Complex Society

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A complex society or civilization is a society in an advanced state of social development, e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations. In anthropology civilizations are essentially cultures that have cities. A civilization is often characterized by advanced agriculture, occupational specialization, urbanism and urban centers, and highly developed skills in the arts and sciences. A civilization can be considered as an object of cultural evolution, i.e. as a memetic body, as an entity constructed by a set of laws, rules, and regulations, in short by a set of memes. During the course of history, many civilizations, complex societies and ancient cultures have emerged and collapsed. Romans, Aztecs and Mayan civilizations appeared and disappeared again, some societies, city states and cultures vanished without a trace, others have left a rich heritage. The Maya and the ancient Egyptian left for example a very rich legacy of temples, palaces and sunken cities.



Civilizations and empires can emerge from the integration and unification of previously distinct autonomous cultures and regions. People form cultures and civilizations because they have a benefit from it. They profit from division of labor, protection and coordinated major projects by a central government, distribution of surplus resources by central administration. Technological innovations make larger cultures and higher civilizations possible.

The transition from hunters and gatherers to cattle breeders and farmers (i.e the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and settlement) during the Neolithic Revolution was a technological revolution, based on the emergence of agriculture. New agricultural technologies were invented, including irrigation and drainage, which made animals and plants the objects of a food-producing industry. More advanced civilizations were possible through standardized transportation and writing systems.

The emergence of a new culture is often accompanied either by an element of force and warfare, if a king conquers a large territory, or by an element of awe and admiration about collective victories or common buildings, such as temples, walls, pyramids, etc. Or both. This awe or admiration is the foundation of the social contract between individual and society.

So there are several reasons which are responsible for the emergence of highly developed cultures and ancient civilizations.

  • good leadership and military victories: Julius Caesar formed the Roman empire by his military victories, and Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, forged the first Chinese empire by military victories, too
  • inspiration by older cultures: the Maya civilization was influenced by Teotihuacan, the Greek by the Egyptians, the Romans by the Greek, etc.
  • awe caused by common buildings and monuments: the Chinese wall, the Egyptian pyramids, etc. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, but the pyramids also built ancient Egypt, as Mark Lehner said.


If civilizations emerge from integration, they can of course disintegrate again. Just as the emergence of civilizations is accompanied by awe of the members, collapse is associated with disgust among the members, for example about the practices of tyrannic dictators.

There are several reasons which are responsible for the collapse of highly developed cultures and ancient civilizations.

  • environmental problems: Jared Diamond pointed this out in his book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (2005), namely resource depletion (overhunting, overfishing), environment damages deforestation, pollution) and habitat destruction
  • bad leadership and government: Joseph Tainer argued in his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (1990) that failure of government and central problem-solving institutions can lead to collapse of societies
  • destruction by other civilizations, for example the destruction of Carthage and the Phoenician culture by Rome in 146 BC

The main cause for a collapse are the people themselves. The end of classic empires and civilizations was not a catastrophe for everyone involved. Examples are the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire and the Maya Civilization. Tainter points in his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" that out that many people were actually better off. If a civilization is in decline, because cultures turn into autocratic empires that torture their members, sometimes people just don't want to be member of this system anymore. If the majority of members does not support the system anymore, it collapses and is replaced by a different one. Romans and Maya peoples never really disappeared completely, only the culture and the political power was replaced by a new culture.

The collapse of a civilization is like a divorce of the social contract. The social contract says the individual members have to obey the laws and common rules, if they want to benefit from public goods in exchange. At the beginning the individual and the society fall in love with each other, they admire each other. The individual admires the achievements of the collective, and the collective (represented by the king od leader) loves each member because every member increases the power of the whole community. Children "sign" the social contract by accepting the rules they learn during socialization. At the end, the individual wants to break the relationship with the society, it wants to break free. If the majority of members wants a divorce, the society collapses. In this sense, a civilization is like a relationship between two people, it lives from mutual support and affection for each other. Civilizations come to an end for the same reason that relationships end. Sometimes people just grow apart, or the magic is no longer there. People no longer feel awe when they see their pyramid, just a heap of stones.


  • Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1990


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