Searching for advanced civilizations in other galaxies: 50 possible candidates found?

At first, this article seems like a bit of a downer:
Search for advanced civilizations beyond Earth finds nothing obvious in 100,000 galaxies — ScienceDaily.

After searching 100,000 galaxies for signs of highly advanced life, a team of scientists has found no evidence of advanced civilizations there. The idea behind the research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced spacefaring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization’s technologies would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths.

…”Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxy’s stars to power computers, space flight, communication, or something we can’t yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the mid-infrared wavelengths,” Wright said. “This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on.”

Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson proposed in the 1960s that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. It was not until space-based telescopes like the WISE satellite that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation emitted by objects in space.

However, somewhat contradicting the title of the article and its opening passage, we have this snippet:

Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this passage given the apparent contradiction, but it sounds like we have 50 possible candidate galaxies for advanced civilizations.  (Emphasis on the word “possible” here.)

Based on the information the article provides, it seems obvious that the scientists were looking for Type III civilizations on the Kardashev scale.  A Type I civilization has harnessed all of the energy on its native planet.  (We’re not a Type I civilization yet).  A Type II civilization has harnessed all of the energy of its native star, possibly using concepts like Dyson spheres or swarms.  And a Type III civilization will  have harnessed all of the energy in its galaxy, or, at least for purposes of this study, enough to be noticeable across intergalactic distances.

Of course, we have no real idea how possible a Type III civilization actually is.  It would involve engineering on scales that currently seem hard to imagine.  But given enough time (think hundreds of millions of years), there doesn’t seem to be anything in the laws of physics that prevent it.  We also can’t be sure that some observed astronomical phenomena that we’re chalking up to nature might not turn out to be mega-structures created by extraterrestrial intelligence.

But given the age of the universe, and the fact that there’s no evidence of Earth ever having been colonized in its 4.5 billion year history, it seems likely that if there are advanced civilizations out there, they’re too far away to have reached us yet.  50 out of 100,000 galaxies sounds like about the right number.  The nearest advanced civilization may be several hundred million light years away.

Unless they find natural explanations for the high levels of mid-infrared radiation.  Then the closest advanced civilization might might be billions of light years away, or even outside our visible universe.

The rise of the west and civilization collapses

Phil Plait recently announced that he was starting a new series of Crash Course videos on astronomy.  After watching it, I noticed the really cool Youtube channel that it’s on.  I suspect that I’m going to end up wasting dedicating a lot of time on this channel.

One series that caught my attention, because it’s close to subjects I’ve written about before and integrates nicely with the current book I’m reading, is the one on World History with John Green.  This first video is on theories about the rise of the west.

The second one I’m going to share with you, also with Green, is on the collapse of the bronze age civilization (c. 1200 BCE).

In both of these videos, Green provides many cautions about these theories.  I’ve written before that most theories about why civilizations collapse are put forth by people with an agenda of some kind for our own times.  I think the same thing is largely true about most people who write about the west’s successes, in that typically the keys to success they identify involve some institutions or practices the author wants us to protect, take up, or return to.

How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization

Annalee Newitz has a fascinating article at IO9 on early neolithic societies: How Farming Almost Destroyed Ancient Human Civilization.

Roughly 9,000 years ago, humans had mastered farming to the point where food was plentiful. Populations boomed, and people began moving into large settlements full of thousands of people. And then, abruptly, these proto-cities were abandoned for millennia. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of early human civilization.

…The problem is that people in Neolithic mega-villages had inherited a system of social organization and spirituality from their nomadic forebears. Because nomadic life requires everyone in the group to share resources to survive, these groups would develop rituals and customs that reinforced a very flat social structure. Certainly there would be families that had more prominent positions in a hunter-gatherer group or small village, but if they ever started hoarding resources too much that would be bad for the entire group. So people would strongly discourage each other from ostentatious displays of social differences.

…But the ideology of these Neolithic people in mega-villages, Kuijt speculates, may have treated any kind of social differentiation as taboo. As soon as somebody took enough power to be a representative or proto-politician, other people would rail against them. He believes that major conflicts may have grown out of this tension between a belief in flat social organization and the need to create social hierarchies in larger societies. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, especially when you consider that when cities re-emerge in the 4,000s BCE, they have rigid social hierarchies with kings, shamans, and slaves. Plus, they have writing, which is primarily used to tally up who lives where and owns what.

