Work in Progress: Invariant Institutions and Translational Symmetry

The bulk of the past week I spent working on my “Origins of the Stagnant Era” essay, which I mentioned in the PS to last week’s newsletter. This essay is growing, and, as it grows, it is absorbing material that I have been working on in a fragmented and episodic fashion. It’s always a good feeling when I find a theme that allows me to draw a lot of threads together. The synthesis of many threads into a single argument — or, as Darwin put it, one long argument — is itself an act of conceptual clarification, and, moreover, it is an act of putting together the elusive big picture that allows one to see the many threads of a larger argument as one whole.

Even as I worked on this essay, there are several threads of argument from last week’s newsletter than I didn’t tie up. In my brief exposition of the views of cities of V. Gordon Childe, Fustel de Coulanges, Henri Pirenne, and Carl Stephenson I failed to say explicitly one of the chief things that was on my mind in writing that exposition: intuitively, different kinds of civilizations should supervene upon different kinds of cities. Given the differing processes of urbanization recounted by Childe, Coulanges, and Pirenne (not to mention the counterfactuals of the abandoned theories of medieval urbanization discussed by Stephenson), and given that civilizations supervene upon cities, different cities should produce different civilizations — and indeed they do, but the wiggle word here is “kinds,” i.e., kinds of civilization. Do these kinds represent different taxa of civilization, or are the differences contingent and trivial, so that the trivial but true observation that civilizations are unique and distinct is based on the trivial but true observations that cities are unique and distinct?

The simple observation that different kinds of cities ought to produce difference kinds of civilizations has ramifications throughout any theory of civilization. I have many times discussed the problems of a taxonomy of civilizations, and the impact that the absence of a good taxonomy has on our understanding of civilizations, but do we even have a taxonomy of cities? None so far as I know of, and cities are far more studied than civilizations. It is somewhat easier to study a city than a civilization. There are theories of cities, but is urbanism anything like a science?

What makes one city sufficiently different from another city that it constitutes a different kind of city? Alternatively, what makes two distinct cities sufficiently similar despite their differences that they count as the same kind of city? With biological organisms, we can always fall back on relations of descent. Phylogeny is our friend. Cities, too, have a kind of descent, but it isn’t as reliable as biological descent, or maybe I should say that social descent with modification isn’t quite as narrow a concept as descent with modification in biology, and, being less narrow, it is less constrained.

Cities are founded, grow, develop, sometimes beget daughter cities (I am thinking of Greek forms of colonization), sometimes collapse and are subsequently re-built, re-inhabited, etc. Rebuilding and re-inhabitation are themselves complex processes that can take many forms. After the Athenians defeated the Melians, the city was depopulated (the existing population was killed or sold into slavery — I can’t recall which at the moment) and then repopulated with people loyal to Athens. Is this the same city after the population transfer? When the Aztecs found Tenochtitlan it was an earlier city that had been built and abandoned, and they took it over as their capital. To what extent was the identity of the city and its institutions preserved in this transfer?

In the latter case, part of this is a question of how far the built environment entails social institutions. In a living city, they are very tightly coupled. Social institutions are responsible for building projects, and the built structures then shape ongoing social life. In the event of a major historical disruption — defeat in war, depopulation, abandonment, etc. — the tight coupling of built environment and social institutions is also disrupted.

The texture of the social life of cities could be so heterogeneous that there are kinds of peoples, kinds of cities, and kinds of civilizations, but there are no systematic and dependable relationships of any kind that hold between these kinds — no invariant structures that obtain in passing from one social formation to another. While this is possible in a (weak) theoretical sense, I don’t think it is credible. The implausibility of the absence of invariant institutional structures goes back to an old idea that I worked on quite a bit, but which I never wrote up as a blog post. I called this idea the Coupling Principle, such that certain kinds of civilizations are coupled with certain kinds of planets. I still think about this occasionally. It is such big picture concept, demanding a high level of abstraction, that the argument for it must seem weak, and it might be better to focus on things at a smaller scale that are more likely to get some traction.

