A NEW LIFE-FORM: CIVILIZED SOCIETY
With the domestication of plants and animals, the human species became the first creature in the more than 3.5 billion years of the evolution of life on earth to extricate itself from the niche in which it had evolved biologically.
This breakthrough seems to herald an unprecedented freedom for humankind to invent its own way of life. But this notion that the breakthrough brought “freedom” starts looking implausible when we look at what transpires in the early millennia of the development of this new kind of life-form, the civilized society.
In the five thousand years following the first steps out of the hunter-gatherer way of life, the full-scale civilization that arose showed a frightening face. The social equality of primitives gave way to rigid stratification, with the many compelled to live as slaves, serving the few. Warfare became more important, more chronic, and more bloody and destructive.
It is telling that, in all the seven regions where civilization emerged in its pristine form, that same basic pattern of strife, tyranny, and oppression unfolded.
If humankind were “inventing” a new way of life, would this be what people would choose?
The answer is the rise of civilization only appears to represent some new birth of human freedom. Yes, our species became the first to escape the constrictions of the biologically evolved order. But humankind’s unprecedented breakthrough subjected humankind to a new set of necessities, a dynamic that emerged out of the unprecedented situation humankind’s breakthrough brought into being.
And it was this dynamic, not free human choice, that has governed the direction of civilization’s unfolding—a direction that humankind did not choose, but could neither avoid nor stop.
That is what “the parable of the tribes” shows. Let me demonstrate this in two steps.
THE INEVITABILITY OF THE STRUGGLE FOR POWER
The first step is about the consequences of anarchy.
The previous installment concluded with the point that clusters of human societies — emerging from the natural order, and each with its own capacity to expand without inherent limit – were compelled to interact with each other with no order to regulate those interactions.
For the first time, we saw, out of the living system there arose a new kind of disorder, with human societies no longer held in place by any biological order and with no man-made order yet being possible.
It is time to look at the consequences – the inevitable consequences – of this new kind of anarchy that humankind unwittingly had unleashed into the human world. The breakout from the biologically evolved order looked like “freedom” when we considered each such emerging society separately. But when we look at the ungoverned system of a multiplicity of such societies within reach of each other, that apparent freedom is seen to be – more fundamentally – an anarchy previously unknown in the history of life.
In his classic, Leviathan, the 17th century English philosopher accurately described the consequence of anarchy: a ceaseless struggle for power. And we can see how that is true wherever some civilized order breaks down into anarchy (as we’ve seen in the past couple of generations first in Lebanon and later in Somalia).
Hobbes was mistaken in terming anarchy as “the state of nature” – mistaken because (biological) nature is far from anarchic. As was discussed in the fourth installment — while all in the biological order pursue survival for themselves and their kind, they can only do so within biologically evolved limits. While each follows its own law, that law has been inscribed on its nature through a selective process that ultimately will favor only what is viable for the system as a whole. (“No creature can win against its environment for long.”)
But, from Hobbes’ own experience of the breakdown of order in the England of his time, he was insightful about what happens in the circumstances of civilization (where humankind operates outside of such natural, biologically evolved limits): with no governing order, what ensues is inevitably a “war of all against all.”
And so it was – inevitably – among the emerging societies following humankind’s breakout from its biologically evolved niche. Among these emerging civilized societies, compelled to interact outside of any order, a Hobbsean struggle for power becomes inevitable.
That is step number one.
THE INEVITABILITY OF THE SELECTION FOR THE WAYS OF POWER
The inevitability of a war of all against all in the intersocietal system is bad enough. But the consequences of such a ceaseless struggle for power go far beyond the traumas and destruction of unavoidable conflict.
For as bad as the struggle for power is, it is the resulting selection for the ways of power that has made the evolution of civilization as warped and nightmarish as it has been. This is the second step.
Here is how a new evolutionary dynamic arose with civilization, driving the course of civilized humankind in directions that people did not choose, but could not avoid.
Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What are the possibilities for the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor?
- Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors.
- Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror.
- A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe.
- Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that to defend successfully against a power-maximizing aggressor, a society must have sufficient power. For power can be stopped only by power. And if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology or martial ferocity (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
I have just outlined four possible outcomes for the threatened tribes: destruction, absorption and transformation, withdrawal, and imitation. In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.
TRAPPED IN A PROCESS OF UNENDING ESCALATION
It is the description of the fourth option – the option of self-defense, which tends to require imitation of power-enhancing innovations – that provides the clue to the trap into which humankind inadvertently fell with the rise of civilization.
The ceaseless and unavoidable struggle for power takes place in the context of open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. Success in the inevitable competitive process requires that a society command sufficient power, and the power of a society is ultimately a function of virtually every component of its cultural system: its political structure, its economic system, the way its members are brought up, its values and worldview, etc.
The selection for the ways of power therefore has a comprehensive impact on the nature of the evolving civilized societies.
Thus when societies compete, what prevails is not only certain societies over others but certain cultural possibilities over others. The struggle for power therefore generates a selective process that sifts through the myriad apparent possibilities for the civilized creatures.
It has been a process — not chosen by our species — that discards those many cultural possibilities that fail to generate sufficient power in the war of all against all, discards them regardless of how humane they may be and how well they may serve the fulfillment of the human beings inhabiting such cultures. And it is a process that has mandated other cultural possibilities that prove conducive to success in that inescapable competitive process.
Over the centuries and millennia, the selection for the ways of power will determine which of the wide range of possibilities for civilized societies will be chosen by the system to shape the human future:
- the war-like may eliminate the peaceful;
- the ambitious overtake the content;
- the iron-makers those with copper or no metallurgy at all;
- the horsemen over the unmounted;
- those with effective central control over those with more casual power structures and local autonomy;
- those driven by a harsh work ethic over those oriented toward the enjoyment of life;
- those able and willing to exploit nature fully over those who treat the wholeness of nature with respect.
The inevitability of civilization being driven in the power-maximizing directions is attested by the fact (mentioned earlier, and observed by the anthropologist Julian Steward) that in all seven places on this planet where humans developed civilization in pristine fashion, the pattern of development was basically the same.
In all seven of those places where domestication began and traced a course to the emergence of full-scale civilization (with cities, states, empires), we see the same frightening emergence of systems of domination and slavery, strife and exploitation.
Moreover, as the possibilities for cultural innovation (and thus also for power-maximizing) are open-ended, there is no stopping point in this ongoing and inevitable selection for the ways of power. The great empires of the ancient world could put their stamp upon the peoples they conquered, but they themselves could have been conquered and transformed by, say, even the second-tier powers of the modern world.
The ways of power get spread inexorably through the human system, so long as anarchy obtains in the system of interacting civilized societies, and thus the play of power remains uncontrolled.
Thus it is the demands of power, not free human choice, that have governed the overall direction of civilization’s evolution.
NO REFLECTION OF HUMAN NATURE
From the very beginning of the first installment of this series, I have previewed one essential implication of this analysis: human history should not be seen as human nature writ large; the ugliness we see in history is not evidence of an inherent ugliness in humanity.
All that is required of human nature for this reign of power to dominate how civilization takes shape is that the human creature be a cultural animal.
“Cultural” implies, first of all, a capacity for creativity.
Without some creativity, there can be no culture. In particular, creativity was required for that cultural breakthrough into the domestication of plants and animals. And without such domestication, there would have been no emergence out of the niche in which we evolved.
“Cultural” also implies an important degree of flexibility. Even before civilization, the human infant would be born into some group or other, ready to adapt to a diversity of cultural environments – ready to speak whatever language, employ whatever technologies, and utilize whatever systems of symbols and meanings characterize its particular group.
As these will vary from culture to culture, that means that more than the young of any other species, the human infant is born to be molded.
Of course, our dogs and cats also have a degree of flexibility, learning very different ways of being depending upon their upbringing. (A kitten that grows up feral will be different from one that grows up in a safe and loving home.)
But for a creature to be suited to a cultural existence requires a far greater degree of flexibility than other animals require or possess.
This high degree of human flexibility actually turns out to be part of the trap that humankind has fallen into. It means that societies have considerable power to mold people into whatever form the societies require.
Can you see how these minimal requirements – creativity and flexibility – combine with inevitable dynamic of the selection for power to dictate the non-intuitive conclusion that the monstrous and dark nature of so much of human history can be explained without positing anything dark or monstrous about human nature?
If the societies molded by the selection for power require people to be aggressive, or power-lusting, or misogynistic, or greedy, or warped by projection, or workaholic, or ruthless, or whatever—the cultural animal is capable of being shaped into such forms.
Whatever the costs, whatever the resistance, the inevitable dynamics rising with civilization could exploit the necessary plasticity of any cultural animal to meet the demands of power.
What this implies is that the monstrosity visible in history is a property of the inevitable disorder of the system that emerges with civilization.
What it implies is that if human civilization were to blow it, but twenty million years from now the descendants of some other species evolve into cultural animals, and their culture eventually evolves to cross the threshold into civilization, the same destructive dynamic would arise and, regardless of the inherent nature of that species, that dynamic would contort them into whatever forms – whether benign or monstrous – power requires.
And it implies that if somewhere else in this vast cosmos, there are creatures that have crossed that threshold, they too will have had their social evolution warped by this same inescapable selection for power, and their nature warped by the demands those warped societies impose upon their members.
Our history tells us little about human nature. Except that we are creative and flexible—both of which would be required of any creature – on this or any planet – that could cross that fateful threshold of breaking out of its biologically evolved niche.
ONE BENEFIT OF THIS ‘INTEGRATIVE VISION’
The parable of the tribes is an important part – but not the whole – of that “integrative vision” this series is attempting to convey.
And the parable of the tribes delivers what I promised earlier: a way to understand our species that unburdens us of the weight of species self-loathing that has been so prominent a part of our civilized consciousness for so long, from original sin onward.
We are not inherently the fundamentally flawed creatures portrayed on the pages of human history. Rather, what we see in history are creatures struggling to cope with an impossible situation.
That understanding would be no small thing, for it can elevate our prospects for the future in two ways.
First, it will allow us to tackle our considerable challenges unhampered by the weight of guilt about the nature of our kind, and the record of our atrocities.
And second, it can allow us to dissipate the darkness of pessimism about our possibilities. It encourages us to look toward a future in which that greater potential we are now entitled to envision gets realized in a more whole, more human civilization.
For while the parable of the tribes says that the reign of power was inevitable with the rise of civilization, and the anarchic circumstance that implied, it by no means suggests that our civilization must continue to be warped indefinitely.
Anarchy would inevitably accompany the rise of civilization, but the continuation of that anarchy – and its destructive consequences – as civilization develops further is not inevitable. That overarching order that was impossible from the outset becomes increasingly conceivable the more the entire human world gets knit together on a global scale.
Creating wholeness in the overall system of civilization, heir as it is to such a history of traumatic brokenness, will not be easy. And we can readily see it will not be quick. But it is no longer impossible.
And that achievement becomes more possible the more we recognize that we are inherently better creatures than what we show, the more we look upon each other with the compassion that our predicament should evoke, and the more we understand the nature of what it is that we need to achieve to make the world safe for that better human potential.
WHY ELSE IT MIGHT BE WORTH THE WORK I’M INVITING YOU TO DO
I realize that this series is asking the reader to work. Each installment is of a length beyond what many people in our times are accustomed to tackling. And the various installments are, together, building something larger still.
I can readily imagine that readers can be asking themselves: Is it worth the work?
The benefits just described above – a brighter understanding of the nature and possibilities of our kind – may or may not meet any important need of yours. So the question may arise: Does this “integrative vision” – this “Better Human Story” – offer any other rewards to justify the effort it takes to gain the perspective I’m offering?
I believe the answer is yes, at least for a lot of people, and for some very important reasons. And in the next installment, I will address this “is it worth the work?” question, and provide the best answer I can.
I will also point toward one more main big idea – apart from the parable of the tribes – that is part of this vision. It is an idea that absorbs the parable of the tribes and goes beyond it.