The quotes above give a basic overview of the article, but the article is very well done with colorful images and informative diagrams, including a very interesting timeline.  If you’re interested, I highly recommend reading the full thing.  I learned some things from it, and I’m moderately well read in this area.  For instance, while I knew Çatalhöyük had been abandoned at some point, I wasn’t aware it was part of a general collapse.

As interesting as I did find this article, the basic hypothesis seems weak to me.  The reason is the vast time scales involved.  Remember that we’re talking about the period between when farming began, around 10,000 BC, until around 5000 BC.  That’s pretty much the same time span as recorded history.  Çatalhöyük, the main example Newitz discusses, flourished from c. 7500 BC until c. 5700 BC, almost two millenia.  No society in recorded history has managed to last that long (at least, not without creative historical interpretations of events).  In other words, it was a successful society for a very long time.

We also have to remember that these were pre-literate societies, so the people living in Çatalhöyük or similar settlements in 5700 BC almost certainly had no memory of how their hunter-gatherer ancestors had once lived.  Oral histories, and hence cultural traditions, just don’t survive intact more than a few centuries without evolving heavily.  (Literate societies generally have their core traditions in sacred documents that serve to limit that evolution, even if it doesn’t eliminate it.)  The idea that culture remained static from when hunter gatherers settled down until this late neolithic collapse millennia later seems implausible.

I don’t doubt that the neolithic settlements probably suffered from organizational problems.  They didn’t have writing yet, which had to limit how sophisticated their organizational structures could become.  But the idea that they held hunter-gatherer values for thousands of years, collapsed, and then figured out hierarchies to build civilization is probably too simplistic a view of what was more likely a complex evolution over thousands of years.

The timescales are interesting:

  • 200,000 BC: modern humans emerge in Africa
  • 90,000-60,000 BC: a portion of humanity migrates out of Africa
  • 12,000 BC: earliest settlements
  • 10,000-8000 BC: farming begins
  • 5500-5000 BC: the neolithic collapse the article discusses
  • 3000 BC: development of writing and the beginnings of record history

Sometimes I wonder if civilization isn’t just an aberration, a passing fad allowed by the current ice age interglacial period, that we may have to leave behind in the millennia to come.


How should we communicate with aliens? Should we communicate?

The array of telescopes atop Mauna Kea (Hawaii)
The array of telescopes atop Mauna Kea (Hawaii) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seth Shostak has a post up at HuffPost asking what we should say if we ever find ourselves in conversation with aliens.  Apparently this was the topic of a recent conference at the SETI institute.

Before commenting on Shostak’s main thesis, I think he makes an assertion that deserves scrutiny.

A decade of research by astronomers now suggests that a trillion planets dot the Milky Way. It takes a real Debbie Downer to believe that they’re all as dead as the Equal Rights Amendment.  Unless Earth is special beyond reason, you can confidently assume there are plenty of societies out there.

I’ve got no problem with this statement, until the last sentence, where Shostak takes a logical leap.  (Albeit an understandable one being he’s a member of SETI.)  Certainly, unless Earth is “special beyond reason”, we can expect plenty of worlds with life out there.  Given the history of life on Earth, I think we can expect most extraterrestrial life to be simple microscopic organisms.  Complex life (plants and animals) will likely only be on a minority of worlds.

And given that the Earth was 99.995% of its current age before an intelligent species arose, and also given the Fermi Paradox (if there are plenty of civilizations out there, where is everyone?), I think we should expect intelligent life to be exceedingly rare.  Rare enough that our closest intelligent neighbor may be millions of light years away in another galaxy.

Of course, it’s always possible that interstellar travel is impossible and that the only way civilizations could ever interact with each other is by signaling across the void.  And that gets to Shostak’s main topic.

A leitmotiv of the conference — one thing that just about everyone felt they could agree on — was to beware of anthropocentrism. Don’t assume that the way we think or describe things will be the same for the extraterrestrials. Context and local knowledge are the frameworks of our daily lives, and it’s easy to forget that these are peculiar to us, both in place and in time. The aliens will not get our jokes, our literature, or our reality TV. Their minds, presumably vast and deep, could be as different from ours as those of bats and beetles.

The problem isn’t even anthropocentrism, it’s terracentrism (don’t know if that’s a word, but I’m making it one).  We might have some hope of rising above anthropocentrism by comparing ourselves to non-human animals, but aliens that evolved in a radically different environment may think so differently that even communications like pictures or mathematics may simply be assuming too much.

The fact is, we probably have little hope of figuring out, a priori, how we need to communicate with extraterrestrials.  With that in mind, I agree with Shostak that, if we choose to communicate (more on that in a bit), we should do so liberally.

