Summer Service: Tribe, Civilization and Beyond: A Natural History of 3 Choices — Tom Yelton

Bushman-familyThe first choice occurred about 6 million years ago and was basically our ancestors’ choice to leave behind our tropical forest habitat for tropical grassland (savannah). This led us to evolve from beings very like modern chimpanzees to human, tribal, hunter-gatherers, living in semi-nomadic groups of up to 150 or so.

The second choice began only about 12000 years ago (recent in evolutionary terms) and was basically to leave behind our tribal, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to live in larger groups in settlements, getting most of our food by farming, living in much larger groups. Though we left the tribal life behind we haven’t actually evolved much — we are still essentially tribal, hunter-gatherers.

It’s thought that both of these choices were related to climate change. In the first the climate was getting dryer and our forest habitat was shrinking. In the second, the end of the last ice age and local crowding may have caused food shortages which led to people taking food production into their own hands to get more from the land. In each case we could have simply died back a bit like most animals and continued with what already worked. But each time we found a way to move into a different way of life.

The third choice is also related to climate change (in this case human caused) but the decision is still pending. Climate change (and human disruption of ecosystems) once again threatens us with food and other shortages on a global scale. Where do we go from here? Our 2nd choice led us into a mode of continual expansion (in many dimensions) to the point where it is hard to see “where” we can go — “We’ve gone about as fer as we can go” — expansion is reaching its limits. Going back to hunting and gathering would mean a HUGE human die back — we are way too populous now for that but if we don’t choose soon and wisely nature may choose for us.  What are our choices?

Sunday June 19th, 2016 – Summer Service: Tribe, Civilization and Beyond: A Natural History of 3 Choices

About Tom:
Tom is a 26 year member of First Parish who finally decided to lead a summer service. He is a retired programmer and semi-retired webmaster. He loves Nature, cares deeply about the Earth, loves science, philosophy and general thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything. His Myers Briggs type is INTP which if you know the code tells you a lot about him. He loves deep, free range discussions like we have in the Bohm dialogue group here at First Parish. He has been involved with organic agriculture through Stearns Farm CSA in Framingham for 26+ years. He is active in the Pagan group here which is one thing that first drew him and Leslie to First Parish. He practices Tai Chi and his favorite spiritual book is the Tao Te Ching (pron. “Dow Duh Jing”).

Prelude – “Down A Country Lane” by Aaron Copland
Hymn 128 – “For All That is Our Life”
Offertory – “In Evening Air” by Aaron Copland
Hymn 108 – “My Life Flows On in Endless Song”
Postlude – “Go Lifted Up” (1057 from Teal Hymnal)


:”People are ready to run wild into the woods again and to be as Heathenish as ever if you do not prevent it.”  – Increase Mather, Discourse Concerning the Danger of Apostasy, 1679.

“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”  – Ben Franklin, 1753

“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.  There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”  – Hector de Crèvecœur, 1782

“Notwithstanding the Indian women have all the fuel and bread to procure, and the cooking to perform, their task is probably not harder than that of white women.  We had no master to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.  No people can live more happy than the Indians did in times of peace…Their lives were a continual round of pleasures.” – Mary Jemison, Seneca captive taken from her Pennsylvania farm at age 15.

From an 1891 editorial in the Aberdeen South Dakota Saturday newspaper:
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.  – L. Frank Baum, then editor of The Saturday Pioneer (3 January 1891).

Carl Jung’s conversation with a Pueblo Indian chief in Taos New Mexico in 1924:
“See,” Ochiaway Biano said, “how cruel the whites look. Their lips are thin, their faces furrowed and distorted by folds. Their eyes have a staring expression; they are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something; they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want. We do not understand them. We think they are mad.”
I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad.
“They say that they think with their heads,” he replied.
“Why of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.
“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.
I fell into long meditation. For the first time in my life, or so it seemed to me, someone had drawn for me a picture of the real white man…This Indian had struck our vulnerable spot, unveiled a truth to which we are blind…

Solstice welcome.

For all who care about such things the Summer Solstice is tomorrow at 6:34pm.  It is the longest day of the year and the time when the sun is highest in the sky.  Welcome Midsummer!