However, I believe that there is validity to a big picture sequence such that kinds of planets beget certain kinds of environments, certain kinds of environments produce (or fail to produce) certain kinds of intelligent agents, certain kinds of intelligent agents will agglomerate into certain kinds of large-scale institutions (call them cities if you like), certain kinds of cities will beget certain kinds of civilizations, and certain kinds of civilization will beget certain kinds of post-civilizational outcomes. I could call this the extended coupling principle or the extrapolated coupling principle. Or, insofar as these coupling principles hold across the hierarchies of emergent complexity, it could be called the Coupling Hierarchy, or the Extended Coupling Hierarchy, with a a coupling at each level of emergent complexity. This idea could, in turn, be formulated in the context of the emergent complexity pluralism that I developed in my 2019 Milan presentation.

In order to clarify the above ideas I see that there are three forms of invariance that need to be distinguished — three forms of translational symmetry, as it would be called in the physical sciences. There is translation in time, which yields descent with modification, but “modification” implies something that is modified and which is retained even as it is passed down. There is translational symmetry among different tokens of the same type of object, which would be translation from one population to another, or one city to another, or one civilization to another. And there is the translational symmetry that would result from the transition from one level of emergent complexity to the next, in which the later emergent complexity supervenes upon an earlier form of complexity, which latter is the conditio sine qua non of the former.

A specifically urban invariant — some institutional structure that characterizes any and all cities — could manifest translational symmetry in time, with a single city that changes, but which nevertheless possesses the same institutional structures throughout, and a specifically urban invariant could manifest translational symmetry across tokens of a type, so that the same institutional structure is possessed by Shanghai, Nairobi, Madrid, and Quito. However, by definition this kind of translational symmetry would not obtain at higher or lower levels of emergent complexity. This is analogous to many experiments in the natural sciences that have translational symmetry in space and time, but not in scale. However, although specifically urban institutions would not enjoy translational symmetry over scales of emergent complexity, some institutions would be retained, and indeed would be the basis of institutions built on these retained institutions: the life of a people would be retained and built upon in a city, and the institutions of a city would be retained and built upon in a civilization.

Some time ago I wrote up a thought experiment about displacing cities in space and time — Urban Identity through Time: Cities, Civilizations, and the Ship of Theseus Paradox. This thought experiment could be expanded to become an instrument to investigate some of the above questions, and it could be expanded to investigate problems of civilization, though I have already touched upon this in newsletter 170, in which I suggested a thought experiment of entire civilizations displaced (in order to determine if such a civilization could remain viable in isolation from its former civilizational context). There are so many possible variations on the above themes that it would take time to spell out all the permutations. For example, how many cities of a given civilization could be displaced or eliminated and have a civilization still remain viable? Or remain essentially unchanged?

Cities aren’t fungible however; some cities are much more central to a civilization than others. Paris is central to French civilization, and, arguably, it is central to European civilization. You could eliminate Lyon without essentially changing French or European civilization, but if you eliminated Paris, French civilization probably would survive, but it would be irrevocably changed. The idea of Alsace-Lorraine as being an essential part of France, lost during the Franco-Prussian war but regained after WWI is a related issue. Many in France thought that France was irrevocably damaged by the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, and its recovery was understood to be integral to French sovereignty. And this goes all the way back to the division of Charlemagne’s empire by his sons, as Lorraine was the region that Lothar inherited, if memory serves.

At a larger scale, it could be argued that, on a crowded planet, civilizations are not fungible. Another variation on the theme of the thought experiment would be to ask how many civilizations could be eliminated or changed or displaced before de facto planetary civilization is changed or rendered non-viable. Given the distinction I recently made between de facto and proper planetary civilization, the outcome of this thought experiment could contrasted with the outcome for a proper planetary civilization. However, since a proper planetary civilization does not consist of a number of agglomerated civilization, but is authentically one and only one civilization, the dismemberment of this civilization in a thought experiment would need to take the form of eliminating particular cities or geographical regions (perhaps a geographical region that represents the extent of a formerly independent civilization that became a constituent of the planetary civilization.

While the permutations of these thought experiments are virtually unlimited, it is likely that only a few of these many permutations would be relevant to actual civilizations, past or future. Nevertheless, I think there would be some theoretical value in exploring as many permutations as possible, as the value of thought experiments is often that of turning up something unexpected in a neglected place. The possibilities of cities and civilizations displaced in space and time may have some lessons for us, even when, or perhaps especially when, we are exploring permutations quite different from anything realized on Earth, or likely to be realized on Earth.

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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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