All previous entries in this series can be found here.
We now approach what may be the most pivotal part of what I’ve called my “integrative vision”: an idea I call “the parable of the tribes.” (“Pivotal” meaning so much of the human story turns on what this idea depicts.)
From the moment that idea came to me, in 1970, it has seemed to me a very Big Deal. “Receiving” that idea was a bone-shaking experience for me, and pretty much the rest of my life has hinged on my promise, made right then, to do my best to communicate it to my fellow humans.
Here I am, 47 years later, trying once again to convey it, hoping that it will have an impact on people’s understanding of “the human story” something like it has had on mine. I know that there are people on whom it has had such an impact. (I couldn’t say how many.) But I’d say that — while swinging for the fences — what I managed to hit was a single.
I’m still striving for more RBIs with this piece of the “integrative vision.” Not only for the original reasons of wanting this idea to change how people understand the meaning of human history, but also because this piece can help illuminate the rest of that vision – I’ve been developing in the decades since –in the proper light.
So, as you’ve doubtless noticed if you’ve been reading this series, I’ve been laying the groundwork, in various ways, for its presentation. (For example, in previous installments I sought to create the itch that the parable of the tribes might scratch.)
And now, one more piece of groundwork-laying: before moving into the substance, I will take a moment to try to remove what I imagine to be an obstacle in the way of this idea being seen for what it is and what it offers.
There is something inherently awkward about undertaking this “Better Human Story” series. On the one hand, the whole impetus for writing it is my conviction that there is something important at stake here, that it could really matter whether or not this “integrative vision” becomes a major way for people to understand the human world.
On the other hand, claiming such a thing for one’s ideas will inevitably raise questions about both the claim and the claimant.
Let me tell a story that can help address at least one of those questions that would arise in my mind if I were a reader.
That idea I claim to be a Big Deal — the idea I call “the parable of the tribes” –was published reasonably prominently in book form in 1984.
The fact that this supposedly Big Deal idea has been out into the world for more than thirty years would make me wonder, in your place:
“If the idea really were some Big Deal why, more than three decades later, would it still be relatively obscure — hardly a Big Deal – in the world?”
You would think!
While the following will do nothing to establish whether the idea is the Big Deal I claim — that question is a wholly separate matter — it will dispose, I believe, of that particular source of skepticism that, if it were a Big Deal, surely the world would have treated it differently.
So, in an effort to enable the reader to approach this idea with a mind as open as possible to the “Big Deal” claim, I will tell the following story.
Neither Refuted Nor Adopted, Just Ignored
In the book The Parable of the Tribes, as in this series now, I was not reticent about making claims. I believed that such boldness would be a way of making sure people would check the idea out and see if those claims withstood the test.
In the book’s first two pages, I asserted that it would cast the human story in an importantly different light. In imitation of a famous passage of Freud’s – in which he placed himself as third in a series of humbling revelations about the standing of “man” (first Copernicus, then Darwin, and then Freud’s demonstration that man was not master even in his own mind) – I proposed a fourth challenge:
“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.”
You’ll soon be able to judge for yourself whether you want to call such talk boldness, or chutzpah, or delusion. But here is the interesting part: the world, as a whole, never even checked out the claim.
Neither when the book was published, nor any time since, has the intellectual world dealt with the idea. This thesis – which shook me to the bones in 1970, and which I sought over many years to argue compellingly — has basically been ignored.
By that I mean that:
- No one ever refuted the argument, no one ever did the least damage to the basic thesis;
- No one ever made any case for the idea that — even if the idea were valid — it wouldn’t be any Big Deal.
A(n apparently) naïve young man such as myself would have assumed that those parts of the world that deal in such big ideas (about social evolution, about the dynamics and meaning of history) would either have to accomplish either of those bases for dismissing my claims, or to acknowledge their validity. I.e., to recognize “the parable of the tribes” to be the major piece for understanding the Human Story that it claimed to be.
But over the years, it has been neither refuted, nor belittled, nor adopted. Just neglected.
The question arises, how could that be?
Believe me, I’ve looked at that question for some thirty years. It is certainly not the way I imagined was how the world works.
But whatever the explanation, here are some explanations that don’t seem plausible.
First, there’s the idea that it is impossible for any idea to be a Big Deal in the way I claim. But Big Deal ideas do happen, sometimes. So on what basis could anyone assume a priori that any such a claim cannot possibly be true, and therefore neglect to even test it?
Second, there’s the idea that the person making the claim is just too implausible a claimant for that sort of thing to be worth checking it out. Perhaps if the claimant were some semi-illiterate high-school drop-out from an uneducated family in a cultural backwater, it would be somewhat understandable — even if still unjustified — if people just dismissed the claim as so improbable it must be delusional, without bothering to check it out.
