Transform the System: A Work in Progress

1: The System

 What is “the system?” Does it have a central purpose?

If so, what is it? How is it structured and how does it operate?

 Humans first evolved as hunter-gatherers in southern Africa. When Dutch migrants settled there, they reported that the native peoples were “always gay, always dancing and singing” and appeared to enjoy a life “without occupation or toil.” A priest commented, “They are the happiest of men since they alone live in peace and freedom…. Their contempt for riches is in reality nothing but their hatred of work.” According to those settlers, the indigenous people “seemed incapable of being pressed into labor.”[1]

 Farther north, hunter-gatherers, known as Bushmen, lived in an enormous desert that isolated them. Few people bothered to cross that desert. In the late twentieth century, anthropologists discovered a culture there much like what the early Dutch settlers had found closer to the coast. James Suzman describes the Bushmen as “the first small group of anatomically modern people who bind all of humankind into one family.” He says our DNA gives all humanity an “inner hunter-gather.”[2]

Reports on first contact with hunter-gatherer societies in other parts of the world are similar. The wikipedia says:

Hunter-gatherers tend to have an egalitarian social ethos…. Ethnographic data indicated that hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well. Their “affluence” came from the idea that they were satisfied with very little in the material sense….[3]

Christopher Boehm studied data from forty-eight hunter-gatherer societies worldwide and concluded they practiced egalitarianism and usually did so very successfully. He found that the mechanisms they used to maintain equality included: public opinion; criticism and ridicule, and; extreme sanctions.[4]  In so doing, they suppressed the domineering, bullying “alpha male” tendencies exhibited by our ape ancestors. They “self-domesticated” themselves. As  humans breed animals to have certain characteristics, they bred human genes to foster cooperation.[5]  After they learned that cooperation helped them survive, they selected mates who were cooperative.

Most humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands, formed strong social bonds, were loyal to one another, took care of the vulnerable, respected their traditions, embraced their spirituality, and were committed to fairness. Those are basic human values. Suzman writes: “…the fifteen-hour working week was probably the norm for most of the estimated two-hundred-thousand-year history of biologically modern Homo sapiens.”[6]  They lived off the land and the animals they killed. Confident they could always get what they needed, they didn’t store large quantities of food or seize nearby territories. When they lived in lush environments, they were generally peaceful toward nearby bands.


Then, after living as hunter-gatherers some 200,000 years, about 10,000 years ago, in different regions, climate change and population growth led to less abundant environments and humans began to settle in small towns, plant a variety of crops, raise animals, and store surplus food, while continuing to hunt and gather.  Several thousand years later, they formed governments and built walls to protect themselves and their food. Those early states developed single-crop agriculture, which made it easier to tax subjects, and increasingly relied on trade. Taxes demonstrated submission to the government and were the price of protection.[7]

For the sake of greater security, many residents agreed to this arrangement. Living in larger, more complex communities enabled them to achieve goals they couldn’t have otherwise. Their ability to cooperate and spread useful information efficiently was key to this transition. As societies became larger, the complex mental activities required to cooperate enlarged their brain, which enabled humans to evolve beyond our ape ancestors, both culturally and biologically. New religious institutions legitimized those new social structures, which perpetuated deeply ingrained cultural values concerning loyalty, respect for authority, worship of the sacred, fairness, and caring for one another.

Those early states often conquered nearby states. One motive was to strengthen their own power to minimize the risk of being invaded. Another motive was to bring home loot and slaves.

Those militaristic societies relied on a top-down structure dominated by male warriors. On the battlefield, decisions must be made quickly. Authority must be clear. Someone must be in charge. That dominate-or-submit pattern prevailed in tension with cooperative features that help hold societies together. Being able to count on everyone to fall in line when the next war broke out was critical.

The victors imposed taxable single-crop agriculture on their new subjects, which undermined self-sufficiency and created dependency on trade. The resulting sense of powerlessness fostered resentment, which drove conquered peoples to rebel and seek revenge. In that way, when they were victorious, a self-perpetuating pattern was established: expansion, domination, dependency, resentment, rebellion, revenge, victory; and, then again, expansion, domination, dependency, resentment, rebellion, revenge, victory, and on and on. (That cycle has persisted to this day.)

