Friday, June 02, 2006

ALTRUISTIC HORIZONS: Our tribal natures, the 'fear effect' and the end of ideologies.

For centuries social thinkers have nursed a quiet envy of physical scientists, yearning for the kind of predictive and transformational power offered by the universal laws of Galileo, Newton and Einstein. These reductionist rules enabled earnest workers to utterly change our relationship with the material world, from one of helplessness to great power and manipulative skill.

If only similar patterns and laws could be worked out for human nature! Might we be able to construct an ideal society? One well-suited to decent living by all?

Many thinkers about human nature have operated on assumptions that people ought, logically, to behave in certain ways. Freud based it all on early sexual trauma and repression, Marx on the notion that humans naturally make decisions based on rational, satiable self-interest, while Machiavelli worked out his scenarios assuming all humans interact through power relationships and domination. All are a priori assumptions, based on limited (and personally biased) observations of people and society, rather than any verified and fundamental discovery about human nature. Each writer was able to "prove" his point with copious anecdotal evidence. But, as Ronald Reagan showed us, anecdotes prove nothing about generalities, only about possibilities.

In fact, while the models of Freud, Marx, and Machiavelli (also Madison, Keynes, Ghandi etc.) have attracted legions of followers, clearly influencing sociological, historical and psychological events, I believe a much stronger case can be made for tribalism as a deeply motivating force in history. After all, should not any theoretical explanation of our nature apply across the long span of time when human nature actually formed? Also, if you can find a pattern or patterns that seem to have held across all continents and almost all pre-metal tribes, isn’t there a much better chance that the trait really is natural? That it is not an artifact of later cultural imposition by contrived societies?


Isn’t it strange that few social theorists – from socialist to libertarian – ever cite this long epoch, when humans were few, but when a vast majority of human generations suffered darwinnowing pressures, thriving or dying according to their fitness to meet challenges in a harsh world, unprotected by the houses and markets of the last 5,000 years? (I am qualified to speak here, as a peer-published author in the field of sociobiology.)

So, what might tribalism tell us about human nature, that was missed by Marx and Freud and Rand and all the others, with their post-literacy myopia? What traits seem to be shared BOTH by tribal and “civilized” societies? Are there any deep, ongoing themes?

Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation, has overwhelmed what might otherwise have seemed to be the individual's self-interest. Nor should this be surprising, since, for most of the last million years, human beings lived in clans. Any man or woman who lost the faith and confidence of his or her tribe was in great danger. Often effectively dead.

This can be taken out of the realm of abstraction and brought close to home. Try to imagine your own childhood. (Or ask any kid between the ages of ten and nineteen.) Picture how urgently you needed the approval of a small group of friends. (A group coincidentally (?) about the same size as a prototypical Cro-Magnon tribal band.) Picture how it would have felt at that age to have all your pals suddenly turn on you, rejecting you, turning you out into the cold.

Sure this happens all the time, and parents tell their kids -- "Don't worry, you'll make new friends."

At one level, that of the rational pre-frontal lobes, we know this to be true. And yet, this hardly helps. Even if a kid knows abstractly that there are plenty of opportunities, and this should not matter much, his or her gut still wrenches, as if life were on the line... which it would have been, back in the old days, if the tribe ejected you from its circle of comradeship. (Need any other explanation for the inherent conservatism of most human tribal societies, indeed, nearly all societies of any kind?)

Human beings can be very flexible defining what is "my tribe." More often than not, the major determining factor is fear.


When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.

The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger.

Anthropologically speaking, it is "murder" to kill that which is fellow tribesman or citizen (someone identified as inside the tribal horizon). In contrast, it is not murder to kill that which is inherently outside the tribal horizon. (For a cinematic allegory, recall the film "Little Big Man" in which the Cheyenne call themselves the "human beings". And that film was pro-Native American!)

My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance -- in terms of space, time and kinship -- of the "horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.

These horizons come in several varieties.

1) There is a "Worry Horizon"... what threats concern you and your neighbors. Here we see that worry is quite a different thing than Fear! The average modern American probably worries as much or more than tribal peoples did! Worry will never go away since it seems embedded into our nature. If immediate needs and threats are dissipated, that only shifts the locus of worry somewhere else, depending to some extent on individual personality. But fear is another matter. Fear controls what it is that we are worrying about.

2) There is also a “Time Horizon” having to do with how far into the future you devote your attention – either in dealing with threats or seeking opportunities. If your children are starving, you are more concerned with the next meal than with the next harvest. If the harvest looks okay, you turn your thoughts to longer range matters. Storage, trade, capital improvements… or whether slow loss of topsoil may affect your heirs 200 years from now.

3) Another horizon might be called the "Otherness Horizon” - where one looks not for danger but for opportunities, adventures, new allies, new mating partners. This is also, in anthropological circles, discussed in the rubric of "exogamy". (Clearly, this is one of the roots of science fiction!) This could also be called the “Horizon of Inclusion” since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy negotiating partners, and wher you draw the line, calling others foes.

What seems clear, examining historical records and a broad range of cultures, is that all of these horizons expand and contract in the manner described above. The amount of worry may remain relatively inelastic. But the topic of worry changes dramatically and flexibly. Yes, the horizon distance can be affected partly by cultural memes and personality. But overall, these horizons seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear.


By these lights, most contemporary Americans live in an unprecedented society, where the vast majority of families have not known starvation or even significant want for so many generations that those kinds of fear are almost abstractions.

This, in turn, has allowed traditional tribal bounds to relax and spread so far that "tolerance" and "otherness" are words of totemic power in this culture! Indeed, it is interesting to view the expanding circle of citizenship and inclusion as first the American colonies and then the Republic began experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity and fear-reduction. The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism…) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set… then wrestle with the next stage of the process. Continuing the widening of the circle.

While horrific injustices remain, and substantial fractions of the population appear unwilling to let go of their prejudices, there is at least as large a portion of citizenry which seems eager to extend the trend of expanding inclusion and empowerment farther still.

I have some accompanying charts, showing a set of nested CYLINDERS, each holding the same volume of worry and optimistic hope. But some are tall and slim, representing societies in which fear levels are very high… and the resulting radius of horizons (threat, time and inclusion) are therefore very short range. Other cylinders are low and fat, representing cultures wherein fear has been so low, for so long that the horizons of worry stretch very far from the individual worrier, who now obsesses over matters that lie years, or thousands of miles away, and matters of inclusion that involve people (even animals and ecosystems) that his or her ancestors would have simply considered prey.

Yes, fashionable horizon/inclusion issues can cause fluctuation at the boundaries. Note how nationalist patriotism was considered an archaic and rather quaint viewpoint in recent years, until an uptick in fear after 9/11 caused a partial contraction of horizons for many. Suddenly, flags were all the rage.

And yet, it is a sign of this culture’s deeper confidence that our horizons of inclusion have not appreciably contracted. Today we give a kind of culturally-based honorary citizenship to dolphins and consider it murder to kill as alien a creature as a whale. Science fiction thrives in such a culture, since it brashly extends horizons in both time and space as far as human imagination can take us. The threat horizon is occupied by vicious invader-aliens and the exogamy horizon by beautiful ones... or else cuddly ones that merit nurturing protection from our own, freely-elected government!

It is important to note, of course, that such charts can only give a rough average. Within any culture there will be many individuals whose fear levels - or personal way of responding to fear - are quite different from the surrounding norm. Indeed, these differences are what we tend to notice from day to day. Certainly Timothy McVeigh had very different concepts of "inclusion horizons" than many of the fellow citizens he slew.

Indeed, might one diagnose some recent phenomena in these terms? Why is it that citizens of New York and Washington DC – direct victims of 9/11 terrorism – remain utterly “blue state” in their fealty to expanded horizons – in time, threat and inclusion – while “red state” attitudes (perhaps oversimplifying) seem to draw closer in: e.g. higher enmity toward non-natives and immigrants, less concern about environmental degradation, more concern over “war” on terror, less interest in science and more in a pending end of the world?

Is this model the best one, yet, at explaining such differences? Certainly it is far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.”

