A Brief History of Everything
Humans’ natural being, humans being natural
My column title is a steal from the book title by Ken Wilber. Wilber is one of those writers I so much admire for their attempt to synthesize vast quantities of history and other data about the human condition, alongside Charles Eisenstein and William Irwin Thompson. This a very long column for the middle of a heat wave, and I suspect I may not keep readers with me to the end.
I am going to essay some absurdly broad generalizations about humans, our patterns of mass behavior and of individual character, our history, and our consciousness.
I will not claim I am stating truths about something called “human nature” — and yet that is what it may appear. Myself, I have been reluctant a long time to claim to know what is natural in humans. We change so much because of what goes into our minds, I am not comfortable to say anything we do is beyond alteration by nurture or culture.
Our DNA might determine our eye colour, but I think little of what we do is so definitely programmed; by our self-conscious observation of our words and deeds, humans can say no to automatic behaviours. Nature in a dog is something I can talk about (e.g. introductions by sniffing-under-tail is a universal canine trait) but a human being will always break the rules when one tries to generalize about human activity.
Humans defy easy statements about our nature because individuals among us are so amazingly distinguished from one another. Character is a profound fact of our being. We can see “personality” in animals, yes, but humans differ from one another so fundamentally in individual traits of talents, thought, feeling, and behavior, as to render most generalizations about our species’ natural ways, unsustainable. You may feel this fact is a glorious facet of humanity. I do. But I also see the peril in the extraordinary force of character of some humans and the power that character and talent exercise over masses of more average people.
Generalizing about War
Recently on a radio show about war, I heard another guest say we can eliminate war. I stayed silent, but I disagree. War is always going to be with us. I feel confident about this, that war will be a constant of human experience, so long as we live in mass societies. We will always strive to avoid it, to make it less atrocious, and make it subject to norms of morality or international law, of course. We may make resort to war less probable – as in some places, in some periods of our past, when peace and peaceful societies have been created by a combination of many factors. Canada has been at peace and uninvaded by any enemy since 1814, and has never experienced civil war or violent revolution.
Yet war will always be a possible phenomenon among humans so long as we remain the human species we have been. I do not rule out some genetic alteration of our being such that we cannot be violent to one another, and thus we may eradicate war. But then I am not sure the same word, human, should be applied to that being of the future.
In tiny numbers that are no threat to our natural habitat and the survival of other living species, living only as bands of hunter-gatherers, humans can live without war. We proved this by not waging wars for all of human history preceding the Agrarian Revolution. Farming is the origin of war; possessing cropland, making it the source of our food, was the start of humans’ conduct of war. Without a return to those very simple states of existence before property, I believe humans are never going to be free of the possibility of war. As long as there is property, there will be differences among us that will create hierarchies, and leaders who will wage war.
Character, personality, individual identity
War is mass, not individual, violence. It is waged by large collectives of humans, not one person on another. Combat is not all there is to war. For excellent studies of war, I refer my readers to Culture and Carnage by Victor D. Hansen, and Blood Rites by Barbara Ehrenreich, two fine works that should not be missed. Books by Robert L. O’Connell and John Keegan are noteworthy if one goes on studying the topic.
I follow my generalizations about war with more assertions of equally-mammoth proportions: some individuals among us will be more powerful, will own vastly more property, will have higher status among us, than others, and their leadership will be a root origin of the phenomenon of war. More’s the pity, we’ll follow them in war as we follow them in peace.
War is organized violence between masses of humans; that is its defining quality. Organized humans are humans with social order, hierarchy, leaders, followers. Some cultures celebrate such uniqueness, exalt the “superior individual” and encourage extreme competition (e.g. fascism), other cultures moderate the tendency, and yet others – mostly very “primitive” pre-modern societies – insist vigorously on egalitarianism.
My observation: Humans seem to be constituted as to not be able to constantly battle the power of other people over us. The “superior ranks” of society have a capacity to inflict violence on others. Their capacity may be halted by united, collective refusal by “most of us” to accept their leadership. But more often than not, we allow leaders, and our social order, to be unjust.
Justice: an ideal or a reality?
Experiments with primates have turned up some evidence that other species besides humans have a sense of what is fair, equitable, and just.