But first, to conclude this installment, I want to offer some points to help assure that the main idea of this installment – the parable of the tribes – is properly understood. After long experience of trying to convey this understanding of what has driven much of the human story, I’ve learned about some possible misunderstandings of the parable of the tribes that are worth addressing.
SOME POINTS OF CLARIFICATION
The parable of the tribes does not argue that this “selection for power” is the only determinant of how civilization has developed. That same life-serving force of wholeness discussed in “The Sacred Space of Lovers” is built into us, and has led people throughout history to strive to create wholeness in their world – beauty, justice, love, etc. – even as they’ve had to struggle with the consequences of the disorder and brokenness into which civilized humankind inadvertently stumbled.
It is also not to say that weaker societies immediately get eliminated. It’s not as though the interactions in the intersocietal realm are like an NCAA tournament that swiftly eliminates all but the champion. But eventually, the bill from the parable of the tribes comes due. It is in the nature of a consistent selective process that it need not be blatant to have an overwhelming cumulative impact.
It is also not to say that the history as we generally know it must be re-written. Things at the concrete and immediate level happen as they appear to happen. Rather, it is much of the overall sweep of history that is mandated – and explained — by this selection for power. And it is only when we step back and look at that sweep that we see a kind of social evolutionary “black hole” that, though not visible to the eye, pulls the destiny of civilized humankind off the course that people would choose if they could.
It is not that the people we think of as “history-makers” – like the Romans, or like the Europeans that came to the New World — didn’t make history. Rather it is that their ability to have such a disproportionate role in shaping human history was conferred on them not by “humankind,” but by a systemic circumstance that favored actors like them.
At one level, there are people who are choosing how things will go. But at a more fundamental level, that which determines the chooser determines the choice.
That brings us to the challenge of understanding how systems are more than the sum of their parts. Or, more specifically, how evolution driven by a selective process represents a special kind of causality that operates at a level different from the level of individual actors.
THE SELECTIVE PROCESS REPRESENTS A DIFFERENT KIND OF CAUSALITY
From many years of trying to convey these ideas, I am aware that the dynamics of selection, in an evolutionary process, are not always easy for people to wrap their minds around. This can be illustrated by a conversation I once had with a famous (and highly intelligent) man, a psychiatrist on the Harvard faculty, who had read The Parable of the Tribes. Though he appreciated the book, it soon became evident to me that he didn’t really understand its main idea.
He kept on trying to reduce the social evolutionary process to psychological terms, i.e. to ascribe the engine of causality to the motivations of the actors. But a selective process has to do with what survives in a given environment. And the criteria for selection may or may not connect with the motivations of the actors.
The power of the environment to shape the constituent actors can be illustrated by this story concerning a biological process of selection.
When coal began to coat everything in Britain with dust, a species of moth that had previously been white began, over the generations, to darken. The light-colored individuals were too easily spotted by predators against the coal dust, and therefore they were selected against. Yet, the fact that selection directed a change toward darkness in no way implies that darkness became central to the moth’s life processes, determining how it flew, what it ate, how it reproduced, and so on. It’s just that it was the darker ones that were most likely to survive, and the selection for darkness transformed the appearance of the species.
By the same token, the parable of the tribes can claim that the selection for the ways of power has dominated the profound transformations of the evolution of civilization without claiming that power has been the central preoccupation of civilized peoples or that power maximization has been their principal goal.
People, of course, have an awareness that moths do not. So while the moths may have unwittingly been transformed by the power of their predators, people have known that power is a problem in human affairs.
If those moths had human intelligence, they would have sought ways of darkening themselves without waiting for accident to do the job. And, in fact, civilized peoples, seeing themselves caught up in a struggle they could not avoid, have sought to cloak themselves in the protective covering of adequate power.
(For example, as one scholar observed. The Japanese in the late 19th century – having “observed the rest of Asia being carved up and apportioned by the various European powers”—“had very little choice in the matter; it was industrialize or be gobbled up like the rest. She therefore industrialized.”)
Nonetheless, even if people have been quite conscious of “the problem of power,” the selective process can drive social evolution independently of people’s awareness, or how largely power figures in their motivational structure.
Human life does not have to be predominantly about power for power to be the predominant force driving the overall direction of human civilization.
Soon, we will look at the brokenness that ensues from having one selective process (the parable of the tribes, shaping civilized societies) superimposed on another selective process (biological evolution, shaping the nature and needs of the human animal).
Elsewhere on this site, you can find what I hope will be a useful brief summary of the parable of the tribes. This version, in some 750 words, outlines the logic — step by step — by which the breakout (into the domestication of plants and animals) inevitably leads to a process of social evolution driven not by human nature or choice but by a selective process that makes the ways of power the only possible path for humankind.
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Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.
NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.
They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.
I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.
If the insights offered by the Parable of the Tribes ultimately save us, I suspect it will be primarily because of the faith in ourselves that it restores. Finding motivation to work toward a better world presumably requires a belief in the inherent worth of those who would deserve to inhabit it. Absent that faith, and we’re left with no hope to escape from endless human misery and iniquity, other than of course through extinction. Could this be related to Freud’s death drive? People content to allow and perhaps even to facilitate human extinction are in desperate need of this Better Human Story.
It’s fascinating to me how leaps in our understanding of the world can seem to be metaphorically rendered within ancient mythologies. I can’t recall whether in your writings you mention how Genesis arguably anticipates in its poetry not only the discovery of the Big Bang, but also that of the Parable of the Tribes. Our ancestors, as the story goes, had eaten of the cultivated fruit of knowledge, of good and evil, and were by that transgression of the established order driven out of a paradise of spontaneous provision, thereafter to toil and suffer. And the story would be appended later by the Gospels to include future deliverance through a new and more wholesome political order or kingdom, one of love, empathy, and interdependence.
I do recall somewhere in your writings you mention how human survival into the indefinite future may actually require civilization and its advanced technology, to protect Earth from the catastrophic threats posed by rogue asteroids and comets — a technology obviously unavailable to foraging bands confined to their biologically prescribed niche. This would mean that our tormented history explained by the Parable of the Tribes has not only been an inevitable consequence of settled life, but actually a necessary ordeal for those who imagine our current epoch to be analogous to humanity’s adolescence.
