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I’m unfolding here a project I’m calling, because of its ambitiousness, “Swinging for the Fences.”

There have been two previous postings here for this project:  
"Toward An Integrative Vision for a Better Human Future", and

"Swinging for the Fences: The Fable of the Magnet,

I am preparing the ground for what I believe is the most illuminating way of understanding what’s gone wrong in America in our times, as well as an important dimension of human affairs generally.  My hope is that what I’m in the process of developing here can play a constructive role in inspiring and guiding the efforts of people around the world, in years to come, to move our civilization toward a more humane, more just, more viable form.

In the next several "Swinging for the Fences" postings,* 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

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 The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What do you think of James DeMeo's Saharasia? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mookins, slothlax

    Personally, I find his theories on the origins of human militarism to be quite plausible. Basically, the theory proposes that hierarchical, militaristic societies developed due to the impact of major climate shifts on newly settled agricultural societies. Before that, drought and famine caused low level violence, but mostly tribes moved on from afflicted areas. After we developed agriculture and settled down, that was no longer so easy to do. Plus, we had more organization.

    He backs up his theories with some major research, a survey of thousands of cultures worldwide and throughout history. The further a culture is from these major climatic events, the more "matristic" it is. The closer it is, the more "patristic" (his terms.)

    Matristic cultures are like those described by Jean Liedloff in The Continuum Concept: they have no rigid sex roles, no hierarchy to speak of, they are quite peaceful, and they never use violence on children. Patristic cultures are like ours: hierarchical, violent, misogynistic, and usually with some sort of ritualized child abuse, such as genital mutliation or a "spare the rod, spoil the child" mentality.

    Historically, there is little evidence for militarism before the 5.9 kiloyear event. In Saharasia, James DeMeo argues that it was that event that brought about militaristic, violent, misogynistic culture. Basically, we had a whole generation of PTSD parents raising a whole generation of brain damaged children (famine causes loss of myelinization.)

    Your thoughts?

    •  three steps (0+ / 0-)

      I don't think we have need of that sort of an explanation.  As I see it, the step of human beings to extricate themselves from the niche in which they evolved created an unprecedented discontinuity in the history of life.  The Parable of the Tribes builds on that.

        I will be posting more about this here in the weeks/months to come.  For now, let me invite you please to see how I lay out my theory in Chapter 1, which is on the web at

      See what you think about my argument for the inevitability of this move toward the ways of power.

      •  Pretty quick to dismiss other theories (0+ / 0-)

        I'll be honest with you, I've read chapter one, and you seem to misunderstand evolution and how it operates. The key misunderstanding is this:

        "Each piece of the intricate pattern of life must play its specific and narrow role in the whole."

        Nope. There are no set roles, not for genes, not for individuals, and not for species. You see, there are many, many different ways of doing things, biologically, and no set of genes does just one thing. No (or very few) mutations are simply good or bad, on their own. It is the near infinite combinations of different things that create change. Something that served one purpose at one time serves another later on.

        Consider three potential mutations. One creates a breakdown in a biological chain, leading to a buildup of a certain toxin. It isn't fatal, though, and it even does some good, by (oh, say) making muscles more efficient. Another mutation transmutes that toxin into something even worse. Get both of those, and it IS fatal. But, there is the third mutation, and this one provides an immunity to the second toxin. Get all three, and the animal is now toxic to predators, AND has better functioning muscles.

        There is no goal in evolution, thus, there is no "advancement." There is simply motion, and change. What is adaptive to day may be fatal tomorrow. By adapting, things change the very environment to which they have adapted.

        Also, Hobbes was flat out wrong about nature. It is at least as much about cooperation, mutualism, and commensalism as it is about strict competition. If that were not the case, multi celled organisms would never have evolved. And looking at social evolution, we see that is still the case.

        This is because cooperation is almost always more efficient than competition. The natural world presents us with both local scarcities, and local surplus. Therefore, unless times are very bad and resources scarce, trade and cooperation make more sense than competition. There is no natural reason for neighboring societies to compete rather than cooperate.

