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The Science of Civilization

The study of the nature of civilizations and their developmental progress in the cosmos.


  1. General Properties of Civilizations
  2. Types of Civilizations

2015 Nov 28

A civilization is an intangible thing, not to be confused with its infrastructure or edifices. The term is used to identify a large, complex society (e.g., the Sumerian civilization); it also refers to the condition, or state, of a society (e.g., a civilized rather than a barbaric society). Society and civilization are not the same thing. A society can exist without being civilized, but civilization can exist only if it has a large, organized society. More aspects of organization are present in civilizations than are found in societies.

The word civiology is one I invented around 1983.

General Properties of Civilizations

Some general properties of a civilization that seem likely to be common among all civilizations to some degree are as follows:

  • A population of substantial size that participates in the civilization
  • A complex, organized society
  • Protection for its members in life, liberty, and property
  • Permanence of place across generations
  • Infrastructure to support the society
  • A commerce system based on division of labor that includes organized functioning of production and distribution of goods and services
  • Institutions and organizations for education, justice, and other functions
  • A cultural system, including knowledge and technology, enduring across generations
  • Some level of will, creativity, and identification with the civilization among the people
  • Long-term projects and outlooks
  • Some level of ethical development
  • A characteristic world view and sense of place.

A correct, or most useful, list of properties is a matter of testing and evaluation over time.

A review of past civilizations is not adequate to fully determine the nature of civilization. Those were early cases which could not represent all of the characteristics of a mature civilization. We do not have a mature civilization even today, and thus we cannot yet know all of the characteristics of civilization. Further, we would likely include factors which are not necessarily present in a more advanced or a mature civilization. Looking at the present and the past, we see the presence of the State and powerful religious institutions, neither of which are necessarily present in our future civilization or those of other intelligent species. Indeed, it is easy to imagine civilizations without these organizations. The conduct of large-scale, organized warfare, another common characteristic of the present and past, is notably absent from the list of essential characteristics. In actuality, the conduct of large-scale, organized warfare within a civilization might be an indicator of lack of maturity of the civilization.

Some civilizations can have strong identifying characteristics which are not common among all civilizations. A civilization might hold a characteristic which is regarded as a strongly determining characteristic, without which that civilization might have an altogether different nature. Yet that characteristic could be lacking in most other civilizations. Such a characteristic then could not be regarded as a general characteristic of civilization.

Types of Civilizations

Civilizations have their own characteristics, generally determined by the nature of their governments, religions, and cultural systems. There are numerous ways to characterize civilizations, as these examples show:

  • A proto-civilization, a mature civilization, or an advanced civilization
  • A primarily politico-religious civilization, with the ancient Egyptian civilization as an example
  • A primarily politico-military civilization, with the ancient Roman civilization as an example
  • A scientific civilization is one that follows rationality and devotes considerable resources to the development of science and knowledge in general
  • An apolitical civilization is one that has no political systems
  • A planetary civilization spans a planet
  • A stellar civilization spans a stellar system
  • A galactic civilization spans a galaxy.

Our civilization has followed a usually haphazard process of development with its social institutions. Most are designed to meet immediate ad hoc needs with little or no concern for optimally meeting those needs or for meeting future needs. Unfortunately, those social institutions tend to mostly benefit the politically powerful parties within the civilization.