I chose a difficult topic for this sermon and I appreciate your willingness to listen to it.  I chose it because it is something that I have been pondering a lot for a long while and I feel the need to get it off my chest so to speak for whoever is able to hear it.  It’s difficult in part because it is somewhat involved for a sermon and the material is probably unfamiliar to most people living today.  It also may be difficult to accept, not because it doesn’t make sense but because it goes against much of what we have been taught all our lives, and against what we may want to believe.  I only ask that you listen with an open mind.

This sermon is about where we are as a species, how we got here, and where we are going next.  It is about 3 crucial choices, 2 that our distant ancestors made and 1 that we need to make soon.

A thing that connects these 3 choices is climate change and a consequent shortage of food and resources.

The First choice was to leave our Forest habitat.

The Second choice was to leave Tribal life behind.

The Third will be how to move Beyond Civilization.

The Third choice is the one we are making today about what to do as our civilization passes the limits of what this planet can sustain.  It is still very much up in the air what that decision will be.

A mass extinction is when major ecosystems collapse and 70% or so of world species become extinct at a high rate, including the dominant species.  The 5th mass extinction was when the dinosaurs became extinct, 65 million years ago, likely triggered by a large meteor impact.  Science tells us that we are in the midst of the 6th Mass extinction.  Ecosystems are collapsing and this time we are the dominant species.  There is no good reason to suppose that homo sapiens will be an exception to the rule. The sixth mass extinction, unlike the others, is being caused by the activities of a single species, just one species – ours.  The good news, the Hope is that Since we are what’s causing it, it is conceivable that we could stop causing it and thereby end it.  The bad news is that we are running out of time.   Beyond a certain tipping point there will be no stopping it.  So our third choice is quite crucial, both for us and for most of our fellow species on this Big Blue Boat.  One way or another it is likely to be our last crucial choice.

To continue we need some perspective on time:
(Tape measure/time line:  extend it to full 25′ (with help))
You are here at the present (points to the right end of the tape).

To explain the scale, 1″=8000 years, 1’=100K years, 10’=1M years, 25’=2.5M years
which is about the time when our genus, Homo which included us and our many cousins all of who are now extinct, began, distinguished from similar primates by remains found with flaked stone tools.

  • Our species, homo sapiens, began about here: 1.5 ft ago.
  • And the roots of our civilization start about 12K years or 1.5″ ago.
  • Time stretches much further than this room:
  • Off to the south about 680 ft ago the dinosaurs became extinct.
  • About a mile away early animals first left footprints on dry land.
  • And about 27 miles ago the big bang happened.

To relate this back to time, if each inch/8000 yrs were a day then:

  • our genus (Homo) began over there, 300 days or most of a year ago
  • our species (homo sapiens) began about 18 days ago and
  • our civilization began about 36 hours ago and
  • our industrial revolution began about 36 minutes ago.

Of course time stretches off to the North too but we don’t know what happens there yet.

As you can see, our “History” and even our Prehistory is a pretty small piece of the big picture.  But as I said, a crucial piece.

The First Choice

Our first choice happened only about 60 feet or 2 ‘years’ ago and that was roughly when we decided to leave the forest behind to take up life in the grasslands.  At that time we were very similar to our closest living cousins the modern chimpanzees with whom we share almost 99% of our DNA.  The chimps stayed in the forest changing little,  while we embarked on the path that led us to become homo sapiens.

Chimps are truly amazing, wonderful creatures.  They are well adapted to life in the trees, eating mostly fruit and vegetation, supplemented by monkey meat when they can catch it, and sometimes chimp meat.  They use simple tools that they pick up and shape as needed and use a lot of mostly non-verbal communication.  The main dangers are from predators like leopards, gorillas with whom they must share the forest, and other chimps.  They live in bands structured as a social hierarchy/pecking order that are dominated by an alpha male and his allies who control the band and get larger shares than the others by bullying, threats and violence.  That sounds unpleasant to us but there is reason to think that chimps are quite satisfied with it, having naturally evolved to fit this niche over many millions of years.  Forest life is a perfect fit for their natural abilities, instincts, needs, with the right balance of challenge and security, so what could be better for them?  Certainly not life in a lab or a zoo.

So if it was so great, why did our ancestors leave the forest?  It’s thought that climate was changing, becoming drier, and the forest habitat was shrinking along with our shelter and food supply.  So we naturally started looking outside the forest in the grasslands for food, finding it in the form of roots and meat.  We gradually evolved to be less dependent on the forest and eventually left it altogether.  But along with new foods there were new dangers in the grasslands, like lions and hyenas, large grazing animals, and elephants, and fewer trees for shelter but at least you can see the danger further off.  And individually we were weak but working as a team we could be quite dangerous ourselves.  As chimps we were already the cleverest land animals in the world and good at teamwork but to really thrive in the grasslands we had to get even cleverer and cooperate much better.

