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Parable of the tribes
August 30, 2011 12:33 PM   Subscribe

The Parable of the Tribes. A classic essay by Andrew Schmookler on the Hobbesian struggle for power, and its inevitability.
Power may be defined as the capacity to achieve one's will against the will of another. ...

Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? ...

I have just outlined four possible outcomes for the threatened tribes: destruction, absorption and transformation, withdrawal, and imitation. In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system.
posted by russilwvong (24 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Power may be defined as the capacity to achieve one's definition of a word in whichever way is most convenient for the argument you are about to make will against the will of another.

I am unconvinced, and not just because he's presenting a story he's fabricated out of whole cloth as some sort of socioanthropological missing link; if you dredge out the swamp of linguistic onanism in that essay, the ground underneath it is pretty shaky. "In this essay I am going to present you with a thing. Here is a thing. I have just presented you with a thing."
posted by mhoye at 1:21 PM on August 30, 2011


I read the book some years ago; it's a brilliant. For me, the basic takeaway was that within the context of game theory - no matter the good intentions (peaceful intentions) of any group, if just one member of that group decided to move outside the boundaries of peaceful (good) collaboration, it would cause all the other members of the group to take up defenses - thus limiting peaceful collaboration, and possibly leading to aggression in the name of "defense".

This essay opened my eyes to the fact that long-term, peaceful resolution of conflicts between even the most determined actors is bound to run into problems, and that forward scenarios that include putting up defenses against once-peaceful partners must be considered.

In a way, the author is talking about one of human nature's sustainability challenges - i.e. managing conflict. We simply can't do away with conflict; it's part of who we are. This book completely burst my belief (at the time) that our species might someday live in near-perfect harmony, if we could only find the right collective formula. That's not the way it works.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:49 PM on August 30, 2011


This is great if you assume that people live in (and act as) tribal units; it's also great if you can agree on the meaning of tribe.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:53 PM on August 30, 2011


the basic takeaway was that within the context of game theory - no matter the good intentions (peaceful intentions) of any group, if just one member of that group decided to move outside the boundaries of peaceful (good) collaboration, it would cause all the other members of the group to take up defenses - thus limiting peaceful collaboration, and possibly leading to aggression in the name of "defense".

This was a big theme in at least one section of the Selfish Gene, too. It's been a while since I read it, so my recollection is somewhat hazy.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:01 PM on August 30, 2011


forward scenarios that include putting up defenses against once-peaceful partners must be considered.

Let's point those guns at Canada as soon as possible.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:07 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Almost sounds like a twisted justification of nuclear war, spoken by a super-villain just before pressing the button that destroys the world. By this logic, the only way civilized tribes can maintain peace with one another is through fear of their own mutual destruction...
posted by sharkitect at 2:11 PM on August 30, 2011


Let's point those guns at Canada as soon as possible

Hmmmm... it's not on the list, yet. Just wait a little bit, until we become dependent on their tar sands.
posted by Vibrissae at 2:18 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


mhoye, that's a pretty common definition of power within philosophy. I don't think the particular definition is all that important to the argument, either. The core of the essay is "what are the outcomes when one group attacks another, and what does this do to human societies over time", not "what is power". It doesn't really matter if "power" is defined as "the capacity to achieve one's will against the will of another" or "the capacity to create previously-unknown flavors of ice-cream from the blood of one's enemies". As long as power is related to attack, and thus defense (as it certainly seems to be), the argument is that the possibility/reality of attack and defense causes societies to change in ways which increase power (and thus the capacity for attack/defense) rather than (or as well as) well-being.

The same goes for the definition of "tribe". The same dynamics apply to human groups in general, and even to individuals, so it doesn't matter much what your definition of "tribe" is.

IMHO, this article does not fully recognize the role of cooperation, even among animals -- Schmookler's image of nature as a world where "each pursues a kind of self-interest, each is a law unto itself, but the separate interests and laws have been formed over aeons of selection to form part of a tightly ordered harmonious system" is definitely a product of its time, as we now know that social animals share interests we wouldn't recognize as purely "separate" or "self-interested" -- but it is largely correct. Conflict is a consequence of the physical laws of the universe; as long as we are fragile beings living in a world full of other fragile beings, there will always be the possibility that someone(s) will step outside The System in an act of unsanctioned physical violence. That possibility, in turn, shapes The System in Ares' image... and it does so no matter how much its people may desire peace.
posted by vorfeed at 2:25 PM on August 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Dude's apparently running for Congress btw (yes it is the same guy).
posted by grobstein at 2:31 PM on August 30, 2011


By this logic, the only way civilized tribes can maintain peace with one another is through fear of their own mutual destruction...

In a way, you're correct. Thinking about the implications of this work doesn't necessarily lead to all-out destruction - although the possibility certainly exists. That said, the book doesn't suggest that as our fate. Quite the opposite.