“In recent years, researchers have identified an array of unique behaviors found among distinct groups of primate species, including chimpanzees, orangutans, and capuchin monkeys, and associated them with culture. Scientists have sought to explain the social-learning processes by which such behavior is acquired by individual members….
“We don’t know whether individuals become cooperative and then learn to not like being treated unfairly, or the other way around,” said Brosnan. “But that opens up a whole new research field…” “No one really seems to know why individuals should cooperate,” said Brosnan.
Humans are not organized like gorillas, chimps or baboons, however. We in Canada certainly would take exception to the idea of a single “alpha male” ruling us, as happens among some apes. We may casually speak of men and women who are “alphas” yet we do not casually let ourselves be dominated without some resistance; often we resist by banding together in cooperation with other people to push back the domineering, bullying, tyrannical type – the very type to lead us to war. Societies where individual leadership is more moderated by the practice of civic participation are social orders where the resort to war is much less likely. But there will always be societies where hierarchy and dominion are norms; in her book The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler hypothesizes the origin of a Kagan culture where hierarchy, patriarchy, and violence were social patterns. The Kagans subsequently infected all of humanity.
War is inextricably part of the entire range of possibilities for how humans organize; some human social orders are far more likely than others to wage war. Our issue of leadership haunts every analysis of war. Eliminate all hierarchy, status levels, rulers and leaders – and war is a thing of much less probability among us.
War is not just a human phenomenon in nature; as studies of some primates have suggested, even chimpanzees might have something akin to war. But, there is only one species other than ourselves in which war is pandemic: ants wage war constantly. Robert O’Connell is the best writer analyzing a comparison. Ants are driven by their genes to make war, but the nature of their societies — with a queen of overwhelming power over the hive mind — means ants are not easy to relate to. Humans also have great capacity for cooperation, as do ants.
I simply cannot elaborate the vast debate here about humans’ “natural cooperativeness vs. natural aggression.” It is true we cooperate; it is equally true that we allow leaders to have more of some things than most do. We accept leaders’ advantage and privilege as natural, rather than insisting on egalitarian society.
I have been conversing with a friend over an extended time about why humans have let war, injustice and atrocity be commonplace, and he insists it is the responsibility of the four per cent or so of humans who have no moral sense, who are pathological in their capacity to be unaffected by the misery they cause. These sociopaths rise to the top of society as our leaders — or are recognized as criminals and locked away from the rest of us.
Our leaders desire inequality in the human world and their place at the “top” of it. It is a simple explanation, and puts the blame on a small minority of humans, not the vast majority.
I am not content to say the power of the very few is kept in the face of the noncompliant many who desire equality. The pathological few can always lead a large number of people to cooperate with the injustice and inequality around us. Not only the armed forces, police, courts, and politicians uphold the Established Order: so do millions of just plain folks, who want a decent life and must take paycheques from bosses who take orders from the owners who are the ruling class. Fighting against the “sociopaths” and their retainers is a life-consuming lifestyle; look at the historical figures who have dedicated themselves to the task. History has as many failed champions of justice as victorious ones – probably a lot more.
What about the rest of us, the average, the ordinary, the undistinguished, the undriven many?
We go home from work, where we may do capitalist corporate jobs with harmful consequences, to our family and friends where we are as good persons as we may desire to be. Or not.
The human condition contains examples of every sort of human imaginable; for that reason, it is as sensible to read quality works of fiction to understand our species, as it is to read history or psychology.
Just living as a human among other humans, our lives are complicit in a stupendous web of causes and effects. Your way of life is complicit, as some would say. You drive a car – you are part of the problem. You own land – you are part of the problem. This reasoning is persuasive.
Who is responsible?
For a long time I have deliberated why we often tolerate self-evident injustice all around us in our families, workplaces, our government’s actions, and the entire human world, while at another time when circumstances are different, we fight it. We change our world.
I say “we fight injustice” I mean of course that some people make their lives revolve around changing the socio-political-economic landscape they inhabit, to bring more fairness (Gandhi), while other people submit and go along with what is unjust. Some societies plan a path toward better institutions and cultures that sustain equality, others live with inequality.
Consider the difference between Sweden, the USA, Iran, Brazil, China, and Zaire. You get the picture. The contrasts between societies and nations is as great as between individual humans. Imagine the difference in general consciousness between Canadians or Norwegians, contrasted with Israelis, Syrians, Iraqis, or Afghans. A history of war-as-normal shapes minds irreparably.