Also, different cultures will react to prosperity and peace in markedly different ways. I believe it will take many generations of peace before the deeply ingrained Russian proclivity toward paranoia and pessimistic gloom will be forced to give way to a cheerier mien. Likewise, so long as most children in the Middle East are raised with fairy tales that preach revenge as a high human value, horizon-widening will at best be a jerky process. (Skim 1001 Arabian Nights and tally the few tales that DON'T involve revenge. Indeed, much the same can be said of older western myths, collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. The counter-push by tolerance messages - e.g. Sesame Street - is recent!)

An interesting side issue: what happens when fear goes to zero? Do we get infinite horizons? I suspect that there is more than a little religious writing on this subject. Indeed, might this be the purely detached compassion that is written about in Buddhism? Is it one of many traits we must achieve, before deserving to become apprentices in the Workshop of Creation?


No mistake, I approve of this trend toward ever-widening horizons. (Which may be the deep underpinning of science fiction, by the way.) Indeed, like millions of others, I am impatient for it to go much farther. It is ironic, though, how few seem to realize that the new era of Omni-Inclusion is based upon prosperity and lack of fear brought on by prosperity, and that our morality of universal tolerance would have been considered terminally sappy and dangerous by every other culture in human history.

This is – in my view – the deepest smug insanity of the left. Yes, the “right” obviously suffers from shorter horizons. That is their dire craziness. But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply ASSUME, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent. One that is based upon unprecedented levels of wealth and satiation. Indeed, were they to preach this doctrine of hyper-tolerance to ANY of the ancient “wise tribes” that they so revere, they would have been laughed out of camp!

Indeed, can this process be pathological at some level? Jason Cawley wrote: "There is such a thing, comical as it sounds, as a Gaia Liberation Front. They have decided that mankind is dangerous to life on Earth. They have given up on warnings preventing eco-catastrophe, have passed the stage of welcoming die-backs to hunter-gatherer existence, have realized that capitalistic assaults on nature are a programmed possibility of man, revealing therefore man as a form of cancer within life, and have decided this applies even to "indigenous peoples" because they might develop technology someday. Because of that whole chain, they have decided that mankind must be wiped out before life is. They only debate how to do it. The public relations position is voluntary mass suicide, but among themselves they are more direct and pin their hopes on an engineered virus, airborne and lethal to humans, which they propose to make before anyone else learns and uses enough biotech to screw up the planet."

On the other hand, if one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense. Face it. Rousseau was a sap. All of this is about Locke. The sooner the “wide-horizons” people realize it, the more effective they will be at pursuing their agenda, of widening horizons ever farther!

In fact, this process of horizon-widening is not INTRINSICALLY a feature of the left… though it is intrinsic to liberalism in the older and truer meaning of the word. It is utterly compatible with the four accountability arenas, for example (science, markets, democracy, courts… and the candidate for becoming a fifth arena – the internet. For example, markets work best when competition is both encouraged and tamed… when it operates under rules of fair play that maximize creativity and minimize blood-on-the-floor. This can only happen when market participants must treat each other as competing teams, not deadly foes.

Indeed, one of the major outgrowths of our unprecedented experiment in universal citizenship has been a fundamental change in the shape of the modern social structure. Society as diamond, and not pyramid, is partly a product of technology (making a new class of slaves called "machines", to occupy the lowermost tier), but also a result of having trained several generations of children to think in terms of non-zero sum games. But more on that anon.

Hence, once again, we see that this is not a matter best handled on a left-right basis. Both dogmatic extremes ignore history and are effectively quite mad! One side resists the widening of horizons while the other would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.

Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency, while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition within the tent!

The crucial issue is this - can the long process of expanding human horizons be studied in order to determine crucial narrow points and bottlenecks that inhibit horizon broadening, among both individuals and cultures?

If such bottlenecks can be found and diagnosed, might a judicious application of philanthropic funding help unblock the process, here and overseas, so that both tolerance and far-seeing investment practices take greater hold?


(part of an ongoing series aimed at a nonfiction book about humanity and the future… if I can ever interest a publisher...)


Anonymous said...

In the book 1491, Charles Mann describes two large tribes, the Wari and the Tiwanaku, who lived in intermingled societies for centuries without interacting with each other through war, trade or marriage.

He suggests it's because they were so different from each other...

Rob Perkins said...

David, how does your set of ideas on tribalism dovetail with the social-conservative notion of "family" memes, claimed by its proponents as the fundamental building block of any society worth saving?

That is, is there a correlation between the idea of family/village and your notions of tribes, both as societal arrangements designed primarily to protect its members, especially providing a safe haven for children?

David Brin said...

Rob, the word "safe" is key in your question.

Fearful people draw values in terms of very culture-specific rituals and identifications. Calm/confident/relaxed/tolerant people are NOT intrinsically less worried about their kids. But they are less likely to use that worry as an excuse to LIMIT those kids.

I don't know if any other writer has declared that WORRY is a human constant while FEAR is a variable. The two can be defined in such a way that they seem almost orthogonal!

Almost every (bad) trait that we see displayed by red state america appears to be a manifestation of fearfulness.

Almost every (bad) trait of blue america (lefty) appears to be a manifestation of mypopic arrogance. The assumption that Otherness is a religion, rather than an EMERGENT PROPERTY, arising naturally when a decent society continues lowering its levels of fear.

Dig it. Has anyone ELSE offered a theory to explain why the victims of 9/11 are the ones LEAST afraid of terrorism? Why border militia folk are those with far less contact with immigrants than city liberals?

Will said...

Great stuff, David.

I've got one little nitpick, though:

can this process be pathological at some level?

I would think, in this era of instant communications, nuclear weapons, and air travel allowing disease vectors to pass from continent to continent in hours, that it is the shrinking of horizons that would be pathological.

While the underlying premise might be the result of prosperity and peace, the conclusions are still most likely valid.

Anonymous said...

A lot of what you said sounds pretty similar to some of Frans De Waal's work, like his book Good Natured.

It ties a lot of human morality and looks at it through evolutionary principles, in a really sensible and fairly optimistic way.

The metaphor he used was the "floating pyramid of altruism." The individual is the apex of th pyramid, his/her family is the next layer beneath, neighborhood below that, city below that, country below that, etc. The idea is, the higher the individual rises, the more layers get above water. When someone can easily take care of themselves, they can then think about helping their family, and so on down the pyramid.

Definitely a worthwhile read


Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I think you are being a little dishonest here.

America has a large military caste that will support any military action no matter how laughable the justification for it is.

Military service is how they make their living.

Serving in combat is how they earn their status in our society.

They'd rather win the Congressional Medal of Honor than a Nobel Prize.

It may seem bizarre when they accuse people who want to pull our troops out of the Iraq quagmire of "not supporting the troops," but they mean support them in their effort to earn a living and earn some glory...

They don't really fear the terrorists. For them, it's a business opportunity.

Anonymous said...


America has a large military caste that will support any military action no matter how laughable the justification for it is.

... I know several generations of folk in and out of the service, and I can't fathom how you reached that conclusion. On what basis would you believe that the American military is (1) a caste, and (2) utterly mercenary?

Anonymous said...

The little Iraqi girl in Haditha was pleading with the U.S. Marines last November not to shoot her, but the "Semper Fi" U.S. Marine oh-so-bravely shot and killed her in cold blood. Why? Because someone else had planted a bomb that killed one Marine and wounded another. For the Marine tribal members, that event was license to kill twenty-four (24) innocent Iraqis, such as an old man in a wheelchair. Does anybody think that those heroic, little-girl-killing U.S. Marines will stand trial for murder? Not on your life! So stop and think: If your UI.S. Marine Daddy "gave his life" defending America in Iraq, maybe YOU should be ASHAMED of your U.S. Marine Daddy.

Anonymous said...


If you throw in U.S. spending on the Veteran's Administration, military retirement, plus the military parts of the budgets for Nasa, Dept. of Energy, Homeland Security, Foreign Affairs, etc...

...the U.S. spends over $700 billion a year of "defense." That's more than the GDP of all but a few countries.

Ignore the propaganda and look at where the troops who are actually dying in Iraq came from:

Spc. Bobby R. West, 23, of Beebe, Ark

Spc. Jeremy M. Loveless, 25, of Estacada, Ore.

Capt. James A. Funkhouser, 35, of Katy, Texas

Spc. J. Adan Garcia, 20, of Irving, Texas

Cpl. Richard A. Bennett, 25, of Girard, Kan.

Capt. Nathanael J. Doring, 31, of Apple Valley, Minn.

