DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4586-8.ch007
(Individual Chapters)
No Current Special Offers


Farming makes civilization possible by producing a food surplus, so that a number of people are free from work connected with producing food. This separation from the environment enables civilized humans to develop a wide range of activities, pursuits, and occupations, accompanied by many technological innovations. These new activities and innovations are often regarded as demonstrating the superiority of humans. However, since almost all these pursuits and innovations benefit humans only, it is only physical superiority that is demonstrated.
Chapter Preview


The two previous periods of human existence we have examined, those of hunter-gatherers and farmers, are distinctive ways of making a living. There is no corresponding distinctive way of making a living for civilized human beings. In fact, civilization is often praised for allowing extensive division of labor. Division of labor is an important defining characteristic of civilization. For the first time, social organization allows for a diversity of occupational roles. Most people’s occupations are also more distant from the supporting ecosystem.

What are the distinctive features of civilization? Most dictionary definitions include such evaluative language as ‘advanced state of development’ with a ‘high level of culture, science, and social development.’ The Website offers the following gloss on ‘civilization’:

Once a nation, culture, or group of people has been brought out of the ‘savage’ darkness into an enlightened and advanced state, it becomes a civilization (2011).

Building this evaluative language into the very characterization of civilization makes it close to impossible to give a neutral account of the features of civilization. It also makes it difficult to evaluate its flaws critically, or to compare civilized lifestyles with previous so-called ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ lifestyles (a.k.a. hunter-gathering) or ‘rustic’ lifestyles (a.k.a. farming).1 The question is, what makes civilized people not-rustic, not-savage, not-primitive?

A more neutral account of the characteristics of civilization begins with division of labor, that is, occupational specialization. Such occupational specialization usually comes accompanied by hierarchy. Hierarchy involves layers of authority, with the higher layer issuing orders and the lower layer obeying. Also, civilization is primarily seated in cities. A city is a large, permanent settlement, usually with common utilities and a governing class. Farming and hunter-gathering are minor activities so that the city is dependent on outside areas for its food. There may also be a legal system, record-keeping, currency, and the practice of arts and sciences. The core features seem to be division of labor, cities, government, and food dependence, and also a certain extension. A single city might be its own society, but it would not be thought of as a civilization. A civilization would normally involve a number of communicating cities with a common culture2, also with political and (usually) religious ties.

The question is, how did social structures of this type develop out of farming communities? My aim is to uncover the changes in human relations to the ecosystem and in human attitudes of superiority brought about by civilization. Civilization is primarily a change of social organization with consequences for its relation to the environment.


  • 9,500 years ago: Villages (Çatal Höyük, Turkey)

  • 7,000 years ago: Division of labor

  • 7,000 years ago: Use of metal (ambient copper)3

  • 6,000 years ago: Domestication of horse, camel 4

  • 5,000 years ago: Numerous city-states

  • 5,000 years ago: Use of concrete (Mesopotamia, Egypt)

  • 5,000 years ago: Writing (Sumer, Egypt);

    • o

      (China 3,300 years ago);

    • o

      (Mesoamerica 2,600 years ago)5

  • 5,000 years ago: Commodity money

  • 3,700 years ago: Codified laws (Hammurabi)

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: