by Bud Nye
I wanted to respond to NTHE Question #11, “Why is this happening? Or, better yet, When did it start?” Unfortunately, I have found that I cannot comment any longer at NBL due to Page Not Found errors. Partly for this reason, and partly because of its length, I decided instead to write this essay in response to Question #11. Here, using gender neutral language and writing in E-Prime (English without using “is”), I have paraphrased in my own words two short sections found early in Andrew Schmookler’s book, The Parable of the Tribes, The Problem of Power In Social Evolution (1995). The first section reviews the parable of the tribes while the second one presents “A Tragic View of Human Destiny” (pp. 31-32). Finally, I make some comments that connect this essay with other important ideas found in several other places.
A brief review of the parable of the tribes
Schmookler’s parable of the tribes contains the lesson that no one has the freedom to choose peace while anyone can impose the necessity for power upon all. To illustrate this principle, imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace then all many live in peace. But what if one tribe has ambitions for expansion and conquest while the others choose peace? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Four possibilities exist: (1) the ambitious tribe may attack and defeat another tribe, utterly destroying its people and seizing its lands for use of the victors. (2) It may defeat another tribe, but rather than exterminate its people it may subjugate them and transform them to serve the victors. (3) Another tribe might flee from the area into some inaccessible (and relatively undesirable) place, while its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe. (4) Another tribe, observing these developments, might decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. Ironically, successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a group to become more like the group that threatens it. Only power can stop power, and if a threatening group has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive group will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.
Thus, four possible outcomes exist for threatened groups: destruction, subjugation, withdrawal, or defense (imitation), and in every one of these outcomes the ways of power spread throughout the system. Schmookler calls this the parable of the tribes.
The inevitable spread of power through social systems serves as a powerful theory of social evolution. It strongly shows that power works as a contaminant, a disease, that once introduced will gradually yet inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies or groups [and I suspect within families and among individuals as well]. Once it begins, the profound social evolutionary consequences of the struggle for power has more importance than the inevitability of the struggle: a selection for power among civilized groups inevitably occurs—and, significantly, this happens despite the preferences of the people involved. Civilization, a direct consequence of the energy made available through agriculture, brought this new evolutionary principle into the world. Here we find the social evolutionary black hole that we have sought as an explanation for the harmful warp in the course of civilization’s development. This idea has great simplicity, and its logic compelling.
A Tragic View of Human Destiny
Since the rise of civilization, a strong note of torment has occurred in the human condition. The problem has involved not only that the circumstances of civilized life entailed suffering, but also that the suffering brought guilt: those afflicted often believe that they experience someone or something justifiably punishing them. All the more reason occurs for a sense of collective guilt when so many of the world’s ills seem to come directly from the minds and hands of humans. A theme therefore recurs in the thoughts of civilized peoples that humans have a flawed and sinful nature, and that this sinfulness plays a causal role in the agonies of humankind. Indeed, that view occurs very frequently today, even among people with no theology of sin and retribution. [Note the many comments posted here at NBL that express this theme.] Those who see in our species a threat to the survival of the entire ecosystem, who look upon the carnage we inflict upon our own kind, and who regard the ever-growing mountains of armaments as a manifestation of insanity also seem to suffer guilt for belonging to so dangerous a species. Using a very commonsense view of human action, they regard the unquestionable destructiveness of our works as indisputable proof of the monstrosity of human nature. [In my previous essays, “McPherson’s Wrong!?” (https://guymcpherson.com/2014/06/mcphersons-wrong-about-global-warming-thoughts-on-some-possible-psychological-and-emotional-motivations-for-the-attacks-on-guy-mcpherson/ ) and “What ‘purpose’ do I have?” (https://guymcpherson.com/2014/07/bits-from-reese-jones-and-bud-nye-and-an-idea-from-daniel-drumright/ ) I expressed a similar view as did the late, famous clinical psychologist Albert Ellis. Though humans probably qualify as a fundamentally insane species, the parable of the tribes suggests that the civilizational drive for power for the most part does not serve as an expression of that insanity as I previously indicated. Indeed, paradoxically many choices that humans have made based on the constraints of the inevitable spread of power among social groups suggest sane thinking and behavior, in those situations, despite their ultimately tragic consequences for us and other life on Earth. Might a sometimes rational-thinking species behave in ways to produce the sixth mass extinction? Unfortunately, yes. The parable of the tribes explains how and why.]
People who adopt the parable of the tribes do not hold the human monstrosity view. This theory does not advocate an indictment of human nature. It emphasizes that irresistible social evolutionary forces that have swept us along since the (agriculture-based) breakthrough to civilization have depended very little on human nature for their origin and their direction. The social change process toward ever increasing aggression and domination required only that: (1) we have creativity enough to develop culture to a certain (temporary) point of freedom from natural limits, and that (2) we have the capability of aggressive behavior—not necessarily an inclination toward it. Almost any animal can behave aggressively under the right conditions. If a society needs its members primed for collective aggressiveness, the society can bring out that inherent capacity for aggressiveness, encouraging it to hyper-develop. We have no need for Ardreyesque images of bloodthirsty primate hunters to explain the bloodiness of civilized history. [See Robert Ardrey’s books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative.] Thus, any creature who met those two requirements would have experienced a similar fate. Its nascent civilized culture would, like ours, have gotten caught up in the parable of the tribes with its social evolution compelled toward power maximization including all of its destructiveness. Similarly, wherever else in this immense universe life may have evolved, and evolved to the point where a cultural creature has temporarily broken free of some biological energy constraints, we may suppose that the same problem of power has arisen. Unless circumstances of terrain prevented simultaneous contact and anarchy among societies, the parable of the tribes would plague these extraterrestrial civilizations as well. The eruption of such cultural freedom out of the tight, preexisting biological energy order inevitably leads to the problem of power.
It seems more than appropriate to feel alarmed about the destructiveness of our civilized systems. It also seems fitting that we each take responsibility to do what we can to avert catastrophe. But no good reason exists for tormenting ourselves for guilt as a species. Nature laid down the path of our misdeeds before us like a streambed where the rainwaters inevitably flow. Civilization, as we see in in history, has occurred neither as the fruit of human choice nor as a reflection of fundamental human nature. It remains true that our problems stem from our not staying in the place originally given us by nature, but this occurred not due to any special hubris or ambition on our part, but due to our creativity. We live like the hero who cannot escape the fate described before their birth by an oracle. As the old and chastened Oedipus says of himself in Oedipus at Colonus, “we have suffered our deeds more than we have acted them, have been more the victim than the criminal”. Individuals who qualify as neither murderous nor suicidal may find themselves forced to choose between murderous and suicidal courses of action. When unchosen overarching circumstances foreclose all acceptable options, one cannot regard the subsequent choice as a free choice.
The parable of the tribes presents a tragic picture of human destiny. The parallel with tragedy goes beyond that of the inevitability surrounding the action. We discover also the tragic paradox that first confounds one’s common sense and then leads one to a deeper awareness. We find the hero of tragedy trapped in a world where everything seems paradoxically twisted into its opposite. The hero’s very blessings become their curses. Their strengths become their weaknesses. Their freedom of action becomes the means of their entrapment. So, also, according to the parable of the tribes, humanity exists in relation to the evolving systems of their own creation. A tragic paradox changed humanity’s liberation from the energy-limited regime of nature into bondage to the ways of power based on the energy made available first through agriculture and later through fossil fuels. Because all things seemed possible, one thing—power—became necessary. The very fact of open-ended development based on new, temporarily available sources of energy sealed the trap shut.
The insight of tragedy involves the fact that while humanity can do much, we cannot control the consequences of our heroic doings. Like Heracles, humanity has gained great strength and, maddened by forces beyond our ken, we use this strength to murder our own family. Like Oedipus, we explore the mysteries of the origin of our kingship and discover blood upon our hands. We tragic heroes propel the action, but do not have mastery of our destiny. In the same way the parable of the tribes shows that with the rise of civilization human creativity ceased to drive the mill of cultural evolution but rather became its grist.
Yet the fall of the tragic hero has occurred paradoxically, the very loss becoming a kind of gift. Humiliation transforms by a deeper awareness into a saving humility. Only when the tragic hero recognizes their limits in the face of forces beyond their control can they cease to assume the role of helpless victims, the prey of a destructive destiny of their own unintended creation. So also with civilized peoples. Only when we attain a tragic wisdom about our story can we hope to lead history beyond tragedy.
