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The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of…

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

by Andrew Bard Schmookler

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This book is a somewhat abridged version of the author's dissertation at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. It is a theory of the evolution of civilization using a very simple and effective heuristic. Schmookler's theory expains why, despite humans' capacity for rational choice, human society exhibits so many negative features which no sane person would ever choose freely. He explains that prior to the origin of the state, one "tribe" must have expanded beyond its ecological means, and conflict eventualy ensued when they found surrounding groups did not assent to this expansion. From this critical point on, Schmookler claims, the selection for power--not natural selection--will determine the course of social evolution, which has brought us to where we are today. The reason there is no other option for the non-expansionists is that they are presented with only four possible reponses, all of which perpetuate the selection for power: war, retreat, assimilation, and destruction.

Schmookler claims no credit for the "parable," citing anthropologists and sociologists who have recognized it before him. Unlike his predecessors, though, he spends his entire dissertation exploring the potential fields of influence into which the selection for power may extend, including national politics, economics, psychlogy, and international affairs. I found all of these analyses compelling, to varying degrees. His solution to the seemingly inescapable mire of civilization is unsatisfactory, however. He seems to buy into the claim that international democracy holds the key, despite its persistent failure to live up to its ideals. Apparently, the problem with civilization is that there's not enough yet! I think there may be an escape route he didn't mention that guerilla resistance movements have found out of the trap. Is it possible to wage effective war without perpetuating power, to remain decentralized using methods of guerilla warfare that we have seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America? This may turn out to be a pipe dream just as liberal democracy has proven to be. In any case, Schmookler has described in detail what we're up against if we desire to influence the course of human society in any way besides that of the greatest concentration of power. ( )
  dmac7 | Jun 14, 2013 |
I found this was a difficult book to read - partially due to the complexity of the subject matter but equally due to the writing style. The basic argument is that civilization evolves by selecting adaptations that maximize power. This seems almost tautological but Schmookler crafts a book that is worth reading showing how inter-societal competition breeds intra-societal stress and individual dysfunction. He ties together anthropology, philosophy, and psychology into a coherent whole. With an excellent bibliography. ( )
  TomMcGreevy | Feb 19, 2009 |
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This is a new view of the role of power in social evolution. It shows how, as human societies evolved, intersocietal conflicts necessarily developed, and how humanity can choose peace over war.

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