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Book review: 'The Biology of Civilization: Understanding Human Culture as a Force in Nature'

By Bob Douglas - posted Thursday, 30 December 2004

Since his retirement from the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the ANU, Stephen Boyden has masterminded the establishment of The Nature and Society Forum, a vigorous community-based organisation that is promoting involvement in, and understanding of, some of the serious questions facing the human species.

Boyden points out that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to invent symbolic language and to use it to communicate with each other. This enables us to accumulate knowledge, express feelings, develop communal assumptions, policy, priorities and values and to innovate technologically. The result of this unique ability to develop culture, has so transformed human civilization that we are now on a potentially disastrous collision course with the ecosystem on which we depend for survival.

But we have not changed genetically in the 15,000 years since humans developed, through culture, from a hunter-gatherer existence to our post modern planetary civilization. The main survival advantage of culture in hunter-gatherer society may have been its role in the exchange and storage of useful information about the environment. The agricultural phase began about 12,000 years ago leading rapidly to increased population densities and the formation of cities about 8,000 years ago. Most humans lost contact with their life giving environment and ignored it or took it for granted.


Then came the industrial revolution about eight generations ago and the creation of sophisticated economic systems. Economic growth has become the new religion. Boyden likens our naive belief in its salvation power to the “micro-rational and macro-imbecilic” belief of 15th century Aztecs who sought to placate the gods with the sacrifice of beating human hearts. Our slavish commitment to economic growth requires us all to be greedy consumers, using massive amounts of fossil-generated energy, destroying our forests, rapidly depleting raw materials, poisoning the air and land and changing the climate in ways that will make the planet uninhabitable for us and myriad other species. Our genome has not changed but the cultural fabric that now surrounds it has changed beyond recognition.

The author believes that if we are to survive as a species, we must employ our unique talent for developing and modifying culture to change it again drastically, adopting values and priorities that will enable us once again to live in harmony with each other and with a deeply threatened planet.

Behaviour, says Boyden, is determined by both innate genetic traits and by the culture, values and priorities that the group to which we belong has established for us. It is by no means clear which parts of human behaviour are innate and which are a response to the prevailing culture. But he thinks we have a genetically innate ability to communicate new and interesting information, to compete for praise and to seek novelty. He also suggests that most people remain true to their cultural inheritance throughout their lives and that there may be an innate tendency for us to align with our own cultural group and to hold in suspicion groups who operate by different cultural mores.

Boyden says that modern Western culture pays insufficient attention to what he describes as the “intangible health needs” of the human species. They include: emotional support networks that provide the framework for care-giving and care receiving and for exchange of information on matters of mutual concern; the experience of conviviality; opportunities and incentives for co-operative small group interaction; opportunities and incentives for creative behaviour; and variety in daily experience.

Although there was much that was unpleasant about hunter-gatherer society and life expectancy was about a third that of modern times, he suggests all of these intangible health benefits were generally available to all members of the group in hunter-gatherer societies and are being inadequately met for large slabs of humanity in 2004.

There is a chapter on warfare and violence. Boyden suggests that whether or not warfare and terrorism continue to be dominating features of a dying human civilization will be determined by the extent to which we allow ourselves to be blinded and manipulated by “narrow, pernicious and maladaptive cultural fallacies”. He does not believe that violence and war are inherent in the human genome but that they are heavily conditioned by the cultural paradigm of the “in-group” to which we belong. Globalisation increasingly means that we must find ways of extending the size of the “in-group” to include all 6.3 billion of us.


Human survival says Boyden requires transition to new cultural values and priorities which will depend not only on government action but also on the activities of CIP's(“Concerned and Interested Persons”). It is the latter to whom this book is directed. The author proposes the development of networks of “life centres” across the nation that will be dedicated to the science and education that underpin the central fact that human wellbeing is ultimately entirely dependent on the health of the natural environment and of the wellbeing of the whole human family. Plans for a national “life centre” in Canberra are well advanced.

Boyden's cool, encyclopaedic, but uncluttered appraisal makes for sober but stimulating reading. I was at first sceptical about his “life centre” proposal but am warming to it. He suggests they might be like the mechanics institutes that sprang up in townships all over Australia in the 19th century: Community repositories for an exciting new paradigm that will return the environment on which we all depend to centre stage. This is certainly a book to make CIP’s think. It also challenges action.

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About the Author

Em Prof Bob Douglas AO is a retired Canberra public health academic, a Director of Australia21 and a founding member of the ACT Centre for Progressive Religious Thought. .

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