It’s a tough problem, and my own contribution was to opine that — rather than wrestle endlessly with what we should say — we send it all. Or at least send a lot. I suggested that we transmit the contents of the Internet, or some large subset thereof, rather than offering up more “greeting cards” similar to those that have been bolted onto some of our spacecraft. Sure, there’s a lot of silly stuff on the web — it’s not curated, to use the language of museums. But it’s wide-ranging, covers a lot of human activity, and is highly redundant. For example, the concept of “automobile” is present in descriptions, photos, and videos. That redundancy will help them — assuming they have the processing power — to figure out a lot of what we’ve sent.

In other words, give them enough so that they have a chance of piecing together our concepts.  If you think about it, if we were receiving communication from an extraterrestrial civilization, that’s probably how we would prefer to receive it.  Inundate us, and let us figure it out, particularly since interactive communication is probably going to be impossible, with replies likely to take centuries, if not millennia.

But this raises the question of whether we really should communicate.  Any other civilization that we’re likely to contact would almost certainly be far more advanced than ours, and by “far more”, think millions of years more advanced.  The probability of us connecting with another civilization that just happened to emerge within a few thousand years like we did, is infinitesimal.

Even if they’re 500 light years away, and the soonest they could conceivably affect us would be over a thousand years from now, that’s likely not nearly enough time for us to catch up technologically and be on anything like the same level as they would be.  Communicating with them may simply be the mouse summoning the cat.

Of course, it’s hard to see why an advanced civilization would bother conquering us.  Any desirable natural resources we might have would be much easier to obtain in the Kuiper belt, or on other planets without the bothersome resistance of the inhabitants.  And our biologies aren’t likely to be compatible enough for them to eat us.  (In any case, it would be easier to synthesize the food rather than travel interstellar distances to obtain it.)

But we should consider that it likely wouldn’t even amount to conquest for them.  Their attitude toward us might be the same as that of a scientist studying mice, and experimenting on them.

I suspect that it we ever did receive a signal, we’d get a lot of clues from what was in it.  If there was extensive information about themselves, including information that helped us solve many technological problems, then we might be able to assume they were benign.  On the other hand, if all we received was the interstellar equivalent of a dial tone, we would probably want to carefully consider our next move.

The decline of religion in western societies

Huffington Post UK has published the results of a survey showing that half of Britain thinks religion does more harm than good, and that you don’t need it to be a good person.  This seems to be a trend in Europe that was started in the Scandinavian countries.  It’s in contrast to the United States, where religion still has substantial influence, although even here that influence is in decline.  (The percentage of people claiming no religion in the US has gone from 8% to 20% in the last couple of decades.)

The decline of religion in the west seems unprecedented in world history.  Religion dates back to at least the Upper Paleolithic and, prior to the 20th century, was pretty much a cultural universal.  But increasingly, people in developed societies are turning away from it.  Or are they?

I’ve noted before that religion historically had three main functions:

  1. Explaining the world.
  2. Supporting the social order.
  3. Soothing existential anxiety.

This is a simplification of function lists I’ve read from anthropologists and other scientists like Jared Diamond.

In the modern world, science has pretty much taken over 1.  And modern societies have built a number of institutions to handle 2.  (Related to 2, amanimal recently called my attention to a fascinating article comparing religion to sports and the social cohesion benefits of rituals and symbols.)  Indeed, its not uncommon here in the US for our constitution, government, courts, etc, to be referred to as our “civil religion“.

3 has been the one that has taken the longest, from a historical perspective, to replace.  But I think that replacement is happening.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries with the strongest social safety nets, the ones that protect their citizens from the worst consequences of the vicissitudes of life, are also the ones at the forefront of religion’s decline.  These social safety nets are reducing the existential anxiety that fueled the need for 3.

This raises an interesting question.  Is religion so much in decline, or are the ancient supernatural religions simply in the process of being replaced?  As I’ve written before, religion is a difficult beast to define.  A historian centuries from now looking back may interpret what’s happening as more of a transition from one set of worldviews to a new set.  They may see our modern emerging “religion” as a syncretization, a merging, of science and civil religion, including the social welfare state.

This is a view typically resisted by both religion’s advocates and its opponents.  They see religion as inescapably linked to its traditional supernatural beliefs.  Along those lines, maybe it’s not religion per se that’s in decline but supernatural beliefs.  Except that many people who are not religious, even in Scandinavia, still hold supernatural beliefs, often retaining belief in a hazy “universal spirit” or “higher power”.

Of course, this may all be a matter of semantics.  An argument could be made that words should be defined according to their common meanings.  And by that measure, religion is in decline, and may, in decades to come, be in danger of extinction.

Could something reverse that decline?  Given 3 above, I’d say yes.  If life were to become harsh and unpredictable again in the west, I think we’d see a resurgence in traditional religion.  The only thing separating us from that resurgence would be a devastating war, a natural catastrophe, or some form of economic collapse.  If any of these happened with sufficient magnitude that civic institutions were overwhelmed, I think it would be a boon for religion.

An interesting thought experiment is to consider what might happen if these types of events happened after traditional religion had died out.  Would totally new religions rise up?  Or would people return to the old ones?

What do you think?  Is religion headed for extinction?  Or is it too hardwired into the human psyche and we’re only seeing a temporary lull?  Could we avoid falling back into religion if civilization collapsed or declined?

Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed, a brief review


After my post the other day on what fields I thought someone needed to be familiar with for coming up with credible theories about why civilizations collapse, a number of people recommended I read Jared Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse‘.  I finished it this week, and like the other books I’ve read by Diamond, I enjoyed it.

Diamond is familiar with many of the subjects listed in that post, most notably the crucial ones of history and archaeology.  But his prime interest in the book, which he states up front, are the effects of a society’s ecological environment.  He admits that he naively thought, when first starting to work on the book, that environmental damage would be the whole story, before finding out that, while environmental issues are often part of the mix, there are many other reasons for collapses.

In the course of doing his research, he arrived at a five point framework, which includes:

  1. Environmental damage (deforestation, unsustainable use of the land, etc)
  2. Climate changes (notably long term cycles of droughts or temperature fluctuations)
  3. Hostile neighbors
  4. Trade with friendly neighbors (notably dependencies between societies)
  5. A society’s responses to its environmental issues

Diamond then looks at the collapse of several past societies including Easter Island as well as other Polynesian societies, Southwest Native American societies such as the Anasazi, the Mayans, and Norse Greenland.  He also looks at the health of several modern societies such as Montana, Rwanda, Haiti, China, and Australia.  Obviously all of these modern societies haven’t collapsed; his review of them is an assessment of their current health.

Certain factors surfaced repeatedly in the book.  One was the devastating effects of deforestation, often leading to soil erosion problems, along with removing a society’s source of wood for fires and other needs.  Other factors were the problems of living on land with marginal agricultural productivity, often paired with unsustainable agricultural practices, taxing the land beyond its ability to recover, and the related overpopulation and poor resource management issues.

Yet more factors are societies that have structural issues that either cause them to act in destructive ways, or prevent them from adopting beneficial practices.  An example includes chiefs and kings acting for their own comfort or aggrandizement, often at a substantial cost to their citizens.  Another includes societies like Greenland and Australia, both of which historically considered themselves European, to the extent that they clung to practices and values that, while effective in Europe, didn’t serve them well in their new environment.  Particularly in the case of Greenland, where the Norse could have learned how to survive from the Inuit, at least if they hadn’t antagonized them.

Toward the end of the book, Diamond goes into full environmental mode, discussing the global issues that the world faces.  I’ve noted before that the runaway world population is a major global issue, with many of the other major issues effectively being details of that issue.  Diamond acknowledges the importance of the issue.  He also responds to some projections that the population may level off eventually by noting that this is far from certain.

But he also points out that it’s not just population that matters, but also human impact.  The western industrialized lifestyle, a “first world” lifestyle, is far harder on the environment than the lifestyle of many third world citizens.  Those third world citizens aspire to have first world lifestyles, and this is beginning to happen in many places like China and India.  As that happens, the human impact on the environment will be multiplied.

Diamond asserts that if every person in the world suddenly had a first world lifestyle, the increase in human impact would be far more than the strain from linear population increases, possibly by a multiple of twelve.  There are few people, of those who’ve researched the matter, that think the planet can sustain this kind of impact over the long haul.  Diamond asks what the reaction of third world citizens will be when they learn that they can’t all have first world lifestyles.  How would they feel about those currently leading such lifestyles?

Despite these issues, Diamond considers himself to be a cautious optimist, noting that our problems are solvable if we collectively take them seriously enough.  We have advantages over past civilizations in that we are aware of the dangers and have the ability to do something about them.  He points to success stories like Japan, an island with a large population, but with marginal natural resources.  With a disciplined society, and strict central management of resources such as its limited forests, Japan managed to survive where many other societies have either struggled or collapsed.