That's just from the last three days.

Ever heard of any of those places?

That's where your military caste lives...and votes.

Anonymous said...

Here's a common stumbling block: any ideology that does not tolerate difference. For example,
just about every religion.
If you can't tolerate the existance of competing ideologies that do not threaten to use force against yours, then you're doomed to some sort of conflict.

I'm going to be blunt: There's as much evidence for the Flying Spagetti Monster as there is for the resurrection of Jesus or for the divine inspiration of the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, or any other work of fiction that claims to be divinely inspired. There's as much reason to believe in an afterlife as there is to believe that there is a 50-pound diamond buried in your backyard. There's just no way to say "your religion is false" without offending or angering people, so I will run that risk.

Tolerance of religious differences can only go so far. When one religion declares its mission to be the elimination of all other religions, by force if necessary, it can become a serious threat that must not be tolerated. Religious belief can become the memetic equivalent of the rabies virus, up to and including its tendency to destroy its host in order to spread itself. You can't reason with a fanatic; you can only surrender to him or kill him.

Religions aren't the only memes that have become virulent pathogens; Nazism and Communism under Stalin are secular examples of evil memes. Some ideas have to die, like slavery, and, as the history of slavery in the United States shows, sometimes you have to fight a war not to defend an idea, but to kill one.

Anonymous said...

Hey! It's another predictive hit for Earth! (Or at least something close to it.)

Texas governor plans "virtual" border patrol

Anonymous said...

Doug.S I could not disagree more. If you need a war to stop slavery and injustice why did we need the civil rights movement 100 years later? And what about Great Britain eliminating slavery without any war in 1830’s. Or South Africa, which eliminated Apartheid without a war. If you want major change you need the whole society to agree not just the 5-10% who control the military.

Also with the internet there is no possible way you will ever eliminate an idea short of destroying all civilization.

Brin is right the more danger, fear, and secrecy the less progress gets made.

Anonymous said...

Very cool article!

This ambient fear thing, I can only assume it is an accumulation of a number of separate, specific fears. But is fear really all that accumulative ? If so then the number and strength of the different fears seems relevant. But I'm sure there are certain fears that matter more than others simply because they are more relevant at a particular point in time.

I guess I kind of object to the vagueness of the term 'ambient'. Still a fascinating article though.

Anonymous said...

A lot of years ago, I read a John Campbell editorial in which he measured human progress along an axis which went something like this: tribesman> barbarian> citizen> national> Terran. Or in other words, member of a tribe> horde> city-state> nation> world. Always made sense to me, but it isn't everyone's idea of progress. Also, while there is a correlation between this organizational axis and the fear axis, the security of an individual of said society is still very contingent on internal politics and economics.

"Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation, has overwhelmed what might otherwise have seemed to be the individual's self-interest."

This needn't even be altogether a bad thing. You could as well be describing heroism or altruism. The real perversion comes when devotion to a tribe overwhelms not only the individual self-interest, but even the long term prospects of the tribe.

"The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set then wrestle with the next stage of the process."

Yes, but these social ills are not actually eradicated before moving on to the next stage. This is something like suppressing a disease -- unless countermeasures such as inoculation and public hygiene are near universal, reservoirs of disease tend to persist and break out periodically. The question is, to what extent do countermeasures against social ills need to be mandated in order to be effective?

"But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply ASSUME, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent."

Just what is your idea of the "doctrinaire left", David (given that a certain percentage of crazies will be found in any sort of grouping)? It is true, I think, that the old-fashioned socialist Left came from a belief that, given a requisite level of economic security and of economic and political democracy, most people would choose cooperation over competition. Contingency was always a fundamental part of the equation, though.

Now if you are talking about the Identity Politics Left, well, those people preach universalism, but practice tribalism. Unfortunately, that is also the only part of the leftist programme that is actively supported by your much-admired "centrists".

"On the other hand, if one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense."

Mmm. I think you could make an argument that like biological evolution, social change often occurs in a punctuated rather than an incremental manner. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Granted, an incremental approach may usually be safer, but it can also be a mug's game. For instance, I believe that an incremental approach to universal health care will probably look like an asymptotic curve, both in terms of the expense of extending a broken system, and in terms of decreasing political support for achieving the last percentiles of coverage. Also, you might rethink the notion of starting with coverage for children only. Who takes care of a child if the parent is sick, dead or simply impoverished?

Anonymous said...

Have you noticed? There is a cyclical pattern to the times of high fear and low inclusion, and low fear and high inclusion, and transition times between. Anybody over 60 can pinpoint the ones of the 20th Century. The circle is widened in the "high summer" of, say, the 1960s and the inclusion consolidated in the "autumn" of, say, the 1980s and 1990s - and abruptly narrowed whenever the fecal matters hits the rotating device. And stays narrowed for several years after it's all over and the cleanup is going on.

The best exposition of this is in a book called Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which I'm quoting because it matches what I've observed as a person and as a history buff, not because I read it in a book and thought "Wow! Neat theory! Let's make reality conform!"

BTW, Strauss & Howe don't address this, but there are larger cycles within cycles, as Toynbee postulated and Barbara Tuchman ("A Distant Mirror") gave anecdotal proof of. (Or for that matter, read *anything* set in the period between Gaius Marius' first Consulship and Octavian's first Consulship!)

Just my $0.02

Pat, who thinks the time for the identity politics that pockmarked the last four decades is now over.

Anonymous said...

or thousands of miles away, and matters of inclusion that involve people (even animals and ecosystems) that his or her ancestors would have simply considered prey.

You miss the obvious. Sensible members of any tribe have always looked after their prey - it isn't unlimited and is a resource. It is concern for animals which consider humans prey (such as tigers) which is the amazing part

An interesting side issue: what happens when fear goes to zero?

I have a suspicion that this is like reaching absolute zero - it can never happen, but you can get arbitrarily close. And you'll get some weird results along the way.

Religious belief can become the memetic equivalent of the rabies virus, up to and including its tendency to destroy its host in order to spread itself.

So can any other One True Way ™ ideology (including modernism - which is what necessitated post-modernism (which fell right into that quagmire itself)). The National Socialist Party of Germany wasn't known for being amazingly religious, nor was the Communist Party of Russia (or that of China).

The problem is the One True Nature rather than the ideology itself. Trust no one who claims to have all the answers.

One of the major reasons a lot of military recruits come from the middle of nowhere is because they want to get out of there. There are more or less four ways out of such places: Through a scholarship and education (few can get), through packing up and travelling to the city (a massive risk as there isn't much they can take with them or a guarantee of what they can do there), through the military, or in a coffin. For the vast majority, the military is the best option (and they don't want to stay there and watch the whole place fall apart around them, with few prospects). It's not a caste so much as a lack of other opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Francis: "You miss the obvious. Sensible members of any tribe have always looked after their prey - it isn't unlimited and is a resource."

Isn't the point that we don't see them as prey anymore?

David Brin said...

Monkyboy, your lack of understanding of today’s military is appalling. Sorry. It's a caricature and untrue.

I can tell you this, today’s officer corps hates the Iraq War, which has demolished their levels of readiness and training (their primary job). Many (though reluctantly because of GOP roots) are coming to despise the nincompoops and morons who started this mess-o-potamia and sent them into a hell that is grinding down and destroying our military.

Monkyboy argued another point… while perfectly illustrating mine. Dig it. No other nation or people would have held imperial troops to an atrocity-free standard of behavior cleanliness.

Mind you, I totally AGREE with this trend and I am bitterly angry with the $%#@@$!s who are exercising such poor command over their troops. As Spielberg showed vividly in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, human nature after millennia of combat is to kill anyone even remotely associated with the death of a comrade. But these aren’t warriors anymore, they are supposed to be policemen! Yes, policemen. And policemen have no excuse for atrocities, even in the heat of emotion-drenched battle. No excuse at all. This must be dealt with, and especially those who let it happen.

But back to my point. Monkyboy ignores HIMSELF as an example of the very thing I am talking about. The standard left myopia is to reflexively diss whatevr might be taken as retro-imperial, racist, nationalist… with the common thread that all “near horizon” boundaries are evil and all horizons must be pushed out as far as possible.

And don't get me wrong. I AGREE yet again! Horizons must be expanded!

