Civilization and the Dissolution Threshold

Walter A. Fairservis

Throughout my adult life I have visited used book stores not to look for any particular book (though sometimes I do look for a particular book, in addition to browsing) but mostly just to look for interesting books that I haven’t previously heard of. I regard this as a form of “research,” though you will notice that I have put “research” in scare quotes. One can engage in focused research in which one carefully reads the bibliography of a book in order to find references to further books and articles on the same topic, as well as using obvious research tools (like search engines, JSTOR, etc.) to deepen one’s knowledge of a given subject matter. There is also, however, a more freely floating form of research in which one takes whatever comes to hand to see what light it can shed on a topic of interest. Visiting used book stores and browsing through books one has never before seen can serve this function of freely floating research.

On a recent trip to a Goodwill store in Portland — the one I know has the largest selection of used books at a cheap price — I was unusually lucky in finding a number of books on civilization previously unknown to me: Man’s Rise to Civilization by Peter Farb, The Collapse of Ancient States and Civilizations edited by Norman Yoffee and George L. Cowgill, and The Threshold of Civilization: An Experiment in Prehistory by Walter A. Fairservis, Jr. (By the way, these books, the first hardcover and the second two paperbacks, cost me $3.99 each.) All of these have proved to be interesting books from which I have already derived ideas that I will put to use, but I want to especially mention the last one, which is arguably the most experimental and speculative of the bunch.

In the last paragraph of the Introduction to the Fairservis book the author writes:

“Some men achieved civilization in the past and passed it on as a potential for all individuals; it has not, however, been accepted by all individuals, even through paradoxically all individuals live within it.” (p. 9)

This is a powerful idea, and one that could be developed and extrapolated in interesting ways. I have touched upon this without making it as fully explicit, which is probably why the idea spoke to be as it did when I happened to read it.

Prior to the advent of civilization, the natural world was the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) for human beings; since the advent of civilization, and its spread across the planet entire, civilization has been the EEA for subsequent human evolution, although civilization has not yet persisted for a biologically significant period of time. And this is true whether or not one opts in or opts out of civilization. Of course, there are a small few number of persons who seek to opt out of civilization by disappearing into the wilderness, but it is much more common for individuals to opt out of civilization and still continue to live within civilization, which is now virtually omnipresent on Earth.

All individuals (at least, almost all individuals) live within civilization even if they do not accept civilization. It seems fairly obvious to me that there is a continuum of engagement with civilization, from those who are most embedded within it, and whose lives are most constituted by it, followed by degrees of disengagement such that an individual is progressively less embedded in civilization and is less constituted by it.

Given degrees of engagement with and disengagement from civilization, an individual or a community of individuals might change their degree of engagement over time, either moving away from civilization or drawing closer to civilization, all the while living within civilization because there is very little choice in the matter, given the pervasive presence of civilization today.

While civilization is pervasive, if Fairservis is right about this (and I believe that he is right), it admits of exceptions and ellipses. These exceptions may be as small and insignificant as the individual, or perhaps as small as a single idea entertained by a single individual, or an exception may be as large as a community. If a community (and not merely an individual) increasingly opts out of civilization, and if this community is growing, this exception to civilization can grow to destabilizing dimensions within civilization, and this would be one explanation (though not the only explanation) of civilizational collapse.

In earlier epochs of terrestrial history, when civilization was less pervasive, a growing community that opts out of civilization that occurs within a given civilization might result in the civilization collapsing completely and the populations that previously constituted that civilization scattering into the wilderness of a less populated world. At some point the world becomes increasingly populated by civilizations so that, when one civilization collapses, its refugees can be absorbed by another civilization and the record of the collapsed civilization is not entirely effaced because it lives on in the memory of the individuals who have been absorbed into another civilization.

This latter idea — a threshold below which the gains of civilization are lost, and above which they are at least partially retained even when that civilization collapses — I have called the dissolution threshold. I’ve been meaning to write about this for years, but I haven’t until now found the proper opportunity to do so. This does not constitute an adequate or satisfying exposition of the dissolution threshold, but it is at least the first mention I believe I have made of the idea, and hopefully I will have the opportunity to expand upon it if it proves to be a fruitful idea.

Originally published at



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