Of course, if we don’t address our issues, then the problems will eventually solve themselves, but history doesn’t paint a pretty picture for how that generally works out.  It usually involves war, famine, and pestilence.  Anyone familiar with the term “Malthusian“, which Diamond discusses in relation to places like Rwanda, will understand the dangers.

As I noted above, I enjoyed this book, and I think it has an important message, but I don’t consider it to be a complete accounting of how or why societies collapse.  Diamond focused on societies where ecological issues were a large factor, and an understanding of those dynamics is crucially important for our future.

But I haven’t read anything to indicate that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to ecological issues, or the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Islamic Caliphates, the Mongol Empire, the Spanish Empire, or any of the other empires of old.  One big factor that I don’t think Diamond considers much is societal cohesion, or lack thereof, which arguably played a role in many of these historical collapses.

Still, this was a fascinating work, and I think anyone interested in the question of societal health should have it on their reading list.

On theories of why civilizations collapse and our own times

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After my post on the Bronze Age collapse and resulting discussion, I looked at other material about the collapse of civilizations, but after doing that, realized that I have some thoughts about what might be necessary for developing a theory about why collapses happen, what areas of expertise you need to have a chance at formulating a realistic theory, and how any of it might pertain to our current civilization.

Let me be clear right from the outset that I’m pretty skeptical that there is any one reason that explains all the collapses throughout history.  Every civilization has multiple vulnerabilities.  Some civilizations rot from the inside, gradually decline and eventually fall, while others are struck down in their prime either from a sudden change in climate, or by conquest by another bigger or more advanced civilization.  Seeking a single reason may be alluring, but it ignores the complexities of real history.

That said, if someone were going to try to formulate either a single overarching theory or a family of theories, there are several fields I think they’d have to be familiar with, or at least have partners that are experts in these fields, before we should take them seriously.

English: This map shows the location and exten...
Ancient Egypt; the Levant; and Mesopotamia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first, and I think most important, is history.  You need to be intimately familiar with the history of past civilizations including being up to date on the latest research.  If you don’t have this kind of knowledge, if you don’t know what actually happened in the past, then you’re shooting blindly, no matter what other expertise you bring to the endeavor.

Second, you need to be comfortable with anthropology, particularly archaeology.  Many of the collapsed civilizations you’d need to review are ancient and left few written records, particularly during their period of collapse.  That means piecing together what you can from the artifacts and debris they left behind.  At a minimum, you need to be well read in the latest discoveries and developments.

It helps if you understand economics, not only modern economics but the economies of the past, notably of agrarian societies.  This is particularly important for understanding collapses that seemed to be self inflicted.  Other fields it might be good to have knowledge of include political science, sociology, psychology, and even ecology.  But none of these latter fields can replace being deficient in history or archaeology.

All of this is important to keep in mind when someone tries to convince you that they’ve studied things and can predict that our current civilization is in danger of collapse.  As I’ve written before, there are always people predicting that disaster is right around the corner, that the current generation is going to hell in a handbasket, and that unless we clean up our act, we are doomed.

Historically, these prognostications are almost always wrong.  There were Roman authors predicting imminent disaster in every century of the Roman Empire.  It didn’t become accurate until the latter part of the fourth century.  And there have been similar predictions throughout modern times, usually focusing on whatever the troubles were in the author’s specific generation.

What these kinds of works usually are is a framework for someone to complain about what they see as immoral, corrupt, or decadent with the current society.  They may have a point with some of their complaints, but couching them in terms of civilizational collapse is often just hyperbole to give their criticisms more bite.

So, with that in mind, a few notes about our current civilization.  First, if you read history, you’ll know that we do not live in particularly corrupt or blinkered times.  People have pretty much been corrupt and blinkered throughout history, often far more than today, but somehow they muddled through it.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...
Woman during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In American history, if you read about the American Revolution, Civil War, Great Depression, or World War II, you’ll read about corruption, myopic viewpoints, and people often operating outside of their depth.  Often those who succeeded only did so because they were less out of their depth than their competition.

We also, contrary to many doomsayers, do not live in a time of decline.  At least, not by an objective measure.

Today, there are more people living longer life spans than at any other time in history.  A smaller proportion of the population are dying in wars than at any other time in history.  More people have access to health care than at any other time in history.  In western societies, more people have freedom and a say in the political process than at any other time in history.  More people have received a basic education, can read and write, and have access to the latest technology, than at any other time in history.