I first encountered the Parable of the Tribes nearly a generation ago, and its explanatory depth and scope still take my breath away. Not a week goes by that I don’t refer to it in my struggles to interpret our complex world.
Well-presented. Every time you’ve laid out THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES, I take it in more deeply. Reading this leaves me feeling compassion even for the likes of Trump.
When you talk about humane possibilities that are discarded in the competitive process, how about providing a couple of examples to illustrate your point? I think this will help persuade readers.
You use the word ‘pristine’ twice to describe the immediate emergence of a society from its niche. Is it that pure at the beginning?
I very much like your point that our history tells us little about human nature. Well-explained.
Thank you, April. To respond…
By “pristine” civilization, all I mean to denote is some place where – according to the archaeologists – civilization emerged on its own, not transplanted (either as people, or as ideas) from some other pre-existing civilization. (There were, unless the knowledge has changed in the past 40 years, seven such “pristine” civilizations.)
You ask for a couple of examples to illustrate the way more humane possibilities get discarded in the competitive process. The main point is not necessarily that the inhumane possibilities necessarily sweep away the more humane, but that the strong sweep away the week, regardless of which cultural way is more humane.
For example, in the essay above, I cite how Japanese culture felt compelled – forced – to change in order to make Japan stronger (“industrialize, or be gobbled up like the rest”), regardless of whether that would make Japanese culture more or less humane.
Another example is what happened to Native American societies over the several centuries following the arrival of the more powerful European settlement in North America.
But to deal more directly with your question about the discarding of humane possibilities…
Perhaps the most dramatic example is the transformation in virtually all of these areas of “pristine” civilization, over the course of several millennia, from a landscape of hunting-gathering societies to a world of empires built from conquest and maintained by slave labor.
And here’s another example of such a transformation—and it is one that also illustrates that other crucial point that the rise of full-blown civilization manifested striking parallels in the various places where it arose in “pristine” form. Here are two quotations, cited in the book (P of T).
The first is from Lewis Mumford, describing a change of symbols as Mesopotamian civilization developed:
While the sacral copulation of Babylonian king and priestess in the divine Bedchamber that crowned the ziggurat recalled an earlier fertility cult, dedicated to life, the new myths were mainly expressions of relentless opposition, struggle, aggression, unqualified power.
Note the similarity between that description, and this provided by the anthropologist Robert Adams describing a transformation in the religion of Meso-American Indian civilization at a parallel stage of development:
The priest-representative of older gods personifying natural forces was ultimately replaced in Tula after a period of more or less open struggle by a figure whose identification with a cult of human sacrifice found favor with newly formed groups of warriors bent on predatory expansion.
And here is how I characterized the meaning of this parallel development, in the light of the inevitable struggles and dilemmas described by the parable of the tribes:
As the requirements for survival changed, the focus on the life processes of nature yielded to a preoccupation with the death processes of intersocietal strife.
I think that qualifies as the inhumane displacing the more humane.
I find your brief summary of the Parable of the Tribes compelling, almost the level of clarity of the self-evident, as in, once you see it is, “Why didn’t I see that before? It is now in plain sight.”
I believe this is especially true now. In watching the Trump phenomenon and its unfolding, and in trying to understand its context, the ways of chaos and power are now much more fully exposed. Trump is a pimple on the butt of a long history of exploitation and dominance of non-white, non-male people. Our blindness to that obvious state of affairs is now dissipating, as people at the bottom of the society are raising their voices, and as many of those previously privileged are now on the short end of the stick.
The hopeful side of your message — that conscious creatures have other, more whole dimensions of ourselves with which we could combat the direction our species has taken — is also compelling, especially at this time, when people are awakening to the problem.
Since the problems are now demarcated as anarchy and selection for power, I would hope that it is possible to delineate specific steps that we can now take that would lead us in a different direction. That way, our lives could be spent with a clarity about how we can create a different world for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
If you could spell out the outline of those steps, it would be a great gift.
Thank you very much, Ed, for your supportive words.
In terms of your hoping that I might indicate how we might transform the world toward greater wholeness, I need to request your patience for a while.
Here, below, Fred Andrle also asks for a “remedy” to the brokenness of the world. My response to that request is, at this point, little more than pointing in a direction: namely, the necessity of overcoming the intersocietal anarchy that the parable of the tribes identifies as having been the inevitable disorder that generated the inevitable brokenness that has plagued civilization and warped its evolution.
The subject of the possibilities of a better order — more conducive to peace, less dominated by the reign of mere power — also comes up in Jack Miles’ comment, below, and in my response to it.
I acknowledge that these responses of mine do not amount to that “great gift” you would like for me to offer. But let me say two things about the present gap between the specific steps you would like to see delineated and what I’m providing here as a response.
First, and least important, I do have some things to say — of some value, I believe — that will come in subsequent installments. This doesn’t feel like the best moment to present them. Even so, when I do present them, they will fall far short of a “remedy.” But I think they can, in your words, at least help to “lead us in a different [better] direction.”
But second, and more important, the nature of the patterns of brokenness in the human system is such that healing must take place in a whole multiplicity of ways, just as multi-dimensionally as the way brokenness has permeated the human world over the millennia. That is both the bad news and the good news.
It is good news in that everyone has the opportunity to find ways to heal brokenness that fit their needs and abilities, and that can all add up to making progress at all levels more possible. A lot of things need to be healed along the way to enable people to choose the right course, even if that course could be identified.
It is bad in that if one hopes that there is no simple formula to get us from here to there. The journey will be like how to get from one mountain to another mountain: one can see the overall direction one must go, but nonetheless, figuring out where to put one’s foot next is always going to be its own challenge.
So, even for the long journey, the challenge at any given time involves dealing with the complex and diverse components of the current situation. For the “next steps,” then, it is important to be able to read the immediate dynamics of the battle between the forces of brokenness and wholeness.
As I have understood the dynamics of our times, the most urgent task for securing our long-term future has been to take power away from the force of brokenness that has taken over the Republican Party in our times, and to awaken and fortify the only other major part of the American political system (Liberal America, and its political expression in the Democratic Party) that could turn it back.
