The Parable of the Tribes: Step One A Breakthrough Unprecedented in the History of Life


    In the next three “Swinging for the Fences” postings, I will present the core idea of The Parable of the Tribes in three steps, using passages from the first chapter of the book. (The entire first chapter can be found at

    The first step makes the point that when human beings left the niche in which they had evolved biologically — with the domestication of plants and animals, engineering the natural world to provide them sustenance instead of living, as did hunter-gatherers, off of what nature spontaneously provided — they created a new situation in the history of life on earth: a living entity constrained by no order. Civilized societies were no longer governed by a biologically-evolved order, and there was no human-designed order to regulate their interactions.

    This set the stage for the emergence of a social evolutionary force that would warp how civilized human societies would develop, as I’ll describe in the next two entries.

    Here are some passages from the chapter that relate to these ideas:

    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….

    [O]ur ancestors developed culture over hundreds of thousands of years without greatly disrupting the continuity in the relationships among individual, society, and the natural order. As long as human societies sustained their lives with the food that nature spontaneously provided, they could develop culturally only within strict limits.

    Then came a major cultural innovation in the technology of subsistence. When plants and animals were domesticated, mankind began truly to depart from the place in the living order given it by nature.

    … [T]he new abundance brought about by developing agriculture made possible open-ended changes in the previously fixed size and structure of human society…The biologically evolved constraints suddenly were removed, and the mushrooming forth of new civilized social structures could and did occur.

    With all things apparently possible, it is disturbing to see what actually developed. In the five thousand years following the first steps out of the hunter-gatherer way of life, full-scale civilization arose and showed a frightening face. The social equality of primitives gave way to rigid stratification, with the many compelled to serve the few. Warfare became far more important, more chronic, and more bloody and destructive. And the new dominion of man over nature had already begun to turn the green mantle that covered the birthplace of civilization into a rough and rocky desert.

    … [A]s cultural evolution erupted into civilization, something strange happened to human freedom. As man became freer of the controls of nature, [as I will show,] he became subject to new, perhaps harsher necessities.

    Paradoxically, the very open-endedness of human possibilities created forces that drove human destiny in a direction that people did not and would not choose.

    In the next two entries, I’ll describe the other two steps that led to this unwanted but unavoidable social evolutionary force.

    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.  He is the author of various books including Out of Weakness:  Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War.  


    Sign up for the Blue Virginia weekly newsletter

    Previous articleVirginia News Headlines: Monday Morning
    Next articleVideo: Mark Herring for AG Campaign Launches Website, New Ad