Life in an unregulated state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
–Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The world is a disaster right now. From global warming, ecological devastation, mass extinctions and increasing natural disasters to political turmoil, war and oppression. Ofttimes, we find ourselves unable to conceive of the problems, much less consider possibilities to get ourselves back on track. Individually and as a whole, the problems are simply too large, too intractable, too complicated, and too overwhelming for the majority of us try and grasp.
Ask your average man on the street, and whatever his political motivations, personal involvement or socio-economic standing, there is a good chance that he will tell you that ‘…its just human nature.’ We have all of these problems because we are bad, broken, fallen or stupid. I have to disagree with that.
I spend a lot of my time defending, discussing, and explaining the intricacies of Evolutionary Theory. Regardless of religious conviction, evolution explains the fundamental details of how things came to be this way (irregardless of god’s hand or lack thereof). Above all else, Natural Selection follows a practical and eminently rational process. Any animal that is better at surviving, by even the most minor degree, will eventually pass on more genes (and more descendants) than other, local members of its species. When enough generations of this selective adaptation has occurred it is possible that the animals now living in said region may be recognizably different from their cousins in a distinctly different region.
So what does that have to do with people being broken? It seems to me that any species that successfully evolves, becomes alpha predator, adapts to ecologies across the globe, lives in stable, sustainable societies for a million years, and develops the cultural and social richness that homo sapiens is capable of, cannot be broken. Natural Selection wouldn’t ‘allow’ it.
So what the bleep is going on here?
I have spent much of my life exploring that question. After many false starts and ineffective paths I finally found my answer. Its not that humans are broken, its that human culture is broken. Or more precisely, one type of human culture is incompatible with human nature. Ours is one of them.
Ten thousand years ago, humans began a great experiment: rather than living on the bounty provided by our mother earth, we decided to try actively producing our own food. It seemed like a good idea at the time, unfortunately there were a series of unintended consequences.
Agriculture enables surplus. With surplus, populations tend to grow. As populations grow, hierarchy becomes necessary. This enables complex division of labor, militarism, religious institutions and strict class divisions. That surplus also creates a positive feedback loop with population growth. In ‘natural’ populations, there are always times of scarcity that reduce population growth and occasionally cause population decline. But when a population has access to surplus, population decline almost never happens. And when it does, the choice of these cultures has always been to increase production so that next time, we have enough surplus to avoid famine. Of course, that does not work because the population grows in time with the increases in production.
Looking at agriculture/hierarchy/population growth is a systemic approach to problem solving. In most cases, we have been taught to reduce complexity to simple, linear systems. In many cases, this is the scientific approach that the western world has adopted over the last two thousand years. However, what we are increasingly finding is that the real world is rarely simple, and almost never linear. As a result, the ‘solutions’ that we apply to problems rarely work and often create greater problems than those we started with.
The simple solution? Educate people so that they will make ‘better’ choices. It hasn’t worked yet, but if we do more, then people will someday be ‘better’ and everything will be grand.
The complex solution? Abandon the system that requires this behavior, in favor of a system that requires better behavior. Previously, I introduced the first characteristic: sustainability. Now the second: forget making better people and focus on socio-economic systems that work for people.
(Originally Posted August 22, 2006)