I think that Schmookler’s parable of the tribes beautifully explains how non-equilibrium thermodynamics and Howard Odum’s maximum power principle express themselves in human social systems. (See Odum’s Environment, Power, And Society For The Twenty-First Century, The Hierarchy of Energy, 2007.) Schmookler: “…societies inevitably and naturally select for power.” Schmookler suggests that, yes, “humans are insane”, but we exhibit our insanity like lions and baboons imprisoned within a zoo, not expressing our behaviors in the more cooperative ways that we did as hunter-gatherers over hundreds of thousands of years in the environment within which evolution adapted us. With the coming of civilization—which occurred through biological systems maximizing power—we suffer from a severe mismatch between the environments we evolved in and our new environments, which consist largely of cities.
Just one of many possible examples of our insanity within our civilizational zoo involves the grandiose narcissism that occurs so blatantly and so often throughout societies today. Consider how often here at NBL, almost every day, people scream at each other variations on the theme of “How DARE you suggest that things don’t work as I believe they do!”: “You’re an idiot.” “You’re so full of bullshit….” “You are a simpleton.” “How old are you? Six?” Bigotry and sectarianism? Yes, right here in River City: strongly held magical religious, political, and economic beliefs; strongly held science-based beliefs and opinions; the list continues without end of people insisting on their favorite (abstract, symbolic) ideas of how the world presumably must work: the idea that “MY way is the RIGHT way!”—and, world-wide, often willing to kill others for and/or to die for those abstract, self-centered demands about how the world “should” work.
Most anthropologists now concur that Neanderthals occupied Europe for over 100,000 years without expanding their territory by crossing major bodies of water and without causing the extinction of megafauna species. We very closely related humans, on the other hand (and so closely related that we interbred with Neanderthals), expanded our territory by crossing major bodies of water, and we quickly caused megafauna extinctions wherever we went. For some of the evolutionary genetics research regarding an apparent human “Faustian gene”, see the work of the “father of paleogenetics” Svante Pääbo. He thinks that we should have the ability to identify the basis for our madness by comparing Neanderthal and human DNA. “If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.” “We are crazy in some way. What drives it? That I would really like to understand. That would be really, really cool to know.” (These quotes come from The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2014.)
So it appears that all humans have a strong predisposition for insanity: for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that remain out of touch with physical, biological reality. Meanwhile, a continuum may exist across cultures such that some cultures express that insanity predisposition much more often and more intensely than others. Across all of human history, it seems likely to me that modern industrial civilization, with most of us living in our city-zoos radically disconnected and alienated from the real biological world in which we evolved, expresses our highly emotional human insanity predisposition much more frequently and more strongly than any previous human or non-human culture. Thus we proceed with causing the sixth and fastest mass extinction in geological history, and our own self-annihilation, just as quickly and efficiently as possible.
What do societies inevitably and naturally selecting for power, and the severe mismatch between the environments we evolved in and our new environments, imply? One important implication involves the idea that it makes no sense to blame ourselves for much of the human and ecological horror that has occurred throughout history and continues today. Why not? Because the biological (see Howard Odum), physical (see non-equilibrium thermodynamics and complexity theory), and social (see Andrew Schmookler) SELECTIVE PROCESSES work outside of the arena of human existence. It seems to me that Lewis Mumford (The Myth of the Machine, The Pentagon of Power) did a wonderful job of explaining historically what happened, while Schmookler does a superb job of explaining, with significant detail, the processes of how and why it happened socially, again, as an expression of Odum’s maximum power principle with humans, and subsequently negatively impacting many other species as well(!), victims of the processes. Does it make sense for us to feel alarmed about our destructiveness, especially the destructiveness of our civilized systems, and to work and fight to minimize that destructiveness? Yes, certainly. But emotionally raging against ourselves and against these physical, biological, and social processes makes about as much sense as raging against gravity. (Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, anger does not serve as a necessary or good motivator for effective action. As just one of hundreds of possible examples of evidence of this assertion, consider the obviously counterproductive ineffectiveness of the many childish, angry, ad hominem attacks, insults, and counter-attacks so often made here and on other blogs.)As I described in my essay, “What ‘purpose’ do I have?” the fundamental processes of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, complexity theory, and the maximum power principle produced life, along with the social selection for power among humans, and those overriding principles, those laws of nature, ultimately determine the course of life on Earth, including human life, NOT HUMANS with our religious, economic, and scientific beliefs and technology.