You probably know what came next.

Over those 6 million years we evolved bipedalism for efficient walking and running, bigger brains, extended childhood, pair bonding, spoken language, better tool-making, clothing and constructed shelters, food preparation and fire.  Food preparation and eating more meat let us devote more energy to our brains, but our digestive tract also shortened which meant we couldn’t go back to our chimp diet.  We learned the ways of our world and passed on our knowledge to our children through example and stories and song and dance.

Here’s something you may not know:
We developed a new way of organizing our bands.  We largely gave up the system of competing for status and favor that works well for the chimps, for a much more efficient way of organizing based on cooperation, consensus, equality, fairness, and individual freedom.  Our bands grew larger, up to a limit of about 150 people [Dunbar’s number].  Above that limit our newer, better way of cooperating breaks down since it relies on everyone knowing everyone else intimately and above a certain size we just can’t do it.  Knowing everyone we were able to keep track of everyone, know what they did with whom, to whom and if anyone was unkind or selfish or domineering we let them know right away and, mostly through gentle peer pressure, guide them back to cooperation.  If peer pressure wasn’t enough shunning usually did the trick, though banning or even harsher methods might be needed to preserve the band.  It’s important to understand that despite the pressure, cooperation was always voluntary, unforced and members were free to leave the band at any time.

Working together with other bands was difficult but we rarely needed to do it since the world was big with lots of room to spread out.  Our cleverness and cooperation made us the top predators wherever we went and we used our smarts and our technologies to adapt enough to let us go almost everywhere on the planet, even deserts, the mountains, the far north, even returning to the forests.  And wherever we went major extinctions followed in our wake, especially of other large animals, probably through overhunting or competition.

After about 6 million years of evolution we were Homo Sapiens, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, living off the land, and perfectly adapted to our life.  Like the forest life for the chimp, this life was a perfect fit for our natural abilities, instincts, needs, with the right balance of challenge and security.

Imagine life as a hunter-gatherer:

  • You live in a world of incredible natural beauty, traveling through life with 149 best friends and relatives.
  • Everything you see and touch has spirit — is alive.
  • Your life is neither too easy nor too trying, boring nor chaotic, it is comprehensible to you but awe inspiring.
  • It’s pretty primitive, you don’t have much stuff since you move a lot and have to carry it to the next place.
  • There are no stores so your tribe needs to make most things or trade with other tribes for it.
  • The Earth is your grocery store and your hardware store — your tribe knows where everything is what it is for and its name.
  • You spend a lot of time “shopping” with friends, i.e. foraging, but not a huge amount of time, and it’s social and fun.
  • You don’t work long hours.  From this book (Tribe by Sebastian Junger): “One study in the 1960s found that the nomadic !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert needed to work as little as 12 hours per week to survive — roughly one quarter of the hours of the average urban executive of the time.”
  • There are no bosses — you work when and how you please.
  • No TV, movies, video games, spectator sports, books, symphonies, ballet, but your tribe has its own storytelling, and games, songs and dances.
  • No cell phones, no Facebook but you see most of your 149 friends every day and seldom encounter strangers.
  • You are healthy because you eat a varied, natural, appropriate diet and get lots of exercise.
  • Infant mortality is high, and life has many thrilling dangers though if you survive them you can expect to live a long, healthy life…
  • Your life has Meaning — you learn from your elders, you and your community use that knowledge to raise children and pass it on to them, and they will pass it on to their children, a sacred continuity from the deep Past, living in the Present reaching on into the indefinite Future.
  • When death comes you die knowing that the community will honor your passing and take care of your parents and children as though they were their own.  Because they are their own.

On the whole we were probably about as happy as humans can be.

The Second Choice

This brings us to our second choice.  As before we wonder, If tribal life was so great, why did our ancestors start to leave it behind, 12000 years ago, an inch and a half on our timeline, the day before yesterday?  From several million hunter-gatherers to 7+ Billion civilized people and climbing — how did we come so far, so quickly?

