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The Metaphysics of Polarity

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Historians and social anthropologists continue to engage in debates regarding the origins of war and of the causes of war between and among chiefdoms, states, and nation states. In the following section, I discuss the perspectives of Keith Otterbein in How War Began (2004), and Charles Tilly in Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1992 (1990). Obviously, the conclusions I reach regarding these contentious subjects are my own, but my perspective is grounded in their scholarship.


Otterbein states:

“Hunter-gatherers in prehistory and in recent times have frequently engaged in warfare. Evidence for this warfare is abundant: rock art, stone points in bone, and ethnographic accounts. A major conclusion … is that warfare and hunting increased in the late Upper Paleolithic, then declined as many large animals became extinct. Supporting this conclusion is the finding that societies that rely heavily on hunting engage in warfare more frequently than do societies that rely heavily on gathering.” (p. 63)


In Otterbein’s account, fraternal bands of Homo sapiens hunters utilizing a vastly improved technology from about 50,000 BC greatly reduced or exterminated large numbers of big game animals which they were able to kill more effectively than Neanderthals and Home erectus. Otterbein comments on the association of the development of long-range effective weapons for hunting large animals, the extinction of Neanderthals and Homo erectus and the beginning of warfare among Homo sapiens groups of hunters. Several developments came together to produce warfare:

  1. Hunting bands with strong social bonds created through tribal affiliation.

  2. Greatly improved technology for killing of animals and other humans.

  3. Conflict over rapidly dwindling anima populations.


In The World Before Us: The New Science Behind Our Human Origins (2021), Tom Higham comments: “The fact that Neanderthals were present on the planet for more than 250,000 years shows that they were a well-adapted and successful experiment in evolution.” (p. 238) Furthermore, 

they coexisted and interbred with other hominid species for many thousands of years; until between 50,000 and 40,000 BC when they became extinct. Higham maintains there is little evidence for the idea that modern humans exterminated the Neanderthals; and speculates that  

perhaps they were assimilated into Homo sapiens populations after a lengthy period of interbreeding.


However, Neanderthals in Europe became extinct during a period of rapid cultural evolution that included a large increase in the production of symbolic artifacts which, according to Higham, “can be used to bind people together, to confer a degree of membership, to reflect rank or seniority or bring people from afar into a joint network and alliance.” (p. 37) In other words Neanderthals vanished as the human capacity to create tribal identities through symbolic artifacts greatly increased, along with development of more effective technologies for killing large animals, and as many of these animals species were hunted to extinction! Hunting large animals in groups surely intensified Us vs. Them tribal identities.  These developments occurred as the  Homo sapiens population in Europe greatly increased.


Otterbein recognizes the association between hunting of large animals and warfare:

“As Homo sapiens multiplied in number, the pressure on animal populations increased. … (along with climate change) the increase in hunting with long range weapons must have hastened the species’ demise. Warfare increased during this period – a period in which well- armed people came to inhabit the earth. … When the number of animals declined, the process reversed.” (p. 68)


Otterbein questions whether Neanderthals even hunted large animals due to inferior technology, a view that Higham refutes. He argues that the weight of recent evidence is that Neanderthals were much more like Homo sapiens than previously believed; and further that meat was a large part of the Neanderthal diet. Neanderthals were capable of acquiring new technologies developed by modern humans. However, if as Otterbein believes, Homo sapiens became better hunters of large animals than Neanderthals, they also became better warriors, able to utilize their growing

advantage in numbers and strong tribal identities to eliminate the largest and most potent Them in their social world.


“War made the state and the state made war” 


It was a difficult challenge for early human groups to “scale up” to confederations of tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, states, and empires. These transitions took hundreds or thousands of years on different  continents, and were subject to frequent reversals,  as new political entities were fragmented by internal  conflict and/or military defeat.


Nevertheless, there was a powerful incentive for becoming larger and transcending tribal identities in the process, i.e., for mutual protection and to avoid the consequences of military defeat such as paying tribute, having women and children taken into slavery and or experiencing rape and pillage by foreign armies.   


Charles Tilly maintains that the need to effectively engage in warfare drove state formation and resulted in different variations of the national state in Europe:

“… the relative availability of concentrated capital and concentrated means of coercion in different regions and periods significantly affected the organizational consequences of making war; until recently, only those states survived that held their own in war with other states; and … the changing character of war gave the military advantage to states that could draw large, durable military forces from their own populations, which were increasingly national states.”  And “control of permanent armed force became increasingly crucial to a state’s success in politics and economics alike.” (p.64)   


States in Europe over the past thousand years developed institutions to meet the competitive threat of other states. Furthermore, multiple states then created frequently changing alliances and opposed power blocks to maintain and increase their sovereignty and scope of influence. War was instrumental in strengthening a sense of tribe-like national identity that in turn sustained near constant warfare in Europe for centuries. 