In many ways, we are living in an age of miracles.  We drive down highways covering distances in hours that generations ago would have taken days or weeks.  We fly through the air, traveling between continents in less than a day.  Those of us in developed countries eat food from all over the world, food that only the richest and most powerful would have had access to a hundred years ago.

The fact that there are people around the world reading this post speaks to the amazing times that we live in.  Few people imagined this kind of casual interaction across countries and continents even when I was a boy in the 70s.  The internet is the new millennium’s printing press, the killer technology bringing in a new age of rapid collaboration and progress.

None of this is to say that any of the above is perfect or that we don’t have serious problems.  We certainly do.  I think the biggest is our runaway world population.  Many of the other problems, such as global warming, are details of that problem.  And in the last century, we’ve developed the power to destroy our species, a power that is becoming more widely available.

These are problems that if we don’t come to terms with in coming years, may well threaten our civilization’s vitality, if not its existence.  But it would be overly pessimistic at this stage to assume that it’s hopeless.  The very fact that we debate these matters is a good sign.

Of course, we face a lot of other problems as well, many of which are agonizing intolerable injustices.  Certainly if you’re personally effected by one of these problems, it can feel like the whole world is moving in the wrong direction.  But when fighting these problems it’s easy to lose track of the broad trends of history, most of which are moving in the right direction.  There’s no guarantee it will continue, no guarantee we won’t screw it up, but saying that we’re currently moving in the wrong direction is missing the big picture.

The world today is more interconnected than ever before.  We have become a global civilization.  Some people express anxiety about these interconnections, seeing it as a vulnerability, particularly in relation to epidemics, financial panics, and many other threats.

But it’s those same interconnections that makes things like a regional drought only economically inconvenient, when such a drought might have ended an ancient regional civilization.  Our interconnections allow alternative food sources and other commodities to fill local supply gaps, an advantage most early civilizations lacked.

We’re also personally interconnected in our society, vulnerable to supply chains and other aspects of modern life.  In olden times, people were more self reliant, made their own shoes, soap, grew their own food, etc.  But most of them also lived short brutish, and by our standards, nasty lives having little understanding of the overall world that they lived in.

The world of previous times seems simpler and more virtuous mainly because our depictions of it are often simpler and virtuous, not because they were so.  There’s no time in prior history I would rather have lived than the one we’re in now, despite all its problems.  Those who do wish they lived in an earlier era are usually basing that wish on an idealized version of it.

Will our civilization collapse someday?  Probably.  There’s no indication that we’ve beaten the historic life-cycle, or can continue to do so indefinitely.  Are we anywhere near our collapse today?  I haven’t seen anyone make a convincing case for it, but I’m positive people will continue to claim that they have.

Cosmos and civilization collapse through climate change

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, this note might be met with skepticism, but I had no idea when I composed my Bronze Age collapse entry this weekend that Cosmos would discuss how climate change had affected various civilizations throughout history, notably the Akkadian empire in Mesopotamia.  Some of the interactions I had with people after that post makes a bit more sense now that I’ve watched the latest Cosmos episode.

It’s interesting that the middle east suffered a drought in the 2200 BC time frame, 1000 years before the later collapse, which at that earlier time apparently led to the collapse of the Akkadian Empire and the Egyptian Old Kingdom.  It goes to show just how precarious life must have been in the earliest civilizations, how vulnerable it was to the climate conditions.

The collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations

Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna...
Map of the Ancient Near East during the Amarna period (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A while back I did a short post on the collapse of civilizations, noting that history pretty much shows that all civilizations, sooner or later, end.  (I also expressed skepticism that ours is necessarily anywhere near this point.)

The quintessential example of a civilization collapse is the fall of the Roman Empire.  But it is by far not the first or only collapse in history.  The fall of the Roman Empire was a major event in the history of western civilization, and there is an entire genre of theories on exactly why it declined and fell.  (Being the opinionated person I am, I naturally have my own theories, but I’ll save them for another post.)

1177CoverBut there was an earlier collapse that was just as consequential for world history, and that was the collapse of the Bronze Age kingdoms at the end of the Bronze Age, c. 1200-1100 BC.  I recently finished reading Eric Cline’s ‘1177 B.C. The Year Civilization Collapsed‘, which covers this topic in some detail and which is the source of most of this post.

