Second in a three part series on “What Shapes Our World.” The first was on “Evolution.” The next one will be on “Good Battling Evil.”
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For life on earth, the 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 in a general direction people did not choose, for reasons not determined by human nature.
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 that comes about.
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 fits 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 that had long characterized our evolution as primates removed not only the constraints of the natural order but also its protections.
Whereas that order had always regulated the interactions within the system, in ways that preserve the stability of the whole system, the escape from that order inevitably entailed a new kind of anarchy, for there could be no order to regulate how the various civilized societies would interact with each other.
No biologically evolved order could regulate those interactions, because civilized societies — societies structured by cultural innovations (a new kind of life-form) — had escaped from those constraints. And there could be no human-designed order (to end the anarchy among societies and ensure 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.
That struggle — combined with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation — generates a selective process: Over time, inevitably only the ways of power can survive and spread. Other cultural possibilities — no matter how humane and beautiful — unable to survive 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. That’s the big human dilemma: For these past 10,000 years, the requirements for a society’s surviving that anarchic struggle have not been identical to meeting the needs of its members — i.e. inborn human needs that were shaped for meeting the requirements of a very different life in a very differently ordered world.
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. That ugliness is but the effect of a deeper cause.
We should see ourselves, rather, as having stumbled inadvertently (but inevitably) into an impossible situation with which we humans have done our very best to cope.
We did not choose this kind of history. And the tormented pages of human history are not human nature writ large.
This perspective shows there is no reason to believe that human beings are inherently incapable of creating a more whole world.
Why wouldn’t we humans have created that more whole world, if it were possible, when a more whole world is what almost all of us would choose if we could? (We prefer a world of love and beauty and justice to one of hatred and ugliness and injustice.) And humankind has an impressive record of accomplishment in creating things to yield the results we desire, unless there were some major force impeding our ability to choose our path? A force like “the parable of the tribes,” mandating the reign of power.
Given our desires and our capabilities, if humankind had been in control of its destiny, what sense would it make for humankind to have chosen a path leading to chronic war, brutal tyrannies, and the great majority of people having to live as slaves (which is where the first many millennia of civilization’s evolution brought us)?
We don’t need to be different creatures to build such a world. But we do need to order the world differently, eliminating the anarchy among civilized societies, so that power doesn’t rule. And we also must deal also with the significant wounds that humankind’s previous inevitable experience of “war against all” and “the reign of power” has already inflicted upon us.
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.