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THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES After a Quarter Century: A Revision

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Andrew Schmookler       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink

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My 1984 book, THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES: THE PROBLEM OF POWER IN
SOCIAL EVOLUTION, was intended to be a book of timeless relevance and
importance: to make sense of the story of humankind; to put
the evolution of civilization into the larger context of the history of
the evolution of life on earth; to identify the dynamics behind the
problematic, agonizing aspects of the history of the past ten
millennia; to illuminate, based on that diagnosis of the problem, the
general nature of how humankind can better control its destiny and
create a more humane and viable civilization.


(The first chapter of THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES has been posted
previously here on opednews, and it can also be found at
click here


Timeless though its ambitions were, the book was also --like every
other human creation-- developed in a particular time. I
experienced the vision containing this idea in August of 1970, and the
book developing that vision was finally published in May of 1984.
In between those dates, I had conducted research into the many diverse
relevant subject areas to check out and flesh out the main thesis and
the numerous subordinate hypotheses that formed the components of the
overall theoretical edifice. My exposition was thus affected by
the state of research in the various fields as they stood during that
period.


In the years since, I've continued to keep an eye cocked, albeit
informally, for new information coming in that might call into
question, or contrariwise might confirm, any of my arguments in THE
PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.

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There's been one area that's been troubling, where the new information
coming in has been at variance to what I was getting from the
literature during the 1970s: it's about the question of how much
bellicosity there was before the rise of civilization, both in our
pre-civilized (hunting-and-gathering) ancestry and among our closest
primate relatives.


It seems pretty clear, for example, that chimpanzees are not nearly so
pacifistic as was earlier believed in the 1970s, e.g. in Jane Goodall's
then-famous book IN THE SHADOW OF MAN. (The other line off the
chimpanzee branch, that of the bonobos, presents a far more benign
picture.)


Likewise, with respect to the role of warfare/violence among
pre-civilized societies. (It should be noted that, in THE PARABLE
OF THE TRIBES, the dividing line of concern to me --when I speak of
"pre-civilized" versus "civilized" societies-- is not that between
tribal societies and the full-blown states that begin to appear 5,000
years ago, but between the hunter-gatherer bands that operated still
essentially within their biologically evolved niche and those social
forms that began to be possible with domestication of plants and
animals and more settled existence more like 10,000 years ago.)

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The evidence developed since I studied the subject in the 1970s would
compel me, if I were to write the book today, to revise the part of the
third chapter (pp. 74-81) that's entitled "Red Sky at Morning:
The Dawn of Civilization and the Rise of Warfare." It now seems
probable that my view of hunting-and-gathering societies and of
non-human primate societies --like the views of many anthropologists,
primatologists and archaeologists of several decades ago-- was overly
sanguine, or not "sanguine" enough, depending on which sense of the
word one has in mind. :)


*****

That said --and it does feel important to say it, confession being good
for the soul-- it is also important to note what that revision does and
does not mean for THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.


Most important, IT HAS NO EFFECT ON THE OVERALL THESIS. The idea
I call "the parable of the tribes" says, in essence, that the rise of
civilization inevitably would lead to a ceaseless struggle for power
among societies, and that it also opened the door for an open-ended
process of innovation in all areas of culture; it asserts further
that THIS COMBINATION OF STRUGGLE FOR POWER WITH OPEN-ENDED INNOVATION
WOULD NECESSARILY RESULT IN A PROCESS OF
<em>SELECTION</em>, AMONG THE CULTURAL POSSIBILITIES, FOR
THE WAYS OF POWER.


This would be true regardless of whether hunter-gatherers were
peace-loving or warlike. And I said, explicitly, in the book: "To
be valid, the parable of the tribes...does not require...that warfare
among human societies began only with civilization." (p. 75)


In other words, as an explanation for the overall thrust of social
evolution for the past 10,000 years, the theory's basic validity would
be unaffected by any such revision of the image of human nature.

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What would be affected by a more war-like image of pre-civilized humans
is our view of the EXTENT to which we would see this selection for
power as having WARPED human beings into a shape contrary to our inborn
nature. I use imagery, in the book, of our nature being
"warped" or "twisted" (in one instance, I use the image of the bound
foot of the traditional Chinese woman as such a metaphor). And to
the extent that bellicosity was there from the start, and not forced
upon us by civilized systems shaped by power (and not by human needs or
human nature), to that extent the human tragedy would seem
reduced, "our sympathy for our species' plight would be diminished."
(ibid) In that light, humankind would seem somewhat less like
innocent victims, even if, in the course of the evolution of
civilization, we were swept along by forces beyond our control.


Either way, though, "The structure of the overarching system mandates
that some of the worst sins of such a [civilization-making] creature
would inevitably be magnified into laws of its social existence." (ibid)


Also, to the extent that aggressiveness is WITH THE GRAIN of human
nature, rather than against it, the task of remedying of the problem
would have that much more to overcome. This is not, however, a
reason for despairing of a solution: just as the power of culture
-- under the impetus of the selection for power-- could intensify human
aggressiveness, so also could the cultural creature show the same
flexibility in the other direction, becoming LESS aggressive than it is
by nature, once civilized culture became freed from the systemic pull
toward power-maximization.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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