The idea that war has become less frequent during recent centuries is false.  Tilly states:

“Despite the current forty-year lull in open war among the  world’s great powers, the twentieth century has already established itself as the most bellicose in human history. 

Since 1900, by one careful count, the world has seen 237 new wars – civil and international – whose battles have killed at least 1,000 persons per year; through the year 2000, the grim numbers extrapolate to about 275 wars and 115 million deaths in battle. Civilian deaths could easily equal

that total. The bloody nineteenth century brought only 205 such wars and 8 million dead, the warlike eighteenth century a mere 68 wars with 4 million killed.” … Those numbers translate into death rates per thousand population of about 5 for the eighteenth century, 6 for the nineteenth century and 46 – eight times as high – for the twentieth. From 1480 to 1800, a significant new international conflict started somewhere every 2-3 years, from 1800 to 1944 every one or two years, since World War II every fourteen months or so …”  (p. 67)


Tilly maintains that the increase in war and in war casualties since 1800 is not due to more aggressive human psychology. 

He writes:

“homicide rates in thirteenth century England … were about ten times those of today, and perhaps twice those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rates of murder declined with particular rapidity from the seven-tenth to nineteenth century. “ (p. 68) 


National states developed increasingly effective institutions to wage war while creating stronger social and cultural disincentives for perpetrating interpersonal violence. Furthermore, state systems tend to polarization that periodically results in war.

International institutions are never as powerful as national identities.


Political systems organized for warfare and to defend against powerful enemies of kingdoms or nations required dramatic changes in social attitudes, in moral beliefs and in emotional allegiances. Henrich describes the gradual steady erosion of kin-based attitudes and institutions in developed countries over centuries. However, there is one feature of early social organization among humans that has not changed, i.e., developing powerful social identities through Us vs. Them differences. Nationalism has proven to be a remarkably powerful substitute for tribal identity – a sense of belonging so deep citizens are willing to fight and die for their country, right or wrong (as the case may be) in any particular conflict. Five hundred to one thousand years ago, most people in Europe or the Americas would have had difficulty understanding the concept of “nation” or “country,” much less being willing to fight to the death for such an abstraction. However, they would have recognized

the emotions associated with war and with the demonization of enemies.



Organized violence between groups is not the only way to sustain and strengthen social identity. Another common way is to emphasize differences, especially opposed values, beliefs and practices with contiguous groups or societies. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) David Graeber and David Wengrow refer to the concept of schismogenesis to explain how indigenous societies in the Pacific  Northwest and California developed cultural practices that were polar opposites in some major ways despite many similarities. They comment:

“Schismogenesis … describes how societies in contact with each other end up joined within a common system of differences, even as they attempt to distinguish themselves from one another.” (p. 180)


They offer an example from Marshall Sahlins’ description of the Greek city states Athens and Sparta. According to Sahlins:

 “Dynamically interconnected, they were then reciprocally constituted … Athens was to Sparta as sea was to land, cosmopolitan to xenophobic, commercial to autarkic, luxurious to frugal, democratic to oligarchic, urban to villageois, … logomanic to laconic: one cannot finish enumerating the dichotomies… Athens and Sparta were antitypes.”

“Each society performs a mirror image of the other. In doing so, it becomes … the necessary and ever present example of what one should never wish to be. “ (p.180)


Graeber and Wengrow contrast the cultural attitudes of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast with coastal peoples in California:

“ … the indigenous peoples of the Northwest coast were just as industrious as those of California, and in both cases those who accumulated wealth were expected to give much of it away by sponsoring collective festivals. The underlying ethos could not have been more different. Where the wealthy Yurok were expected to be modest, Kwakiutl chiefs were boastful and vainglorious … Where wealthy Yurok made little of their ancestry, Northwest coast households had much in common with the noble houses and dynastic estates of medieval Europe, in which a class of nobles jockeyed for position  … staging dazzling banquets to enhance their reputations and secure their claim to honorific titles … It is hard to imagine the existence of such striking cultural differences between neighboring populations could be completely coincidental …” (p. 180)


When societies with similar economic and social systems come in close contact, it is to be expected that there will be some degree of assimilation, and that opposed cultural practices and attitudes will continue to mark and maintain clear boundaries. Furthermore, the same schismatic tendencies exist within societies, movements and organizations. Every political movement, revolution, religious tradition, intellectual school of thought, business enterprise, or expedition is likely to quickly develop factions and opposed perspectives. The proponents of these 

conflicting perspectives tend to place great emphasis on their differences which may come to seem as important or more important than their shared beliefs and interests. Sectarian differences and factional disputes are often bitter, deeply felt, and may lead to a willingness to kill or otherwise eliminate the opposition at any cost. 