And yet, I find it quite disgusting that

(1) no credit is given to the nation and culture that most promoted the values of horizon stretching (in fact, that culture is dissed as the WORST, without any factual justification), (Admittedly, it deserves citokate for failing to live up to its own new standards.)

(2) No perspective is ever shown toward how recent the value set of horizon stretching is, and how past tribes and nations would have laughed at it,

(3) no perspective is shown toward the inevitable unevenness of this process, and that it is sometimes possible to be WRONG about how far it can be stretched, at a given time. (e.g. dissing Pax Americana BEFORE a suitable replacement world order is even a glimmer on the horizon.)

Patricia, I agree that there are epicycles to the process of horizon stretching. Often featuring GOP administrations. Indeed, I am not being wondrously otherness-tolerant in pointing out that red staters show all symptoms of too-near horizon problems.

Still, you are ignoring the SECULAR trend, which is totally toward horizon expansion, ever since George Marshall showed us the way in 1946. Do not overly romanticize the 60s, for example! I was there. We were fighting our demons harder then, yes. Great drama! But largely because we had VASTLY more demons to fight!

We are a better people now. Vastly better horizons. And yes, red staters are better, by far than they were. Many of them sincerely misremember their past positions and have photos of ML King on their walls!

Actually Toynbee savagely REJECTED so called “cycles of history, as pushed by maniacs like Oswald Spengler. Yes, some cultures can “age” but more as a coping out than as a necessary phase of life.

Can anyone find the modernist article where I talk about toynbee?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

If our officer corps hates the Iraq war so much, why don't they speak out against it, every single chance they get?

Why are they allowing the "nincompoops and morons" to paint Iran and then China as the next enemies of the state?

As for "atrocity-free" standards for our troops in must be joking.

Our troops have been operating with a supreme indifference to Iraqi civilian deaths since day one, when we leveled half a dozen houses in a failed attempt to get Saddam.

Check out this interview right-wing darling Ahmad Chalabi gave a week before the Haditha incident:

"Chalabi definitely wants American troops to stay in Iraq -- even though he had a lot of horror stories about the way the U.S. military is operating "with total immunity and impunity."

"'American soldiers,' he said, 'are breaking into people's homes and are arresting and detaining Iraqi citizens without charges. Even if they run over an Iraqi and kill him they will not be charged with a crime, because they are above Iraqi law.'"

Anonymous said...

Monkeyboy wrote:
If our officer corps hates the Iraq war so much, why don't they speak out against it, every single chance they get?

Why are they allowing the "nincompoops and morons" to paint Iran and then China as the next enemies of the state?

Because the MILITARY ARE SUBORDINATE TO THE CIVILLIANS. There are three basic cores values of the military as regarding hierarchies. The first is that all else being equal, your CO and chain of command is to be both respected and obeyed. The second is that when your CO does something strange, the assumption is that it is because he knows more than you do. The third is that the military does not directly involve itself in civillian politics - that way lies a banana republic. The miracle is that servicemen are actually speaking out directly.

(David, sorry for the block capitals - I felt that point really needed emphasis).

As for "atrocity-free" standards for our troops in must be joking.

Our troops have been operating with a supreme indifference to Iraqi civilian deaths since day one, when we leveled half a dozen houses in a failed attempt to get Saddam.

Find a war with fewer atrocities... The point about the standards is that they are the standards that are set, not the standards that people live up to.

Anonymous said...


Soldiers blindly following civilian leaders has turned out badly in the past, too.

As for Iraq, I don't see any standards in operation. Consider this incident where our troops were just cleared of any charges:

Basically, our troops went to raid a house in the middle of the night.

Someone inside the house shot back.

So our troops called in an AC-130 "Wedding Crasher" to level the house...

Too bad about all the children inside...crocodile tears all around.

Anonymous said...

"Can anyone find the modernist article where I talk about toynbee?"

A Glass Half Empty ?

You also mentioned him in a blog article Networks and Netwar.

melee said...


Plausible categories for analysis. Reads almost like a summary of cultural anthropological, sociological, and sci-fi-ological thought over the past couple of hundred years. Really interesting if one could somehow generate data points for correlation.

If one could, I suspect one would find a pattern more akin to a Lorenz 'strange attractor'than to a Spenglerian circle. If you don't already know it, look at the work of Pitirm Sorokin.

Actually, your premises can easily be shown as explanatory of the Haditha "Semper Fi" incident. Where is fear higher and the altrusic horizon drawn more tightly than in war? 'Buddies' are the only tribal cohorts in a war zone.

As an aside, given your model here, perhaps Stephen King might make a good 'research associate'.


Anonymous said...


The behavior of our troops in Iraq is really kind of a red herring.

Nobody cares about dead Iraqi civilians really...they are just stand ins for our colossal post-9/11 failure.

We set out, with the support of the whole world, to catch or kill the few terrorists behind the attack on us whow ere still alive.

Five years, $500 billion and tens of thousand dead later and...

Those same terrorists are still alive and a much bigger threat to us than when we started.

We've turned Iraq into a radical Islamic state.

And the world hates us.

The right makes no secret of their vision of Pax Americana, enforced by our military with global reach...but we can't even control a tiny third-world country.

In reality, we've just become unpaid security guards going broke to keep China's trade routes safe.

Why do we continue down this path?

Because a lot of Americans are making a good living at it, and they supported by our own religious fanatics who want to see heathens killed...

Rob Perkins said...

As to your question, there have been several offerings as to why New Yorkers are not afraid of terrorism. Yours puts another on the pile.

As to my question, you didn't answer it, choosing instead to operate along the insipid left/right spectrum. I'm actually a bit disappointed, because *none* of the "family" oriented people I know (and I know thousands) operate from a standpoint of fear, nor do they limit their childrens' opportunity in the way you seem to imply.

From worry, though, stems a multitude of deeply felt issues. As long as we're using your rubric.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin. said:
But these aren’t warriors anymore, they are supposed to be policemen! Yes, policemen. And policemen have no excuse for atrocities, even in the heat of emotion-drenched battle. No excuse at all. This must be dealt with, and especially those who let it happen.

Well, no, they're not policemen. They're Marines. They're soldiers, trained to go in and blow up other armies, which they're probably the best in the world at doing. But they're not policemen, and that's part of the problem.

We really SHOULD have a military branch of policemen. Or occupiers, or whatever you want to call them. Nation-builders. But we don't, because the phrase "nation-building" has been villified and belittled by the same fools who are now in office and trying to use the US military as a police force. If we'd had a well-trained force of men, ready to go in and keep order and help rebuild, and they weren't hamstrung by the nearly infinite number of mistakes made by the tools in charge, we'd be much better off.

But then again, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Which leads me to something that's been bothering me about the Iraq war. I'm sure there's going to be cries of "Well, what would YOU do, Cut-and-run flip-flopping girly-man," come the next election. So... What kind of modernist solutions are there? I'm not sure there are any good solutions left. Is it just a matter of picking the least bad from a menu of Very Bad Things, so badly has the pooch been screwed?

And does it really matter what we think, modernists, leftists, sane conservatives, and anyone else? After all, the Bush admin is going to probably be in charge for at least two more years, they're not going to listen to us.

Anonymous said...


Rob has steered us back on topic. Dr. Brin said the most likely American targets of terrorism are less afraid of it than the rest of the country.

I was suggesting that nobody in America is realy afraid of the terrorists.

Some people are just using it as an excuse to make a buck and others play it up because of their religious and racist bigotry.

Anonymous said...

Brother Doug said...
(begin quote)

Doug.S I could not disagree more. If you need a war to stop slavery and injustice why did we need the civil rights movement 100 years later? And what about Great Britain eliminating slavery without any war in 1830’s. Or South Africa, which eliminated Apartheid without a war. If you want major change you need the whole society to agree not just the 5-10% who control the military.

(end quote)

The U.S. Civil War didn't end racial injustice, but it did end slavery. Just because progress was incomplete doesn't mean it wasn't progress! We needed a war then because, at that time, nothing short of the willingness to use force would have ended slavery, and the pro-slavery forces believed that, if a war actually started, they wouldn't lose. The British Empire ended slavery without a war party because no pro-slavery faction believed that armed resistance could possibly work.

Was what happened in South Africa really that different? According to Wikipedia, even though it wasn't actually a war, it was pretty close to it.

Francis said...
(begin quote)
Religious belief can become the memetic equivalent of the rabies virus, up to and including its tendency to destroy its host in order to spread itself.