The author is pointing out a human quality that challenges long-term survival and sustainability. It's best to know about these challenges so that we can attempt manage them. Management is a messy game; players don't always agree; however, there is really no alternative to conflict in the modern world - we have to manage it, because there's probably always going to be at least one outlier who won't peacefully agree to disagree.

Management of international conflict is a constant learning game; there are new actors, new variables (economic, territorial, environmental, etc.) new weapons, etc.. What the book does is deconstruct who we are - within the tenets of game theory - and put one more bit of evidence up about who we are, and what we have to consider about each other if we're going to survive. In other words, it's about learning to live with a certain kind of species-based weakness; the work points us to looking for ways to find the most effective antidotes to the built-in propensity for conflict. I think that's a good thing. I'd rather we traverse a road that provides a healthy dose of self-knowledge (species-wise), rather than driving blind.

I think this work is useful for anyone involved in org theory/behavior, as well.

Again, from the preface to the InContext essay: "He makes it clear that the problems we face now, as we try to come to grips with our planetary interconnectedness, can't simply be blamed on personalities or ideologies, but are rooted in the fundamental structure of 5000 years of international anarchy. The problem of power that he raises and explores is a fundamental challenge for governance (at many levels) that we must deal with somehow if we are to have any hope of creating a humane sustainable culture as a successor to the darkness we call civilization. If you want to deepen your understanding of the full challenge we face, you'll find the book a mind-stretcher and a sobering treat. "
posted by Vibrissae at 2:33 PM on August 30, 2011


Just as the individual families competing for survival had to learn to band together into tribes to cooperate and increase the chances of survival, tribes eventually banded together into villages, cities, states, countries and unions to cooperate to enhance life for all. Eventually perhaps we can think of ourselves as a single village or tribe, in which every human being is a partner and we all advance together rather than at each others expense. If we are not to tear each other asunder, I think this has to be the mechanism. It sounds kind of hippy, drippy to say it, but, you know, one world.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:43 PM on August 30, 2011




More seriously, the traditional solution is the balance of power.
posted by russilwvong at 2:50 PM on August 30, 2011


Mental Wimp, even within "one single village or tribe" you'll find violence. Violence is even common within families, which ought to be the most likely place for cooperation "in which every human being is a partner and we all advance together rather than at each others expense".

I agree that seeing ourselves as "one world" would decrease violence -- setting aside the question of whether we will ever truly see ourselves that way -- but it's not enough to eliminate it. I don't think it would necessarily even eliminate conflict on the level of war. What happens when the people within the Global Village cannot agree on how they should "advance together", for instance?
posted by vorfeed at 3:19 PM on August 30, 2011


Mental Wimp: that doesn't seem hippy-dippy at all to me. That sounds like what has happened, and what continues to happen. I'm not done RTFA yet but I expect this counts has absorption or transformation in Schmookler's model, with the others happening incidentally through history. Economies of scale are real, and generally desirable. The question to me is, how do we build and control and protect systems that we can scale.
posted by wobh at 3:24 PM on August 30, 2011


And a non-Hobbesian reality founded by the removal of an entrenched regime of violence that then went on to last three millennia, expanding greatly but without war:
Not only did the revolutionaries of those remote times succeed in overthrowing a regime thousands of years old, bloody and exploitive - moreover, they also succeeded in developing their own alternative society, devising and realizing it. The social revolution of the year 7200 B.C. is the hour of the birth of neolithic communism. An egalitarian, classless society arises in which women and men are equal, a society which rapidly spreads over the whole of Anatolia and almost simultaneously over the Balcans and which endures for 3000 years.
It seems some were able to choose a civilisation that worked for all, and even if it ended like everything does, its longevity stands testament to it being a sustainable possibility. I think those too closely married to the Hobbesian view of human nature are, like the man himself, raising the contingent social relations of their own times to the status of something essential in human nature, while seems to me that there's enough counter-examples (and if you're talking about the limits of the possible, you only need one) to say that isn't the case.
posted by Abiezer at 12:53 AM on August 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


That's a fascinating article, Abiezer. Catalhoyuk.

I'm puzzled, though: if they didn't practice warfare, how would they have been able to rapidly expand? What would have happened to the previous inhabitants of the areas they expanded into? And what happened to Catalhoyuk in the end--how was it destroyed?

I did a Google search on "catalhoyuk weapons" and found a discussion of Catalhoyuk in Warfare in the ancient Near East to 1600 BC, by William James Hamblin. Hamblin suggests that wall art interpreted as hunting scenes by Mellaart may instead be depicting warfare. He goes on:
The military interpretation of Catal Hoyuk, given above, is strengthened by the fortifications and destruction levels of the late contemporary site of Hacilar. The original unwalled village was destroyed around 5500, and rebuilt with a defensive wall 1.5-3 meters thick. It was destroyed again in 5250, and rebuilt with stronger "fortresslike characteristics". It was destroyed again and abandoned around 4800. Can Hasan was also destroyed by fire at roughly the same time, leading some to postulate a period of significant military upheaval in the late sixth millennium. In other words, expanding from the proto-fortifications of Catal Hoyuk, true fortified cities appear in Anatolia by the mid-sixth millennium, suffering destruction in war and rebuilding in an even more strongly fortified condition. This is strong evidence that Anatolia had crossed the military threshold at this time.
posted by russilwvong at 8:10 AM on August 31, 2011


Mental Wimp, even within "one single village or tribe" you'll find violence. Violence is even common within families, which ought to be the most likely place for cooperation "in which every human being is a partner and we all advance together rather than at each others expense".