The natural tribal life of our species is truly amazing, wonderful and happy.  But limited.  If we are honest we have to admit that civilization is much, much more amazing and wonder-full — in its own way.  And if we had remained hunter-gatherers none of that amazingness would have happened.  We also have to admit that what civilized people did and continue to do to the tribal peoples of the world was and is, by any modern standard, Genocide.  The tribal peoples of the world, the homo sapiens who still try to live like homo sapiens, have been mostly absorbed, wiped out, relocated, reduced to shadows of their former selves.  And consider what civilization has done to the Earth, the animals, the ecosystems, and to its own citizens.  Why?  Our own religions say that there is something wrong with us perhaps caused by an original sin that caused us to be expelled from the Garden of Eden, or maybe as Buddha said just the way we are — “Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly.  I vow to abandon them.”  We also have to honestly admit that on the whole, for most individuals, civilization was and is not as happy as tribal life.  How did we ever get past *that*?

Despite the magnitude and seeming unlikelihood of the change the process by which it probably occurred is quite understandable.  There were a lot of steps so I will summarize it quickly.  In short, agriculture, settlements, and social hierarchy.

The trigger again probably had to do with changing climate — it was the end of the last ice age.  Our traditional food sources and living conditions were disrupted.  Most tribes migrated elsewhere in hope of better conditions but some decided to stay put, increasing the local food supply in what were the beginnings of agriculture.  Even hunter-gatherers probably gardened in a limited way but this was more serious and required a much bigger commitment with long hard hours, better tools and methods, planning, and fixed infrastructure which in turn required staying in one place — no more migrating.

Fixed settlements formed.  More food made expansion possible and overuse of farmland made expansion necessary to get new land and feed the growing population.  Larger settlements had more defenders to protect animals and human raiders – another reason to expand.  There was more food but diet shifted, becoming less diverse.  Health suffered, disease increased.  Average height and lifespan declined, mortality increased.

Living in groups larger than 150 meant that our tribal, egalitarian cooperation system broke down:  it became impossible for everyone to intimately know and track everyone else in the settlement, so our informal, homo sapiens ways of establishing trust and preventing cheating stopped working.  Ironically this required a reversion to something more like the chimpanzee style of organization:  a social hierarchy with chiefs and close relatives and allies dominating others through force and threat of force.  These rulers could get extra food, sex, etc. as long as they remained in control.  Compared to tribal cooperation, this is a much less effective and efficient way to coordinate but it has one big advantage: the hierarchy can be scaled up almost indefinitely aided by new technologies.  The big disadvantage of course is that it meant sacrificing Fairness and Freedom and voluntary cooperation, things we had quite adapted to over 6 million years.

Some other early innovations as settlements grew were soldiers and scribes, scribes to count food and see that it was distributed correctly, professional soldiers to keep the peace and defend the settlement.  Soldiers led to wars of conquest.  Taking over a tribe or settlement added land, food, stuff and … slaves.  The spoils of conquest used to reward loyalty provided yet a third reason to expand.

So, onward and upward, expansion on top of expansion, empires and colonization, mergers and hostile takeovers, new and improved weapons of war, taxes, attempts to moderate the harshness of the system with revolution, religion, law, democracy, bigger and better bureaucracies and priesthoods, etc.  So after, 12000 years, 1.5 inches, 1.5 days, we end up here, in place for our third crucial choice.  This time we haven’t really evolved much — it’s not been long enough since the second choice.  Underneath our fine clothes, living in our fine houses, networking with our iPhones, building our resumes and our careers, or retired and wondering what it was for, we are still homo sapiens, tribal hunter-gatherers with tribal needs, instincts, our tribal souls peering out, forced to inhabit a non-tribal life in a non-tribal world, strangers in a strange land.

The Third Choice.

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

We stand now at the right end of our metaphorical tape measure, between past and future. We face a quandary.  Two problems:

A. Civilization makes us, on the whole, dissatisfied, unhappy.  But we need it to survive — it provides our food, shelter, energy, work, structure.  There are far too many of us to go back to our natural mode of tribal hunting and gathering.

B. Civilization requires expansion — expansion seems inherent in its dynamics to keep it going.  But we can’t keep expanding, at least physically.  In fact we need to contract.  We’ve run out of room, pushed crucial ecosystems to and past their limits. 

Civilization is causing a mass extinction.