But in fact, as a claimant on such a matter, I looked on paper about as plausible as anyone. If somebody were to come up with a Big Deal idea like this, that person might look like me.
I’m trying here to honor a vow I’ve made to do my very best here in this series to bring in my personal story, and to make my bold claims, only when and how they will serve the altruistic purposes of this series. As this series is about the human story, not about me, I am trying scrupulously not to let my frustrations and disappointments and wounded vanity lead me off that track. To the best of my ability, as I have for almost half a century, I am striving to be the servant of the vision.
So I’ll just say a couple of things that will be suggestive of the relevant biographical picture: coming from my family background (with a father who was a brilliant thinker about human systems, and who in an informal sense tutored me from before I could read); and with the education I received (my college education, for example, was at Harvard, where I graduated summa cum laude for doing work akin to this allegedly Big Deal idea); when The Parable of the Tribes came out, I looked roughly as plausible in making such claims as any other person of my generation.
So the world had no prima facie reason to rule out my claim.
Third, it’s not that the book just slipped under the radar. Two weeks after it was published, the New York Times gave it a full-page review in its Sunday edition (the kind of review one would “kill for,” the book’s publicist said). The University of California Press edition – beautifully produced, and prominently featured by the press — sold out. A couple of years later, the Houghton Mifflin paperback was published and sold out. In between, Esquire Magazine made me one of only a couple of intellectual “idea” people they included among the “Men and Women Under Forty Who Are Changing the Nation.”
But despite all that. This idea just floats out there– basically unattended. It has always had its enthusiasts, but it has never having permeated the culture to any but a most marginal extent. My impressions is that among those prominent in the intellectual world, and who deal with the Big Deal ideas of social thought and theory of history, no one has given Schmookler’s “parable of the tribes” any thought at all.
This story raises some non-trivial questions about how our intellectual world functions. Though I’ve thought about those questions for years, and have some ideas, I do not claim to have any really satisfying answer. And, in any event, that is not the point of my telling the story here.
That point is this: with the idea of “the parable of the tribes,” and my claims about it, never having been tested and refuted, the obscurity in which this idea remains offers no evidence whatever about the idea’s validity or importance.
So with that, let us proceed onward toward that point in the “human story” when our species took a crucial step – extricating ourselves from the niche in which we had evolved biologically – and began a whole new phenomenon in the history of life with the rise of civilization.
SEEING THE RISE OF CIVILIZATION IN THE PERSPECTIVE OF BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION
Once again, the evolutionary perspective is key.
Our understanding of ourselves has long been hampered by the manner in which we see ourselves in time. We tend to look at the emergence of civilization by looking backwards in time from the world we know. But what we need to do is adopt a viewpoint moving forward in time toward the crucial developments of ten millennia ago, to see it as something unprecedented happening in the already-long history of life on earth.
Although it is more than a century and a half since Darwin published his Origin of the Species, old habits of thought die slowly.
Even over the more than half century that I’ve been watching, the change in perspective – as slowly as that change has happened – has been discernible. More and more, thinking people perceive our species as having emerged through the process of the evolution of life on earth.
Nonetheless, the traditional and long-ingrained views of human history persist. In that old view, the notions of “old” and “origins” go back thousands of years. The ancient world of the pyramids, of Homeric heroes, of “the glory that was Rome.”
We are born into civilization, and civilization is something we take for granted, as if it had always been there. But in what we take for granted, whatever is truly remarkable will not be visible to us.
If — instead of looking back from the world we naturally take for granted, because it is all we have known — we look forward into that world from the standpoint of how life had been evolving on this planet over billions of years, some vital things become clear.
It took life-on-earth more than 3.5 billion years to evolve creatures – our species — who began an experiment absolutely unprecedented in the history of life on earth.
It should be understood as an experiment because, before roughly 10,000 years ago, nothing whatever in life’s system on earth had been like the civilized societies that then began to emerged. The essence of what was unprecedented – what made this a new experiment in the history of life – was this: for the first time ever, a creature extricated itself from the niche in which it had evolved, and began to invent its own way of life.
Let’s take a look at some of the key words in that statement.
By “way of life” is meant how it gathers what it needs from the surrounding world to sustain itself.
Humans had been cultural animals for a very long time—the archaeological evidence shows that humans had been developing language, had gained control of fire, had used tools. But then people began to domesticate plants and animals, rearranging the ecosystem so they could extract from it more of what they wanted. That innovation that marks the crucial point of discontinuity. Until that point, the human cultural group (its hunter-gatherer form) was still essentially continuous – in its size and structure, and in living off what nature spontaneously provided — with the primate past from which we emerged.
