Freedom Digital Library


Civilization and Beyond
A Metaconscious Mosaic Outline


The Tribe*

Daniel Quinn1 distinguishes between civilization, tribe, community, and commune, and provides examples, one in his own personal experience, of tribal solutions in entirely contemporary contexts. Briefly, a civilization is a failed experiment in hierarchical social organization, characterized prototypically by a "pharoah" who lives in luxurious splendor, and an underclass of "toiling masses" who live in poverty and "build pyramids" for the pharoah. Civilization works favorably (for awhile) for the pharoah and the privileged few at the top of the hierarchy; increasingly disfavorably for those, descendingly, at all lower hierarchical levels; and ultimately catastrophically for everyone involved in it, or touched by it. Civilization is inherently unsustainable, and is ultimately either destroyed by a competing civilization, or is voluntarily abandoned by its builders.

A tribe is a non-hierarchical social organization, polished by evolution over the course of millions of years, that facilitates the livelihood of all members of the tribe alike.

A community is an "inside the box" social adaptation to civilization, and does not offer an escape route beyond civilization. A commune is a closed social organization based upon social, religious, moral, or ethnic values, and as such does not offer an escape route beyond civilization either.

Of the four types of social organization, only the tribe offers an escape route "out of the box" created by civilization. The primary example Quinn uses to illustrate tribal life in a contemporary setting is the circus. A traditional travelling circus is a non-hierarchical tribal community which supports, and is supported by, all its members. It furnishes a viable livelihood to each, and each member of the circus tribe contributes to the success of the whole. There is a "Boss," because this occupation is required in order to secure the success of the circus. Someone must coordinate the various elements of the tribe, secure bookings, etc. Yet when it's time to raise the Big Top, the "Boss" can be found pounding stakes beside the "Clown," the "Bareback Rider," and the boy who waters the elephants. He's no pharoah, and nobody is building a pyramid for him. Reciprocally, the success of the circus contributes alike to the success of each member of the tribe.

Quinn also mentions the example of the tribal newspaper, the East Mountain News he and three partners started up and ran in Madrid, New Mexico for awhile a number of years ago. Even though there were only four members in this particular tribe, the venture fulfilled all the tribal criteria. The members of the "East Mountain News tribe," if I may call it that, shared a "very low standard of living," with the consequence that the little the paper earned was sufficient to sustain them. Also, they all loved the paper, and their individual contributions to it. It was what they actually wanted to do, rather than a means to the end of earning money so they could afford to do something else. It provided an outlet for their synergistically combined creativity, and their achieved standards of journalism, editorial content, and photography could stand with pride beside those of any newspaper anywhere. "We were nothing like the size of an ethnic tribe," Quinn writes, "nor were we living in community, but we were nonetheless receiving the chief benefits of tribal life."2

I must confess that my initial notion of a "tribal ideal," in which pre-emptive force is the only taboo,3 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.4

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.5

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.6

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"7 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,8 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:9

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. 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,10 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 ten-thousand-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 ten thousand 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.

Okay, so how do we get there from here?


* Source: Beyond Civilization or The Killer Meme; The Tribal Ideal.

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

2. Ibid., p. 141.

3. 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.

4. Quinn, 1999.

5. 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.

6. Daniel Quinn, The Story of B, Bantam Books, New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland, 1996, p. 252, quoted in The Tribal Ideal; and also in The Gods.

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

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

9. See note 3.

10. See note 8.

Civilization and Beyond copyright 2004, 2005 by J. Harmon Grahn. Copying and redistribution, in whole or in part, are permitted in any medium provided this notice is included.


Civilization and Beyond
A Metaconscious Mosaic Outline