It’s a vicious circle — growth makes us feel better, gives us hope for improvement and distracts us from our unhappiness while it lasts.  But it doesn’t last and it can’t last in our finite world.  In the wake of the Great Recession we’re starting to see the worry and unease that comes when economic growth stops.  It will be worse if we sense that growth is never coming back.
But even if it could continue, growth doesn’t change anything anyway, it just rearranges the deck chairs, changes our view leaving us still basically dissatisfied and unhappy.   Because growth doesn’t get us any closer to what we instinctively want and need – a tribal life traveling through time with 149 of our best friends, relatives and peers.  A fair and free, sustainable life of which we are a vital, connected part, not just a meaningless cog.

What are our options?

A. Continue with no correction or too little:  this would lead to certain collapse, possibly rapid.

B. What if we just stop growth and try to restrain the disruptions of civilization in every conceivable way, conservation, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, time out on fishing, reduce, reuse, recycle.  We obviously should do this regardless but even assuming we can marshal the collective will to do it, will it suffice and will our social hierarchies continue to function without growth?  I hope so but I doubt it for the above reasons.  We have to try obviously but I doubt that our collective will would suffice without the incentives of growth.  What’s our backup plan?

C. Assuming I am right, humans will continue to feel unfulfilled without belonging to some sort of tribe-like group.   And with that hole in our lives we will always seek ways to fill that hole or distract ourselves from it — like the behavior that keeps us in this mess and propels us to acquire and expand more and more, while blaming our problems on outside “enemies”.  What if we could figure out some way to combine the best parts of both tribe and civilization, the egalitarian and small group social aspects of the tribe along with the large scale organizations, science, engineering, art, literature, knowledge, etc. of civilization.  It would mean reorganizing life and work in civilization away from chimpish competition and toward tribal cooperation, using intimate, tribe-like groups as the basis for our business, government and personal lives, ideally integrating all three.

That may sound daunting but in fact a number of organizations have been working on ideas like this for years.  For example the Hutterites (a religion related to the Amish) have a strict policy that whenever a colony approaches 150 they split it in two and start a new one.  Similarly the W.R. Gore company (best known for Gore-Tex) has for many years organized their plants informally, non-hierarchically, keeping them separate, never letting them grow past 150 people.  The Zappos clothing company uses an organizational method called Holacracy which divides work into separate, fluid, connected, overlapping circles, avoiding the pitfalls of top down hierarchy.  Holacracy is descended from an older idea called Sociocracy, and so on.
Maybe we aren’t so far from that answer after all.

Sermons are supposed to always leave people on an up note.

You may want me to tell you that your civilization is really OK, really good, all will be well.  Or failing that, that it’s somebody’s fault that it’s not OK, that somebody made a mistake long ago, a bad choice.  I can’t do either.  We are in a real mess, a real pickle with no easy way out.  And it’s nobody’s fault — everyone made the choices that were always going to be made.  They weren’t good humans or bad humans.  I don’t really believe in bad humans, just homo sapiens, a marvelous species, individuals doing their best, playing the hands they were dealt, that they were always going to be dealt, shuffled only one way.  Or close enough to one way that it doesn’t matter — only the details change, the broad outline is the same.  Nobody’s fault.  Nothing wrong with individuals, or humans or Heaven or Earth.

We had no real choice the first 2 times, but maybe we know enough and are conscious enough to have a real choice this time, a choice that will make a difference, that could save us and countless other species.  Or maybe not.  Maybe we are as doomed as we seem to be, as powerless to wake up and say “hell no” to fate, to the chimpanzee program, as we were before.  If so, well it has been quite the Ride hasn’t it?  Quite a marvelous ride indeed!  And we almost made it!

But maybe, just maybe, Fate is wrong this time about us, about our potential for cooperation, for love and trust that lies sleeping in every one of us.  Maybe we just have to try to work out the details of how to unlock it, how to scale it up to join all of humanity in its tribal embrace, its network, its spider web of Indra.  And to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “This time it is right, it will work, and no one will have to get nailed to anything.”

I think the real shame would be if we didn’t try.  We wouldn’t be starting from scratch, many ways have been tried, many found wanting but some possibilities remain.  Here’s to Hope!  To Fear!  To Persistence!  May we and our fellow passengers on this Blue Boat Home find a way through the shoals to the other side.

I am sure we won’t succeed by fighting with our human nature, nor by limiting our natures to their lowest rungs.  Even if we should somehow survive or avert the 6th extinction but still have that hole in ourselves then we won’t have really succeeded and will make the same choices all over again.  It’s all or nothing.  I think we can do it.

What do you think?