By “invent” is meant that this transformation in the modus operandi of human life took place through human creativity, not genetic evolution. That is, these transformative innovations in cultural practice occurred without any major changes in genetic heritage.
(Minor changes — like the development of lactose tolerance among peoples consuming milk from domesticated animals — do not alter the basic facts of this picture of purely cultural forces driving what, over time, became a radical transformation of human societies.)
But it is the idea of the species extricating itself from its biologically evolved “niche” that provides the hidden doorway into the profound – and dangerous – implications of this human step unprecedented in the history of life on earth.
Through natural selection, the evolutionary process crafts not just organisms of mind-boggling complexity. It also selects for ecological systems in which each component performs its life-functions within a niche, an ecological space within a larger whole.
That niche implies an overarching order. And order is something that, for the wholeness of living things, is of central importance.
In our civilized language, we have traditionally expressed our sense of the natural order with phrases like “law of the jungle.” Nature as a place of great violence, as in Tennyson’s phrase, “Nature red in tooth and claw.”
Of course, all that is true. The opportunistic operation of the evolution of life has created, in the system of life, a true “struggle for existence,” in which the flesh of one creature opens the opportunity for a predator to make food of that flesh.
But that truth is not the most fundamental truth about the system. All that competition and predation and parasitism takes place within an overarching system in which a kind of order is maintained. It is a synergistic order that contains the conflictual elements within an overarching wholeness. Although in the dynamic order of an ecological system, new forms can arise, while older forms can go extinct, the overall tendency of the system is to find a balance in which the viability of the whole system is preserved.
The wolf may be cruel, but when it kills the lamb, the death of the lamb is not an injury to lambkind. It is part of the pattern of survival not only for wolves but for the sheep as well. If there were no wolves, the sheep would overgraze the land, and before long the foundation on which the lives of the sheep rests would be undermined.
Recall the American chestnut, virtually obliterated from the North American forests, in which they had played so important a role, when the Chinese chestnut was suddenly introduced onto the American continent. The Chinese chestnut carried with it a fungus. While the American variety of chestnut was devastated by the sudden arrival of that fungus, the Chinese version of the chestnut and the fungus had evolved over millions of years a relationship that allowed them to co-exist.
As the ecologist Gregory Bateson once wrote: “No creature wins against its environment for long.”
So given enough time, the parasitism of the fungus, like the predation of the wolf, gets contained in a larger wholeness.
That’s what it means for a creature to be living within the niche in which it biologically evolved.
BREAKTHROUGH TO A FREEDOM THAT IS ONLY APPARENT
It is in the context of that evolutionary perspective that we can begin see the implications of a creature, by virtue of its unprecedented intelligence and creativity, breaking out of the biologically evolved order.
On the face of it, the escape from a creature’s biologically evolved niche appears to be a route to a new kind of freedom.
In its original hunting-and-gathering form, human society was essentially confined within some narrow parameters. Except in extraordinarily abundant situations, a social group could not be larger than what one might find among primate societies generally. Which also meant that social organization would necessarily remain rudimentary.
Although human societies, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, adopted important cultural features – like language, fire, ritual – even with such cultural developments, those human societies remained, in terms of their size and structure, essentially continuous with our primate past.
But once, people started re-shaping the ecosystems around them – domesticating plants and animals in order to increase the amount of food available to them –those old restrictions begin to fall away.
Greater food production, over time, can support larger and more settled populations. Greater efficiency in acquiring food frees up labor for other purposes, making it possible for societies to employ kinds of division of labor unavailable to the previous hunting-gathering bands. The development of political systems is one of those new forms of division of labor, and that, in turn, makes it possible for a given society to control ever larger geographic domains.
Once human societies cross that threshold into domestication of plants and animals, ever larger and ever more complex becomes ever more possible.
And indeed, all these developments took place in all the places on the planet where this transition independently took place: the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, the Nile Valley, the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley, as well as the two areas in the New World (Meso-America, and Peru). (These are all the places where civilization emerged in pristine form, not by transplantation.)
Free to invent new social and political structures. Free to invent and utilize new technologies not only for food production but for a host of other purposes. Free to expand.
Human societies emerge into this full range of possibilities, free of any firm limits imposed by the human creature’s place in the evolved biological order.
But that freedom turned out to be an illusion. And, if we look at this unprecedented experiment in the history of life through the evolutionary perspective, we should not be surprised that it did.
OUT OF ORDER
The issue is, fundamentally, a matter of order versus disorder.
Order is essential to life, and what biological evolution selects for is order—from the intricate order of the cell all the way up to the order of the biosphere.