There is no gene to resist injustice, though a Mahatma or Jesus seem to possess such a gene. These moral giants arise and inspire masses to join together and resist. The society of powerful men fights these shining examples and the story of these contests is what we call history. Some nations have a fortunate history. They are not utopian, but they are so much better to live in that one is perplexed by the contrasts. It is probably explicable in material and cultural terms that some countries are much better places to live than others due to the history that they have. Why is this nation so lucky, and that one so miserable? There is mystery as well as history.
We all do what our private consciences tell us, for justice, for charity, for the people at the bottom of society. It is an individual choice, how much of one’s life to dedicate to equality, justice, and morality. The Mahatma Gandhis of the world are rare, and they may make a difference; some of us do what we can to strengthen the causes of such moral giants, some ignore them. Entire religions are founded on one person. Their churches are hierarchies.
Humans live with injustice because we can. We are not driven to oppose it and refuse it and stop it every time and in every place we encounter it.
No utopia, just trying to get along
Canada is a very fine place indeed to live, in my experience. But to a First Nations person on a reserve that is not true. History is clear about how colonists and their economics, governments, armies, schools and courts, reduced Natives to an abysmal state of existence.
I am thankful that our history also included the establishment of the English legal system, its common-law tradition and principles of justice, that have potential to reverse some of the injustices done to First Nations, as in the Supreme Court decision on Aboriginal Title.
But Canada is just one country in a world of around two hundred nations. Nations trying to imitate the lucky democracies of the rich world do not become like Canada in a short time. The establishment of elections and courts, of a secular modern Constitution and some market capitalist economic reform, does not transform Afghanistan or Viet Nam swiftly into models of Western affluence, human rights and democracy. There has to be a certain raw material from which to fabricate a prosperous modern nation-state that follows recognizably after the model of European political evolution that began in the seventeenth century of Western history.
In nations with recent extensive eras of violence perpetrated daily by the powerful, of subjection of women, of corruption, of poverty, the minds of the people there inhabit a reality that is not conducive at once to the outward forms of Western society. Canadians have internalized the qualities of mind necessary for a functioning open society. Canadians are rarely violent in daily life, we trust our police and government, we exercise our freedoms with an understanding of competing rights – and we can do all this is because we have a history stretching back to a particular civilization.
I have loved the study of my civilization’s historical evolution, from ancient Israel through Greeks and Romans, medieval and British and American formations of society. We have an enormous lead over those nations left outside the magic circle of advanced, secular, capitalist, democratic societies by the mysteries of historical unfolding.
I have been a believer in pattern and in design, particularly the Marxian version of progress. But not anymore. I do not believe in a linear march toward ever-better societies. I do not seek progress by politics and law. I do not see humans becoming steadily better.
Individuals can make change in themselves. I govern only myself, and that is all I desire to rule. I have predicted in this column that an era lies immediately ahead of us that will feel like a Dark Age while we transition from the present crises of human-caused planetary and social deterioration. Humans living after the collapse of Roman power in western Europe experienced a dark age and knew that their prospects were declining in comparison to the immediate past. I believe that experience will be felt by many humans over the next century or two before a new order is evolved; unlike Charles Eisenstein, I do not see the transition being managed in a way that avoids mass death and misery.
All that a person can do who experiences deterioration and knows it in their time, is what humans have always done in similar times: love the people who are put in your path as best you can. Justice is one of the clear indicators of love, in my experience. Love means fairness.
We are not a perfectible species, subject to manipulation and transformation by science and education to be ever better. Some people think we are; I think such people are perilous to others.
For more thoughts about human perfectibility, I refer readers to John Gray**:
“Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion…. Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?”
** “Perhaps the biggest misconception about John Gray is that he thinks all progress is a myth. In fact, he happily concedes that in lots of ways life now is a lot better than it was, say, 200 years ago. “What I’m really saying is that a lot of people nowadays cling to the idea of a slow evolution of human history – something I believe is more fantastic than the belief that God will raise us from the dead.”
All the advances in human rights that we’ve seen – religious freedom, racial equality, equality for gays and so on – are reversible, he believes. “We like to think that we can’t go backwards, but we can.”
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.