So can any other One True Way ™ ideology (including modernism - which is what necessitated post-modernism (which fell right into that quagmire itself)). The National Socialist Party of Germany wasn't known for being amazingly religious, nor was the Communist Party of Russia (or that of China).

The problem is the One True Nature rather than the ideology itself. Trust no one who claims to have all the answers.
(end quote)

Yes, you're right. Religion is simply the most obvious example.

Anonymous said...

Fuck yes. Wonderfully said, David. I love the concepts and the overall image this theory draws. I've been trying to develop my own tribalism theory for a couple years, but haven't been able to formulate a cohesive concept of it. However, I do have my own version of how we went from state of nature to governance, based on fundamental human attributes... later on in this paper (of which the next few paragraphs are part of) I tried to explain how evolution by natural selection is actually an important part of the wellness of our (indeed, any) species as a whole and that a successful social structure needs to be built around this fact. (Success meaning the overall success of the tribe--to survive, it must be kept strong. It's strength is improved [physically, intellectually, socially] via evolution.) Technology upsets the efforts of evolution though, but that's a whole 'nother topic. The excerpt:

"Humans are built for specialization—an individual might be good at one thing but not another. Because of this, individuals have a much better chance at survival if they live in a group. This way each member of the group will fulfill a certain need of the group, such as acquiring food, protection, healing, or building homes and tools. All basic human organizations work this way, the smallest (and most intimate) of which is the family. Statistically, larger groups will generally contain more strong individuals. So families have a greater chance to survive if they join with other families, forming a tribe. A tribe is able to assign individuals to tasks according to their abilities. This specialization—combined with its large pool of individuals—allows the tribe to be versatile and effective, thus making it extremely fit for survival.

"Successful tribes grow larger due to their efficiency and sometimes the addition of wandering families or smaller tribes looking for an alliance. These successful tribes (what we will term super-tribes) have laws in the form of traditions. Inner tribal peace is preserved by educating their children in accordance with these traditions, enforcing favorable social values and punishing deviant behavior. Depending on the environment, tribes may claim a certain piece of land as their own or they may roam. However, a super-tribe’s mobility is drastically reduced because of their size, and they are forced to settle. If they continue their success, they grow into a community which is basically a group of smaller tribes spread out around the first founding super-tribe. Suddenly we see the beginnings of a state, complete with allies, enemies, trade networks, and a system of enforced laws.

"I maintain that there is no fine line between tribes and states—they simply emerge from independent-minded individuals as their social structures evolve. This shows that governance is not a goal that societies strive for. Rather, it is simply an emergent property of organized groups of people..."

Anyway, I worry that, by adapting to this vision of broad horizons, we become fattened and impotent, almost begging to be slaughtered by one small group of deviants. (Wait, has this already happened?)

@ redkitty: I disagree with that notion of "progress". It took humans millions of years to develop and maintain sentience, and I'm not about to believe that to progress we must abandon our hard-earned (heh) self-awareness (i.e. individualism) in favor of becoming a drone in the Terran hive. REAL progress comes from individuals who have better ideas than what the populace currently subscribes to. On the other hand, it is true that we must become AWARE of the global community and be a part of it... it's just that it shouldn't rule us. I think individual survival trumps global concerns because the former utilizes the benefits of decentralization BUT past that point we should pay attention to the latter. (That was rather quick and dirty, so let me know if it didn't make sense and I'll try to explain better.)

Anonymous said...


I don't think humanity has ever had a shortage of individuals with good ideas.

I think instead, socities have varied over how open they are to subscibing to, or at least trying, these good ideas. (I think this is what Dr. Brin was saying in his original post...hehe).

Allow me to float my own just-so story...

In any decent sized society, even a great idea is going to cause some person or group to lose out. If these "losers" have the means to stop society as a whole from acting on this good idea, they will.

So, everbody in a small tribe could easily be swayed to migrate out of a drought-stricken area...

But the idea of doing something about global warming will be stopped by the "losers" buying politicians, spreading propaganda, court battles, etc.

Anonymous said...

If you are talking about my posts, Matt, it may surprise you that I don't consider them "bashing."

I was just pointing out that the Rules of Engagement our troops are operating under in Iraq...that it's better risk some civilian casualties than risk letting a terrorist or insurgent go free are:

1. Counterproductive to our stated goal of turning Iraq into a democracy.

2. Far different than most Americans understand them to be.

As far as reducing fear to increase prosperity, I strongly disagree.

Most of the technology that produces America's prosperity today was developed during WWII (a lot of it by the evil Nazis).

And we owe a lot of our prosperity to the fact that we helped bomb our biggest economic rivals (Germany and Japan) back to the stone age...which gave America a huge head start in the modern, global economy.

If anything...fear increases prosperity.

low-tech cyclist said...

David, I think perhaps you want to revise your claim. What you might should be saying is that no public intellectual whose ideas are picked up at all by the mainstream media has explored this territory to any great extent.

I'd claim (sight unseen; my union card's in math, not social sciences) that the scholarly literature has delved into this ground. Why?

Because my experience in general has been that, even though I'm a very bright guy, there's plenty of very bright people out there. If I can think of a genuinely good idea germane to some other field that doesn't rely on very specific ideas from my own field, then someone in that field has almost certainly already thought of it and published on it. Usually long ago.

I also know that one highly regarded more-or-less public intellectual of the lefty blogsphere has been mining this territory on a regular basis in discussing contemporary American politics. As I was reading this post, I couldn't help thinking that my favorite SF author was channeling Digby. Digby's a bit more of a pessimist than you are, but most people are.

David Brin said...

Hi good discussion.

I must say to Matt that although prosperity is a key ingredient in horizon expansion, it is not the only one. It is necessary but not sufficient. There are other factors. Let me list three here. Sanity, foresight and practicality.

Without these three things, prosperity will not expand horizons. It will only turn into gluttony. (As many of the neo-puritans of the left deeply believe.)

Sanity: In another place I talk about the outlines of a new definition of sanity that might avoid the flaws that were inherent in other definitions – that amounted to litmus tests to help detect and crush any deviance from some homogenizing norm.

We, in a civilization that has long preached diversity and adulation of individual eccentricity, became so offended by that approach that even mentioning the word “sanity” naturally raises the hackles of most educated Westerners. A worried suspicion that an oppressive agenda is about to be preached.

But should it not be possible to come up with a definition that includes, and even highly-values diverse human individual eccentricity? Or at least, leaves it entirely alone, so long as the trend is toward some kind of creative happiness that doesn’t hurt others? Especially, isn’t it possible to look at basic traits that help humans in any society, even (especially) the tribes within which we all evolved?

I have listed (elsewhere) four traits that seem to satisfy these parameters. Brief summary.

Satiability - Nearly all mental health workers – of whatever school and whatever culture – will tell you that a most-common trait of mental illness is insatiability. If you get the thing you claim you wanted, it does not help to increase your happiness, or to decrease your perceived need for it. In contrast to saner-happier and more effective people who accomplish goals, are glad of it, and move on. This does not mean shutting down ambition! Ambition is a personality trait to be valued, including the ambition to make a better world. But victories should bring pleasure, or they weren’t your real reason for fighting, after all.

Adaptability - the ability to receive evidence that your course was mistaken and to adjust it accordingly. (Define both insanity and ideology? Doing the same thing, over and over again, while expecting different results.)

Extrapolation in consequence- or thought experimentation… the ability to imagine yourself – with some plausibility – taking a course of action and picturing a large fraction of the ways that things can go right… or might go wrong.

Extrapolation of identity- or empathy…. Putting yourself into the shoes of another. Plausibly imagining what they might be thinking, what motivates them. What they might do next.

Note that I leave out any goody-two-shoes morality! Most morality is contingent upon circumstances, like the radius of those inclusion horizons. There are some deep essentials of morality, but they are what our better angels bring to us, even in the darkness, and hence they are not part of this list of powerful fitness traits. What I am talking about is the human animal. And here is the shocker. None of these four traits of fundamental human sanity is fundamentally generous or moral!

For example, empathy is a powerful tool for a tiger who is stalking prey! If your fear level is high, then extrapolation and adaptability and empathy will make you a better predator. And under those conditions, predation is eminently sane.