The living order of nature, though it has no ruler, is not in the least anarchic. Each pursues a kind of self-interest, each is a law unto itself, but the separate interests and laws have been formed over aeons of selection to form part of a tightly ordered harmonious system.
The elements interact – some of them in highly conflictual ways – but the selection for “what works” means that over time that interaction is rendered orderly. (Fungus on the Chinese chestnut.)
A force from outside the living system can introduce disorder, and destruction is the result. The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs is one famous example. Another is the coming together of North and South America, through continental drift, which brought about the sudden interaction of species that had not evolved together. The result was a wave of species extinctions.
So, looking forward at the rise of civilized societies from the standpoint of the order out of which they were emerging, we might well have seen a big problem coming. They were stepping out of an established order into an altogether new situation.
No niche, no order. No order, then a terra incognita in the history of living systems.
Here we have these living entities – civilized societies – each one of which has no inherent limit to its ability to expand. Add to that the fact, observed by the archaeologists and anthropologists, that these emerging societies tended to arise in clusters within a circumscribed area of land. The inevitable consequence is that these societies would be compelled to interact with each other.
We will leave till next installment a discussion of what should be obvious at this point: a cluster of entities developing within reach of each other, with each having no inherent limit in its ability to expand, would inevitably lead to their interaction consisting largely of a struggle for power. For now, we will just stop the train where we note that these entities will have to interact with each other—somehow.
And here’s the crucial issue: What is there to regulate their interactions to assure that whatever happens is consistent with the requirements of that kind of wholeness that had previously been essential to the evolution of life?
There is no biological order to regulate those interactions. For these social organisms had escaped from their biological niche. And there is no man-made order to regulate them, because the system is altogether fragmented into many such societies with no power whatever above them to govern such an order.
Which means that humankind has stepped into a terra incognita, something that no species on this planet had ever created for itself.
The essential characteristic of this new situation is that it’s an evolutionary territory in which an unavoidable and significant set of interactions will be wholly unregulated.
Life had never done that before. Not, at least as part of the unfolding of the living system itself. Yes, there had been times of some chaos—but those were from asteroids, or from the movement of continents. Things outside the domain of life.
On this new kind of occasion, that space of chaos was reached because of something emerging in the living system itself.
Something from within the living system itself was breaking out of that system’s established order into an inevitable and painfully consequential disorder.
And what would be those consequences? That’s the question that “the parable of the tribes” answers.
In the next installment, we will look at the dynamic that arose out of the new system of unregulated interactions among societies of this new kind—a dynamic that drove the evolution of civilized societies in a direction that people did not choose, but could not avoid.
WHAT WOULD BE A BIG DEAL?
I have claimed that “the parable of the tribes” – as an argument to explain a crucial part of the human story — is a Big Deal. Before laying out that argument, in the next installment, let me ask you:
If that argument makes a compelling case
- that the ugliness and torment we see in human history are not a function of human nature, and
- that we perceive our species as innocently having been put into an impossible situation,
- that we therefore do not have to face our considerable challenges weighed down by a burden of guilt, and self-disgust, or despair,
- that we are entitled to imagine ourselves to be finer and more worthy creatures, by nature, than we have been compelled to be, through no great fault of our own;
would that be a Big Deal?
And if what it showed also led us to understand that
- that it is not some idea of “human evil” that we should focus on, when we look at the evils of the world, but on the force of brokenness into which we have been swept;
- that we should focus on correcting how the systems of civilization — because of their own inherent dynamic– warp our world, and thwart our flowering; and how the strengthening of the human good can lead humankind into a future that is healthier and more fulfilling;
- that seeing the reality of the drama in the human world will make us stronger as actors for the good. Stronger because the human drama is far more dramatic (possessing a meaningful dramatic shape) and is “spiritually” deeper than we generally perceive—which empowers us through inspiration. And stronger because the clarity of the battle makes it so much easier to know where to put one’s passion;
would that be a Big Deal?
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Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.
NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.
They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.
I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.
I was what the University of California Press called (and may still call) the “sponsoring editor” for The Parable of the Tribes. I thought it a stunningly simple explanatory concept for the spread of human violence at the time, backed by an impressive reading of a huge swathe of human history. I’d love for the participants in this discussion to see the cover design for the book, which featured a battle scene taken from an ancient wall painting of unknown origin in the North African desert. That scene, of one tribe fleeing from another armed with spears, seemed perfectly to capture the choices that weaponized warfare has imposed on our species from earliest days. I would love it as well if participants could read the parable proper–an aetiological tale, folklorists would call it–that you wrote and that gave the work its haunting title.