As one looks at the consequences of the failure to reverse that adverse shift in the balance of power in America between the force of wholeness and the force of brokenness — leading now to having someone like Donald Trump serving as President of the United States — it is clear that waging THAT BATTLE effectively was the paramount requirement in these times if the world was to proceed in a better, and not a worse direction.
And if one looks at the record of what I’ve been saying about that battle for the past 13 years, and the “specific steps” I’ve called for. pretty much all of it stands up well looking back. A lot of what needs to be said about moving the world in a better direction needs to address that immediate level, on the smaller scale than the grand sweep of human history.
But I will present some ideas about the route to a more whole world at the larger level– i.e. looking at those two “mountains” as they’re to be seen in a satellite image.
It should also be noted that to deal effectively with the immediate battle, it is profoundly important that we bring to it a larger vision– that we see the force of brokenness, that we have a grasp of the terrain that makes up the battlefield, and that we engage that battle with the passion that comes from the love the the sacred.
All of that will be in what is to come here. But none of it will provide any simple map from here to the Promised Land.
Andy, I have been reading through your book (Parable of the Tribes) and my notes from 1984, when it was first published, and your words ring true in so many ways, even today. It’s truly your “magnum opus”!
In your last paragraph, p. 336, you say, “The challenge facing us is . . . to discover a harmonizing integration between the sacred energies we bring with us from our Source and the indispensable tools we have developed on our journey.” That resonates with me in a highly spiritual and uplifting, hopeful way. Yet, now, in your last writing #5, you say: “We are not inherently fundamentally flawed creatures portrayed on the pages of human history. Rather, what we see in history are creatures struggling to cope with an impossible situation.”
I think that one of man’s greatest insecurities is our fear of failure. The fact is, no one is perfect. Yet, many people measure themselves and others against impossibly high standards. The result is guilt, anger, depression, pessimism, and disappointment. But when we can overcome our fears and understand that life is not a series of successes but rather, a series of challenges to overcome, both outside of us and within, then we are able to accept ourselves and others even when we are less than perfect. Acceptance and forgiveness is necessary to get along with our enemies. Acceptance and forgiveness allows us to change our relationships and help us to meet the challenge of being human.
Ernest Hemingway once said. “The world breaks everyone. And in the end, some are strong in all the broken places. I don’t believe that humanity has been put into an impossible situation. In fact, I believe we already have all the tools and potential we need to succeed—that is, to overcome our shortcomings and adversities. Life itself, it seems, is a test created by our “Source”. If it were easy, what would be the point? It gives me hope to think that, in spite of my failures and weaknesses, I can make a difference in the world, however small. And this hope, like having a purpose in life, is medicinal! It has been proven in meticulously controlled scientific experiments where hope is found to be both biologically and psychologically vital to man.
When suffering hits us, personally, the common cry is, “Why me?” But personal pain has been with us since the beginning of life. Today, more than ever, we need to find the strength to live life to its fullest, in spite of the pain around us. While individual suffering has no respite and the collective suffering in the world continues, some have found a way to accept suffering as a natural way of life. Although we cannot avoid it, we can determine our response to it. In my mind, it’s not a battle between some mysterious outside force of darkness and evil vs. the force of good—but about all of us meeting the challenge of being human. We must learn self-acceptance and the power to forgive. Maybe then, we will achieve the wholeness you speak about. Maybe this is the road to peace!
This is a lovely statement of your personal faith, and the insights you have gained from your life experience. And my response to that is to just let it stand and speak for itself.
The only thing I feel a need to respond to is where you say: “In my mind, it’s not a battle between some mysterious outside force of darkness and evil vs. the force of good—but about all of us meeting the challenge of being human.”
The truths about our human situation are many and deep. There is room for both of those things – the battle between forces of good and evil as well as the challenge of being human – to be true.
In this Series, I believe I will demonstrate the reality of there being such contending forces at work in the human world – one might also call them forces of wholeness and of brokenness – and show also that understanding this battle of coherent forces operating in the world is essential to understanding our situation.
At the same time, even without such understanding, one can grapple meaningfully in one’s own life and in the world with “the challenge of being human.”
We certainly have a world order based in exploitation and military/economic dominance. A laboring class in developing countries provides those of us who reside within the prevailing powers with sweatshop goods produced at the risk of worker health and lives. The United States and other militarily powerful nations regularly protect and expand their interests through military action or the threat of use of force.
Andy, if, as you write, this power system proceeds not from an inherently destructive human nature, but rather as an inevitable consequence of humankind’s creative dominance over the natural world, how can we work toward a path of correcting this unsought for, unintended evil? Other than a spectacular heightening of mass human consciousness in the direction of wisdom and compassion, it’s difficult for me to see a remedy. Perhaps you can suggest a path to follow.
Let me respond by spelling out the steps that “the parable of the tribes” takes to get from “humankind’s creative dominance over the natural world” to “the problem of power in social evolution.”
Your formulation in your comment leaves room for the interpretation –whether it is yours or not, I can’t tell – that our relationship with nature remains the root cause of the destructive role of power in shaping our civilization. That’s an important dimension of the brokenness of our civilized systems, but that is not at all the picture of our present world that I would draw.
The “dominance over the natural world” issue, rather, pertains solely to that crucial point in the history of humankind – indeed in the history of life on earth – when our species extricated itself from the niche in which we had evolved.
Your comment has thus inspired me to articulate these steps—starting with the change in our relationship with nature, and ending up with that tormenting problem of power from which it was inevitable from the outset that civilization, and civilized people, would suffer.
