Freedom Digital Library


Civilization and Beyond


"Dear Friends"

2 July 2004
Dear Friends,

Last May, I wrote to you about Civilization and Savagery, and followed up a month later with a sequel titled Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme; in which I corrected an erroneous counter-definition of the term, civilization. In Civilization and Savagery I had been treating civilization and savagery as opposites; yet discovered in Beyond Civilization that they are not opposites at all, and never have been.

The Tribal Ideal
by J. Harmon Grahn

I regard these writings, which go back a number years,1 as something analogous to the growing tip of a root fiber groping its way in the dark underground toward sources of sustenance, nourishment, and energy. I recently blundered in this way into the works of Daniel Quinn, which gave me sustenance, nourishment, and energy – and the sensation of having touched the third rail of the electric underground. Electrifying is not too strong a term for it!

Electrifying, because with the aid of Daniel Quinn's vision, I was finally able to expand my own view conceptually beyond the entire compass of civilization. You know, when you're entirely enveloped by something, it is almost impossible to perceive clearly, if at all, what that "something" may be. "We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish!" Born, raised, nurtured, and shaped by civilization like everyone else, I had for long sensed that I was somehow enclosed by something, confined by something, stifled and smothered by something, yet never able to understand clearly the nature of that "something," nor able to make even the slightest start at imagining "something else."

Nevertheless, I have been desperately seeking "something else" for many years; then Daniel Quinn showed me how civilization is a very recent human invention. Our kind have resided on this planet for thousands of thousands of years before this invention was ever imagined; and if we survive it, we will be here long after civilization has been forgotten. Yes! and the "something else," alternative to civilization, is the tribe, a human pattern that works, as proven by the aggregate challenges of millions of years. It was like rising to the surface from a very great depth, and taking my first lungfull of free air!2

My first encounter with Daniel Quinn was through Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure,3 which I found electrifying, as I said, and I wrote about it in my essay, Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme.

Although I thought at the time I had "gotten it," I was led on to Quinn's novel, Ishmael,4 and discovered I had by no means plumbed the depths of Quinn's writings. I followed that up with The Story of B,5 which expanded for me even further the scope of Quinn's thought. And there, for the moment, matters rest, while I digest.

At each juncture in this brief reading frenzy I have discovered hidden depths and unexpected twists and turns I had not anticipated before encountering them; and the thought began to occur to me, "Who am I so glibly to set forth a 'tribal ideal' in the face of such penetrating insights as these of Daniel Quinn?" I am not "tribal," and have no tribal experience. I didn't even know what a tribe was, until Daniel Quinn informed me that it is a cooperative way for a group of individuals to make a living with the least effort and stress.

I must confess that my initial notion of a "tribal ideal," in which pre-emptive force is the only taboo,6 may be fraught with naïve sentimentality, kindred to romantic notions of the "Noble Savage." There may be no such thing as a "nice tribe," for the pattern of the human tribe, like analogous patterns for other species, was not shaped by the forces of natural selection to be "nice." It was shaped to work, and it does: because it deals effectively with every contingency tribes have encountered in every part of the real world, over the course of millions of years.

The tribe has dealt effectively with every contingency, that is, except the recent invention, civilization. We continue to await (and make!) a "final decision" as to whether the pattern of the tribe can survive its encounter with the pattern of civilization. If we are able to reconstitute functional tribes within the contemporary context, and are able thereby to cope effectively with civilization, we will have moved the evolution of the tribal model forward, beyond civilization, and into, as Daniel Quin writes, Humanity's Next Great Adventure.7

One of the contingencies tribes have encountered repeatedly over the course of the past few million years is other tribes; in particular, hostile tribes. You know, a party of braves from "tribe A" rushes into the territory of "tribe B," rounds up some of their horses, or women, or both, and rides off with them, possibly leaving behind a bleading corps or two, belonging to either or both tribes. The response of "tribe B" to this affront is to organize a raiding party of their own against "tribe A," resulting in equivalent damage, inconvenience, and excitement.