But here’s the crux. What these four traits allow is the rapid emergence of goodness and generosity and wisdom and far-horizons of inclusion… as what complexity theorists call “emergent properties”… just as soon as fear levels start to fall. For example, in times of plenty, satiability will naturally combine with empathy to create something new… sympathy. An ability not only to grasp the feelings and motives of others, but to care about their pain and to want it eased. Extending the boundaries of “us” to include them. Even a willingness to sacrifice, in order to spread the happiness and goodwill.

Also note: none of these traits are incompatible with either communitarianism or individualism, with cooperation or competition. What they do is allow individuals to flexibly judge for themselves how best to mix cooperative and competitive effort. Whether to accept rules that make both community and individual action work better. Whether to team up increasing numbers of allies, with the expanding tribal definition, in order to accomplish new things and expand the alliances even farther.

This is a very brief (and possibly unpersuasive) hurry-through summary of my proposal for a “new definition of sanity”… one of my most-arrogant ideas yet! It can be discussed elsewhere. But for the purposes of Horizon Theory the implications should be plain.

Prosperity and peace will not automatically result in a will to expand horizons of time, worry and inclusion! Because some people will not become less fearful simply because they have enough to eat, or a big car or a fat bank account. We are, after all, descended from feudal lords who were terrified all the time. If nothing else, they feared that their harems weren’t big enough. That they did not have enough people to bully. (In this respect, the last 4,000 years may have made us much less sane, intrinsically… though there are other way in which I speculate that we’ve become a lot more calm.)

No, prosperity alone is not enough. Sanity is the essential ingredient to be able, flexibly, to adjust your horizons to changing circumstances. It is why some of the wealthy today “get” the idea of loyalty to an agile, individualist society, while others scheme, nervously and insatiably, for a new feudal order.

Non-sanity can also be a society-wide phenomenon. I alluded to this in the fact that some cultures beat into their kids notions of honor or revenge – or sexist repression of girls – to a degrees that makes them unable to exhibit the four traits with any kind of agility. (There may be a milder version of this in “red state America”, hampering the horizon expansion in those regions from matching what it is in the cities.)


After that digression into “sanity” let me only briefly mention the two other factors that can limit horizon expansion. Yes, foresight involves one of the horizons – that of time – and it should be more crucial and useful, the farther out you look. But is foresight effective? And do people approach contemporary problems with a will to pragmatically solve them? I will have more to say about this (for now, drop in at:

But let me remind you of what Arnold Toynbee said in his twelve volume Study of History (1934-61) . Toynbee presented the trajectories of 26 civilizations which he saw arising when "creative minorities" inspired unprecedented effort to solve difficult challenges. Societies fail, in Toynbee's view, when the creative minority wanes or loses society's support. (

We don’t all have to be geniuses or pragmatic do-ers. But we need a civilization that is sane enough to recognize the desperate need for such people. That they are more necessary than warriors or politicians and movie stars.

David Brin said...

All right, it's too smug and cute, but you gotta see this:

The thing that makes you cry is that it's half true...

Anonymous said...


Have always enjoyed reading your words and thoughts. They always challenge my own mind to consider possibilities. The tribalism concept strikes a deep chord within me for a couple of reason.

First, as you so correctly pointed out at the beginning, most theorists only choose a "snapshot moment" of human history. In one way, this corresponds to the parable of the group of blind men trying to describe an elephant based on what part of the beast each person is touching. As much as humans are capable of processing large amounts of information at once, when it comes to Time, we often lack a true grasp on that dimension. We have difficulty maintaing perspectives for the information we use in our own analyses.

The second chord is how humans fail to accept that we as a species are still social animals - in what drives us and our behaviors. As a certified wildlife biologist, I am amazed at the contortions human behaviorists go through to describe human behaviors, when in fact those same behaviors are IDENTICAL to bevaiors humans have described for other animal species.

To the other posters, I have enjoyed reading your comments as well. I would love to join in on the military dialogue but the blog was about David's views on tribalism, broadening horizons, and human cultural evolution. As I work for the military, I have viewpoints that would certainly stir things up some more. But, such discussion would not be wise if the transparent society has an ever-watching shadow.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

Doesn't the enormous wealth we give to today's "geniuses or pragmatic do-ers" actually raise the amount of wealth everybody else feels they need before they are sated enough to become sympathetic?

Anonymous said...


If shortened a little, and punched into traditional essay form, I could see this featured on "Salon."

* * *

How does this fit in?

A fascinating segment on "This American Life" this week told the story of a WWII-era Black sailor who was rescued from a shipwreck off of Newfoundland.

Demeaned and terrorized in civilian life, and stuck in dead-end menial jobs in the service, he expected to by jailed or even killed by the folks on shore.

Instead, he was treated with respect and dignity for the first times in his life . . . by dirt-poor, back-water "Newfies."

Starts about 1/2 way through:

Anonymous said...

Satiability and the media:

Spent a week back East, visiting family.

My parents are heavy watchers of "HGTV."

I sat through a few selections. They all had the same basic format: Homeowners faced with a problem with their home or yard are visited by professionals who suggest, and sometimes implement, improvements.

Virtually every home featured on the shows was enormous and/or situated on a vast tract of handsome land. The upper middle class homeowners faced awful problems like awkwardly shaped living rooms and dowdy "window treatments." The fixes required what had to be tens of thousands of dollars of work. (On one landscaping show, the homeowners set a budget of $100,000 to fix their lawns and patio!)

I refer to this sort of stuff as home improvement porn.

I suppose this stuff is entertaining, but could it also be driving people to take on unsustainable debt to buy "dream homes" they've assume they are entitled too?

Anonymous said...

Stefan Jones: Instead, he was treated with respect and dignity for the first times in his life . . . by dirt-poor, back-water "Newfies."

According to Wikipedia: Newfoundland's social mores regarding status differentiation are [....] far more subtle than what one frequently encounters off island. Obviously, there is social stratification on the island. But, aggressive and overt presentation of social distinctions has a tendency to lead to instant social sanction.[...]Symbolic pretensions to authority based on education, superior class position or raw power tend to fail quite miserably.

Talk about your suspicion of authority, those "Newfies" seem like a textbook case.

Rob Perkins said...


There is HGTV programming which doesn't pander to the dream-home set, ("Design on a Dime" comes to mind) but it's probably popular because it's *almost* within reach of most of the middle class. A realistic dream, if there's such a thing.

My wife watches a lot of HGTV, and enters the sweepstakes for the monster house each year. (Entry is free, you can opt out of the mailings and such) Most of what she's looking for in the program is just this or that basic design idea.

Anonymous said...

No offense taken, Matt.

I enjoy reading crisp posts as much as verbose ones.

I'm not sure I agree with your statement that prosperity is increasing worldwide. I don't disagree with it either, though. Just not sure how you'd prove it.

I was looking over this chart I found linked to on

Top 10 Cities of the Year 100

Name Population
1 Rome 450,000
2 Luoyang (Honan), China 420,000
3 Seleucia (on the Tigris), Iraq 250,000
4 Alexandria, Egypt 250,000
5 Antioch, Turkey 150,000
6 Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka 130,000
7 Peshawar, Pakistan 120,000
8 Carthage, Tunisia 100,000
9 Suzhou, China n/a
10 Smyrna, Turkey 90,000

Maybe what people think of as increased prosperity is just increased population?

As for widening I said earlier, I think there are always plenty of people with good ideas...

Maybe the best we can do for them is vigorously fight people who are opposed to change for selfish reasons.

Anonymous said...

monkyboy said...

Top 10 Cities of the Year 100

Maybe what people think of as increased prosperity is just increased population?

No, that would not work. Look instead at things like standard of living and the income distribution vs. population.

Increased prosperity happens when the bottom of the pyramid starts thinning and the pyramid starts bulging at the middle, all while standard-of-living remains the same or increases.

-- Matt G.

David Brin said...

Matt, we keep learning complexities about human nature that put the lie to ideological oversimplifications of cause and effect.

In fact, increased health and prosperity AT FIRST cause population to skyrocket. Then, once people get used to the new way of things, it appears that women get control of their reproduction rates and births plummet. (Witness Europe and Japan.)

How many miracles must modernism deliver, before it regains its reputation and can restore zeal-for-the-future in the public eye?