        In short, to be totally honest, I see some major flaws in your reasoning, but please don't take that as any sort of insult, it is just my opinion.

        •  misunderstandings (0+ / 0-)

          Speaking of misunderstandings...

          It's not my concern to dismiss or embrace any other theory with which I've only the most superficial impression.

          You say:  "There are no set roles"-- depends what you mean by "set roles."  There's no one setting anything in the evolutionary process, but as you say cooperation has advantages, so that the tendency of evolution is to create cycles that work for the whole. The predator and the prey and the grass the prey graze on will, in time, evolve into roles in the system that work for maintaining the system.  In the nitrogen cycle, to name one example, different parts of the system play different roles.

          You say:  "There's no goal in evolution..." true enough, at least apparently.  But there have been tendencies.  More complex organisms come later than simpler one, because complexity takes longer to develop.  It took more time from the beginning of life until the first organism of more than one cell than from that first multi-cellular organism until now.  And the emergence of a creature with a brain adequate to engage in discussion came practically moments ago, in the context of the 3.5 billion year evolution of life.

          As for Hobbes, you misunderstand what I say about Hobbes.  I say explicitly that he misunderstands what he calls "the state of nature," because he thought the original condition of human beings was in a state of anarchy like what he was witnessing in his native England at a time of revolution and counter-revolution.  Where I cite Hobbes as having insight is in his characterization of anarchy as inevitably entail a war of all against all.  A struggle for power.  

          I wrote in that chapter you read:  "In his classic, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1960) describes what he calls ‘the state of nature’ as an anarchic situation in which all are compelled, for their very survival, to engage in a ceaseless struggle for power. About this ‘war of all against all,’ two important points should be made: that Hobbes’s vision of the dangers of anarchy captured an important dimension of the human condition [after the rise of civilization,] and that to call that condition ‘the state of nature’ is a remarkable misnomer."
          That war of all against all, I say, was the state of "unnature" into which humankind plunged when we left the niche in which we'd evolved biologically and entered into a situation --in the new system of interacting civilized societies-- that was governed by no order, biological or man-made.
          •  As an anarchist, I want to point out another thing (0+ / 0-)

            Anarchy comes from the Greek "An" meaning "no" or "against" and "Archon" meaning ruler or tyrant. It means "no tyrants" or "opposed to hierarchy." It does not mean "no rules" or "no government."

            There is no state of "unnature." A human dam is no less natural than a beaver dam. And we were not "plunged" into a new state, various sorts of "society" have existed in nature for millions of years, our genetic evolution and social evolution have been happening in tandem for a very, very long time. Just look at the social differences between chimpanzees and bonobos, the pygmy chimpanzee. Chimps, living with more scarcity, are more hierarchical, while bonobos, who live in a richer environment, are much more egalitarian.

            In studying cybernetics, one comes to understand that "governance" is nothing more than order that emerges out of tightly coupled feedback loops, it is not something imposed from outside. More successful and dynamic societies can and have displaced less successful societies, not only through violence, but also through cultural diffusion. People outside a given culture take on the trappings of a more vibrant culture because they see the benefit of doing so.

            Interacting civilized societies have co-existed with one another peacefully for a long time before organized violence started to occur. I feel that the Saharasia theory provides a useful viewpoint that explains why organized human violence appeared when and where it did. It also explains why it became locked into our collective psyche. I'm not sure how your theories explain that, but then I have only read the first chapter of your book.

  •  I was recently thinking how the ancestors (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    inhabited all of the earth without guns and without capitalism.

    We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.

    by PowWowPollock on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 07:09:05 PM PST

  •  I disagree with the premise (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I think we did choose this path because it works better for us.  I believe what ever violence increased militarism and a greater capacity for warfare have created has to be balanced against the longer life spans and lower rates of homicide and other less serious forms of violence our societies foster.  Not to mention the virtual elimination of the threats wild animals pose and our ability to amass resources which allows us to ride out natural disasters and changes in weather patterns.