As for the reception of the work, well, after spending years in book publishing at Doubleday and then the University of California Press, then further years in book reviewing as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, I found my emerging view of the mystery of publishing success best captured in a remark by Patrick White, a Nobel laureate novelist from Australia. White wrote that sometimes great books become bestsellers, but it is not their greatness that does this service for them. This was, of course, an oblique but nuanced comment on the fact that although many inferior works become bestsellers, we cannot condescendingly conclude that popular success is a proof of inferiority. Just what it is that enables a book like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to capture such a fabulously large audience is a mystery. Similar books before it had no such success. The same goes for innumerable imitators. Quality and quantity sometimes hold hands and sometimes don’t.
My own sense, offered with due hesitation, is that when a book of true intellectual merit becomes a significant popular success as well, it is because ideas in it have lent themselves to exploitation by other writers. Such a work, very clearly, was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. At the peak of the vogue of that work, Kuhn told an interviewer that nearly every week he had to turn down some scholar or scientist’s offer to partner with him on a new work that the letter-writer had in mind. So, the question to ask then of The Parable of the Tribes would be: What further work did it invite? Into what other agendas was it apt for insertion?
And perhaps (I speak quite tentatively here) those questions invite in turn the question of whether it is only to this very project of a “new world story,” a beneficent story to which the world might be converted in lieu of other philosophies and religions and the stories they tell, that The Parable of the Tribes points. If that’s the case, then one can well imagine silence ensuing, for who would not quail before a task so large? The founders of the world’s religions–Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad–tower above other world celebrities because their achievement is so exceedingly rare. New religions are being founded all the time, but most of them blink out as quickly as they blink on. Very, very few last on for centuries, and, of course, even they often die out eventually. So, the challenge is extremely large, and you, Andy, are well aware that success rests with those who respond to the new prophet, not alone with the inherent plausibility or attractiveness of the prophecy itself. If it is a mystery what it is in the public at any given moment that makes a book a bestseller, this kind of success is an even greater mystery–a far, far greater mystery.
I am extremely grateful, as you might expect, for your comment Jack. And I also have a question.
To explain the silence following the publication of The Parable of the Tribes, you venture the question: “who would not quail before a task so large” as, in essence, altering people’s worldview?
I get that “quailing” idea. That task, as you know, is the one that I felt – literally – called to undertake one day in August, 1970. And I quailed plenty. In fact, I cried—fearing what it would mean for me and my life to dedicate myself, as I then promised to Something I knew not what, to convey that vision to my fellow human beings.
But I am not sure that taking on the challenge of that enormous task covers the field the world’s possible affirming responses.
At this point, let me tell the readers that Jack Miles is the author of a wonderful book, God: A Biography. Fortunately, I’m not the only person to appreciate that book: the book was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for “Biography or Autobiography.” (Presumably, the committee did not regard it as an autobiography. J )
So, do you have any thoughts about why The Parable of the Tribes did not receive such honors? No one would expect the people on a committee that could award such prizes as the Pulitzer to take on such an immense and unlikely task as you describe. They’d just have to say, as they rightly did with your book, “Hey, this is good!” and then go home and resume their lives.
(The P of T did get honored by the International Society for Political Psychology, so it did not go entirely without laurels. But I should perhaps add that there is one person who mostly made that happen—because of the intensity of his enthusiasm, and his standing in that rather small community.)
Oh, and here is that cover you wanted people here to see. (It was Jack, by the way, who located this graphic—after we’d spent several months looking for something appropriate.) As for the “parable” itself, it will be included in the next installment—whose title is going to be the same as the book’s.
1). I do think it is a big deal.
2). You’ve raised the question of why The Parable of the Tribes was not refuted, nor adopted, but just ignored. From the standpoint of the big picture that you see, are there features of the way civilization has developed, as The Parable of the Tribes describes, that would prevent people from noticing what you are saying?
In my work as a Psychologist, for example, I find that people raised in a tyrannical household are usually highly discouraged from seeing the tyranny in their household as being about the parent rather than themselves. They are also discouraged from voicing their perception of tyranny. Instead, they are made to feel inadequate and not to trust what they see, and not to look. You can see this in the current Trump staff, and he is trying to impose that on the rest of the people — journalists, protestors, etc.
In other families, organized around authority, when it is a milder form of parental authority, the organization of the family may benefit them enough not to want to challenge it. Similarly, at a political level, it may be that Liberals benefit enough from the structure not to want to challenge it — unlike poor people, for example.
So do you have an understanding, based on the Big Picture, of why people have not seen what you are saying?
3) I wonder if you could expand on a point you are implying:
You are saying, I believe, that if only people would understand the Big Picture, they would be relieved not only of ignorance but also of suffering. Specifically, you say or imply that currently people see part of our nature as destructive — the bad parts of humanity. I believe you are also saying that the viewpoint in you Big Picture, spelled out in the Parable of the Tribes, is that the destructive parts of human manifestation are not parts of our nature but the result of the evolution of civilization. Can you say more about the suffering you are attempting to dispel?