Breakthrough into re-arranging the ecosystem to meet human needs better, through domestication of plants and animals; –>
New-found open-ended possibilities for cultural innovations of all kinds, including an indefinite capacity for this new kind of society to expand without inherent limit; –>
Inevitable interactions among a cluster of such societies; –>
Those interactions being altogether unregulated, as these societies are no longer operating within the confines of any biologically order and there being no possibility of putting any overarching human-designed order into place; –>
An inevitable struggle for power, as the unregulated nature — the anarchy — of the overarching intersocietal system inevitable creates what Hobbes said of anarchy, “the war of all against all.” –>
The combination of this inevitable struggle for power with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation mean that the victors in the struggle for power represent not just themselves but a non-random sub-set of the wide-range of apparent possibilities for the future of human society; –>
That non-random subset will inevitably be those cultural forms that have succeeded in magnifying a society’s power that’s required to survive in that war of all against all –>
This problem of power-maximization means that what wins in the power struggle is less the particular societies that organize for power, than those particular cultural forms that are required by power-maximization;–>
It is therefore inevitable that the ways of power will be what win out over time in the human world, as all other ways of fashioning human cultural life – regardless of how beautiful, if they confer upon a society weakness in the war of all against all – will not remain viable choices for humankind. –>
This inevitability of “the selection for the ways of power” is what the “parable” in “the parable of the tribes” itself demonstrates: any effective power-maximizing entity in the interactive system acts like a contaminant that inevitably infects the whole. –>
The threat of an effective power-maximizer spreads the ways of power because the possible outcomes for those nearby who confront this one imperialist are limited to either being: 1) destroyed, or 2) defeated and absorbed into the conqueror’s system, or 3) compelled to retreat to some inaccessible place, out of reach of the power that is threatening its neighbors, thus leaving its territory to be absorbed into the expanding power-system, or 4) driven – in order to defend itself – to organize itself to achieve sufficient power to beat back a powerful would-be conqueror. –>
The fourth option – self-defense – may look like a way to preserve one’s own culture, but to resist power one must have power, and power is a function of a great many dimensions of a society. So the society that wants to defend itself must make cultural choices that provide sufficient power, and if the society that is threatening has magnified its own power with cultural innovations, self-defense against that threat will likely require imitation of the aggressor’s power-enhancing ways. –>
All those four options, therefore, have one thing in common: with each outcome, the ways of power are spread further into the system of civilization. –>
The overall direction of the evolution of civilization is therefore a function of the anarchic nature of the situation into which we inadvertently stumbled, as a species. Given the breakthrough, all the rest follows, pretty much regardless of human nature. All it requires is creativity in generating cultural options, and resourcefulness in applying them to assure survival. –>
Our species should be seen not as this monstrous thing we have shown throughout the history of civilization, but rather as a creature trying as best it can to deal with an impossible situation.
You ask about remedies. I will respond to that, here, only briefly.
The “parable of the tribes” shows the root of the problem to be the anarchy that obtains in the system of interacting (“sovereign”) civilized societies. So an essential dimension of a remedy is to find ways to reduce and then eliminate that anarchy.
It should be said that some people have understood this problem of anarchy in the international system for a long time, and some intelligent efforts have been undertaken to deal with it. Clearly, we have a very long way to go. But it is important at least to envision what a world might look like where justice and law rather than force reliably prevails, and where societies have the choice to be weak but secure and viable.
Using only 3800+ words, this is a succinct and yet comprehensive essay.
I think the essay would benefit from a review of the uses of the major terms “Civilized Society”, “Civilization”, “culture”, “society”, “cultural innovation”, and “social evolution”. Are these all synonymous? Is there a reason to use one over the other? Are there uncivilized societies with different dynamics? I would stick with Civilized Society in every location where the intent is to describe the population of humans making effort to organize and collaborate. I would then define and use culture as the shared agreements and molding force (and all behaviors that perform that molding) that pits the individual against the agreements. My definitions may not agree with yours, but my advice is that the current content may not isolate the notions appropriately and therefore inhibit the apprehension.
I think you should occasionally use the subtitle, “The Problem of Power in Social Evolution”, wherever the parable of the tribes is mentioned. This helps reinforce the main teaching point: that there is in fact a problem of power and that we are influenced by and influencers of Social Evolution.
I notice that reading this makes me wonder how many readers actually believe that things evolve. Modern humans may have had over 150 years to introduce and digest the notion; however the resistance has been substantial. You may have defined evolving in a previous essay. I think it would be important to define it somewhere and comparing it to maturation.
In the “ONE BENEFIT OF THIS ‘INTEGRATIVE VISION’” section I have this observation:
“Creating wholeness in the overall system of civilization, heir as it is to such a history of traumatic brokenness, will not be easy. And we can readily see it will not be quick. But it is no longer impossible.” This introduces the term “traumatic brokenness”. I do not think that many readers will have “traumatic brokenness” as a common phrase in their vocabulary. It might be helpful to have used it earlier in explaining the results of the use of power over others. I know that brokenness v. wholeness is a large part of your overall argument and it is my experience that broken minds cannot acknowledge or observe what is broken. This needs subtle allegorical and analogy treatment to convey. If I say “we are all broken”, do you find your brokenness? No, not really.
Again, this essay is fantastic in the concise way that it conveys the intentions.
Thank you, Forest.
Perhaps you’re right about the need for more defining of terms. I attended to such definitional tasks in the book, but here in this Series I sometimes make choices in favor of brevity and pace.
But let me provide this quick explication:
- “Society” is a form of collective life that is rightly applied also to the ants and the bees as well as the chimpanzees and the gorillas.
- “Culture” represents all the aspects of social life that are not given in the genes and that are transmitted by the group through time. Humans are not the only species with culture, but in human societies culture is so much more elaborate and powerful a component of social life than among other species that it is qualitatively practically a new ball game.
- “Civilization” is the one term that I use in a slightly unorthodox way. According to the parable of the tribes, the truly momentous point of discontinuity is not the emergence of culture – controlling fire, using tools, development of language – but that point at which the door gets opened up to transforming the basic structure of human life (“extricating ourselves from the niche in which we evolved biologically”). So, while “civilization” is not usually applied to human societies that are no longer just hunting-and-gathering until they evolve to the point where cities have developed. But for my purposes what was required was a single term to represent the whole sweep of the development of the new kind of life-form. And so I use “civilization” to mean all that occurs from that crucial point of departure, even though it took some thousands of years for the gradual unfolding of the inevitable consequences into full-blown “civilization,” with cities, empires, etc.
