding this approach, consider a thought experiment. Let's say you have a time machine and the ability to understand any language. You step into it and rocket yourself back to England circa 1200. It's a different world. Most people are illiterate. Religious belief is taken for granted. Occupations are determined by parentage and caste. Women have few rights. Yet you could understand the structure of the society and establish meaningful, ongoing relationships with people in it. To be sure, you would lack skills: it would take you a while to master a trade and learn how to obtain the daily necessities of life. But given time, you could do it.
Now, consider the reverse experiment. Take a nonliterate person from that era to the year 2011. He would be completely lost. It wouldn't be just a matter of lacking skills and information. He would lack a dozen major frameworks for understanding us - frameworks that seem self-evident to us only because we have been immersed in them all our lives. For example, the ability to write allows a person to introspect on his mind's workings and develop a rich self-representation and interior persona. As Walter J. Ong has said in Orality and Literacy, "Writing restructures consciousness."
Lacking that literate background, our time-traveling visitor could only vaguely grasp the inner lives of people in our time. Our concern with happiness would baffle him. He would understand pleasure and delight, of course, but he would not understand the pursuit of personal happiness as an ongoing effort. So if you talked to him in a bar about dissatisfaction with one's work, there'd be a sense of deep disconnect. Even if he understood the general idea of what you do and the human aspects of your stories, he wouldn't really understand your mental state. He could not empathize with you.
Likewise, he would not grasp the way we think about time. We think of time as having a direction. The future is expected to be different and better than the past, and that structures our choices of what to do with our lives. But to him, time would be cyclical; the future will be the same as the present, except for people getting older. We could try to explain the things that give directionality to our time, such as technological progress, but he would have no referents to understand why such things are important to us. It would be difficult enough to explain email to a person from 1980. Hopeless to explain it to someone from 800 years ago.
Even though both of you have traveled 800 years in time, into profoundly different worlds, you have an enormous advantage. It is not just that you know historical facts about his era. It is that your mindset includes all of the essential aspects of his. Your mind retains the essential elements of a preliterate mindset. You know why people revere memorization: for hundreds of thousands of years, it was the only way to retain information. You have absorbed the syntax of the Old Testament, whose sentence structure ("This happened...and then this happened...and then this...") reflects a preliterate mind's tendency to accumulate facts rather than summarize and generalize.
As Ong explains, preliterate thought is aggregative rather than analytic, situational rather than abstract. It is very different from literate thought - but literate people still have preliterate modes of aggregation and situational thinking available to them. We can understand preliterate minds with a little bit of imaginative effort.
In short, modern minds include all of the fundamental elements of medieval minds. (Again, I don't mean that they include medieval skills; medieval people knew far more about herbs than just about anyone today. But we retain the idea of herbology and could easily resurrect it.)
As Kevin Kelly says in What Technology Wants, nothing invented is ever abandoned. It is always carried forward. You may have to dust off some old memories and study up a bit, but you're rediscovering rather than learning from scratch. Our medieval visitor has no such advantage.
So I want to suggest that a culture can be said to be more advanced than another if it includes most or all of the other culture's basic elements. That gives its individuals a superior edge in understanding and communication.
I got this idea of inclusiveness, by the way, from Ken Wilber's book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, in which he writes, "Each emergent holon transcends but includes its predecessors" (p. 59). Wilber's point is that evolution always builds on top of what went before, incorporating preceding elements while also transcending them.
To be sure, this doesn't mean that a more advanced culture will treat a less advanced one with decency. The Europeans used their technological superiority over Native Americans to wipe most of them out. But they at least had a mental framework with which to categorize the peoples they met, however unjustly. Europeans had spent many thousands of years living in preliterate, tribal cultures and had that experience to draw upon.
This "inclusion" criterion solves at least two problems. First, it's not obviously ethnocentric. Instead of privileging specific properties, it simply asks how many in population A are also in population B.
Second, it focuses on communication, the key aspect of living in a society that makes it worthwhile (or not.) It's a more humanly meaningful measure than variables like population, information content, and the number of available products.
Incidentally, it also makes diverse societies almost automatically more advanced than monocultural ones, all else equal. They simply contain more.
Non-ethnocentric, communication-oriented; that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But there is a hidden assumption in this reasoning that I will now make explicit. I am assuming that cultures follow a universal trajectory of development. Here's one possible trajectory, for example: nomadic clans --> agricultural villages --> feudal towns --> city-states --> nation-states --> world-states. In this schema, each element includes all of the elements of the previous ones.
This particular trajectory seems pretty reasonable, but that's because it's both highly general and limited to one dimension of progress. The question is, is there a single, cross-cultural trajectory that specifies scientific, technological, moral, artistic, informational, and economic progress?
I don't know. To be sure, counterexamples would seem to abound. Contingency is everywhere one looks. Arabs and Jews focused on abstract art while Europeans focused on representational art. Chinese medicine is holistic while Western medicine is reductive. These are generalizations, of course, but they are cases where neither includes the other.
But perhaps one just has to look at history with a broader focus. Do all cultures go through similar moral stages? Do they develop essentially similar social institutions for art? Will all cultures, given enough time, develop the computer? Is there a logic to history?
It may seem pointless, or actively harmful, to consider questions of progression and advancement. But if there is a logic to history, there is at least one circumstance in which it would be highly useful. That is contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. We have no idea what intelligent aliens would be like. We have no idea if they will have moral codes restraining them from exploiting (or eating) us. We have no idea if their languages will be enough like ours to allow for translation and meaningful interaction. We don't even know if their biochemistry would be anything like ours.
But we could argue, based on thermodynamics and the "inclusion" hypothesis, that there is a broad logic to history independent of biochemistry and accidents of culture. If so, then we could expect aliens to understand us, much as we'd understand our 13th-century Englishman. We probably couldn't understand them, given our newness as a technological culture. But if they had a past that included tribalism, feudalism, nation-states, and world-states, then they'd have some idea of what we're about. And maybe, just maybe, we'd learn of worthy futures to which we might aspire.