What Shapes Our World: II. The Reign of Power
(Second in a three part series on “What Shapes Our World.” The first was on “Evolution.” The next one will be on “Good Battling Evil.”)
Why History Is Not Human Nature Writ Large
For life on earth, the breakthrough into civilization was a step into uncharted territory. It’s not surprising, therefore, that it had disruptive consequences.
In fact, it was inevitable that civilization — life’s new experiment, in which humankind became the first creature to step out of the niche in which it evolved biologically – would unleash systemic forces that would drive civilized societies to develop in a general direction people did not choose, for reasons not determined by human nature.
The dynamic that drove the direction of civilization’s evolution I call “the parable of the tribes.” It demonstrates how it was inevitable that the shaping of civilization would be driven by a selective process in which only the ways of power can survive and spread.
Here’s how that comes about.
At first glance, a creature’s inventing its own way of life would seem to give it freedom, as new possibilities open up outside the constraints that were part of the creature’s ecological niche (a niche that fit into an encompassing natural order).
But when human beings began to shape the natural world in new, culturally-invented ways (to get more out of the earth to meet human needs), that break with the ways of living that had long characterized our evolution as primates removed not only the constraints of the natural order but also its protections:
The biologically evolved order had always regulated the interactions within the system in ways that preserve the viability of the whole system. Then civilization’s escape from that order inevitably produced a new kind of anarchy: for there could be no order to regulate how various civilized societies will interact with each other.
No biologically evolved order could regulate those interactions, because civilized societies – societies structured by cultural innovations (a new kind of life-form) – had escaped from those constraints. (Not like the balances reached between lion and zebra and grass.)
Nor could any human-designed order end the anarchy among societies and ensure that those interactions served the system as a whole. Anarchy among societies is inevitable because the overall system of civilized societies necessarily emerged in fragmentary form.
That lack of order means anarchy and, as has long been observed, anarchy inevitably generates a struggle for power.
That struggle for power – combined with open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation – generates a selective process: over time, it is inevitably only the ways of power that can survive and spread. Other cultural possibilities – however humane and beautiful, if they are incapable of surviving anarchy’s “war of all against all” — get eliminated.
This selection for the ways of power – an inevitable result of the inevitable disorder accompanying the breakthrough into civilization – inevitably drives the development of civilization in directions chosen by the anarchic environment, not by the people.
Civilized societies were shaped by the reign of power.
What first appears to be a new freedom turns out to condemn humankind — the innovative species — to a new kind of bondage: caught up in a social evolutionary power driven by the demands of power.
Power reigns not because of human nature, but because of the inevitable properties of the anarchic system that the emergence of this new life-form brought forth.
Any creature – on this or any other planet – that might step out of its biologically evolved niche to create civilization would find itself plunged into the same painful and destructive reign of power.
To survive, then, it has inevitably been mandatory for civilized societies to meet the demands of power, even when those demands conflict with the meeting of human needs. That’s the big human dilemma: for these past 10,000 years, the requirements for a society’s surviving that anarchic struggle have not been identical to those for meeting the needs of its members —i.e. inborn human needs that were shaped for meeting the requirements of a very different life in a very differently ordered world.
Internalizing the requirements of societies shaped by power-maximization, and moving through a traumatic history in which amoral power has ruled, cannot help but be at least somewhat wounding. To the extent that our societies teach their young to regard their own needs as wrong and unacceptable, to that extent the creature is set out war with itself.
Understanding how this dynamic is an inevitable consequence of humankind’s creative breakthrough into inventing its own way of life should change the way we see ourselves as a species.
When we look upon the saga of humanity over the past 10,000 years, we should focus NOT on the monstrous conduct (and monstrous people) we so often see on history’s pages. That ugliness is but the effect of a deeper cause.
We should see ourselves, rather, as having stumbled inadvertently (but inevitably) into an impossible situation with which we humans have done our very best to cope.
We did not choose this kind of history. And the tormented pages of human history are NOT human nature writ large.
This perspective shows there is no reason to believe that human beings are inherently incapable of creating a more whole world. There didn’t have to be anything wrong with us as a species to stumble into a situation where we have created a world where something has been seriously wrong.
And history is filled with ways that human beings have tried to make their world more whole.
We don’t need to be different creatures to build a more whole human world. But we do need to order the world differently, so that power doesn’t rule. And we also must deal also with the significant wounds that our previous history of “war against all” and “the reign of power” has already inflicted upon us.
Andy Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (published by the University of California Press, Houghton Mifflin, and SUNY Press).