An Unwelcome Driver of Social Evolution: The Parable of the Tribes


    In the next several postings, continuing to roll out my “Swinging for the Fences” project, I will be identifying several different “systemic forces” that, generally unbeknownst to us, shape the destiny of our societies over time.  

    These forces work through different mechanisms, they operate on different scales, and they require different approaches to bring them under control.  And they all connect with the one systemic force — call it for now the Mystery Force — that will be the main focus of this project, and that I’ll be introducing last.

    All this will be laid out here in time.  For now, let me introduce each of these other systemic forces in a very brief, even sketchy fashion.  Then in a second round, I’ll develop each of them a bit more fully.

    This first one, as I said in the previous posting — about the nature of systems — concerns how “the unplanned structure of the system of interacting human societies — more than human nature — has determined the overall direction that civilization has developed.”  I’ll add that the impact of this systemic force has been far from benign. I believe it to be the greatest single source of the downside of human history, of the tale of violence and bloodshed, of tyranny and oppression, that stains the chronicles of our kind for the past perhaps ten millennia.

    For now I’ll just give a suggestive nugget that, I’ll argue, helps substantiate this idea (which is the core of my book The Parable of the Tribes).

    In his book Theory of Culture Change, the anthropologist Julian H. Steward notes the striking parallels of development among the five civilizations that apparently arose independently in different parts of the earth:  Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Meso-America, and Peru.  He outlines five stages bridging the course of development from hunting-and-gathering societies to the emergence of full-scale civilization.  We can compare the description of the third (Formative Era) with the fifth (Cyclical Conquest) of these stages:

    “In the Formative Era, state warfare was probably of minor importance.  There is little archaeological evidence of militarism, and it is likely that the warfare was limited to raids.” (p. 202)

    But then:

    “The diagnostic features of [the Cyclical Conquest period] are the emergence of large-scale militarism, the extension of political and economic domination over large areas or empires, a strong tendency toward urbanization, and the construction of fortifications.” (p. 196)

    With respect to the parallel development of these five pristine civilizations, I’d like to stress the following points:

    1) First, the earlier stages involved a multiplicity of different societies which, in time, converged toward fewer social entities, empires consolidated under more central domination.  Thus, in each case, whole groups of civilized people are converging toward a diminishing set of cultural options.

    2) The cultural directions toward which they are gravitating — like the iron filings in the fable of the magnet — do not appear to be more desirable than those they are leaving behind.  In all the world’s great religions, people pray for peace, not war.  But here is social evolution taking people in the direction of greater militarism, more warfare, and life behind fortifications.

    3) From the fact that parallel processes drove these different civilizations, and the various groups that started out in those areas, toward a destination that is undesirable, I believe it can be inferred, I believe, that something other than human choice is driving the direction of social evolution.  

    That “something” is what my book The Parable of the Tribes is about.

    Just how and why that is, I will explore in the second round presentation of these “magnets.”  For now, let me just say two things:

    First, the circumstances confronted by the people living thousands of years ago in these nascent civilizations made their subordination to unchosen and undesirable systemic forces inevitable.  It was a fate there was no plausible way they could escape.  For us now, however, at this point in civilization’s development, the situation is different.  Even as the systemic force that warped the development of those earlier civilizations has continued to operate in our times, the possibility has been growing for humankind to control those forces and exercise far greater control over the structure and spirit of our societies.

    Second, if you don’t want to wait until the next round to learn more about “the parable of the tribes,” you can find the first chapter of my book, where the core idea is systematically laid out, on the web at

    There's no paywall on Blue Virginia, and we definitely want to keep it that way! If you want to help support our work, you can donate here - thanks! Also, you can sign up for our weekly email list here.