For want of a meme, a civilization was lost

One can imagine how desperately the pontiffs, potentates, dynasts, princes, pendragons, princelings, rajahs, hierophants, priests, priestesses, and palace guards of all these tottering civilizations must have desired to implant in the minds of their vacillating subjects this very simple concept:Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.

It goes without saying, however, that implanting alone isn’t enough. To take effect, a meme must be accepted without question. You can’t talk people into accepting an absurd idea like this one on the spur of the moment. They have to hear it from birth. It has to come to them from every direction and be buried in every communication, the way it is with us.

All these peoples started out believing that the best way to live is by growing all your own food. Why else would they become full-time farmers? They started out that way and went on that way for a long time. But then some very predictable things began to happen. For example, the Maya, the Olmec, and the people of Teotihuacán became rigidly stratified into wealthy, all-powerful elites and impoverished, powerless masses, who naturally did all the grunt work that made these civilizations magnificent. The masses will put up with this miserable life—we know that!—but they inevitably begin to get restless. We know that too.


It took Khufu twenty-three years to build his Great Pyramid at Giza, where some eleven hundred stone blocks, each weighing about two and a half tons, had to be quarried, moved, and set in place every day during the annual building season, roughly four months long. Few commentators on these facts can resist noting that this achievement is an amazing testimonial to the pharaoh’s iron control over the workers of Egypt. I submit, on the contrary, that pharaoh Khufu needed to exercise no more control over his workers at Giza than pharaoh Bill Gates exercises over his workers at Microsoft. I submit that Egyptian workers, relatively speaking, got as much out of building Khufu’s pyramid as Microsoft workers will get out of building Bill Gates’s pyramid (which will surely dwarf Khufu’s a hundred times over, though it will not, of course, be built of stone).

No special control is needed to make people into pyramid builders—if they see themselves as having no choice but to build pyramids. They’ll build whatever they’re told to build, whether it’s pyramids, parking garages, or computer programs.

Karl Marx recognized that workers without a choice are workers in chains. But his idea of breaking chains was for us to depose the pharaohs and then build the pyramids for ourselves, as if building pyramids is something we just can’t stop doing, we love it so much.

What people like about tribal societies

Tribes exist for their members—and for all their members, because all are perceived as involved in the success of the tribe. When the tent goes up, there’s no one in the circus more important than the construction crew. When the rigging goes up, there’s no one more important than the riggers. When the show begins, there’s no one more important than the performers, human and animal. And so it goes, through every phase of circus life.

Among hunter-gatherers, success obviously has nothing to do with money. In the circus, of course, everyone knows the show must make money in order to continue, but it’s the circus, not the money, that provides the livelihood. I mean that they don’t keep the circus going in order to make money; they make money in order to keep the circus going. (An artist might see it this way: there’s a difference between painting in order to make money and making money in order to paint.)

The tribe is what provides them with what they need, and if the tribe is gone, they’re all out of luck. Everyone wants the circus owner to make money, because if he stops making money, the show will close. Everyone’s interest lies in the success of the whole. What’s good for the tribe is good for everyone, from the owner down to the cotton-candy butchers.

I lean on the example of the circus to emphasize the fact that the tribal life isn’t something that just worked long ago or just for hunter-gatherers.

The turn away from tribalism

People don’t plant crops because it’s less work, they plant crops because they want to settle down and live in one place. An area that is only foraged doesn’t yield enough human food to sustain a permanent settlement. To build a village, you must grow some crops—and this is what most aboriginal villagers grow: some crops. They don’t grow all their food. They don’t need to.

Once you begin turning all the land around you into cropland, you begin to generate enormous food surpluses, which have to be protected from the elements and from other creatures—including other people. Ultimately they have to be locked up. Though it surely isn’t recognized at the time, locking up the food spells the end of tribalism and beginning of the hierarchical life we call civilization.

As soon as the storehouse appears, someone must step forward to guard it, and this custodian needs assistants, who depend on him entirely, since they no longer earn a living as farmers. In a single stroke, a figure of power appears on the scene to control the community’s wealth, surrounded by a cadre of loyal vassals, ready to evolve into a ruling class of royals and nobles.

This doesn’t happen among part-time farmers or among hunter-gatherers (who have no surpluses to lock up). It happens only among people who derive their entire living from agriculture.