 All social movements and causes are given to polarization and fragmentation. Maintaining unity of  purpose often  depends on conflict between beliefs that creates a strong emotional boundary between Us and Them. Tribal politics is not a distressing new development in US history; it is more the norm than the exception. Bitter theological differences among sects was not an aberrant development of the Reformation.  Sectarian differences occur in all major religious traditions and may persist for centuries, especially  when opposed sects commit atrocities that are never 

forgotten and rarely forgiven.


The French Revolution quickly led to internecine quarrels among the revolution’s leaders; ditto for the Russian revolution. Revolutionary governments in France and Russia were held intact by civil war, and then in France by wars of conquest in Europe and the Middle East.  In the absence of war, the Soviet Union under Stalin responded to the threat of fragmentation through large scale internal oppression directed at party leaders and other “Old Bolsheviks” during which period actual guilt or innocence of accused persons meant nothing.  To maintain unity of purpose, government leaders needed enemies which it found in the most unlikely place, its own ranks.


Nature creates through polarity and so do human cultures and societies. How to create and sustain wholes made up of many separate elements is a challenge for every unified whole. The process of creation/ destruction is active at all scales and in all realms. This is one meaning of “creative

universe,” i.e., a cosmos that does not cling to any part of its creation and is organized to explore every possibility.     


Societies reflect polar oppositions     

In The Upswing (2020), the sociologist Robert Putnam echoes the literary critic, Lionel Trilling’s view that “culture” as we use the term always entails a contest, a dialectic, a struggle,” and he quotes the historian, Jennifer Ranier-Rosenhagen:

“There is no period in American history when thinkers have not wrestled with the appropriate balance of power between self-interest and social obligation.” ( p. 165)


Putnam maintains that American history has been characterized by pendular like  swings between individualism and communitarian values, “but the pendulum doesn’t swing by itself.” Putnam provides voluminous evidence that cultural trends have been reflected in the subjects and themes of books published in the US from 1880-2008, e.g., a touting of “survival of the fittest” or “social gospel”.  He found “a fading of individualistic themes from American debates during the first two thirds of the twentieth century paired with a rising of communitarian sentiment  … followed by a sharp reversal from the 1970’s into the twenty first century.” (p. 170)  


Putnam argues that American society has made major shifts in cultural orientation between individualism and communitarian values at 35-60 year intervals since 1880. But what causes this pattern? He states at this point the available evidence offers virtually no indication of an uncaused first cause of the I-we-I syndrome.


Putnam comments:

“Given the tensions between community and individualism,  it is natural to use the metaphor of a pendulum … As the pendulum moves steadily in one direction countervailing forces begin to build up, and the pendulum reverses direction. … Not surprisingly, some acute observers of American history have used this pendular metaphor, as we occasionally do.” (p.289) However, he asserts: “… the pendulum metaphor has serious weaknesses… A physical pendulum is moved at a perfectly smooth pace by the law of gravity. By contrast, the curves that we have examined … display fits and starts, periods of rapid change and interludes of stasis. More important, … human agency and leadership are essential. Change, whether for the better or worse, is not historically inevitable.” (p.290)         


Putnam’s comments bring out an important point: polarity in social life is not law-like, or mechanistic, in part because human agency always plays a role. However, human agents are subject to cultural influences and historical forces which constrain their imaginations to a limited set of options usually structured by familiar oppositions, e.g. I vs. We in Putnam’s discussion. Humans have a large degree of freedom to shape their cultures and their politics but only  within a polarized framework, which for the most part is rarely questioned.              


One way to understand periodic fundamental shifts in cultural values is that social movements suppress the expression of values and attitudes that impeded their development, but at a psychic cost.  Repeated suppression of one part of a polarity increases its psychic power, which increases the likelihood of a reversal of values when events indicate the need for a change in course. Putnam has emphasized one major polarity in American history, but there are others:  political freedom vs. racial oppression, egalitarianism vs. meritocracy, isolationism vs. empire building, a law-and-order mentality vs. a fascination with mobsters and thugs. 