The new political and religious elites tried to eradicate the hunter-gatherer attachment to their leisurely lifestyles that conflicted with the long hours required by farm work. That effort was often unsuccessful. Many residents, including slaves, escaped from the confines of the walls that were meant to keep them in as well as keep out invaders.


Ever since the advent of large-scale agriculture, these patterns have persisted. Societies have centralized political power, established “upper” classes that dominate “lower” classes, and instilled certain traits in their subjects that help perpetuate those top-down structures. And in all developed societies, males have held the positions of highest power and discriminated against women.[8]

Early city-states grew into large regimes ruled by monarchs, such as kings and emperors, and far-flung empires. Those rulers passed on their wealth and power to their children — while sharing some of their privileges with upper-crust allies to buy loyalty and support.

But most of the world’s population remained outside the boundaries of those agricultural empires. Hunter-gatherers and those who raised livestock rejected the drudgery of farming, sustained their cooperative traditions, were labeled “barbarians” or “savages,” and resisted efforts to conquer them.

In Europe, during the reign of monarchs, living conditions and lifestyles for most people remained much the same from generation to generation and century to century — though the ruling elites grew increasingly wealthy. Most people retained traditional values including loyalty, fairness, mutual care, spirituality, and respect for authority. Then the emergence of capitalism spread wealth more broadly and fostered consumerism and individualism among the growing “middle class.”[9]

Those newly enriched forces challenged the biological inheritance of wealth and power. To legitimize their challenge, they called on the egalitarian roots of their hunter-gatherer ancestors (often referred to as “the Golden Age”), [10] insisted all people are equal in the eyes of God, and demanded one person, one vote. This individualistic approach challenged traditional social bonds, obligations, and traditions.

Initially only property owners could vote. Over time, however, more people demanded to be treated as equals under the law and pushed for the right to vote. To protect their privileges, those with power shared some of their wealth and power. But they resisted calls for common ownership of all property and preserved society’s essential top-down structure.[11]

In the British colonies, John Winthrop, a seventeenth-century leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, summed up a basic assumption for his newly forming community when he declared, “God Almightie in his most holy and wise providence hath soe disposed the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in subjection.”[12]

 Later, John Adams, the second President of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century, reinforced that point when he affirmed the “passion for distinction in the ranks and the order of society" and declared, "There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species."[13]  Or, as the Tibetan Buddhist saying put it: “Envy toward the above, competitiveness toward the equal, and contempt toward the lower.”[14]  The balance between cooperation and domination established by hunter-gatherers was undermined.


 Those individualistic beliefs remain deeply embedded. Families tell their children they must “get ahead” and can “be whatever you want to be.”[15]  The possibility of unlimited success is embedded as a realistic goal.[16]  Churches preach the “prosperity gospel.”[17]  Schools teach students that only a few will really “win.”[18] The media glorify celebrities.[19]  Sports gurus instill that “winning is everything.”[20]  Doctors assume an air of authority that undermines self-care.[21]  Paternalistic social-service agencies foster dependency on professionals.[22]  People believe “someone must always be in charge.”[23]  Politicians focus on helping the “middle class,” which reinforces the myth that upward mobility is the best way out of poverty.[24]

 Each of those examples uses the same upward-mobility template: Climb the ladder, look down on those below, and envy those above. Dominate or submit is the prevailing message. Most people, driven by economic insecurity or the fear of “failure,” build up their sense of self-worth by relentlessly comparing themselves to others. As civilizations developed, domineering spread throughout society — in families, schools, religious institutions, workplaces, governments, and elsewhere. People learned to spend most of their time either dominating or submitting.