Dreaming away the hierarchy

The ruled masses of our culture have been no less miserable than the ruled masses of the Maya, the Olmec, and other civilization-quitters we’ve examined. The difference between us and them is that we possess (or are possessed by) a complex of memes that so far have utterly barred us from quitting. We’re absolutely convinced that civilization cannot be surpassed by any means and so must be carried forward even at the price of our own extinction.

Unable to walk away, we’ve used three very different rationales to make sense of our inaction:

The first rationale: justifying it

One reason we tend to think of East and West as culturally distinct is that Easterners have a different way of rationalizing the hierarchy under which they live; as they see it, this hierarchy results from the fundamental operation of the universe, which assures the realization of karma by means of reincarnation. Under the theory of karma, one’s sins and virtues are punished or rewarded in this and subsequent lives. Thus if you’re born to the life of an untouchable in Bhaktapur, India, where you can never hope to rise to any occupation above cleaning latrines, you have no one to blame but yourself. You have no grounds to envy or hate the Brahmans who shun and despise you; their life of felicity and leisure is only what they deserve, just as your life of poverty and misery is only what you deserve.

In this way the arrangement of people into high, middle, and low classes is shown to be justice made manifest in a divinely ordered universe. If I’m rich and well fed and you’re poor and starving, this is only as it should be.

The second rationale: transcending it

Buddha and Jesus alike assured their listeners that the poor and downtrodden are (or ultimately will be) better off than the rich and powerful, who will find it almost impossible to attain salvation. The poor can live most happily Buddha said, possessing nothing and living on joy alone, like the radiant gods. The meek (that is, the ones who always end up building the pyramids) will inherit the earth, Jesus said, and the kingdom of God will turn the hierarchy upside down; the kingdom of God will belong to the poor, not to the rich, and rulers and ruled will change places, making the first last and the last first. Jesus and Buddha agree that, contrary to appearances, riches don’t make people happy. Rather, says Buddha, riches just make them greedy. And the poor shouldn’t envy the rich their treasures, which are always subject to being stolen by thieves or eaten up by moths and rust; rather, Jesus says, they should accumulate incorruptible treasures in heaven.

These are the “consolations” that led Karl Marx to call religion “the opium of the people.” This opium carries the masses out of their misery and up into the empyrean of tranquil acceptance. More important, from the viewpoint of the ruling class, this opium keeps them quiet and submissive, the promised inheritance of the meek remaining firmly and forever in the future.

The third rationale: overthrowing it

But dreams of heaven in the sky began to lose their universal appeal as the Age of Faith declined, and new dreams began to take shape—dreams of heaven on earth this time, dreams of revolution, dreams of turning everything upside down, of casting down the rulers of the past and raising up new rulers out of the ruled.

Many such revolutions occurred, most notably in France, America, and Russia, but in every case, strangely enough, the hierarchy merely changed hands and went on as before. The masses still have their stones to drag, day after day, and day after day the pyramids keep going up.

French philosopher Simone Weil disagreed with Marx, saying that revolution, not religion, is the opium of the masses. Shame on them both for not understanding people and their drugs better. Religion is a barbiturate, dulling the pain and putting you to sleep. Revolution is an amphetamine, revving you up and making you feel powerful. When people have nothing else going for them, they’ll grab either one—or both. Neither drug is going away. Far from it. Contrary to postwar expectations, which saw religion slipping into the past like snake-oil medicine shows, religion is on the rise, right along with revolution. And in what is supposedly the happiest, most prosperous nation in human history, more and more antigovernment terrorist groups attract more and more members every year.

Opium is the opium of the people

When Marx made his famous pronouncement, opium itself was not a drug of the people, so what he was getting at is that religion is the public’s cheap narcotic. He could not have guessed, perhaps, that opium itself (in one form or another) would eventually become the opium of the people, despite its cost. As things get worse and worse for us, we’re going to need more and more of all the things that give us relief and oblivion and all the things that get us revved up and excited. More religion, more revolution, more drugs, more television channels, more sports, more casinos, more pornography, more lotteries, more access to the Web—more and more and more of it all—to give ourselves the impression that life is nonstop fun. But meanwhile, of course, every morning we must shake off the hangover and forget about fun for eight or ten hours while we drag our quota of stones up the side of the pyramid. What life could possibly be sweeter than this?

Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilisation: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure.


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