I appreciate your # 1! And let me start by addressing your # 3.
It is true that there are some aspects of “suffering” that I believe this “integrative vision” can help alleviate: the suffering that comes from a feeling of collective guilt and/or species self-loathing because humankind has brought so much destructiveness and ugliness into the world. And perhaps the suffering of despair that can come with the (unwarranted) conclusion that we are not capable of being anything less ugly than what history shows.
But the relief of suffering is not necessarily the main benefit that I think it offers. For one thing, I’ve had at least a big piece of this perspective – that part I call “the parable of the tribes” — for 47 years now. And I’ve suffered plenty. Seeing what I see isn’t necessarily fun.
But there are important benefits that I’ve derived, and that I believe many people can, from this “way of understanding.” I’ll be expanding on that shortly—i.e. in installment #6 (after #5, next, presents “the parable of the tribes”). I’m planning to introduce #6 in these terms: I realize that people reading this series are being asked to do a fair amount of work, and here are the possible rewards that make it worth the effort.
These benefits are less about being relieved of suffering than about plugging into sources of deep fulfillment. At least, that has been true for me in my life, and I think the same could be true for other people. So, stayed tuned.
In terms of your second point – whether the parable of the tribes itself might offer an explanation of the world’s neglect of that idea since its publication – I haven’t really seen anything along those lines. But Philip Kanellopoulos has sent a comment that addresses your question. Here’s what Philip has to say.
It seems to me that the Parable of the Tribes might itself predict that it would likely be ignored or perhaps even suppressed by society’s centralized propagators of culture, at least as long as the parable remains in force and thus just at the very time the insights it offers are most needed. The parable could hardly be more profound or important. However, unlike similarly monumental shifts of paradigm in recent centuries — Newton’s, Darwin’s, Einstein’s — the Parable of the Tribes doesn’t serve dominant systems of (state) power and indeed threatens to undermine them and their perceived necessity.
A general acceptance of the Parable of the Tribes is desperately needed as we face the twin existential threats of nuclear war and climate destabilization. The parable promises to rehabilitate our understanding of human nature, offering us good reason to have faith in who we truly are, to believe we just might deserve to survive after all. It also offers us hope that the worst nightmares of history have a situational cause we might actually resolve. An inspiring and widely held faith in human nature — or lack of faith — may mean the difference between our willingness to survive and flourish, and our succumbing to misguided despair and extinction. Yes, the Parable of the Tribes is indeed a Big Deal.
My immediate response: One tragic result of humankind’s creative departure from the natural order: global warming as the result of human action. The Paris climate agreement, abandoned by President Trump, is just one international step forward to reduce a catastrophic global temperature rise. The accord came very late in the climate change game, the commitments of almost all the world’s nations are currently not enough to adequately stem the damaging temperature rise, and it’s not known whether new commitments will be of sufficient magnitude to do the job.
The only way humankind will survive this warming, without deep privation, is for a sufficient number of fallible human beings to achieve a level of compassionate concern for one another and for succeeding generations. Bold steps toward drastically reducing our output of global warming gases would almost inevitably follow.
I see some signs of that concerned action now as citizens, corporations, countries, renew their pledges toward reducing climate change, even as the American government walks away.
So yes, your idea can be a Big Deal because it has the potential to bring people together in compassionate enterprise, based on a realization of our unwilled and unsought predicament. Compassion is grown through continual practice, but first the awareness of mutual innocence must come. Your idea can be one of the ideational/emotional forces helping to encourage that awareness in those ready to receive it.
I appreciate that, Fred. And I think you are quite right: the perspective I offer is one that is conducive to compassion. It helps one see the brokenness in people as the fruit of the forces at work in the world that shaped (and mis-shaped) them. It helps lead to a “There but for the Grace of God go I” way of looking at “evil-doers.” Or a “hate the sin, love the sinner” attitude. Beyond blame and punitiveness.
But, having said that, I feel compelled also to confess that in recent years – as steeped in this “integrative vision” as I am – I have found the place of compassion ever more challenging to achieve.
In these times, as the force of brokenness has come ever-closer to my own doorstep, and as the threat to all I value has grown, I find my enlightened understanding increasingly challenged by more primitive, visceral emotions.
Having spent the past dozen years engaged in what I see as a battle for “the soul of America,” and watching so many tens of millions of my countrymen lending their support to a force that is almost invariably destructive in its purposes and effects, and dishonest in its communications, I’m dealing with feelings of repugnance for those people – my fellow citizens – who have been deceived and manipulated.