* the Rand Corp guys who seemed like monsters, in supporting a carefully nuanced apprach to MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) proved to be right. Yes, nukes will came back with a vengeance if we don't solve the proliferation problem. But during the superpower era, dterrence - combined with the miraculous transparency of spy sats - saved us all. A HUGE miracle, since never before did humanity ever turn back from a weapons-driven brink.

* Overpopulation seemed to doom us. Now, it appears only to be dangerous in conjunction with the "wealth multiplier effect"... the scary notion that the Earth cannot affor 8 billion "American-style" resource hogs.

* World poverty: not solved, but anyone who ignores the blatant news from Asia and Latin America is clearly a dogmo driven doom-junky.

*Globalization. The many looninesses of the Left are topped by this one... to actually oppose globalization IN GENERAL AND IN PRINCIPLE? Just one corelation proves that to be absolutely crazy. The closer a foreign economy is tied to the US economy, the better its people are doing. Go to Burma and the Congo, if you want to see how unglobalized nations do. Not only are the people wallowing in poverty, but they suffer VASTLY more under their own, homegrown and vicious local lords than the workers in China and Indonesia do, exploited (admittedly) by Addidas.

Do not get me wrong. There are powerful forces that want globalization to lead to a vast global feudal order. Secretive and pyramidal and utterly elite. These are enemies of the enlightenment and of the future. But they are the same as the Burmese and Congolese bully elites, deep down. Their existence is at right angles to globalization. They want to hijack it. We must simply stop them. (And the tool is transparency.)

All of these miracles... and science... are under-rated by the very same people (liberals) who should be crowing about them from the rooftops, because these things prove that pro-active future-oriented problem solving works! They could shout: "See? Now join us in MORE modernist problem-solving!"

Their problem is psychological. As long as they remain indignation junkies, they will be subliminal allies of the troglodyte-retro nostalgists who hate the future in all its forms (except maybe the Book of Revelations.)

I despair over ever getting enough allies to start making noise about this. That we have won fantastic victories, and the way to win more is to admit that this has happened.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

When three billion people live on less than two dollars a day,

When median U.S. family real income has declined each of the last six years,

and when a select few at the top are receiving an ever-increasing slice of the income pie...'s hard to say we live in a "diamond-shaped" world economy.

Perhaps what geometric shape you choose to represent the world economy depends on your own income?

David Brin said...

Do we have a tag team with Don Quijote here? In any event, it is good to have a CITOKATEr from the left to keep us honest.

Still, the stats are so overwhelming that it really is delusional for the left to keep doing this... and deeply counter productive. There isn't even a good REASON to do it!

Sign, someone else cite the stats for him, eh? I haven't the time because it never ever ever does any good.

Anonymous said...

Funny that i'm being swiftboated here as a representative of the left.

Before I voted for John Kerry in 2004, I voted straight-ticket Republican for over 30 years.

In the interest of falsifiable proof, if anyone posts data on modern worldwide income distribution, please include some data from the past, too...

Anonymous said...


Cool chart, but it sure looks like a pyramid to me.

It also relies on logarithmic chicanery along the x-axis to distort the info it presents.

Tony Fisk said...


The graph Matt refers to is taken from the UN report on Human Development Trends 2005.

It is best viewed from the home page: (menu 1) which also provides a running commentary.

A truly pyramidal society would have everyone sqaushed down to the left, at or below the poverty line, while a privileged few would be sitting to the right. More tellingly, this situation would remain or get worse as time goes by.

Now, looking at the global distrbution of wealth (menu 1) it's true that we see a pyramid-like structure (in 2000, the top 20% own 74% of the wealth while the bottom 20% only have 2%). What we do *NOT* see is that trend continuing (watch the graph as it changes from 1970 to 2000: the bulges move to the right, and the proportion below the poverty line drops from 34% in 1970 to 19% in 2000, and is projected to drop to 10% in 2015).

Sure, there's no cause for crying 'mission accomplished' wrt diamonds, especially in Africa or Latin America. But there is cause for optimism.

Logarithmic axes aren't chicanery, just a way of displaying data in a compact space. They may serve to blunt the apparent height of the pyramid, but don't mask the trend mentioned.

When you decry the reduction in median US family income, you pointedly limit your comment to the last six years. I don't think anyone here has any illusions as to the priorities of the current US administration. Hopefully, it is an aberration.

Anonymous said...


Can we assume the reason the left side of the graph is empty is because anyone earning zero dollars a dead?

The logarithmic scale not only downplays the gains the wealthy few have made, it also overstates the gains the poor have made.

The peak on that chart in 2005 is still below $2 dollars a day.

Even before Bushie took the economic reins, U.S. income distribution was far from "diamond-shaped"

According to the U.N. in 2000, world income distribution:

Bottom 20% - 2% of income
Top 20% - 74% of income

U.S. income distribution in 2000:

Bottom 20% - 4%
Top 20% - 55%

I see no evidence that income distribution today is significantly different than it was during, say, the Roman Empire...

Anonymous said...

Hey Brin, when are ya gonna get back to writing science fiction? Just because yer an expert at that doesn't mean you're an expert at anything else...

This post, for instance - these ideas are just about straight from The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom: what drives history is people wanting their group/meme to beat other groups/memes and climb the pecking order, just like individuals' purposes in life is to climb the pecking order. It's useless to decode what the memes say they say ('family values, for instance') - because the only function is to divide people into us and them. There. The human sociology book's been done.

Now Kiln People - there was a good read. Very high on the entertainment scale, very different sci-fi universe, and light on the politics. When can we have another one like that?

Anonymous said...

Dear David,

Some dots:
1. Here in Denmark, Western Australia we pride ourselves on being a 'thinking' community. We believe this is so because we argue incessantly about everything. The fact that this hasn't lead to any significant conflict resolution or sound decision making is just a minor inconvenience.

2. Edward deBono theorizes that problem solving and conflict resolution requires more then proficiency at arguing or disputation. According to him - and I'm paraphrasing of course - solving issues requires (a shift in) perception and he asserts that it is possible for anyone to learn this skill.

DeBono also characterizes our brain (or mind - if you like) as a self-organizing system that develops habits of perception and response. Simple techniques help the system to develop new habits.

3. Dudley Lynch theorizes that people's mental abilities keep developing all the time - that there is no such thing as an individual potential to be realized, a potential one cannot grow beyond. He has developed a range of learning tools to 'read the waves', break through and move on to the next level with winners all around.

4. Richard Feynman stated (and I got this from a wonderful video registration of one of his lectures, published by the Vega Science Trust - ) that the success of especially the quantum sciences is based on the ability to quantify(!) the variables of the system even though we (including Richard Feynman) don't understand how or why the system works that way.

He also had a few things to say about cargo-cult science that may be pertinent in any problem solving / disputation context ( ).

5. Isaac Azimov's Foundation Trilogy (expanded in part by you ;-) postulates that a science of human behaviour could be developed from the anecdotal and merely descriptive state to one that can accurately model and predict (like some of the physical and mathematical sciences).

6. Stephen Wolfram developed a system (theory?) of discrete cellular automata as a model for a number of natural phenomena. Discrete 'cells' perceive' the environment, consult a simple internal rule and change state accordingly. Fascinating self-organizing behavior emerges.

Some connections:
I really like the idea of Internet as a tool in conflict resolution and problem solving. I also like the developing hypothesis of tribal altruistic horizons. And I feel these ideas have something to do with each other. In order to effectively design online tools for disputation it would help to be able to model human behavior. It would be great to have a program analyzing the arguments, self-organize the different threads towards solutions.

To achieve such a model it would help to be able to quantify human behavior in a scientifically sound way. Stripping away the flimsy layer of "modern civilisation" down to the basics of tribal behavior seems like a good way to go. Once the variables are determined a viable model can emerge, predictions can be made, tools can be designed and some of them will perhaps involve the world wide web.

We may even trial or adopt some of them here in Denmark and evolve beyond bickering, perhaps even solve an issue or two...

Anonymous said...


Alright, there are, ironically, a few clear examples of contracted tolerance horizons in this string. Monkyboy's military "caste" is one that you all saw and jumped all over (while incorrectly assuming "Leftie," as Monkyboy noted--oops). Monkyboy, I live near Estacada, Oregon; the interviews and Letters to the Editor I read from the (yes mostly rural; I am urban) military families speak of tragedy and doubt, as well as pride and loyalty ... they are much less uni-dimensional than most anti-war or pro-war-but-no-militrary-family interveiws and Letters. And I have heard NOONE on any side claim that we pay our troops decently.