At the end of the Bronze Age, over three thousand years ago, there existed an international community of kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean.  The superpowers of this time were Egypt, which was already ancient by then, and Hattusa, the Hittite Empire.  There was also the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, along with Alashiya in Cyprus, Babylonia in Mesopotamia, and a range of other smaller kingdoms such as the Canaanite city states.  It was a time of extensive trade and international relations.

And then, starting around 1200 BC, these kingdoms all collapsed or suffered decline.  In Greece, this led to a dark age that lasted for centuries before giving rise to classical Greece.  It led to the decline of Egypt from the world power it had been for millennia.  Many of the Canaanite city states, vassals of Egypt, collapsed and were eventually replaced by the iron age kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  Hattusa and many of the other kingdoms and empires disappeared.  (Although some of them later came back in “neo” phases such as the neo-Hittites and neo-Assyrians.)

Unlike in the later classical period, we don’t have much in the way of historical writings from this period.  In early modern times, history was thought to have effectively started with Herodotus and Thucydides in the fifth century BC.  Everything before that was largely based on legends and myths.  But the development of archaeology has allowed us to construct the history of earlier civilizations.  (And of prehistory for that matter.)

It’s mostly through archaeology that we know what we do about the Bronze Age.  By studying the remnants of cities, their pottery and other artifacts, and scrutinizing the few examples of letters we have from the period (mostly written in cuneiform on clay tablets), a picture of that world, and its collapse, can be constructed.  Using forensic techniques, archaeologists can tell when cities were destroyed, and often gain insight into whether the destruction was from a natural disaster like an earthquake, or from war.

The letters provide some of the most interesting pieces of information, such as the cache found at Amarna.  Often these were dispatches between kings about alliances, negotiations, and other state matters.  They were sometimes written in contemporary languages like Egyptian, but often in Akkadian, a language from an earlier empire that was to the period as Latin was to the middle ages.  Much of what we know about the politics of the times comes from these letters.

That being said, our information is limited.  The exact reason for the Bronze Age collapse remains a mystery.  For decades, the blame has fallen on the Sea Peoples, a confederation of invaders who attacked the various kingdoms, and are mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions.  But continued investigation is starting to show that the Sea Peoples were more of a symptom than a cause.

A number of things appear to have happened before the Sea Peoples attacked.  There were repeated earthquakes throughout the region in what is referred to as an earthquake storm.  For us today, an earthquake can be terrifying, but for most of us it is only a physical event.  For the ancients, each quake was probably seen as punishment from the gods.  We can only imagine what effect decades of repeated earthquakes might have had on people’s psychology and outlook at the time, on their confidence in the existing social orders.

Alongside the earthquakes are references in some of the letters of famine and requests for grain shipments.  Climate change, leading to generations of droughts, might also have been a hugely destabilizing influence.  Indeed, many historians and archaeologists theorize that such climate change might have been at the root of the decline of these civilizations.

These events lead to a decline in international trade, resulting in economic stagnation.  This would have had a powerfully negative effect on centers of trade like the city of Ugarit, the archaeological source of many letters from the period.

But Cline in his book, points out that these factors had all happened individually in other periods without necessarily leading to a collapse.  Instead, Cline argues that it was the “perfect storm” of all of these factors that led to the collapse.  Perhaps it started with the drought, was intensified by the earthquakes, and the depredations of the Sea Peoples were the final straw that pushed many of the kingdoms over the brink.

Exactly who the Sea Peoples were is another mystery, although there appear to be good reasons to think they came from a variety of areas in the eastern Mediterranean, and were in fact, just as much victims of the drought and earthquakes as the kingdoms they attacked.  They may have been opportunistic raiders, or desperate but militaristic refugees.

The Philistines mentioned in the Bible are thought to have been one group of these Sea Peoples, probably originating from Crete.  And there are indications that the Philistines may have been settled in Canaan by the Egyptians after the Egyptians had defeated them, which almost sounds like a resolution for refugees rather than a defeated enemy.

There are two purported events that are hard to ignore when discussing this period: the Trojan War and the Exodus.  Cline addresses them in his book, although of course both subjects have extensively been covered elsewhere.

For a long time, historians thought that the city of Troy was mythical, until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its ruins in the late 19th century.  In turns out that Troy was part of the Assuwa league, an alliance of cities in western Turkey, who, aside from eventually giving their name to the continent of Asia, was a group of cities in periodic rebellion against the Hittite Empire.  Warfare was likely an ongoing reality.

In addition, it appears that Troy was attacked by the Sea Peoples, some of which might well have been Mycenaeans from Greece.  The fact that Mycenae was apparently also under attack during this period would seem to make this less likely, but it’s always possible that Mycenae was under attack because of the opportunity opened up by so many of the Mycenaeans being in Turkey.