It has been harder for me to come from compassionate love for those whose vulnerabilities – whose brokenness – is being exploited by that force of brokenness.
I’m still aided by my understanding, but my understanding does not command the whole field of my responses. The more my own fear and anger and disgust are elicited by the immediacy of the mounting power of brokenness in the world right around me, the less “enlightened” I feel.
I see that I, too, in other words, have been damaged by my battle against this force of brokenness.
This experience of being damaged – feeling less of my life-long “love of humanity” and less filled with compassion – is my own personal illustration of how the pattern of brokenness spreads. How brokenness begets brokenness.
So I will not claim that the “integrative vision” I’m offering solves our spiritual challenges in any final way. It is an important ally for an enlightened approach. But the battle between the forces of wholeness and those of brokenness (around us, and within us) continues to be waged.
It seems that, from the beginning of recorded history, humanity has sought to find ways to deal with the pain and hardships of everyday life and to oppose tyranny and oppression in order to ultimately find peace, serenity, and the courage to overcome the terror of their own mortality. Through the ages, spiritual leaders like Confucius preached about the transformation that would elevate them above the anger and madness of their lives so they could see themselves and their fellow creatures through a lens that could reveal the beauty and sanctity of life—and thus, “wake up” to their true selves.
I’m reminded of the story of the Buddha who often sat under a tree every day, meditating. One day, a Brahmin priest came by and was amazed at his serenity, stillness, and self-discipline. He asks if he is a god, an angel, or a spirit. The Buddha replies that, no, he is simply demonstrating that it’s possible to live in this world of conflict and be at peace and harmony with it. There’s no point in merely believing it. You’ll discover the truth only by practicing this method of snuffing out egotism at its root in order to become a fully enlightened human being. He says, “Remember me as one who is “awake.”
To answer your questions re: the “ugliness and torment” we see in humanity around the world and whether this is a function of our human nature—or have we been put into an “impossible situation” so we shouldn’t feel too guilty. I think we definitely need to take responsibility for the deplorable situations developing around the world. I don’t see it has an impossible situation, but at the same time, I would not look at this “brokenness” as due to a force of evil outside of us.
Humanity has the power of both good and evil behavior in this battle, and this “brokenness” is of our own doing (and un-doing!) I believe we have the inventiveness and creativity to correct the systems that are “warping the world” and we have the power to focus on the good paths that will lead us into a more fulfilling future. Right now, we’re missing the leadership!
The world needs your vision of wholeness and the sacred space that can unite us.
There is a quotation from Sanscrit that says, “The Divine in me welcomes the Divine in you.” May it be so!
Thank you, Margee, for that endorsement of my “vision of wholeness.”
I entirely agree with you, Margee, when you say, “It seems that, from the beginning of recorded history, humanity has sought to find ways to deal with the pain and hardships of everyday life and to oppose tyranny and oppression…” And the kinds of spiritual insights you point to have been and still are a vital contributor to the forces of wholeness at work in our too-broken world.
I have to take serious issue, however, with another part of your comment. It’s where you write: “I don’t see it as an impossible situation…” It will not be until the next installment that I lay out my case, but let me try to give intimations of what I will try to show.
Your words suggest that you’re talking about the present situation in which we find ourselves. And you say “we definitely need to take responsibility” for what’s wrong with our world. On that I agree, if by “take responsibility” to mean that we are called upon to do all we can to make our world more whole.
But the “impossible situation” I refer to is the one into which humankind stumbled millennia ago. And what follows from that innocent stumbling into an impossible situation is that all the torment and destruction that followed from that is not something for which we should bear a burden of guilt—because it was beyond humankind’s powers to prevent.
So that if by “take responsibility” you mean not only that we are called upon to make the world more whole but that we as a species should rightly blame ourselves for the brokenness we are called upon to fix, that I think misses the truth of the human dilemma.
I believe that idea “the parable of the tribes” represents an air-tight, compelling case for civilized humankind having had to deal with what was indeed “an impossible situation.” In the present installment, I’ve laid the groundwork for seeing why that is. If, after you’ve read the next installment you still don’t agree about that, I invite you to point to whatever hole in the argument you find that would allow you to conclude otherwise.
And a word about this that you say: “I would not look at this ‘brokenness’ as due to a force of evil outside of us.”
This raises issues that I’ll be getting to a few more installments down the road. (And indeed I regard my way of understanding what’s true about “the battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’” in the human world to be the second major insight – along with “the parable of the tribes” – that I have to contribute in this “integrative vision.”)
But for right now I’ll propose this metaphor for thinking of whether the force of brokenness is “outside us”: imagine a huge magnet in the presence of iron filings. In the presence of that magnet, the interior of the iron filings is transformed so that two magnetic poles are formed inside each filing. Is the magnetic force “outside” the filings? I’d say yes and no. It operates within them. But it was an outside force that induced the polarities.