But self-centered human supremacist beliefs run deep among us, and they die hard. Meanwhile, the ideas of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, complexity theory, and the parable of the tribes, which have resulted in human-caused ecological collapse and global warming, as well as the idea of soon-coming human extinction, all directly and dramatically challenge the grandiose, human supremacist beliefs that “Humans are special in the universe” and “I am special in the universe.” Do I in particular and humans in general, qualify as unique? Yes, surely. Do we qualify as special in the universe, fundamentally different from other life? No. Certainly not.
Why do we so often have so much trouble integrating these realities within our thinking and emotions when we have known for most of our lives that we would die? At least a partial answer to this, I think, looks like this. We grew up in an arrogant, narcissistic civilization with deeply held human supremacist values that far more often than not deny death. Whether we wanted it to happen or not, we deeply internalized these beliefs and values in highly emotional, usually non-conscious ways. The parable of the tribes, and the now near certainty of near term human extinction, crush these very deeply held, grandiose, human-centered, self-centered, human supremacist beliefs.
Let’s consider one interesting and important implication of all of this. Especially given that, as David Ehrenfeld wrote, “The world is not only more complex than we think, it is more complex than we are capable of thinking” it amounts to an arrogant, human supremacist assumption that any of us might presumably know how the world really should work. Yet many of us strongly believe that the human caused sixth mass extinction now well under way supposedly should not happen. How do we personally resolve the cognitive dissonance that results from these two mutually contradictory beliefs? We can repress the reality-based evidence and reasoning, deny its relevance, and more strongly embrace our grandiose, self-centered, wishful thinking, or we can revise our cherished model, redrawing our maps more accurately to represent the territory, and change our paradigms as needed. If we do the latter, we realize that the laws of nature determine the course of life on Earth, including human life, not humans with our many magical, grandiose, self-centered beliefs, no matter how much we may grieve the horrific loss of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of species, including our own. Acknowledging and accepting the apparent realities of our predicament does not mean that we cannot or should not work and fight for needed changes. It does mean that we need not burden ourselves with counter-productive guilt and shame as we do the needed inner grief work and outer social change work.
Among so many other losses, somewhat like giving up the belief in Santa Clause I find myself grieving the loss of my deeply held, childish, self-centered, grandiose beliefs concerning my alleged “special” place in the universe that I learned so “well” as a child. Perhaps some others reading this find themselves grieving the loss of those beliefs as well.
Extinction Support Group (ESG)
Almost two years ago two friends and I started a group in Tacoma that we now call our Extinction Support Group (ESG). We meet once a month in order to provide social and emotional support for those who understand what we see happening in the world. For most people this understanding comes in emotionally and socially painful ways. Very easy to manage, the group works informally and with a continually changing meeting leadership. If anyone would like a copy of our most recent Agenda and Tool Kit as a template for help in starting a similar group of your own, I will feel glad to send you a copy if you will send me an email request at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch McPherson’s latest interview by Reese Jones here. It leads to others, too.
Catch Nature Bats Last on the radio with Mike Sliwa and Guy McPherson. Tune in every Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, or catch up in the archives here. If you prefer the iTunes version, including the option to subscribe, you can click here.
I apologize for the extremely unprofessional behavior exhibited by the Progressive Radio Network staff on 16 September 2014. Nature Bats Last on the radio was “postponed” 70 minutes before it was scheduled to air. No reason was provided by the studio, and no alternative dates have been proposed.
McPherson’s forthcoming book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind has been submitted to the publisher and is scheduled for release before 1 October 2014.
Find and join the Near-Term Human Extinction Support Group on Facebook here
If you have registered, or you intend to register, please send an email message to email@example.com. Include the online moniker you’d like to use in this space. I’ll approve your registration as quickly as possible. Thanks for your patience.
Going Dark is available from the publisher here, from Amazon here, from Amazon on Kindle here, from Barnes & Noble on Nook here, and as a Google e-book here. Going Dark was reviewed by Carolyn Baker at Speaking Truth to Power, Anne Pyterek at Blue Bus Books, and by more than three dozen readers at Amazon.