Thursday, October 12, 2006

A very interesting chapter from a book called The Parable of the Tribes

The chapter can be read in its entirety at  It gives much food for thought (I have put in larger blue type below one sentence that particularly intrigued me).  When the author speaks of a "new order" for our world, I believe he is not speaking of the "New World Order" put forth by the neocons, in which power--THEIR power--would be paramount.  If you read the chapter, you'll see that the author has a different vision in mind, a One World concept in which the tribes of the earth come together for the good of them all.  As he says, the laws of man require power, for power can be controlled only with power. The challenge, therefore, is to design systems that use power to disarm power. Only in such an order can mankind be free.

Here is an EXCERPT from the chapter:  If civilization were governed by human choice, we would expect it to be fairly well designed for the fulfillment of human needs. This expectation led us earlier to the Rube Goldberg problem, the ludicrous disproportion between the gargantuan apparatus of civilization and the disappointing benefit in human terms. The parable of the tribes sweeps aside this dilemma. If the selection for power, and not choice, has governed the evolving shape of civilized society, there is no reason to expect the design to correspond with the needs of human beings. According to the parable of the tribes, civilized peoples have been compelled to live in societies organized for the maximization of competitive power. People become the servants of their evolving systems, rather than civilized society being the instrument of its members.

Not that the selection for power systematically selects what is injurious to people. The process is not hostile to human welfare, simply indifferent. Many things that serve power serve people as well, such as a degree of social order and the provision of adequate nutrition to keep people functioning. (As this implies, there are a great many roads to hell that the need for social power helps close oft). But the parable of the tribes suggests that the service to people of such power-enhancing attributes of society may be entirely incidental to their raison d' etre. Those of us who now enjoy affluence and freedom as well as power *

[*It is an irony that those in a position to be able to read a critique of civilization like this work will with very few exceptions be drawn from the tiny minority of earth's population who are the greatest beneficiaries of contemporary civilization.]

are predisposed to believe that benign forces shape our destiny. But to the extent that our blessings are incidental by-products of the strategy for power at this point in the evolution of civilization, our optimism may be ill-founded. If the forces that now favor us are the same as those that earlier condemned masses of people to tyranny and bondage, the future requirements of power maximization may compel mankind not toward the heavenly utopia to which we aspire but toward the hellish dystopias that some like Orwell and Huxley have envisioned. Our well-being may prove to be less like that of the squire who feeds himself well off the land that he rules than like that of the dairy cow who, though pampered and well fed, is not served but exploited by the system in which she lives. The bottom line that governs her fate is not her own calculation; when she is worth more for meat than for milk, off she goes to the slaughterhouse.

Power and Choice

Wisdom is often less a matter of choosing a particular view as the truth than of combining different truths in a balanced way. So it is with the parable of the tribes and the commonsense view of social evolution. The selection for power does govern a good deal of the evolution of civilization, but people also shape their destiny by their choices. The power wielders are, to be sure, prominent in the human drama, but there are creative and charismatic figures (Shakespeare, Buddha) whom we choose to give a very different kind of power to shape our experience. The ways of power may spread by compulsion, but antibiotics, fine silks, and the idea of liberty can diffuse throughout the world by human choice. Thus, while human wellbeing may be incidental to one major social-evolutionary force, there is room for human aspiration to dictate a part of the story. I therefore argue not that the parable of the tribes has been the sole force directing the evolution of civilization but only that it has been an extremely important one.

The vastness of human history allows room for many valid theories. The parable of the tribes is one of them. When its broom has swept across the litterstrewn path of the evolution of civilization, a good deal of debris will remain. But where is a broom that can clear up more of history's path?

The selection for power has set important limits upon the cultural possibilities available to civilized peoples. Nevertheless, within whatever range the necessities of power have allowed, human beings have striven, and striven successfully, to create cultural ways to express and nourish their humanity. Wherever possible, people have tried to increase the beauty and decency and meaning in their lives. One aspect of the striving for a humane world can be imaged as the flowering up of life-serving forms through the cracks in the concrete of power: even in the most inhuman systems (like concentration camps) people often create cultures to fulfill their needs.


The parable of the tribes may seem to be an irredeemably pessimistic view of the dilemma of civilized peoples. It seems to say that civilized man is forever condemned to live in a condition in which some of his worst sins will be selected and magnified into laws of his cultural existence. But this is only partly true. There is indeed no way to return the dangerous djinni of human powers to the bottle. Even if we could, the parable of the tribes says we would only retrace the original, often nightmarish course of our history. Even if there is no turning back, there may be a way of moving forward.

If we are lucky, the evolution of civilization to this point may prove to have been a transitional period in the history of life. It may be a period of anarchy and destruction between two eras of synergistic order. In the beginning, there was the biologically evolved order that gave and protected life. Then the break of a single species from that order brought into the world the reign of power which now threatens life with destruction. But perhaps before power has a chance to fulfill its worst threats, mankind will be able to use its growing opportunities to shape a new order which, like the old, will control the actions of all to the degree needed to protect the well-being of the whole.

The creation of a new order requires an end to the intersocietal anarchy that has been the overarching context of civilized life. Anarchy is the inevitable outcome of the fragmentation of mankind, and it was inevitable that civilized societies would emerge in a fragmented state. As long as the human cultural system was fragmented into a multiplicity of separate units, the problem of power remained insoluble. Even if any region of the world managed to solve the problem by extending unity and by living in peace, those people were still vulnerable to the reintroduction of the contaminant of power from outside its regional system. In our times, however, the possibility of an escape from this fragmented system is beginning to emerge. For the first time, the world is becoming a single interdependent system in which all the world's peoples are in contact. Meanwhile, the age-old struggle for power goes on and may annihilate us before we can create an order that controls power. But the centuries ahead give us the opportunity to place all human action within a structure that for the first time makes truly free human choice possible. Even so, it is far from clear how to get from here to there, or even what kind of world order 'there' should be.

Having eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we became as gods in power - and now must do so in wisdom. Having escaped the control of nature, mankind must create controls for itself, replacing the wholeness of nature with an artificial wholeness, substituting for the law of nature a human law. Here is another paradox: the laws of man require power, for power can be controlled only with power. The challenge, therefore, is to design systems that use power to disarm power. Only in such an order can mankind be free.