Regarding your point that many people still resist the idea of “evolution,” those people are not the intended audience for this Series. I do address people of that sort plenty – for the past handful of years I do it weekly in my op/eds – albeit I don’t often get into “evolution.” But in this Series, the people I wish to reach are intelligent, secular, and well-educated. Whether or not they will adopt my way of understanding “the evolution of civilization,” I do not imagine them questioning evolution, the main organizing idea of modern biology.
As the editor who sponsored The Parable of the Tribes at the University of California Press in the early 1980s, I find it stimulating to engage the parable again at the distance of so many years. Confirmations of it, once one has understood it, are not only easy to find, they are hard to avoid. You mention Japan’s being compelled by Western industrialization to industrialize in self-defense. A Japanese memoir that I recently read noted that Japan saw the creation of its imperialist “Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere” as no more than the creation of its own Western-style colonial empire. The West surely had no moral grounds to object to such imitation. How could it have any? What was sauce for the Western goose might surely be sauce for the Eastern gander as Japan led the backward East forward into the industrialized, imperially organized future. The result, of course, was a broadening of the theater of war among the imperial tribes to a geographical scale greater than any yet seen.
Today, North Korea has or almost has nuclear weapons pointed at the United States, and the Americans are alarmed at this violation of the Pax Americana. But that peace has always featured American nuclear weapons pointed at North Korea (and everybody else). Why should they mind? Our only goal, we Americans maintain, is self-defense. But from their side, as they observe that the threat of American nuclear retaliation has made America virtually invulnerable to invasion, a different conclusion becomes inescapable. If North Korea is to enjoy the same invulnerability, it must arm in the same way, confirming the parable once again. (At this juncture, I must say, I find myself thinking about the concept of “mimetic desire” in the work of René Girard, but to introduce his thought would be to digress too far.)
If I may now go on a bit, reading installments ##4 and 5 in the spirit of the current project, I do find some further reflections coming to mind. One arises from Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Once the human species had fire as a tool, it had the capacity to break down inedible plants and animals through heat into component parts that were edible. This development—part of what we might call the conquest of nature as distinct from the subjugation of one tribe by another—enabled the spread of hominins around the entire globe long before the agricultural revolution of 10,000 and the start of civilization in the sense that the Parable of the Tribes usually has in mind. Chimps and gorillas are still confined to where they can eat raw the very limited menu of foods that they do eat. We humans can turn a huge assortment of plants and animals into food, and as a result we have gone everywhere on land, under the sea, and in the air.
In several of his works, Jared Diamond has characterized warfare as continual among the “uncivilized” hunter-gatherer tribes of New Guinea. The parable applies there, it seems to me, because that tropical island does seem to me to have been a stable, “other things equal” setting until quite recently. The parable is confirmed to the extent that no peaceful tribe has been observed in that closed world. Diamond admires much about what I would call the “domestic” culture of the tribes he has worked with, but he concedes that “internationally” (within the only world they know) they live amid a war of all against all in which the average tribesman will have a few murders behind him.
To the situation of tribes held for centuries of time in an ecological stable state, we might contrast the situation of very early African tribes moving out, under “parabolic” pressure, from their fruitful but ecologically shrinking original jungle habitat into the savannah where the greater social organization that big-game hunting calls for seems to have developed alongside physical adaptations like hairlessness, erect posture, and the opposed thumb. Here, then, was a set of adaptations other than that of militarism that fostered both reproductive success and cultural complexification. Over time, of course, the parable could begin to work again as tribes growing and flourishing in this new setting came into competition with others doing the same.
It’s very much worth noting, I think, that reproductive success forces the quest for greater resources. In this sense, human intelligence itself, as that which most powerfully enables reproductive success in our species, is our “original sin.” The consequences of unlimited human reproduction, as demographers have pondered them, have given birth to the notion of the “population bomb” and then to various movements to limit population growth. China’s one-child policy is proving a demographic/economic disaster. Indira Gandhi’s program of forced sterilization is remembered in India with horror. And yet the thought that a nation—or the species as a whole if world government should ever become possible—ought to have a population policy is by no means a disaster or a horror in principle. And there are examples of societies that have regulated their own fertility in order not to exhaust their environment’s carrying capacity. You use the idea of wolves and sheep in a sustainable ecology. Aldo Leopold, in a famous essay entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” took an actual episode of reckless wolf slaughter leading to deer proliferation and then to deforestation that killed off even the deer and made that episode paradigmatic of the need for us humans to use our intelligence to achieve in our own, species-specific way the balance that comes naturally in a wolf-and-deer mountain ecology.
Is there any model for such collective restraint exercised for the collective good? You rightly make much of the fact that societies are “compelled to interact with each other with no order to regulate those interactions.” “But no order strikes me as an overstatement. To the extent that our world has a regulatory order, it is the “Westphalian System” of sovereign nation states that came into existence through the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that brought the Christian Wars of Religion to an end. The signatory states agreed that none would attempt to impose its form of Christianity upon another, though each was free to impose its preferred form within its own territory. Richard Falk, agreeing with you to a point, notes in his massive 1975 A Study of Future Worlds that the governments that imposed this agreement upon themselves were—and in the diplomatic order that stemmed from the agreement still are—“sovereign and equal by juridical fiat rather than by virtue of some higher authority within the world order system. … In such circumstances, ‘law and order’ rests upon the volition of governments and upon their perception of common interests.” The weakness of the Westphalian System is clear enough in its failure to prevent the horrendous wars of the 20th century, not to speak of gargantuan atrocities within state borders. And yet the agreement did bring to an end the wars that prompted it in the first place, and diplomacy since then certainly can point to some signal successes. So, as I would see it, the question facing you is how your better human story can foster a better consensus that could bring into existence a regulatory order superior to the Westphalian System. That system now defines the international community far beyond the European states that brought the system into existence to the extent that anything does, but clearly we need something better and the sooner the better.
At the start and then again at the end of Installment #5, you argue that humans are not necessarily aggressive or warlike by nature, only made so by the impossible situation that their evolution has placed them in. The line that sprang to mind as I read this portion of your argument was W.H. Auden’s famous “we must love one another or die.” (I understand that he eventually turned against that much-quoted line, perhaps because of how often and how casually it had been used.) My fear is that though we yearn for love, the primeval breakthrough to self-conscious intelligence that made us human is married in us to an ingrained assumption that enough is never enough. Intelligence fostered reproductive success, as I argued above, but reproductive success in turn required further resources, and this cycle has gone on now for hundreds of thousands of years. The instinct to seek more ad infinitum may now be ineradicable.
