“The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large” (3QD-2)

[This piece was the second entry in the series published on 3QuarksDaily]


I think of that title as like a carnival barker’s come-on to get people to enter the tent. The “tent” is where I display an idea from which that statement about human history and human nature necessarily follows.

That approach seems appropriate because, while the carney barker’s line is quickly understood, the idea from which it necessarily follows requires traversing a series of steps. In other words, it takes a bit of work.

And when one adds to that work the boldness of the claim — to put the story of our species in a significantly different light — a reasonable person might think, “Probably a crackpot idea,” and walk on.

Hence the value of an appealing line that tells us that we are better creatures than our history makes us look. Appealing, in that it says something we’d like to be true.

Who wants to belong to a species as ugly as what we see in the pages of the history of human civilization:

  • in the ancient world, so filled with wars, cities put to the sword, and the enslavement of the multitudes; and
  • in our present world, sullied just lately by a fascist dictator waging an unprovoked, genocidal invasion of his neighbor and, closer to home, darkened by a serious threat to the survival of American democracy posed by the ugliest major political party the nation has ever seen?

In view of all that, I imagine that the idea that “We are better creatures than we think we are” would be a balm for the hearts of many. (It surely helps me endure these ugly times.)

So the carney barker enlists people’s desires and – so goes the hope –motivates people to come inside the tent to see if the act delivers what the carney barker promised.

If the barker’s promise were fulfilled, we would be relieved of some significant burdens put upon us by cultures in which ideas like “original sin” and “human depravity” have played powerful roles in shaping how human beings perceive themselves.

(And, just as important, the removal of such burdens would, in turn, empower us to build a better future world than we’d previously imagined ourselves capable of making.)

So — ever since that idea came to me in a life-changing moment in 1970 – I have felt driven by the belief that providing that a more valid way of understanding all that “ugliness we see in human history” could have important beneficial effects.

Another of my carney barker lines points toward that better understanding:

Any creature, on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos, that takes the step onto the path to civilization, will inevitably get swept up – regardless of that creature’s nature — into the same social evolutionary process that has made the course of human civilization as destructive and tormented – as ugly — as it has been.

Let us now go inside the tent to see why both those two carney-barker lines are true.

The Fateful Step onto the Path of Civilization

“Civilization” can be defined as “the societies created by a creature that has extricated itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.” Within that definition are clues to why that step would inevitably be fraught with danger—danger that can be revealed through the following steps.

Step One: Civilization Must Be Seen in the Context of the Evolutionary Process Out of Which It Emerged

On Earth, Life evolved for some three-and-a-half billion years before civilization emerged from it. That biologically-evolved niche from which the civilization-creating animal extricates itself was part of a vast and intricate natural order that “natural selection” had fashioned.

Civilization represents a major point of discontinuity in the history of life because it represents a life-form that has escaped from that order.

Darwin’s elegant and illuminating idea of “natural selection” showed a process that continually chooses Life over Death. For every form of life,

  • Many will be produced, only some of whom survive.
  • Among the many, there will be variations.
  • Which of those variations survive will be non-random.

Over time, the selective process — that favors those who non-randomly possess those characteristics that serve to enable them to pass their DNA along into the future — will fashion marvelously complex, well-“designed” creatures. (Like Darwin’s finches, whose beaks are well “designed” for their particular food sources.)

Darwin focused on “the origin of species,” but evolution’s creation of order can readily be extended into larger systems of Life-on-Earth. Although the ecological systems of the earth are constantly in a state of flux, the tendency of the selective process is to shape the components of the system to interact in ways that maintain the viability of the whole.

As I like to put it: “The lion and the zebra and the grass work together to create a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.”

The very real conflicts of interests (entailed, for example, by predation and parasitism) play out within the encompassing mutual interest in the long-term survival of the system.

As Gregory Bateson put a kindred idea: “No creature can win against its environment for long.”

(In an illustration of how the evolutionary process selects for relationships conducive to the health and perpetuation of the overall system, between a fungus and the Chinese chestnut there evolved a sustainable relationship over the course of some twenty-some million years. But when that fungus was suddenly introduced into North America, whose chestnut trees had not evolved with that fungus, the resulting destructive interaction wiped out the great chestnut forests of the continent.)

