Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn

The Author of ISHMAEL Explores Sustainable Societies

    Last week I posted on the topic of New Tribalism, a philosophy that has been given essence and form by author Daniel Quinn. His first novel, Ishmael, which was published in 1991, has become standard reading in many college classrooms and sparked a conversation that was virtually unheard of in the previous 1000 years of human progress: What if "civilization" is a bad idea? In Ishmael, Quinn describes the history of human progression through the unique perspective of a literate, psychic, virtually immortal silverback gorilla. Meant to be understood in a Socratic sense, the narrative advocates for humanity to return to a more tribalistic existence because civilization doesn't work. In Quinn's rhetorical framework, civilization is the hierarchical organization of humanity built upon the accessibility of goods, namely food.By contrast, Quinn defines tribalism as an interdependent group that rely on one another for the survival of the whole. New Tribalism, by the same respect, organizes human endeavor in small communities whose members are interdependent yet exist within the modern technological, environmental, and geopolitical landscape.

     In 1999, after a series of other novels centering around the concept of his New Tribalism, he finally released a work that directly addresses the concept and its practical application, Beyond Civilization. This slim volume (in comparison to other books of its genre, it's only 200 pages) is arranged in very short vignettes, only a page or so, that articulate the progression of each idea as he develops his argument for a new tribalistic society. Due to the organization of his book, his arguments often seemed to me to be too simplistic, even naive. However, it's obvious that he meant the book to be accessible to everyone, and to provide a realistic, true-to-life platform for developing a tribalistic society within our modern framework. To do this, he employs the example of the circus.

     Circuses come in many shapes and sizes, but Quinn is not talking about Barnum & Bailey or Ringling Bros. who have become big businesses. Rather, he refers to the small traveling circuses that are all but obsolete anymore. He points to their organization and philosophy; that every person that is a part of the circus community contributes to the community somehow, and everyone that contributes has a place. (Thus, an interdependent community) Those of you that read Ishmael may remember the gorilla, Ishmael, making a similar reference. Quinn also references honey bees, to illustrate the modern structure of civilization; the masses working tirelessly for a few beneficiaries, living and dying no better off for their efforts.

     I found all of this, though appealing, much too simplistic. Quinn sprinkles statistics and science throughout his books, and I was much more interested in that. Show me the proof, then talk to me about a solution. It wasn't until I visited his website,, that I found the substantive evidence for which I was looking. In fact, there's a fairly persuasive study (a 124 page monster) called The Unsustainability and Origin of Socioeconomic Increase, that provided some serious academic light on the problem of unsustainable patterns of social organization, mainly our modern concept of human civilization.

     However, if you want a provocative and inspiring book about how we need to adapt and create a new social paradigm, Beyond Civilization is a great handbook. As the internet continues to impact and shape our societies in unexpected ways, I believe that there is an inherent tendency toward modern tribalism. Online communities, modern extant eco-villages and settlements, even social organizations all take on tribal characteristics. We are slowly evolving a value system that promotes interdependence rather than isolation, and socially-conscious endeavor over profit. It's with these basic building blocks that a New Tribalism will become a standard part of our civilization. Will we ever part with the centralism and economic models of today? It's hard to say, but if Quinn's philosohies are any indicator, we may not have to.


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