How the Rise of Civilization Brought the Reign of Power

For life on earth, humankind’s breakthrough into civilization was a step into uncharted territory. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it had disruptive consequences.

In fact, it was inevitable that civilization — life’s new experiment, in which humankind became the first creature to step out of the niche in which it evolved biologically – would unleash systemic forces that would drive civilized societies to develop – for reasons not determined by human nature — in a general direction people did not choose.

The dynamic that drove the direction of civilization’s evolution I call “the parable of the tribes.” It demonstrates how it was inevitable that the shaping of civilization would be driven by a selective process in which only the ways of power can survive and spread.

Here’s how the reign of power inevitably arose.

At first glance, a creature’s inventing its own way of life would seem to give it freedom, as new possibilities open up outside the constraints that were part of the creature’s ecological niche (a niche that fit into an encompassing natural order).

But when human beings began to shape the natural world in new, culturally-invented ways (to get more out of the earth to meet human needs), that break with the ways of living with which we had evolved removed not only the constraints of the natural order but also its protections:

The biologically evolved order had always regulated the interactions within the system in ways that preserve the viability of the whole system. Then civilization, through which humankind escaped from that order, inevitably plunged our species into a new kind of anarchy: for there could be no order to regulate how various civilized societies will interact with each other.

No biologically evolved order could regulate those interactions, because civilized societies – a new kind of life-form structured by cultural innovations – were structured outside of biologically evolved constraints. And there could be no human-designed order capable of ending the anarchy among societies and ensuring that those interactions served the system as a whole– because the overall system of civilized societies necessarily emerged in fragmentary form.

That lack of order means anarchy and, as has long been observed, anarchy inevitably generates a struggle for power – a “war of all against all.”

That struggle – combined with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation – generates a selective process: over time, it is inevitable only the ways of power that can survive and spread. Other cultural possibilities – however humane and beautiful , if they are incapable of surviving anarchy’s “war of all against all” — get eliminated.

This selection for the ways of power – an inevitable result of the inevitable disorder accompanying the breakthrough into civilization – inevitably drives the development of civilization in directions that people did not and would not choose.

What first appears to be a new freedom turns out to condemn humankind — the innovative species — to a new kind of bondage: the reign of power. Not because of human nature, but because of the inevitable properties of the anarchic system that the emergence of this new life-form brought forth.

Any creature – on this or any other planet – that might step out of its biologically evolved niche to create civilization would find itself plunged into the same painful and destructive reign of power.

To survive, then, it has inevitably been mandatory for civilized societies to meet the demands of power, even when those demands conflict with the meeting of human needs.

Internalizing the requirements of societies shaped by power-maximization thus wounds the human creatures, teaching them to regard their own needs as wrong and unacceptable, setting the creature at war with itself.

Understanding how this dynamic is an inevitable consequence of humankind’s creative breakthrough into inventing its own way of life should change the way we see ourselves as a species.

When we look upon the saga of humanity over the past 10,000 years, we should focus NOT on the monstrous conduct (and monstrous people) we so often see on history’s pages.

We should see ourselves as having stumbled inadvertently into an impossible situation. Humankind did not choose this kind of history. And the tormented pages of human history are NOT human nature writ large.

And we should see no reason to believe that human beings as inherently incapable of creating a more whole world. There didn’t have to be anything wrong with us as a species to stumble into a situation where something went seriously wrong.

We don’t need to be different creatures to build that more whole world. But we do need to reorder the world so that power doesn’t rule. (And we also must heal ourselves of the significant wounds that our previous history – largely shaped by an inescapable “war of all against all” and “the reign of power” — has already inflicted upon us.)

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Andy Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (published by the University of California Press, Houghton Mifflin, and SUNY Press).

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