Thought Leadership

What is civilization?

By Colin Walls

What do you understand by the term “civilization”? You can check in the dictionary and there will be a definition, but we each have our own idea of what it means. I recall once that I expressed the opinion that, in a civilized country, the main functions of government are to provide education, healthcare and security [welfare, defense etc.] to its citizens. The person with whom I was chatting disagreed. He felt that the government had no business being involved in education and healthcare – the free market would take care of them. He and I had no choice but to agree to differ …

Politics aside, it is interesting to consider what constitutes civilization or civilized behavior. If we think about fundamentals, it is worth considering what scientists – anthropologists and archaeologists – use to determine if the historic [or prehistoric] artifacts they observe indicate that the people of that time were “civilized”. There are quite a few things that suggest people had developed to a certain level.

First off, there are inventions – tools and machines. The wheel is the obvious starting point, but simple tools, like a plow, indicate a stabilizing of society that is moving towards civilization.

Written documents show another step. Writing information is a much better communication mechanism than word of mouth. It can carry over a long distance – a message can be taken from one place to another and arrive intact. It can also travel through time; a document is a record of the past that is much more durable and reliable than stories passed down through generations. The cherishing of information is a mark of civilization.

Mathematics [or just arithmetic] is another key factor. Simply being able to count and manage the quantities of things is important. Being able to calculate – even very simple mathematics – is a great step on. Being able to use mathematics to predict and design is a paramount achievement.

Interestingly, there is a more “human” way to look at this topic. Some years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what the first indication of a civilized society would be. They thought that it might be some of the things that I mentioned above or perhaps something to do with religion. But the answer they go was a surprise …

Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a broken bone from 15,000 years ago. The bone was a human femur – the top bone of a leg. This particular bone had been broken and had healed – a process that takes about 6 weeks. So, how does this indicate civilization? If an animal breaks a bone like this, it will not survive. Incapacitated in this way, the animal will soon fall prey to a predator. However, this person had been looked after by someone else or by his/her tribe. They had cared about another individual instead of just themselves. This is how civilization starts; a civilized society today is one where people care about and for one another. This was Margaret Mead’s view and I am with her.

This kind of brings me back to my first definition of a civilized society …

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at