Not suggesting that violence would disappear, but that it would be more or less contained as a criminal matter the way it is in most developed countries, not a pretext or cause for large scale massacre of others. I recognize that the Timothy McVeighs, the Minutemen, and the Al Qaedas of the world will still exist, but if we think of ourselves as all one tribe, such individuals and organizations will have limited reach and potential for large-scale mayhem.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:59 AM on August 31, 2011


I'm puzzled, though: if they didn't practice warfare, how would they have been able to rapidly expand?
My sense of the peaceful explanation is that the culture and social practice spread through cultural osmosis and perhaps some out-migration over some time. What seems rapid looking back from afar can still be a generation or two, plenty of time for a rolling social revolution.
posted by Abiezer at 10:46 AM on August 31, 2011


And a non-Hobbesian reality founded by the removal of an entrenched regime of violence that then went on to last three millennia, expanding greatly but without war:

Is a reality founded on an act of violence ("On a certain day 9200 years ago the manorial houses at the north side of the large square in Çayönü were burnt down, and this happened so fast that the owners were not able to save any of their treasures. The temple was torn down and burnt, and even the floor was ripped open [...] After a short chaotic transition all houses had been torn down") really "non-Hobbesian"?

Besides, I don't think a "parable of the tribes" view of human nature demands that everyone everywhere be violent all the time. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace... the fact that a few civilizations could be said to have chosen this path fits the model, as does the fact that the area they lived in was eventually overtaken by societies which didn't.
posted by vorfeed at 12:13 PM on August 31, 2011


Absolutely 'non-Hobbesian' by the archaeological interpretation as presented. There's a clear distinction between a decided act of overturning an oppressive order to begin a better way of living (and maintain the same, absent the prior oppression and violence, for multiple generations), and a bred-in-the-bone war of all against all as we can do no other. Strange to even attempt an equivalence as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Abiezer at 1:06 PM on August 31, 2011


Abiezer: My sense of the peaceful explanation is that the culture and social practice spread through cultural osmosis and perhaps some out-migration over some time.

But do we have any actual evidence for this explanation, or are we speculating based on the lack of depictions of warfare at Catalhoyuk? From what I can tell, the archaeological evidence seems pretty clear that Catalhoyuk was egalitarian, but that doesn't necessarily mean peaceful. After the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy, the revolutionary armies (the "nation in arms") were egalitarian, but they were able to fight wars with France's neighbors even before the rise of Napoleon; it was a new way to mobilize the power of the nation, not a renunciation of power altogether.

Anyway, it sounds like archaeologists are making new discoveries at Catalhoyuk all the time (communal burials), so we may learn more as time goes on.
posted by russilwvong at 1:53 PM on August 31, 2011


There's a clear distinction between a decided act of overturning an oppressive order to begin a better way of living (and maintain the same, absent the prior oppression and violence, for multiple generations), and a bred-in-the-bone war of all against all as we can do no other.

War of all against all was Hobbes' description of man prior to civil society. It may or may not have fit Hobbes' strictly authoritarian definition of "civil", but I think it's pretty obvious that the people of Catalhoyuk had both a social contract and a civil society.

At any rate, I'm not really defending Hobbes -- again, he never acknowledged the extent to which cooperation permeates human (and animal!) existence, and in that he seems to have been wrong -- but I see nothing in Catalhoyuk which necessarily invalidates the parable of the tribes.
posted by vorfeed at 2:23 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I recall, one key bit of evidence was the total absence of any burials showing deaths by violence. That's of course a deduction based on an absence again, but notably different from contemporary sites elsewhere. And of course it means there's no evidence for an interpretation that they did practise warfare - I think Hamblin makes something the existence of weapons that others thought were only for hunting; Hodder found no fortification at Catalhoyuk and isn't Hamblin extrapolating those findings from other sites supposedly linked to the culture? I think the implication is organised warfare able to spread the culture by conquest would usually be expected to leave more physical evidence. Anyway, as you say, more is being found and other interpretations may better fit future evidence; my point was really just that the possibility remains and indeed seems still a more likely explanation for the evidence unearthed to date.
On preview: fair enough - I was responding to your " a reality founded on an act of violence" and thinking that was the burden of you point. I do think Hobbes had something far more obviously 'coercive' (wasn't that his term?) in mind than anything we have evidence for at Catalhoyuk.
posted by Abiezer at 2:28 PM on August 31, 2011


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