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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Hallmarks of civilization

John Baker (1900 - 1984) was a distinguished physical anthropologist at Oxford University. He wrote a book, Race, which explored the differences between the human races.

At the end of the book he wrote up a list of 21 criteria which he said defined civilization:

"1. In the ordinary circumstances of life in public places, they cover the external genital organs and the greater part of the trunk with clothes.

"2. They keep the body clean and take care to dispose of its waste products.

"3. They do not practice severe mutilation or deformation of the body, except for medical reasons.

"4. They have knowledge of building in brick or stone, if the necessary materials are available in their territory.

"5. Many of them live in towns or cities, which are linked by roads.

"6. They cultivate food plants.

"7. They domesticate animals and use some of the larger ones for transport (or have in the past used them), if suitable species are available.

"8. They have a knowledge of the use of metals, if these are available.

"9. They use wheels.

"10. They exchange property by the use of money.

"11. They order their society by a system of laws, which are enforced in such a way that they ordinarily go about their various concerns in times of peace without danger of attack or arbitrary arrest.

"12. They permit accused persons to defend themselves and to bring witnesses for their defense.

"13. They do not use torture or to extract information or for punishment.

"14. They do not practice cannibalism.

"15. Their religious systems include ethical elements and are not purely or grossly superstitious.

"16. They use a script (not simply a succession of pictures) to communicate ideas.

"17. There is some facility in the abstract use of numbers, without consideration of actual objects (or in other words, at least a start has been made in mathematics).

"18. A calendar is in use, accurate to within a few days of the year.

"19. Arrangements are made for the instruction of the young in intellectual subjects.

"20. There is some appreciation of the fine arts.

"21. Knowledge and understanding are valued as ends in themselves."


One might quibble with #1 (seems partly a function of climate), #10 (barter works fairly well), #13 (there are barbarous people in all civilizations), #20 (fine arts are in the eye of the beholder), and #21 (too subjective), but overall, it's hard to argue with Baker's definition.

By the way, if you have such an evil turn of mind as to notice that those groups unable to originate civilization on their own are precisely the groups having such a hard time getting the hang of it now, for heaven's sake don't ever mention it in polite company.

There is a near straight line correlation between the number of these criteria a group was able to come up with on its own and how civilized a society it is able to maintain now.

The difference between peoples is not that some are capable of atrocities, and others aren't. Examine the history of any area of the globe and you'll find plenty of monstrous, murderous megalomaniacs who are quite capable of inflicting mayhem. If anything, the more scientifically advanced countries have been more destructive simply because they've had the technological wherewithal to be able to operate on a larger scale.

No, the difference between peoples is not in their capacity for evil; that seems to be a human universal. The difference is, some are capable of civilization, while others are not.

But we must all pretend we don't notice this.

In my view, to judge someone by his race is just plain wrong, and unfair in every way. Everyone deserves to be judged as an individual. But to not judge a race by its people, or at least refuse to notice any obvious correlations, is simply ostrich-like. This distinction seems to have been lost in our politically correct society.

Please note that no groups have been mentioned by name here; any conclusions you've made regarding specific ethnicities have been your own.

So, before you accuse me of racism, please examine your own assumptions.

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