The "right", again from Monkyboy: "The right makes no secret of their vision of Pax Americana, enforced by our military with global reach." Can we PLEASE switch to the more accurate "Bush's Administration," especially as his poll points plummet? Even if The Right exists (which we all should be able to see it doesn't), they aren't 100% behind Pax Americana just now.

The Left. (Mr. Brin, somewhat ironic, this?)

Religion/religious people: at risk of being shouted down if anyone is still reading this string, I will stand against both Doug S and Mr. Brin: it is unfair for you to dismiss "religion" as a potentially progressive force.

Doug S, point of reality: several first-hand witnesses of the life/teaching/actions of the man Jesus are reasonably reputed to have died painful and consciously accepted deaths because they truly believed and would not repudiate the very bizarre set of beliefs they were teaching about the man Jesus ... including that they saw him die and saw him alive three+days later (although somehow changed so that they did not immediately recognize him). That after his "resurrection" he appeared and disappeared despite locked doors. That it was more or less at that time that they acquired miraculous healing powers. This is all very very bizarre--but their life-experience is not less valid than yours simply because it was long ago and seems bizarre. The people who heard them preach and/or saw them die often chose to join their faith-system ... despite it's (even then) bizarre claims (my husband is fond of pointing out that the Roman Empire mounted a defense-of-family-values campaign against Christianity for a while ... they were a threat tot he stability of tradition and the Empire, don't you know ... which puts current Christian moral fights in a funny light ;) ). There was some evidence so convincing at the time that people chose to convert. And people who choose to convert nowadays, or to stay converted, trust the judgement and testimony of those early believers (ignoring the possibilities for conversions through direct divine communication or miracles, which clearly Doug S at least would have no patience for considering).

No person can base all of their beliefs on direct experience. The language in which we are brought up shapes our social/cosmological assumptions by its very semantic and grammatical constructions. I have never seen measurable evidence of quarks, but I believe those who report to have. I also choose to believe the testimony that we landed on the moon, and that the Holocaust happened, both beliefs I base only on report and testimony (I wasn't even alive, I have never been to Europe or the moon to see any evidence) that some segments of the world population hold false. We all draw lines of belief based partly on how reliable we perceive the first-hand-experience reporters to be.

All of which is to say that belief in some version of Christianity (or another religion) does not necessarily mean a person is an idiot. I know for a factthat Mr. Brin attended Caltech with several people who were (and stayed) devout Christians ... not that Caltech is idiot-exclusive(!), as any of them (I know several) and I'm sure you would agree, but at some level a bunch of very intelligent people adhering to a religion, espcially in an environment both not inherently supportive of and not inherently dismissive of that religion (which is how it sounds like Caltech was in the early 70s, although perhaps trending dismissive), probably indicates the religion is not wholly dismissable intellectually. I assume from the the significant international student population that many other religions were represented as well.

Mr. Brin, the assumption on your part that religious thought doesn't have play in your preferred progressive idea-sets leaves me flat out. I was put on-notice by the first question on your Informal Quiz, which I couldn't answer (I am forward thinking, but I believe in forces outside of humanity as well as the natural progress of humanity). In the last two days, I have read two of your recent blog entries (+ most of their strings) and several articles. I have found absolutely nothing in them to fear, and have agreed with most of the ideas (often I had been thinking similar ideas, from a slightly different viewpoint).

The tricky widget? I am Roman Catholic. As far as I know, at this time I am in line with all of the dogmas, some of them admittedly less comfortably than others. But I also see that my religion relies fundamentally on the theory that God is Truth ... and therefore I have nothing to fear from learning truth (The Truth Shall Set You Free, eh?) ... and if truth is incompatible with God, then I haven't got God quite right (humans being, according to all belief systems, at least currently imperfect ;) ). The difference between myself and most non-theists (and all atheists) is that when an apparent conflict arises, I trust 2000(/6000) years of meditative and active moral discernment AND DEVELOPMENT, while watching closely the development of the science in question ... where most non-theists immdiately trust the "science" (sometimes science in name only, of course) and many seem to trust any seemingly reasonable belief system that comes down the pike as long as it isn't "religious" (Freudian psychology comes immediately to mind as a long-lasting secular boggle).

[Oh, and here I must apologize if you are offended by "Mr." instead of "Dr."; I have a hard time using titles that smack of the Cult of The Expert. Despite being Catholic--or rather becasue of it--I am very anti- assumed-authority. If we were speaking about physics/astronomy I would probably choose to use the title you have undoubtably earned. Since you use "David Brin" as your screen name and the Caltechian(?) "Brin" in self-reference, I am optimistic you are alright with this.]

I have been mulling for several years the extent to which religion, and specifically Christianity, and particularly patriarchal Christianity, gets blamed for cultural processes that were clearly in existence (at least in Indo-European ("I-E") cultures) before Biblical times and have shown up again reliably even when and where religion is specifically rejected or squashed. Rulers, especially corrupt ones (including many leaders of industry, as well as governmental/social/"moral"). Male power structures. Prejudice. Demonization/dehumanization of "Them"/the enemy.

It is fairly demonstrable that basic Christian morality, properly based upon the New Testament (which is built upon but changes the Old), in fact stands against all of those things (yes, even male power structures--to a surprising extent, given how deeply entrenched they seem to be in I-E cultural assumptions--although not completely). Just because the people who adopted the faith system (very very imperfectly, as even they/I must logically admit) screwed it all up with their underlying cultural assumptions doesn't mean the faith system is wrong. (This is similar to your differentiation between what the military tries to live up to and what it actually does, or what our culture tries to live up to--democracy--and what it actually does--fall into patterns of feudalism.)

The male power structures thing, because I know that will have raised a few eyebrows, if not hackles: there has been a lot of neuroscience and biochem work exploring the measurable (not just externally perceived) differences between males and females in our species the last, say, 15(?) years. Just about every time they announce a new "discovery"--most of which were accepted norms 800 years ago, of course ;) --it strikes me how the female of our species is going to have an inherently, biologically less difficult time with the teachings of Jesus and his disciples (monogamy, moderation, love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, don't seek revenge, strongest does not equal best ... high testosterone complicates all of these). Which gave rise to my (only half tongue-in-cheek) assertion that Jesus was male not because, as was argued for 2000 years, God thought men are inherently better (the I-E assumption), but because God knew that otherwise most men wouldn't listen to the crazy BS Jesus was spouting ... and he knew that the "macho" (to use Mr. Brin's meme-category) I-E culture had a lot of listening to do!!

And yes, I am female, as I am sure you have all guessed. Anyone else out there?

Because the other thing that I can't quite accept in all of these discussions is the degree to which these sets of theories (Brins and counter-Brin), verbally at least, rely on the competitive/fight-or-flight understandings of "basic" biology. In my experience, and according to an increasing amount of input from other sources (female or of unknown gender), that set of biological priorities simply doesn't describe the general female (human? mammallian?) reaction to stressors/threats. It has been shown specifically in the business world for a couple of decades, also more recently in herds of female horses, and anecdotally in my life (when a large dog came after my children recently, when someone else's child at the store had lost their mother) that females may be instead biologically programmed to react to stress by looking to form cooperative groups--that this is not a learned cultural nicety, but stems from developed biology--a true "reaction." And looking to form cooperative groups comes after "where are the children??"--the first reaction is, then, "other" instead of "self" centered, the second (cooperation) only slightly less so. Only then comes "how do I/we deal with this specific threat?"

As I said, I agree with many of your ideas ... but perhaps there are more universal ways to come at them than basing them on potentially 50% exclusive assumptions :).

Welcome to the world of a female Catholic contrarian, Mr. Brin ;).

reason said...

you clearly don't know my wife - I'm the one who isn't agressive enough!-)

Anonymous said...

reason: ;).

Anonymous said...

Mr Brin, may I suggest that you please read material about Spiral Dynamics (Don Beck and Chris Cowan see and a couple of books by Ken Wilber: A Brief History of Everything, and Integral Psuchology. Both are published by Shambhala Publications.

אסף said...

There is a broken link in the post, under the words "Society as diamond, and not pyramid".
Could you please repair the link or provide references to posts on society as a diamond and not pyramid?
Thank you.