Artist impression of Homo sapiens, shown in the British Museum
by Mary W Maxwell
What strange times we live in. The intelligent news sources (particularly “alternative” ones) give us a steady stream of alarming observations. Let me name just five: environmental woes, world war, debt and money-crash scenarios, secret societies plotting to kill us, and corruption of all authorities. Are you feeling the pinch from any of these?
Owing to my training in sociobiology (the genetics of social behavior — in other words, instinct), I tend to see humans in their original form. When we first evolved from an ancestral primate species, the problems listed above were not the ones we were confronted with.
In Early Days
The environment was not in a state of fragility, like it is now, as there weren’t enough of us dear humans to do harm. Also we lacked fancy chemical compounds with which to poison the planet.
War was endemic but only on a small scale — one tribe was pleased to raid another, both for goods and for women. World war was not possible, as faraway tribes couldn’t contact one another. The only missiles that could be hurled were rocks.
Debt and money-crashes could not, of course, take place. The money culture awaited civilization, and the worthless paper-money culture awaited “legislation” to give fake backing to such chimerical stuff.
Secret societies plotting to kill us? I don’t know about that one; if they were secret we couldn’t have found out about them! Look how long it took us to find out about today’s cabal. But the likelihood is that secret societies (males only) emerged pretty early in Homo sapiens. It’s normal to form a club.
As for the “corruption of authorities,” this would depend on there having been a creation of social ideals from which some deviation could occur. Where there was only a leader who ran the small group, everyone could keep an eye on his/her habits. Today much corruption goes undetected.
When Did the Individual Stop Having a Say?
Most people today feel unable to “get at” the 5 problems I listed above. They seem overwhelming. They seem to be caused by forces bigger than the individual, perhaps even bigger than one’s own society.
The fact of that feeling is itself rather new. Humans have always had to cope with problems – for example “the elements,” wild animals, and famines — not to mention having bullies in one’s immediate social circle, or threats of attack from other tribes.
Is there a natural, instinctive way to overcome crises? I doubt it, but since we have a survival urge, we generally do put a lot of effort into solving any problem that looks solvable.
The new situation of despair or the tossing away of effort to correct things strikes me as very new. I’ve lived though decades in which it was not the norm. It may be partly owing to the nature of downward spirals — once you feel helpless, the problems seem to loom larger.
Do I think we are going through a false reaction, or a panic reaction? No. I think despair is “reasonable” at the moment.
The Hobbesian Dilemma
That said, one still wants to do something! The first two items named above – environmental destruction and “world war” are the trickiest to deal with. People make decisions within the context of their group; they can enforce self-restraint if restraint would result in a general benefit.
But when the subject is the environment, your group may willingly forego the practice of polluting yet not be able to escape the pollution caused by other societies. It is said today that the whole world may be done in by the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. What can a non-Japanese person do about it?
As for war-making, there is always the dilemma pointed out by Thomas Hobbes. If your society decides to disarm, it becomes vulnerable to aggressors. Pacifism may be suicidal. This is known as the Hobbesian dilemma.
It could apply also to environmental problems. Your nation votes to reduce fishing, to save certain fish species for future use. But why do it if another nation will thus grab all the fish?
But It’s Not All Hobbesian
The other three impending disasters listed were: debt and money-crash scenarios, secret societies plotting to kill us, and corruption of all authorities. A nation can respond unilaterally and effectively to any of these.
Take the secret society issue. All the members of the secret societies live in one nation or another. Maybe they travel a lot (a few could even be stateless by living on a yacht), but all humans ultimately have a home. They are part of a society.
That society can make the member answer to the society. Naturally if the membership in the secret society is well guarded – or the very existence of the secret society is denied – it is hard to crack down on the person. But it is by no means impossible!
Such persons today have been having a ball escaping from their society’s reach. They “laugh all the way to the bank” and laugh at our gullibility and timidity.
At the same time, though, they must know subconsciously — just as animals know things by direct perception – that the end is nigh. Basically, the big secrets have got out in the last few years. The once-protected are very worried.
Let’s Talk Law and Obedience
It’s apparent that we have an instinct for producing law. If you form a group to go on a ski trip, even a one-off group, within ten minutes somebody will ask for, or suggest, a regulation that all can agree to.
Granted, it could be a very light law, as in “We will meet at the airport check-in and nobody will carry more than one bag and skis.” The point is that we want to coordinate. It is very uncomfortable not to know what the expected behavior is.