Even if not apparently "nice," the pattern of "limited tribal warfare" may actually bestow increased survival value upon the tribes that exercise it. It gives the young bloods something exciting to do, the importance of which every human generation has discovered by experience; and it keeps everybody in both tribes on their toes. "Don't mess with us," these tribes signal to each other. "We're fearless, we're tough, and we know how to take care of our own." This pattern may even bestow long-term advantages upon tribes which practice it, by periodically "cross-pollinating" the gene pools of participating tribes.

Of course, there are many ways besides tribal warfare to "cross-pollinate" the gene pool. On the other hand, pacifist tribes – and species in general – which lack a means of defending themselves against hostile tribes and/or predatory species do not work in the real world, and so, do not last. Porcupines, skunks, and honey bees are all peace-loving species; yet when attacked, they know what to do about it.

In any case, what natural tribes and species never do, or even attempt, is to annihilate utterly their foes. Specifically, tribes that have not been exposed to civilization never carry retaliation to the point, for instance, of burning up their enemy's food crop, or poisoning their wells. These are the kinds of things only civilized people do.8

The reason "warring tribes," or any competing species, never employ genocidal strategies against their foes is because they "honor" what Quinn calls the Law of Life, or the Law of Limited Competition:

You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war on your competitors.9

This is not a "law" in the civilized sense of a statute entered in a book, or graven upon a tablet of stone. It is written into the "meme pool"10 that defines what a tribe is; and into the gene pool of every living species. It is placed there by the pressures of natural selection, exerted over the course of millions of years, which replicates patterns that work, and culls out patterns that do not.

The Law of Limited Competition has been "obeyed" not only by all human tribes, but by all (successful) living species in planetary history, with the single exception of human civilization (which has never been successful). The Law works, because it promotes cultural and biological diversity; whereas its "violation" destroys cultural and biological diversity, and this in turn destroys the life-sustainability of the entire biosphere. It is exactly this that contemporary human developments demonstrate to be the catastrophic flaw in civilization, and the reason, ultimately, it has been abandoned in the past by every culture that has attempted it,11 and must be abandoned by us, if we and all life are to continue evolving on this planet.

For those who have enjoyed relative peace among civilized people, any "requirement" that abandoning civilization and returning to tribalism means a return as well to tribal warfare, may remove some of the appeal of any such evolution. In order for us to evolve successfully beyond civilization, it is essential that tribalism and tribal warfare not be inseverably linked. They are not, for the tribe is simply a cooperative way for a group of individuals to make a living with the least effort and stress. It is not a mandate for tribal warfare; although it must be added, as mentioned above, that all living things, including tribes, have a right to defend themselves against attack, and naturally evolve means of doing so. Otherwise, the shape and character of a tribe are determined by its members, not by some mythical "unalterable nature" cast in stone. The tribe is not rigid, but extremely flexible, and is adaptable to a virtually limitless variety of circumstances.

A tribe may be viewed as an identifiable entity whose character is decided by a shared complex of memes; yet at bottom a tribe is composed of individuals, each of whom is a sovereign agent of free choice. A tribe exists because its members perceive that it provides them the advantages of a livelihood which would not otherwise be available, or as easily secured. The character of the tribe is determined by the sum of the individual choices of each of its members, and maintains its identity so long as its individual members choose tribal identity. This is where the idea of a "tribal ideal" may have a place:12

A tribe that adheres to the "tribal ideal" is one whose members adhere to it; and a member who adheres to the "tribal ideal" is one who in no way imposes, or attempts to impose his or her unsolicited will upon that of another.

This version of a "tribal ideal" is provisional. Adherence to any such "tribal ideal" must be by nature at all times an individual choice, not a collective or obligatory choice; and any attempt to "enforce" it automatically violates it. Any "Commandment" or human "Law" to the effect that "Thou shalt not exercise pre-emptive force." is itself the exercise of pre-emptive force.13 If one chooses not to exercise pre-emptive force, it must be because one does not relish the consequences of such exercise, not because it is "against the Law."

