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The Parable of the Tribes: Why the Evolution of Civilization Has Been as Tormented and Destructive as it Has Been

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What follows here is the first chapter of my book, THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES: THE PROBLEM OF POWER IN SOCIAL EVOLUTION. (The first edition of this book was published in 1984 by the University of California Pres, and the second edition --still in print-- was published by SUNY Press in 1995.)

This chapter presents the core idea of that book. (Actually, there are two core ideas, the second of which is chapter 4 of that book, entitled "Human Nature and the Evaluation of Civilization.")

This core idea came to me in 1970, and the articulation of it presented here was crafted more than a decade later. The summary with which this entry begins, below, does not appear in the book, but was composed rather for the British journal, THE ENVIRONMENTALIST, which chose --after having reviewed the book--to present this chapter to its readers in its entirety.

If there were only one idea of mine that anyone would ever look at, it would be the one dveloped in this chapter.

Over the years, I have made the following recommendation to people who wanted to read THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES: that they begin by reading chapter 1 in a single sitting, that to do so they find some quiet time when they feel able to set aside an hour an a half for focused attention, and when they are up for being taken on a journey with some sweeping vistas from a high vantage point. Still seems to me like a good way to proceed.

If you're interested in seeing more about THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES (the Table of Contents, some other samples from the book, readers' responses) you might take a look at

The Parable of the Tribes


Summary: The parable of the tribes offers a theory of social evolution to explain why civilization has developed as it has, in particular, why its major transformations of human life have not better served human needs. It challenges the commonsense view that people have freely chosen among the many cultural options. Another selective process has operated, one not under human control and not a function of human nature. Before civilization, all life was governed by a complex, biologically-evolved order. For a creature to develop culture to the point that it can invent its way of life appears to offer freedom, but this freedom is a trap. For what is freedom for any single society is anarchy in an interactive system of such societies. Anarchy - unprecedented in the history of life - makes inevitable a struggle for power amongst societies. This ceaseless competition, combined with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation, inevitably drives social evolution in an unchosen direction: ways of life that do not confer sufficient power, regardless of how humane intrinsically, are eliminated, while the ways of power are inexorably spread throughout the system.


For Western man, the progress of understanding has been a humbling experience. At the dawn of the modern era, the heliocentric revolution in astronomy evicted man *

[*The word 'man' here refers to the human species generally. It is used because our language makes it convenient, and is not intended to imply that women have played a lesser role in human life.]

from his privileged home at the center of the universe, consigning him instead to a tiny planet of what turns out to be a minor star. That left man nonetheless a special being among the creatures of the earth, a quintessence of dust fashioned specially by the Lord of the Universe in His own image. But this gratifying self-image was forever altered in the nineteenth century by the theory of biological evolution that revealed man's fundamental kinship and continuity with other living things. Still, man in his pride could point to his unique nature, to the spark of divine reason which ordered his life, elevated him from his own animality, and entitled him to dominion over the world. Then, at the beginning of this century, the brilliant insights of psychoanalysis showed how thin is the veil of consciousness and rationality, how dominated man is by an unconscious animal self, how man is not master even in his own house.

One fortress of our pride has remained. Whatever man's shortcomings as a creature, there can be no doubting man's powers as a Creator. In the globe-spanning structures of civilization, behold his works!

Now comes the parable of the tribes, a theory to illuminate the nature and determinants of civilization. It shows that even in those structures where man's power and ability are most tangibly embodied - even in the evolution of civilization - man is as much the victim as the master.

Understanding Change

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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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