America celebrates wealth. Overwhelming majorities of Americans “admire people who get rich by working hard.”[25]  Most Americans believe “the rich deserve their wealth.”[26]  In 2012 only 48% believed the inequality gap was a problem. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center wrote: “People don’t necessarily want to take money from the wealthy; they just want a better chance to get rich themselves.” “Being wealthy” and “successful in a career” are important goals for most Americans.[27]

Still, trusting, cooperative cultures stayed alive. Though they were isolated from each other, in every large society, humans passed on memories of the early “Golden Age” or “Garden of Eden” — initially through oral histories and later in literature. Many families and small communities — whether religious, utopian, political, or economic — sustained trusting, egalitarian, peaceful values with a wide variety of counter cultures that nurtured a fundamentally different society. And with some success, grassroots forces have fought tooth-and-nail to push for more compassion, cooperation, democracy, economic security, peace, and racial and social justice. In some respects, America is shifting toward more compassion, cooperation, trust and respect.

But those changes have provoked a backlash from forces invested in division and domination. Individuals with relatively more power inflame fear to serve their own self-interest. In the primal tension between cooperation and domination, divisive instincts often take over.


As with the environment and the human body, a system is a self-perpetuating web of relationships between interdependent elements that reinforce one another to establish balance and continuity.[28]  A system is greater than the sum of its parts.[29]  With systems, cause-and-effect is not linear as is the pain that results when we hit a thumb with a hammer. Rather, many factors influence one another and interact to cause events.[30]  To understand a system, you must understand its whole web.[31]  A system operates as if it were a concrete entity with a mind of its own.[32]  That’s why we talk about families and organizations as unified, distinct units. As summed up by Stanford Beers, “The purpose of a system is what it does.”[33]  The environment perpetuates evolution; the human body sustains life; families raise children. Societies are stable over time because they are coherent social systems.[34]

Today, our institutions, our culture, and we ourselves as individuals are woven together into a self-perpetuating global social system, the System. The primary purpose of the System is to enable individuals to gain more status, wealth, and power over others. Its driving force is the effort to climb one social ladder or another. The resulting mixture of top-down domination and widespread consumerism is the System as we know it. As the world has been Americanized, the System has become global.[35]

In the United States, as more people achieved the right to vote, the System gained sufficient loyalty to sustain itself by expanding opportunities for upward mobility. It has offered more people more privileges, especially the ability to buy new consumer products. America has always been torn between trust and fear. But our social system has primarily relied on fear and domination.

Those with the power to determine who can move up a ladder weigh various factors in making their decisions. Those factors are often arbitrary. Examples include race, gender, family pedigree, age, “attractiveness,” cultural tastes, political beliefs, accent, social etiquette, submissiveness, capacity for linear thinking, and willingness to work overtime.[36]

Individuals hold different positions on different ladders. We may submit at work and dominate at home. We may feel our race is superior to others. We may look down on those with more education, or envy those with more. But we spend most of our time either dominating or submitting. We get so caught up in one of our identities we don’t identify strongly as a member of the human family.

In one form or another, rankism permeates society. Robert Fuller, who coined the term, says rankism is “an assertion of superiority” and “is a residue of predation” that derives from our history of preying on others and serves to:

demean, marginalize, and disenfranchise…. We “do” rankism to institutionalize and normalize predation…. We practice rankism to put ourselves in a position to prey on others...and more safely exploit them in future. Or, so they will not compete with us. Or, simply to feel superior…. Fixing the game is the real reason for rankism. If we can handicap or eliminate the competition, we improve our chances of coming away with the spoils…. We’ve kept it a secret because it diminishes our achievement to admit the game was rigged in our favor.[37]

Clearly everyone is not equal in every way. Some have certain skills that others do not. But rankism’s key message is that certain people are essentially superior, as a basic condition of their being. That superiority supposedly entitles them to special treatment in the eyes of the law and society at large.

Rankism may have served a necessary evolutionary purpose. Those habits are useful in certain situations. But the question is whether we need to learn how to set aside those habits in situations that call for egalitarian cooperation.[xxxviii] Can we restore a balance between trust (which leads to love and cooperation) and fear (which leads to anger and domination), and live up to America’s highest ideals?