Other nations have different polarities. Common ones around the world include order vs. chaos (China), spirituality vs. sensuality (Italy) , perfectionism vs. amateur fun, (Japan),  tight control vs. explosive outbursts (Russia)  ethical purity vs. acceptance of  corruption (many societies)    worldliness vs. spiritual search (India) and many others. Any extreme value gives rise to its opposite, assuring that societies will explore a wide range of possibilities to make their oppositions work for the common good.


Human psychology

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body In the Healing of Trauma (2014), Bessel  Van Der Kolk comments:

“Every major school of psychology recognizes that people have subpersonalities  and gives them different names. … Carl Jung wrote: The psyche is a self- regulating system that maintains its equilibrium just as the body does. The  natural state of the human psyche consists in a jostling together of these components and in their contradictory behavior.” And The reconciliation of these opposites is a major problem.” (p. 282)


Van der Kolk cites Michael Gazzaniga’s view of the mind as “composed of semiautonomous functioning modules, each of which has a special role.” (p. 282) He quotes Gazzaniga:

“But what of the idea that the self is not a unified being … the new idea emerges that there are literally several selves, and they do necessarily ‘converse’ with each other internally.” (p. 283)


Van der Kolk endorses internal family systems therapy (IFS) that views the mind as a family system composed of critical perfectionists, exiles and emergency responders which he refers to as “firefighters.” From this perspective, the human mind is made up of parts with different functions

that may not be aware of one another. The challenge of self-leadership is “to assure the internal system that all parts are welcome and that all of them- even those that are suicidal or destructive – were formed in an attempt to protect the self- system, no matter how much they now seem to threaten it.”( pp. 284-85) Van der Kolk asserts that when “protectors keep the toxic parts away … they take on some of the energy of the abuser.”   (p. 284) Repression also drains the vitality of persons who must expend considerable energy keeping some feelings and thoughts out of conscious awareness. For this reason,  freeing repressed parts of self from exile can lead to a resurgence of vitality and of interest in life. This is the theme of the Woody Allen movie, “Irrational Man,” (2015) in which a depressed  soul sick intellectual is revitalized by his plan to kill a corrupt judge. Exiles  may have been banished for good reason, but keeping them at bay exacts a great cost, as does allowing them free reign.   


Freudian psychology puts ego (reality based instrumental awareness), id (sexual desire and aggressive impulses) and superego (conscience and moralistic judgement) in dynamic conflict. How to bring these psychic conflicts into a workable balance is a challenge for everyone, not just people with mental health problems. There is an obvious resemblance between IFS’s psychic components ( exiles, perfectionists, firefighters) and Freudian categories. The underlying picture of the human mind is the same, i.e., a psychic system divided against itself which is in a constant struggle to create and sustain balanced effective functioning.


Thinking Fast and Slow  

In Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), Daniel Kahneman summarizes several decades of research in cognitive psychology through a story about the conflict between two mental/emotional ways of processing information: System 1 (automatic thinking) and System 2 ( deliberate thinking).

Kahneman acknowledges that the human mind is not composed of two distinct mental entities as implied by this opposition, yet summarizing many dry and highly technical research studies in this way captured readers’ interest, as Kahneman surely suspected it would.


        System 1                                                                System 2                                           

Always on, limitless energy;                                       Slow

Quick and intuitive                                                      Analytical

Headstrong and self-confident                                 Lazy;

Rarely stumped or in doubt,                                     has limited energy

Radically indifferent to the quantity                        Vain.

   and quality of information; fills in the

   blanks as needed

Likes stories that connect the dots;

Poor at statistics  


According to Kahneman, System 1 generally  rules the roost due to its energy resources and connection to emotions; but System 2 can exercise veto power in some circumstances. As a rule, System 1 sets goals and motivates action, while System 2 functions as a strategist.


Despite Kahneman’s cautionary comments, this story of the human mind is compelling because it describes a dramatic conflict between two mental systems that sound like personalities with diametrically opposed tendencies. In Kahneman’s description, System 1 often demonstrates

exceptional intuitive powers under extreme time pressures; yet is also vulnerable to many heuristic biases, i.e., cognitive shortcuts that systematically lead to error. Intuition is powerful, but subject to error when exercised without self-reflection and without the willingness to recognize and correct mistakes. System 2 is often dormant when System 1 believes it has the answer to a pressing problem. Why use scarce psychic resources when System 1 has already arrived at the answer?


Kahneman’s analysis of cognitive functioning suggests that in System 1 – the dominant system – information processing is enmeshed  with emotion. System 1 is as much about valuing as it is about perceiving or understanding. To paraphrase Kahneman: human beings are not rational actors whose thoughts are often influenced by emotions. Rather, humans are emotional being who sometimes display the capacity for rational thought.  

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