Humankind emerged as a part of that intricate system of life. Despite pre-civilized human societies having some destabilizing impact as they developed their cultures – e.g. hunters with control of fire, and with improving weapons – for the most part, until the beginnings of the civilizing process, our species lived as in hunter-gatherer bands that were fundamentally a continuation of our primate past. (For example, in their size, structure, and basic means of subsistence.)

But then, the path to civilization creates a new kind of life-form– one unprecedented in that it is shaped by the creative intelligence of the creature itself, not by the evolutionary process that had shaped the creature.

The domestication of plants and animals, the development of new kinds of political structures capable of governing ever-larger territories, the invention of new technologies – all these cultural innovations made the civilized society an unprecedented departure from the 3.5 billion years of life’s evolution on earth: a new living system that operates outside of that lion-zebra-grass kind of natural order.

Step Two: Escaping from the Natural ORDER Inevitably Means Entering into a New Kind of DISORDER

The order of Life that evolved on this planet over huge stretches of time was vulnerable to being disordered by forces outside the realm of Life – like when asteroids slammed into the planet, or when Ice Ages came and went. But so long as the environment was stable, each creature came into life endowed with natural inclinations to do what had proved conducive to the survival its ancestors and of the surrounding ecosystem.

Though the overarching system has no “government,” there is no anarchy. Though each creature is free to act on its own inclinations, the system is orderly because natural selection has worked over eons toward assuring that the net result of all the actions of the various life-forms will maintain the overall health of the system.

But the rapidly rising new life-form – civilized society – takes life into an unprecedented situation where there is no order awaiting it. In particular, there is no order to regulate how these societies will interact with each other.

Not only is there not any natural order, since the creature has extricated itself from that order. But neither can there be any order devised by the humans to encompass these new kinds of societies. Civilization inevitably emerges in a fragmented form, which means that there could be no way for the many components of the intersocietal system to collectively agree upon a regulatory order– and even less possibility of enforcing it.

And it would need to be enforced, because the range of possible behaviors available to these new life-forms is not limited to those consistent with the viability of the whole system.

That range of potential behaviors of the various societies is, indeed, quite vast because of 1) the plasticity of the cultural animal, combined with 2) the perpetually open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. In that wide range of human and social possibilities, there will be some available ways of acting that could seriously damage the well-being of the whole over-arching system of civilized societies.

So the situation into which this new kind of life-form emerges presents a new kind of disorder: Anarchy. Anarchy can be defined as a situation in which every actor (e.g. each society) can act in any way it chooses, without those choices being regulated by any life-serving order.

(Before civilization, each creature was “free” in the sense that none of its impulses are prohibited. But it was a freedom without choice, because each was contained within the confines of the nature shaped by biological evolution.)

So it is in an anarchic situation that civilized societies are compelled to interact. And interact they inevitably will:

  • From the beginning, interaction was unavoidable because — in all six places around the world where civilization arose independently — the civilizing societies emerged in clusters. These civilizing societies were adjacent to one another. And, with each society having the capacity to grow – as they evolved over stretches of time through various stages of food production and political organization — they inevitably would interact with their neighbors.
  • And so it remained throughout history, after all that consolidation that transpired through millennia of unregulated interaction, as various empires emerged in the ancient world, and ever since: the various “sovereign” civilized societies have had to contend with each other in that same unregulated system.

It was inevitable, therefore, that the emergence of civilization would plunge humankind into an intersocietal system where civilized societies were compelled to deal with each other under anarchic conditions, outside of any life-serving order.

Step 3: Anarchy means “A War of All Against All” Which Generates a Destructive Selective Process

Thomas Hobbes was right about Anarchy: it inevitably leads to a struggle for power, and generates a dynamic of “war of all against all.” And that captures the inevitable nature of the unregulated interactions among these new life-forms (civilized societies).