When I was a boy, we didn’t have a car until I was about ten, we didn’t have a television until I was seven, we rarely traveled outside Chicago (and never outside the immediate Midwest), and we never ate in restaurants. This is by no means to say that we had nothing. We had healthy food, heat in winter (though no air-conditioning in summer), good schools, free libraries, parks, medical care, and so forth and so on. And I might add that we enjoyed reproductive success: five children (and one bathroom among the seven of us). But much that I never had then is deemed culturally necessary or at least strongly expected in the culture to which I now belong. And that culture has become progressively not just the American but the global ideal. Worse, it has become so in a planet of limited resources that we cannot escape in time to any more fertile, unexplored territory. We may be stuck here, doomed to die of our desires. I ask myself: do I really want to be a grandfather, knowing what lies ahead?
A recent report from the University of California contains the following quote:
If the carbon footprint of the entire 7 billion became comparable to that of the top 1 billion, global CO2 emissions would increase from the current 38 billion to 150 billion tons every year and we would add a trillion tons every seven years, in turn adding 0.75 degrees Celsius warming every seven years.
A UN report out in just the past week says that “we” (that demon word) have only until 2020—2020!—to take the drastic action needed to prevent irreversible change. Can we possibly make it? I am doing what I can to help those who are trying, and California is close to the epicenter of the effort. But it’s hard to be optimistic.
So, Andy, I am more than eager to be told that “we” can be better than this if only we can shake off the sense that our aggressiveness is innate and can embrace a new sense of loving human possibility rooted in a more self-conscious narrative appropriation of our own evolution. Perhaps the yearning in so many of us here in the top billion for a simpler world, a world with less of everything except peace, can be mobilized in time. Perhaps that new religion, a new revelation, a Big Deal indeed, can be preached. I look forward to Installment #6.
Thank you, Jack, for your thoughtful contribution. Much of it needs nothing added by me. But there are a few points I should address, particularly where there’s an opportunity to clarify further the P of T.
You raise the example of the chronic warfare among the societies of New Guinea. (I discuss this example on p. 79 of the book, The Parable of the Tribes.) And you cite Jared Diamond calling these societies “un-civilized.” By the usual nomenclature, that’s valid: they don’t have cities or empires, etc. But as I indicated in my response to Forest Jones, above, I use the word “civilized” to mean all those forms of society that come after the crucial breakthrough into food production and thus out of the niche in which humankind evolved biologically. The New Guinea societies are “horticultural,” which puts them on the “civilized” side of the line for my purposes.
They likely could expand their areas of cultivation, could grow as societies, except that they are smack up against one another. So it is no surprise, in terms of the p of t, that chronic warfare would plague that system of interacting societies.
That also raises a second point, which I’ll just touch upon briefly: the New Guinea people have nowhere to go, but are confined with their neighbors on this finite island.
In the book, I have a whole section that is about how virtually the entire earth seems to have been settled by hunting-gathering societies. And only when there ceased to be anywhere to spread out into did the pressures develop to motivate the breakthrough into food production. It seems that the knowledge of how to grow crops existed well before anyone chose to use it. And I used Mark Cohen’s 1977 book, The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Crisis of Agriculture, to argue (pp.66-67) that for humankind in the development of food production, necessity was the mother of invention.
So the New Guinea situation seems potentially a good snap shot of how the p of t got started, and what were the pressures that made an ongoing struggle for power develop with all of its eventual social evolutionary implications.
The second point you make, when you bring up the “Westphalian System,” is your comment that when I say, “compelled to interact with each other with no order to regulate those interactions,” “ no order,” you say, “strikes me as an overstatement.”
My “no order to regulate” referred to the circumstances at the beginning, when civilization first emerged: no longer constrained by the biologically evolved niche in a natural order, and no order above them created by humankind.
Since then, people have striven to overcome that disorder. With treaties, as in your example. And in modern times with ideas about systems of “collective security.” In responding to Fred Andrle, above, I only gestured in the direction that humankind needs to go—saying simply that the solutions must eliminate the intersocietal anarchy. But there’s a whole history of efforts – many of them quite worthwhile – to move in that direction.
Following World War I, there was the creation of the League of Nations. Following World War II, there was the creation of the United Nations. Obviously, these early efforts to introduce a global system to maintain the peace have been quite inadequate. But they are efforts that make a beginning—as are the global treaties on things like “Law of the Sea,” and like the “Paris accords” on climate change, and indeed the whole system of “international law.”
It is no longer true that there is “no order” in the entire system of human civilization. But it does remain true that there is nothing to stop China from conquering and transforming Tibet, nothing to stop Russia from brutalizing Chechnya. Nothing to stop the United States from invading Iraq on a pretext.
There is – as of yet — no “order” that can compel international actors so powerful to act in ways that serve the well-being of the whole of the human world.
A third point, where you say, “The instinct to seek more ad infinitum may now be ineradicable.” This could be a long discussion, but in the interests of brevity, I see no reason to believe that there is any such “instinct.” Certainly, civilizations can develop cultural patterns that drive people toward greed and acquisitiveness. But for the eons during which our nature was formed, I would doubt that the attitude of “there’s no such thing as enough” would have served people well. And I doubt, therefore, that any such “instinct” was inscribed upon our inborn nature.
Finally, regarding your final point expressing your being “more than eager” to see humankind move forward into a brighter vision of ourselves, and a more whole world. I do not claim that the “integrative” vision will fulfill the yearnings you mention. But I do see how it offers an understanding that can fortify and facilitate our quest for such a world.
This way of understanding has served as a “revelation” of sorts – for me. How much it can so anything of the sort for others is something that each reader will have to evaluate as the additional pieces of this integrative understanding get brought together.
Indeed, this is the issue that will be at the heart of the next couple of installments. Please stay tuned.