I am not sure where you are going with your point about human nature.
Avarice, greed, jealousy, anger, violence, and desire for power all seem to me to be at the ready in human development as much as are generosity, lovingkindness, empathy, and desire to serve others. I believe it can readily be argued that these two kinds of traits are equipotential within us. You may be ready to argue that cultural evolution gone awry has nurtured these less desirable traits, but that would not take away from the argument of equipotentiality. Yes, the ik and the pygmies we read about so long ago developed opposing traits due to the differences in natural resources within their niches, and for whatever reason that I don’t remember, the Ik could not expand their territory. Jealousy or avarice can aid the survival of the individual and therefore the species. (And it is the survival of species rather than individual that evolution selects for). So there is not really a need to selects against jealousy, greed, except for the nurturance of the young and family life of course.
About human nature:
First, what I will be showing in the next installment does not make claims about what human nature is. Rather, what I claim to pretty well prove is that the history of civilization manifests a destructiveness and an ugliness that would be there regardless of human nature. I will try to show that any species that crossed that threshold – extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved into “inventing its own way of life” – would inevitably trace a similarly destructive and ugly course.
That being said…
Clearly, human beings have the “potential” to be avaricious, violent, lusting for power, and all those other ugly things. If we did not, humans would not have been capable of doing what history shows greedy and power-hungry people doing.
But I don’t know if there’s any reason to assume that the worst of our potentials are of equal potential to the best (“equipotentiality,” you call it).
I know that you are deeply familiar with Harlow’s studies of the rhesus monkey infants raised without mothers but either with terry-cloth-covered fake mothers or merely wire fake mothers. The one’s who got nothing warm and cuddly at all grew up to be completely maladjusted, whereas the ones that got terry-cloth – though they must have been rather less well nurtured than infants that had real mothering from their real mothers – were a lot better off.
We would not conclude that the monkeys’ potential to be like the wire-raised monkeys was equal to their potential of being sufficiently well adjusted to have normal social interactions with other monkeys and to engage in normal mating behavior when adult, would we? The rhesus infant is born with a reasonable expectation to be in the highly probable rhesus situation, not the warped circumstance that Harlow constructed for them.
Similarly with the Ik and the Pygmies. As I recall, it turned out that the tribe called the Ik were studied at an extremely abnormal state in their tribal history: their society and their way of life had been pretty much devastated, the social order had almost completely broken down. And it was in that circumstance that they showed a number of pathological social behaviors, like complete amorality.
There is pathology and there is health. Evolution favors health, but does not guarantee it.
But just as a rhesus monkey is more likely to develop into a normal monkey from a normal upbringing, and be helped to become a fully functional member of a rhesus group, so also with us human animals. Over the hundreds of thousands (and before that, millions) of years of our evolution, our kind has generally been born into social groups that were reasonably functional. Those that weren’t would likely disappear from the gene pool. And I believe that the Ik were well on the way to collective disappearance at the time they were studied.
We can become like the Ik, but only under abnormal circumstances. And so that outcome, I would argue, is not rightly seen as “equipotential.”
What the parable of the tribes shows is that a new evolutionary process arose – not dictated by human nature – that created a warped, evolutionarily abnormal social environment for human beings to grow up in. It describes how and why this second social-evolutionary force that has been, in many ways, hostile to the human nature shaped by the biological-evolutionary force that instilled our basic needs and tendencies.
Comparing human beings living within civilized societies with those rhesus monkeys raised by the uncuddly wire-mothers is hyperbole – particularly for those of us with the good fortune to have lived in more humane societies than most that civilization has offered people over the millennia. But the basic point remains valid.
In the next installment, I will describe how it is that the human creature inadvertently released that social evolutionary force, like uncorking a bottle out of which an evil djinee escaped to wreak its destruction.
I’m assuming that whatever principles are used to explain the human world, if they are valid, will be valid regardless of scale—whether applied to an individual or to a collection of individuals that make up society. My observation is that that factors that influence human behavior are of some magnitude, so I look forward to reading more of what you have to share.
The laws governing the operation of systems are not identical to those that govern the components of those systems. Chemistry cannot be reduced to physics, nor does chemistry, in turn, suffice to tell us all that’s important about biology.
As new levels develop out of lower levels, there is the “emergence” of new organizing principles that are not derived from the nature of the constituent parts themselves.
So it is with the systems of civilization. Important things that are true about them are not a function of the principles utilized to understand the psychology of the human beings that comprise them.
And this is what the next installment — # 5: “The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution” – will endeavor to demonstrate.