Presumably there is also an instinct for obedience. We are doing obedient things all day long simply by wearing the costume of our society or speaking with its accent. If an individual wants to deviate from that he will be pressured to conform — but normally no pressure is needed, we are dying to obey.
When our individual interest conflicts with the group’s rules, however, such as when we want more of a share in the resources, obedience is not so strong. Humans are mammals and all mammal species have selfish urges for betterment. This needs to be catered for when the society’s plan is laid out.
Does Society Have a Plan?
Most likely even the earliest human societies had a plan. In the 19th Century when anthropologists started to meet groups that had never interacted with civilization, they always found coherence. Never did they run into groups that were a bunch of individuals running amok.
Every tribe had a sense of itself as distinct from neighboring tribes. Each had a narrative history and was proud of it. Each had a rationale for the things it did. I’d call that a plan.
Once writing came about and philosophical inquiry came about the planning may have been upgraded to something articulated as a plan. Ideals and principles sprouted.
This is inevitable when people discuss a social problem. Merely to ask what should be done is to initiate a search for a principle to guide the choices. This might turn into a religion in which the high principles get personalized into a god.
If a formal religion develops, its Scripture furnishes almost everything people could ask for by way of guidance. What should we do? One only has to “look it up.”
As a god always evokes a feeling of reverence in the individual, the holiness of the scripture makes it hard to challenge. I see this as the force of the group over the individual.
If we’ve actually got an innate emotional response to god (or related holy things), I assume that such emotion evolved to make us social, that is to make us go along with the group.
A certain percentage of non-human animals have a social life. Their plan is never consciously expressed. It comes into view when we observe the group of animals going about their daily business. They adopt roles.
Is a given individual animal born for a particular role? Most likely not. Each member of the group has a range of behaviors and these adjust according to what’s out there, what the opportunities or necessities are. Their emotions guide them to choose what to do.
Probably humans also have very “on the ball” guides built in — even while remaining unaware of them. Some of those guides make it inevitable that the society will come up with a plan.
Are Some Plans Better Than Others?
I assume that the plan a society develops has potential for wreaking havoc. It also had potential for making happiness abound. Some plans are better than others. It is very easy to see which ones are working well.
If societies have clear borders, with all members interacting regularly (as opposed to everyone being a “global citizen”), it will be possible to evaluate the plan’s worth.
The evaluation would require criteria. For example, do the people appear well fed? Are they in a state of peace? Do they say they are happy? Do they encounter terrible frustrations? Do they die young? Is there an outlet for artistic talent?
Granted, it has not often been possible to inspect a society as though it were an independent entity. When you look at small society X, you may have to note that it suffers from the way large neighboring society Y treats it.
Thus an attempt to evaluate a society’s plan is already hampered by “international relations.” Still, one should try.
Political Control by Money and Banks
After World War II, – which we now know to have been engendered by bankers for their own benefit, new official overseers appeared. Most famously the IMF – International Monetary Fund – flew into many nations and dictated policy.
As well, some international big businesses such as mining, agriculture and finance, obtained favorable legislation regarding trade or land ownership from the nations. Weak nations succumbed, but since the 1990s all major nations have given in to this sort of interference in their political institutions.
Where were the cultural institutions of society that could put up resistance? It appears that these were corrupted in advance. In academia in the US and Australia (and likely worldwide) “philosophizing” about society went out of style.
The great religious teachers also seemed to get bogged down in spats known as culture wars; they rarely used the pulpits to attack the problem.
To some extent the takeover has occurred by bribery. Every person wants to look after his or her family. Every person wants to put aside something for a rainy day. Every person enjoys the feeling of prestige. Money is often the means of making people betray their society’s “plan.”
Of course this is easily done where the nation does not express what its plan is. When did you last hear anything other than nonsense and platitudes coming from political leaders as to what their nation is all about?
I have the feeling that the Achilles heel is corruption. I mean it is the Achilles heel of the persons who have been corrupting societies. All their hard work is going to fail them soon.
So far, most folks have not understood that their senators, or city councilmen, or university professors have been corrupted not by greed but by the carefully planned action of a few outsiders. That is to say their senators, city councilmen, or university professors are traitors.
Once people get a better sense of this they will do what humans have always done to traitors.
At the same time, the big sigh of relief will enable new leaders to emerge. It is always a feature of the species H sapiens that some individuals naturally rise up to guide the whole group.
Do we have a built-in way to cope with crises? Yes we have built-in talent for leadership. That’s how it’s done.
It’s almost embarrassing to have to say such an obvious thing.
— Mary W Maxwell is looking for the good times.