When human civilization falls into an inevitable “war of all against all,” that interactive intersocietal system generates most of the basic ingredients for a selective process analogous to Darwin’s:

  • Variety: The creature — who has made the unprecedented breakthrough into “inventing its own way of life” – is certain to generate a wide range of cultural possibilities among which “selection” can occur.
  • Survival vs. Death: In a system where societies are chronically engaged in some sort of “war of all against all,” only some societies will prevail and survive, while others are eliminated.
  • The Non-Random Nature of Differential Survival: Those societies able to prevail in that “war of all against all” will tend to differ – in decidedly non-random ways — from those that get swept onto the ash-heap of social evolution.

However, there’s an important difference between the Darwinian evolutionary process and the selective process that shapes the evolution of civilization. Crucially, with civilization, the system in which the selective process is occurring is not an Order (shaped by eons of the continual choice of Life over Death) but, rather, is pervaded by the unprecedented and inescapable Disorder of Anarchy.

In the shaping of the new system, the issue of “What will be life-serving?” hasn’t played the same fundamental role.

Accordingly, the criteria that Anarchy selects for – i.e. the cultural possibilities most conducive to prevailing in a “war of all against all” – are determined neither by the choice of the creatures nor by the needs of the whole. The criteria, rather, are a function of the dynamics of the disordered system.

In our times, we have witnessed – e.g. in Lebanon in the late 70s and the early 80s, and then again in Somalia in the 90s — what an anarchic situation elevates to a position of dominance. What we have seen is that the qualities that rise to power under circumstances of anarchy are those of the Warlord. Or the Gangster.

No surprise there: the Spirit of the Warlord/Gangster is just what one would expect to prevail in a war of all against all. And, in the earliest full-blown civilizations, where a cruel few enslaved the oppressed many, it was indeed that Spirit that played a disproportionate role in shaping the civilized world.

Because the dynamic of such a disordered system mandates that the Spirit of the Gangster will play a disproportionate role in an anarchic system, and because the ugliness of the gangster is not representative of human beings generally, we can safely conclude that

            The ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large.

Step 4: Any Creature’s Civilization Will Be Driven in the Direction of Power Maximization

What is conducive to prevailing in a war of all against all might be summed up as the ways of power. And those sociopathic pathologies we might associate with the Gangster/Warlord – including especially the willingness to do whatever it takes to gain power — are but one aspect of those ways.

The power of a civilized society – i.e. its ability to survive the war of all against all – is a function of virtually all aspects of a society: its political system, its means of production, its values and beliefs, its technology, the way it socializes its young, etc. So the selective process that has driven the evolution of civilization has gradually sifted through possibilities in all those dimensions, and over time has left standing only those cultural options that adequately maximize the society’s competitive power.

Thus the inevitable selection for selection for what helps a society to prevail in “a war of all against all” shapes the human future in a comprehensive way.

It’s not like an NCAA tournament, where the entries get quickly winnowed down to the last team standing. Rather, it unfolds over time, in fits and starts. Over the centuries and millennia, the selection for the ways of power will determine which – among the wide range of cultural possibilities civilizing/civilized peoples generate — will be chosen by the system to be the shape of the human future:

  • the war-like may eliminate the peaceful;
  • the ambitious overtake the content;
  • the iron-makers those with only bronze or no metallurgy at all;
  • the horsemen over the unmounted;
  • those with effective central control over those with more distributed 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 over those who treat the natural world with reverence and restraint.

Out of the vast range of cultural possibilities that humankind might have seemed to have, when it broke out of the natural order, the dynamics generated by the inevitable anarchy mandated that only the ways of power could survive and spread.

Other cultural paths – no matter how humane and beautiful and how fulfilling to the human spirit –  would be eliminated if they could not prevail in the unavoidable anarchic intersocietal struggle.

This puts the breakthrough into civilization into a new – and tragic – light. What at first appears to be a creature’s breakthrough into a new kind of freedom – to invent its own way of life — turns out to be an inevitable plunge into a new kind of bondage: to the Reign of Power.

 Step 5: The Ways of Power Spread Like a Contaminant:

Imagine a group of tribes, living within reach of each other. If every one of them were to choose to live and let live, then all could live in peace, free to pursue their own cultural preferences.