It is probable that tribal peoples in the past had embarked upon the "civilization experiment" for the very reason that they sought relief from the stresses of inter-tribal warfare. They therefore attempted a means of "keeping the peace" through hierarchy. The experiment failed everywhere it was tried,14 the "cure" was far less bearable than the "disease;" which returns us today, if not to self-destruction and oblivion, then to the tribalism of our pre-civilized past.

Therefore, if we wish to clear the 10,000-year hurdle placed in our path by civilization, and advance beyond civilization, we must each make choices individually that "keep the peace" through the non-hierarchical mechanisms proper to the tribe. If each member makes the choice of adhering to what I have been calling the "tribal ideal," the result is that the tribe as a whole adheres to it. If it is borne out in practice that this strategy actually works, then the way beyond civilization may be open, and the primary appeal of the "civilization experiment" thereby vanishes.

The strategy of adopting the "tribal ideal," or something like it, as a means "keeping the peace" without resorting to civilization, amounts to replacing old memes with new ones; such as:

Memes are replicated among human minds by being shared and communicated. The above examples are candidates. They, or others like (or unlike) them, may be communicated and provisionally adopted by some individuals and tribes. If so, they, like all memes, and genes, and cultural and biological adaptations to real world circumstances, will be tested in the crucible of time, and discovered either to work, or not. This is the test everything must pass in order to be replicated and not culled out of the Cosmic Inventory of What Is. "Nice" is not the decisive factor here; what works is the decisive factor.

Civilization, for those with eyes to see, manifestly does not work; yet for the past 10,000 years it has presented the most formidable challenge ever encountered to a pattern that had worked for millions of years prior to the advent of civilization, and still works today as well as it ever has, wherever it is found intact. Now some of us can see this, and it is up to each of us (if this is our choice), as individual sovereign agents of free choice, to conduct the tribe safely past the obstacle that will otherwise in quite short order destroy all life on this planet; and succeeding in this, continue our evolutionary journey beyond civilization. That, as I see it, is the "Mission Impossible" (should we choose to accept it) at the top of our agenda paper right now.

Now I have a modest proposal to make; a call to action for those who find resonance with these observations.

From the foregoing, it is evident (at least to me) that the solution to the human predicament does not lie anywhere within the compass of civilization. For all we may habitually view this world as settled and crowded with human inventions, works, and wonders, all these wonderful things combine to create a global habitat of extreme hazard and instability. Everything on this planet could go to pieces in a heartbeat, at any time. We may as well realistically imagine ourselves as visitors to a primitive, hostile, and chaotic world, filled at once with lethal dangers and gloriously rich potentials. How to avoid or neutralize the dangers, and husband and cultivate the rich potentials, is our immediate challenge.

Moreover, like it or not, we don't have much of a choice in this matter; inasmuch as there is no convenient way (to my knowledge) for any of us simply to step off the planet, and go do something more to our liking somewhere else.15 We're here, and we have to deal as best we can, win or lose, with circumstances as we find them. We can "blame" whoever or whatever we like, or don't like, if this suits us; but it doesn't particularly change anything, or solve the human predicament.

The good news is, we do have time, and abundant resources at our disposal useful to the task of improving our circumstances – if it is our choice to do so. Not the least of these resources is our individual native creativity and inventiveness – our resourcefulness. "Walking away from civilization" does not necessarily mean abandoning every tool and feature that civilization makes available to us. Civilization need not be regarded as "evil," and it needn't be opposed. It simply doesn't work, and is right now in the final stages of collapse, under the insupportable weight of its own irreparable flaws. The task at hand is not to hasten the collapse of civilization, but to bridge the gap it leaves behind by erecting in its place something that actually works.

Right now, I am using a computer and the Internet as tools for expressing and sharing ideas with others widely dispersed around the planet. These tools are products of civilization, yet I am employing them for the intentional purpose of advancing beyond civilization. Others may be pursuing parallel objectives, by similar or different means. The most important element in this process is simply awakening to the realization that civilization is the source of the human predicament, is not the source of its solution, and that the human predicament can be neutralized by the substitution of a few well-chosen memes in the human "meme pool."

