Look Deep Beyond Civilization

A Book Review by Michael W. Stowell

February 17, 2003


Quinn, Daniel; "Beyond Civilization," Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-609-80536-3.

Daniel Quinn's first book, "Ishmael," was a fictional tale of intriguing possibilities for human evolution as seen by a caged gorilla possessed with an intellect and understanding far beyond conventional human acumen. Several books later, Quinn finds himself answering questions raised during tours, at speaking engagements, and in letters from his readers. In "Beyond Civilization" he undertakes the monumental task of defining human evolution, projecting hopeful possibilities for harmonious change and, beyond the subtleties woven into his engrossing novels, this book presents direct responses to direct questions; who are we, where did we come from, where are we going, and how will we get there?

Quinn begins this book with a discussion of vision, both short-term and long-range. Old minds, he explains, use 'programs' to change things; programs that "are sticks planted in the mud of a river to impede its flow." Whatever the course of human history, sticks might impede the flow slightly, but they do not change the course of the river. Most programs, he says, "take this form: Outlaw the thing that is bothering you, catch the people who did it, and put them in jail." The programs we create to fight drug abuse, end poverty and stop crime do not work, yet our tendency is to create even more programs. In the meantime, we are not addressing the larger problems associated with hierarchal thinking, the competitive culture it perpetuates, and the problems it perpetrates.

That hierarchal thinking is the derivation of humanity's discord is evident to many people, but I do not believe Daniel Quinn has addressed it completely in this book.

Quinn assumes the hypothesis presented in his earlier works; in the recent past, humans moved from tribalism to the hierarchal organization we so fondly refer to as 'civilization,' and he associates this change in social structure with the advent of agriculturalism and its incumbent hierarchy, "It's easy to pick out people who belong to 'our' culture. If you go somewhere -- anywhere in the world -- where the food is under lock and key, you'll know you're among people of our culture...making food a commodity to be owned was one of the great innovations of our culture." He argues that hunter-gatherers did not expend as much energy gathering sustenance, as did descendants who adopted agriculturalism. Our agronomist ancestors began intruding upon the 'natural order' by clearing land for farming and, after realizing lean years and fat years, they developed the philosophical duality of scarcity/abundance so prevalent in hierarchal structure.

This notion makes sense to me but I believe the change in human consciousness likely came before the arrival of agriculturalists; Mr. Quinn is over-simplifying the underlying causes of hierarchal thinking. He fails to explore the subject of anthropomorphic thought and its basic influence on human consciousness and behavior. Perhaps monotheism developed after the advent of agriculturalists and was a cultural outcropping; nevertheless, as I pointed out in an earlier column, the existent scope of predominant ideologies originates in anthropocentric cerebration, which assumes that humans are either the central fact of creation or the final aim of evolution and is entirely hierarchal.

Quinn describes tribal culture and gives examples of it in modern life, as he has in many of his other books. I was particularly impressed with his examination of the 'homeless' population and the alternative 'tribal' culture they employ, by necessity and preference. He makes the very salient point, that civilization has no interest in making 'homelessness' comfortable. All the programs extended to the impoverished who live 'outdoors' anticipate reentry into civilization. Quinn advocates the opposite; allow those people who have found themselves "beyond the reach of civilization's hierarchy" the opportunities to survive and even thrive outside the 'system.'

Later in this book, Quinn cites examples of "tribal ventures" and "communal ventures," and I was reminded of our local co-operative grocery store. The shoppers own the store, if they choose to become "members of the cooperative," and that is a communal relationship. Recently, the co-op employees unionized to gain more effective representation and that disposition is communal as well, not tribal. If the employees shared partnership in the store and in the decision-making process needed to operate the co-op, they would be in a tribal arrangement. Sharing living space is communal but not necessarily tribal; sharing the means to gain a livelihood is tribal. Therefore, Quinn is basing his assessments on human economy and focusing on creating change at that level. "You don't have to 'go somewhere' to get beyond civilization," he says, "you have to make your living a different way."

That we are living in the midst of a capitalist explosion is self-evident, so Quinn's approach to catalyzing change at the economic level is quite ingenious. Laboring at the political level, instituting socialist reform is shortsighted and reactionary by comparison. As we say in each Swans publication, the only way to not play the game is to not play the game.

Before reading his works, I thought of 'tribal culture' as a set of traditions, religion, stories, etc. To look at the economic aspects of tribalism never occurred to me, but, come to think of it, what better way to evolve human culture than through the most common denominator. Though we may have some small disagreement about where hierarchal thinking originated, I certainly agree with Mr. Quinn's ideas for implementing the change necessary to return humanity to the harmonious existence that predates our 'civilization' of hierarchy.

As I began reading "Beyond Civilization," I felt uneasiness with the pace of the book, it seemed a little slow and repetitive, but after entering the last half of the book I found my imagination stimulated to the point of distraction. "Ishmael" was an enlightening read for a novel, but this book gets to the point and moves me to an entirely different perspective than that held by traditional political reformers.

Not that I believe Daniel Quinn has all the answers, he admits that he does not, but he is thinking 'outside the box' and offers a unique opportunity to evolve beyond hierarchal civilization. Therefore, if you are interested in a new perception of the same old capitalist world, this book is a 'must-read.'

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Resources and Related Internal Links

The Ishmael Community

Beyond Civilization, by Daniel Quinn

Letter to my Unborn Child - by Alma Hromic

The Resource Base - by Milo Clark

Conservation Is Not Enough - Compiled by Michael G. Hanauer

A Reformist View: Business as if the Earth Matters - by Joe Kresse

The Imperial Conservation Crusade - by Gilles d'Aymery

Mesmerized by the Weapons Mystique - by Mac Lawrence (Posted in July 1997, this piece demonstrates once more that we are not learning from the past. At a time when we are again increasing the U.S. military budget, this piece documents how immensely bloated this budget already is.)

The Wilderness Into Which Crying is Silent - by Milo Clark (Posted in September 1996, this piece shows the hypocrisy of conservation efforts through "responsible tourism.")

Do as I say... - by Gilles d'Aymery (Posted in May 1996, this piece shows with some humor the insanities and contradictions of our consumerist policies.)

It's Spring: Time to Drive - by Gilles d'Aymery (Posted in May 1997, this short piece shows the inanity of producing ever more vehicles.)

News Watch - by Gilles d'Aymery (Posted in December 1997, the first paragraph provides a few notes about Global Warming, in particular emission of carbon-dioxide by various countries.)

Useful Guide to Understanding Where All That Stuff Comes From - by Donella Meadows (Posted in April 1998, this book review shows the behind-the-scene of consumption. For instance, you'll learn that the manufacturing of your 55-pound computer generated 139 pounds of waste and used 7,300 gallons of water and 2,300 kilowatt-hours of energy.)

Adam Smith is on Our Side - By Milo Clark (Posted in May 1996, this piece on Adam Smith is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding how incorrectly Smith is depicted in the main media.)


Michael W. Stowell is a local activist in Northern California.

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Published February 17, 2003
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