So the possibility exists that the Trojan War was actually based on real events.  Of course, after centuries of evolving oral traditions before the composition of the Iliad and similar works, it’s impossible to know how closely the classical stories are to those historical events.

While there is some evidence for something like the Trojan War, the archaeological evidence for the Exodus is pretty much nonexistent.  The earliest archaeological evidence for Israel is its mention on the Egyptian Merneptah Stele, dated to 1208 BC.  Israel is mentioned as a people in Canaan who had been defeated by Egypt.  If the Exodus happened, it would need to have been before this, before the collapse began.  But there is no archaeological evidence of a large population wandering in any of the relevant desserts at the relevant times.

There is also the issue that the Canaanite city states at the time were vassals of Egypt and had been for centuries.  It’s unlikely that a large population of escaped Egyptian slaves would have gone back into Egyptian controlled territory, or been permitted to conquer Canaan, at least before Egypt’s decline.  Indeed, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, in his book, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘, argued that the Israelites arose from within Canaanite populations, with their population later growing from refugees from the collapsing city states.

Of course, it’s still possible that an Exodus of some type could have happened, but it would likely have been a much smaller scale event than what is described in the Bible, and most of the Israelites would likely not have been descended from this small group.  Or the Exodus story may actually be a distorted memory of the conflict, referenced on the Merneptah Stele, that early Israelites had with Egypt when it had a presence in Canaan.  The withdrawal of Egypt during the collapse might have been seen as the result of divine intervention, evolving into the story we know today.

The Bronze Age collapse set the stage for the development of many key civilizations.  From the remnants of the Mycenaean collapse, after a dark age of several centuries, classical Greek civilization arose, with all the influence its culture would have throughout the world.  Israel arose after the collapse of the Canaanite city states, eventually producing a religion that would affect most of the world’s current population.  Some of the Canaanite cities that did survive would eventually evolve into Phoenicia, which would go on to spread its alphabet writing system throughout the ancient world and found Carthage, a major rival to Rome in its early centuries.

How different the current world would be today if the Bronze Age collapse had not happened is impossible to say, except to note that it definitely would be different.  Like the later fall of the Roman Empire, it had a profound effect on history.  And like all collapses, it pays to study it.  Was the Bronze Age collapse anything that could have been avoided by the societies at that time?  Probably not, particularly if the root causes were climate change and earthquakes.  Still, understanding what happened might give us crucial insights into the health of our own civilization.

Will civilization collapse in the coming decades?

Annual population percent change in the world....
Annual population percent change in the world. Source: CIA World Factbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apparently, there is a NASA funded study which says so.

If history is any guide, our civilization will eventually collapse.  Every other society in human history has ultimately done so: Sumer, Egypt, Rome, etc.  There’s no good reason to think we’ve beaten the civilization life cycle, any more than there is to believe the assertions we always seem to hear in good economic times that recessions have been eliminated.  It’s only a matter of time.

That said, I’m profoundly skeptical of any predictions of it being imminent.  Another thing that appears to be a constant in history are assertions that disaster is upon us.  Someone is always accusing the current generation of going to hell in a hand basket, and unless it cleans up its act, it is doomed.  These assertions seem to happen all the time with little correlation to how close they are to any actual collapse.

I remember in my college world history class reading about all the Roman historians who, in every century of both the republic and empire’s existence, predicted disaster if they didn’t clean up their act.  It only became accurate in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Based on the linked article, I do think the study makes some good recommendations, such as for a more equitable allocation of resources, a wiser strategy of consumption of those resources, and putting a lid on population growth.  Actually, getting the first will usually lead to the last one.

Specifically, giving women equal rights has been shown to curtail population growth, as it allows them to have an identity other than as a mother.  Indeed I tend to think that the population explosion is the number one problem in the world.  Most of the other major problems are details of that problem.

It’s hard to see in day to day stories, but I think the broad sweep of history is moving in the right direction.  Women around the world have far more rights than they have historically, and it appears to be increasing.  The crucial question is whether it will happen fast enough to curtail population growth before any sort of ecological collapse.

A related danger is what we’re doing to the environment.  I doubt climate change will lead to our extinction, although that’s not something anyone can know for sure.  But it will possibly curtail the standard of living and economic vitality for several generations of our descendants.  Whether or not it leads to civilizational collapse is something I’m not confident anyone can predict.