This need not be a laborious, protracted process "with no end in sight." The well-known fable of The Emperor's New Clothes illustrates a plausible scenario in which all it took was the voice of a guileless child to cause the scales to fall from the eyes of an entire population. Daniel Quinn's analysis of civilization, and what it takes to move beyond civilization, had a similar affect upon me. How about you?

Therefore, my call to action is simply this: if you resonate with this analysis, and it is your choice to do so, simply share the replacement memes16 with others in your circle. Obtain Daniel Quinn's books, and read them, and share them. Forward this essay, and its predecessors, and its sequels, with or without your own commentary and input. Share your insights and feedback with me, so I can share them in turn with readers of these essays, and they can (if they choose) pass them on in turn to others.

Meanwhile, I am working with others in my circle to develop a sustainable tribal livelihood as the basis of a functioning "post-civilized" tribe, and will be sharing our experiences with this list as they develop. Go thou (if this is your choice) and do likewise. Or otherwise. Yeah!

This essay is followed by a sequel, Leavers and Takers, "Dear Friends," 8/6/04 edition.


Civilization and Beyond


  1. Civilization and Savagery – 5/25/04;

  2. Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme – 6/20/04;

  3. The Tribal Ideal – 7/2/04;

  4. Leavers and Takers – 8/6/04;

  5. In the Hands of the Gods – 8/18/04.

  6. The Gods & the Law of Life – 9/9/04.

  7. The Metaconsciousness Myth – 9/22/04.

  8. A Pact With the Devil – 10/14/04.

  9. A Metaconscious Mosaic – 10/27/04.

  10. More About Metaconsciousness, Part I – 2/5/05.

  11. More About Metaconsciousness, Part II – 3/20/05.


1. Most of which since August, 1997, are archived somewhere within the Freedom Digital Library.

2. Something like Neo, in that memorable scene in the motion picture, The Matrix.

3. Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure, Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999.

4. Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, A Bantam / Turner Book, New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland, 1992.

5. Daniel Quinn, The Story of B, Bantam Books, New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland, 1996.

6. The idea of a "tribal ideal" arises from a discussion in Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme, which springs in turn from an earlier essay titled Civilization and Savagery.

7. Quinn, 1999.

8. Like the time Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commanding general of British forces in North America during the French and Indian war (1754 – 1763), possibly / probably? distributed among the natives he was fighting blankets known to be infected with smallpox. See Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets: Lord Jeffrey Amherst's letters discussing germ warfare against American Indians. Comparable examples may be found in every part of the civilized world, in every civilized generation.

9. Quinn, 1996, p. 252.

10. Memes are discussed in Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme.

11. Loc. cit. See also Quinn, 1999, pp. 33-54.

12. See note 6.

13. See "Dear Friends," 12/15/03 for an in-depth discussion of pre-emptive force, including its broad definition.

14. See note 11.

15. Well, there's always suicide, isn't there? However, suicide is not my idea of a convenient way of dealing with the human predicament. I would much prefer to stick around, and possibly even witness and participate in the human breakthrough beyond civilization. The decisive breakthrough could occur in a heartbeat, at any time, no less probably than could the catastrophic planetary collapse into chaos and death, should such a breakthrough fail to materialize in time. Suicide is a "vote" for the latter contingency; I prefer to "vote" for the former.

16. What replacement memes? I have suggested candidates for some; perhaps you can suggest others. Exercise your recoursefulness. This isn't about building pyramids for a pharoah; it's about replacing a way of life that doesn't work with one that does. The human pattern that works already exists generically as the tribe. What remains to be worked out is the particulars of your tribe, and mine, and hers, and his, and theirs. All these await invention. So, invent. Have fun! See also In the Hands of the Gods.

"The Tribal Ideal" copyright 2004 by J. Harmon Grahn. Copying and redistribution, in whole or in part, are permitted in any medium provided this notice is included.

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Civilization and Beyond