    There is truth on all sides. The question is how much.

    by slothlax on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 07:31:51 PM PST

    •  Evidently It Started With the Beer. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      slothlax, hooper

      We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

      by Gooserock on Wed Feb 13, 2013 at 07:39:42 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  as you say (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      "There is truth on all sides."  You say you disagree with the premise of my argument, but actually what you disagree with is my conclusion.  I spent fourteen years of my life, more or less, articulating and developing and substantiating the argument that supports my conclusion.  Check out the argument-- one reviewer said he tried to poke holes in it, but found himself compelled by the argument to assent.  Could that happen to you?

      •  It certainly could (0+ / 0-)

        I'm sure there is much in your argument that I would have to agree with as fact and much of your conclusions I would agree with.

        Perhaps it is more precise to say that I disagree with the assumption that

        ...parallel processes drove these different civilizations...toward a destination that is undesirable
        I feel that we live in a safer, more secure time in our current society than the people who lived in previous stages of societal development, for the reasons I stated previously.  I simply reject the idea that we live in an undesirable form of societal organization.  I think the focus on militarism and centralization overlooks the benefits of these trends and downplays other forms of violence and insecurity.

        Mind you, I am simply stating my opinions and observations, I have not spent nearly as much time and intensity studying these ideas as you seem to have.  So thank you for bringing forward your ideas, I certainly have no monopoly on the truth.

        There is truth on all sides. The question is how much.

        by slothlax on Fri Feb 15, 2013 at 12:02:59 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  the course of civilization (0+ / 0-)

          In the above piece, slothlax, I am describing a course of social evolution that led to the emergence of the first full-blown civilized societies in these five different areas. In the case of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the time-line involved concludes more than 4000 years ago.  

          Your response above, by contrast, is as if my calling the destination "undesirable" refers to where social evolution has brought advanced societies today.

          Using Steward, I am saying that whatever was determining the (apparently independent) course of social development in those earlier stages led to developments that were undesirable.  Tyranny, war, and most of the people living in some sort of bondage-- sounds undesirable to me.

          My argument is not that social evolution favors what's bad for people, but rather that it is driven by forces that are not altogether governed by human needs.  That indifference to human needs means that at some stages it could lead to injurious results, while at other stages it leads to beneficial results.

          I've not yet here put forward much of my argument. But if one were to be persuaded that the force I identify has indeed operated from early in the civilizing process up into our times, then one could agree with you that we --at least in today's advanced societies-- are fortunate to live in our kind of society, AND AT THE SAME TIME recognize that if the same forces that brought about the undesirable developments of millennia ago have brought us to this more desirable state, we need to bring that force under control because it is not a force to be trusted to determine the human future.

  •  not sure I agree about most major religions (0+ / 0-)

    embracing pacifism as while they glorify peace, in the undertones of each text is the message to mistrust your neighbors (the surviving ones) and to be ready to go to war in an instant in response to any threat to your faith.

    As a rough guess, I would say that in any of the great religions' holy book, there are warlike metaphors and stories of war twice as frequently as there are exhortations to peace and cooperation, if not more

    •  brokenness contaminates everything (0+ / 0-)

      I certainly agree that one can find destructive and broken elements in most if not all of the world's major religions-- some of these being manifested in the texts and some in the way the religion gets cast in any given culture.

      Nonetheless, the deeper value commitment is in general toward life and peace over death and war.

      The Golden Rule, and the same idea articulated by Rabbi Hillel, and the teachings of Buddha on compassion and non-anger, and the Islamic greeting of "Salam," all these things reflect an attempt, at the core of the religion, to promote a spirit of peace.

      But yes, in this broken world, everything can get twisted and broken and turned into a lie-- the way the cross of the man who said "Blessed are the peacemakers" eventually becomes the sign behind which Constantine the Roman Emperor marches off to war.

      •  more than that; Constantine claimed to have seen (0+ / 0-)

        a vision of the Cross and then used that as a rubric behind which to rally his forces and route his enemies, which was the first recorded example, though far from the last, of the Cross being used as an icon of war

  •  Great book, imo, the Parable of the Tribes. (0+ / 0-)

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