“ Brothers, sisters can’t you see ?
The future’s owned by you and me ”
Pulp, Different Class
Recent revelations through books I have read have given me a profound insight into our species predicament.* Cultural history can be summed up, from the beginning of the most simplest form of group structure, to the present day, in one sentence –
New technologies arise which allow human beings to interact together so as to mutually benefit from each other and for reasons inherent in human nature (a separate topic) we adjust our societies structure so as to harvest the benefits. Thus does societal complexity grow.
“When you look beneath the roiled surface of human events, beyond the comings and goings of particular regimes, beyond the lives and deaths of the ‘great men’ who have strutted the stage of history, you can see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And looking ahead you see where it is going.” **
“Judging by history, the current turbulence of our present society, will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global and political, economic and social structures have largely tamed the new forms of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organisation higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will in retrospect look like the storm before the calm.” **
It is important to realise that the world we live in today is a very primitive place, we are only the blink of an eye away from the dark ages. Worldwide, we humans spend on are armies $2 billion per day – $2 billion that could feed, educate, and protect the environment of the worlds impoverished millions. During the previous century, heralded as our most triumphant, 250 wars have killed 110 million people – enough to populate a nation of the dead.
These are indeed early times in our species possible history – perhaps a future exists where a distribution of the world resources on such a grand scale and such atrocities towards our fellow men will be considered a distant part of a savage past. This is the future you should hope for. The future you should be willing to work for. Not necessarily because of the grandiose of human nature; but if genetic self interest can get us this far – by instinctually reaping the benefits of the richer forms of non-zero sum interactions # that new technologies provide – I see no reason why it should stop here.
For many people the talk of genetic self interest is off putting, and knowledge of the cruel nature of our biological origins often leads them to despair – this is not warranted. Comprehension of our design should help bring meaning to your life in context of the much bigger picture of organic creation. And to lead a moral life you first have to understand how naturally immoral we all are.
“ Some people worry that the new Darwinian paradigm will strip their lives of all nobility. If love of children is just defense of our DNA, if helping a friend is just payment for services rendered, if compassion for the downtrodden is just bargain-hunting – then what is there to be proud of ? One answer is : Go above and beyond the call of a smoothly functioning conscience; help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so when nobody’s watching. This is one way to be a truly moral animal. Now in the light of the new paradigm, we can see how hard this is, how right Samuel Smiles [a Victorian puritan] was to say that the good life is a battle against ‘moral ignorance, selfishness, and vice’ ; these are indeed the enemies, and they are tenacious by design.”
“Another antidote to despair over the ultimate baseness of human motivation is, oddly enough, gratitude. If you don’t feel thankful for the somewhat twisted infrastructure of our species, then consider the alternative. Given the way natural selection works, there were only two possibilities at the dawn of evolution: (a) that eventually there would be a species with conscious and sympathy and even love, all grounded ultimately in genetic self interest; (b) that no species possessing these things would ever exist. Well (a) happened we do have a foundation of decency to build on. And animals like Darwin can spend lots of time worrying about other animals – not just his wife, children, and high status friends, but distant slaves, unknown fans, even horses and sheep. Given that self-interest was the overriding criterion of our design, we are a reasonably considerate group of organisms. Indeed, if you ponder the ultimate ruthlessness of genetic logic long enough, you start to find our morality such as it is, nearly miraculous”**
So joy at last, life, as arcane as it is, can be celebrated. But if, as is suggested earlier, the human races basic trajectory is set and a more benevolent future is inevitable.*** Why should we care ? Why not let destiny take it’s course ?
The answer lies again in history as this has shown that transitions between equilibrium’s – from the earlier cheifdoms, to the imperial regimes, through to the national states of today – have all come with massive wrenching cost and sacrifice of human life. The arrow of our future points onwards and upwards but it’s degrees of freedom are in inspiration for those who care.
All this, by providing a goal and motive, paints the picture for the modern philanthropic person. Now all that is left is to realise that : you can make a difference.
To maximise your chance to do this with forethought and, in my opinion, to increase your overall self-worth you need to be self-aware (introspection especially in the context of your upbringing is important), you need be aware of the world around you (it’s pleasures and it’s pains), you need to believe in yourself (half of doing anything is believing you can do it) and you need to be determined. (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again) These are no casual feats but they are not impossible. The path of the ethical person who is autonomously aware is not easy but it reaps its own rewards.
Important : You do not have to be inherently smarter than anyone else or have lead a particularly auspicious life.
I believe that the majority of the important contributors to the human legacy so far were born without significant difference to anyone of us. They were pushed and pulled and compelled by forces just as strong and subtle as the ones that have made us what we are. Possibly, if you reflected on it long enough , you may then see that you could have been one of them had you been born in their circumstances.
And individual people do make a difference :
“ never underestimate the power of a few people to change the world – in fact that’s all that ever has ” ##
This does not mean that with a little bit of effort and goodwill we will all be destined to have are name reveled in the annals of history along with Keynes, Darwin and the likes. But only in your minds possible selves does this matter. A difference is a difference no matter how small or how well it’s remembered. And each small difference may propel us more safely and more assuredly to the hopeful future of a global world very different and much more benign than the ‘storm’ of the one we live in today.
By Matthew McGinty
* we are the predicament
** taken from the books Non-Zero and The Moral Animal by Robert Wright
*** unless of course we blow ourselves up
# non-zero sum interactions are ones which the outcome is the same for all who participate, in this case I are mainly talking about win-win interactions.
## from the back of a class persons T-shirt