NEXT: Reinforcing the System



From Roger Marsden:

self breeding for cooperation -- basic human values - lush environment = peaceful -- cycle of expansion to domination to dependence to resentment to rebellion to revenge to victory to... expansion, etc. twists and turns through history as external factors change - not innate human qualities which is why I would question that "in all developed societies males dominate - See the work of Maria Gimbutas:

Wade's reply:
According to the wikipedia, "The Civilization of the Goddess articulated what Gimbutas saw as the differences between the Old European system, which she considered goddess- and woman-centered (gynocentric), and the Bronze Age Indo-European patriarchal ("androcratic") culture which supplanted it. According to her interpretations, gynocentric (or matristic) societies were peaceful, honored women, and espoused economic equality. The androcratic, or male-dominated, Kurgan peoples, on the other hand, invaded Europe and imposed upon its natives the hierarchical rule of male warriors." Though her analysis is disputed, if it's correct, the period she studied seems to be referred to as "pre-history." So I wonder how "developed" it was. It seems to have been about the same time, 5000 BCE, that I describe as the transition to male-dominated stratified societies. So her thesis seems consistent with mine.


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[1] Suzman, James, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmenm 46-50.

[2] Suzman, James, 28.

[3] Wikipedia, “Hunter-gatherer,” Retrieved from

[4] Wikipedia, “Dominance hierarchy,” Retrieved from

[5] Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind.

[6] Suzman, 8.

[7] Scott, James C., Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. (This section of the draft declaration draws heavily on this book.).

[8] Wikipedia, “Social dominance theory,” Retrieved from

[9] "How Humans Became 'Consumers': A History," The Atlantic, Nov 28, 2016

[10] Wikipedia, “Golden Age,” Retrieved from

[11] See Wikipedia, “Diggers.” Retrieved from

[12] Isenberg, Nancy, White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, 30.

[13] Isenberg, 98.

[14]Tutu, Desmond and 14th Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy, p.135.

[15] "The Art and Business of Motivational Speaking," Inc. magazine, Retrieved from

[16] Lawrimore,, E. W. "Buck" The 5 Keys To Unlimited Success & Happiness, 2011.

[17] Wikipedia, “Prosperity theology/Recent History,” Retrieved from

[18] "Why Grading on the Curve Hurts," Teaching Community, Retrieved from

[19] "The Culture of Celebrity," Psychology Today, Retrieved from

[20] "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing," Retrieved from;_it%27s_the_only_thing.

[21] "Selective Paternalism," AMA Journal of Ethics, July 2012, Volume 14, Number 7: 582-588. For a commentary on the shift away from the prior era that was “steeped in medical paternalism,” see "For Doctors, Age May Be More Than a Number," The New York Times, Jan 6, 2018.

[22] "The New Paternalism," Brookings, Oct 1, 1997.

[23]  Over the years, I’ve heard this principle affirmed informally many times. For a discussion of it related to business, see Gamal Newry, “We must learn from past tragedy, by preparing for it!” Retrieved from

[24]"The Mobility Myth," New Yorker, March 3, 2014.

[25] "Yes, the Rich Are Different," Pew Research Center, Aug 27, 2012.

[26] "Poll: The Rich Deserve Their Wealth," CNBC, July 13, 2012.

[27] "Who Wants To Be Rich?", Pew Research Center, April 30. 2008.

[28] "System," Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from

[29] "System: more than the sum of its parts," e-tech, Retrieved from

[30] "Nonlinear Causality," Complexity Labs, Retrieved from

[31] "Anthropology Chapter 1," Quizlet, Retrieved from

[32] "Ecosystems, Organisms, and Machines," BioScience, Retrieved from

[33] Retrieved from

[34] Garner, Roberta and Black Hawk Hancock, ed. Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation: A Reader, 2014. "Society can be understood as a system; sociology is the study of social systems, which are coherent and relatively stable over time."

[35] "The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century," Brookings, Jan 1, 2003.

[36] Wikipedia, “Pierre Bourdieu,” Retrieved from

[37] "What is Rankism and Why Do We “Do” It?", Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.

[38] Haidt, 198-201.