But that happy freedom is lost even if all but one of the societies chooses peace, and that one is bent upon predation and expansion. Consider the four possible outcomes for the other societies confronting just one society driven by “the Spirit of the Gangster,” threatening his neighbors with his imperialistic ambitions:

  1. In one outcome, a neighbor of the power-seeking society is conquered and exterminated, its lands brought into the newly growing empire.
  2. Another is also conquered, but the conqueror — rather than killing the vanquished — incorporates them (perhaps as slaves), changes the culture of the vanquished to better serve the empire-builder’s needs, and absorbs their territory.
  3. A third, seeing what is being done to its neighbors, decides to flee, running off to some remote place (jungle or mountains or desert) to maintain their autonomy. Meanwhile, that group’s vacated territory is also taken over by that one society that thirsted for more power.
  4. The fourth option, practiced one way or another by many societies through history, is for the threatened societies to defend itself. But to defend oneself against power, one needs power. And if the threatening society has magnified its power by means of some cultural innovation, the option of self-defense will likely require a society to become more like that imperialist power it seeks to resist.

These four options are very different from each other for the inhabitants of those societies. But from the point of few of the evolution of human civilization as a whole, what is notable is that in every instance, the ways of power are spread throughout the human civilizational system.

Over time, Power acts like a contaminant. Even if the ways of power start out as but a speck in the larger intersocietal system, even if at the outset more humane values are prevalent, it is the ways of power-maximization that irresistibly spread to infect the whole.

(This is not to imply that the problem begins with some Bad Guy. More likely, populations pressures, combined with living cheek-by-jowl, would generate conflicting interests and thus inter-group tensions and hostilities, as was lately the case among the tribes of New Guinea. But the “all-but-one” scenario serves to demonstrate the inevitability of civilization’s being shaped by the ways of power.)

Civilization inevitably emerges into the Disorder of Anarchy, and just as Order is essential to the systems that serve life (from the cell to the organism to the biosphere), so an inevitable Disorder inevitably generates a force that operates in life-damaging ways.

The step onto the path of civilization is indeed a Fateful Step.

Step 6: Any Creature’s Civilization Would Inevitably Have Ugliness Like Ours

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the inevitability of this dynamic means that the nature of the creature that has embarked on the path of civilization will be fairly irrelevant to the overall direction of its civilization’s evolution.

The selective process will inevitably choose whatever serves to maximize power. And inevitably, a civilization-creating animal will supply pretty much whatever power needs.

(That follows from the inevitability that the such a creature will be a cultural animal, therefore possessing considerable plasticity, and will have a creative intelligence that will be a source of a wide range of cultural innovations, and will provide a diversity of character structures, from which the selection for power can shape some other species’ civilization roughly in the directions that human civilization has evolved on this planet.)

I do not claim to know what our inherent nature is. But, whatever our nature is, we can be sure that it is not as ugly was what we see displayed on the pages of the history of human civilization.

For it was the disordered system, not human nature, that made inevitable that the face shown by our history would be the ugly face we see.

Inevitable—from the beginning, but not permanently inevitable. That’s why, given that history, this view of the human story is ultimately hopeful.

It was inevitable at the beginning because it was inevitable that civilization would emerge in a fragmented form. (And it was that fragmentation that condemned the intersocietal system to the disorder of Anarchy which, in turn, enabled a destructive selective force to shape human civilization.)

But, as civilization grows increasingly globe-spanning over the millennia, it does not remain inevitable that civilization must remain fragmented.

Gradually, the possibility emerges – a possibility of which global treaties already provide a glimmer – of humankind gaining the ability to make collective decisions about how civilization should be ordered.

It is the realization of that possibility – of at last replacing the life-serving natural order from which we extricated ourselves, not with the disorder of Anarchy, but with some life-serving human-designed order — that would enable humankind to give human civilization a more beautiful face.

(These ideas are developed in greater detail in my book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, first edition from the University of California Press in 1984, a second post-Cold-War edition from SUNY Press in 1995, still in print.)


This piece is the second in a series of essays, to be published here, to present an integrated, multi-dimensional picture of the human story, which has been my life’s work.

The first essay in this series, published on 3QuarksDaily on July 18, was “The Fate of Human Civilization. The Fate of Human Civilization – 3 Quarks Daily

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