Being Human pt. II

September 2008

(read pt. I first.)

Being a good and moral human is an exercise in resisting and suppressing millenia of biological conditioning. The more complex our societies become, the less useful our base emotions are, except perhaps as occasional measures and symptoms. The question is this: if human society and human biology are this incompatible with each other, which should change?

Of course, you could argue that neither society nor biology should change, and that we should just live with it. However, I'd say that it's not really working for us. We're pulling in two directions and going nowhere. I think this is one of the drivers towards the ‘new tribalism’ of Daniel Quinn and similar; we see in ‘savages’ and tribes-people a way of living more in harmony with the emotional reality of being human.

But we also have a drive to better ourselves, to transcend our limitations. We say ‘we could find a way to minimise the impact of jealousy, but wouldn't it be better to do away with jealousy itself?’ We say ‘we could design institutions and laws that allow us to clearly define relationship and hierarchy, but wouldn't it be better if we didn't need lines or markers for possession and dominance?’

This is where I experience an uneasy tension with the tribalists. They say ‘we humans are just fine as we are, we just need to find a way of life that works for us.’ They don't argue the myth of the noble and enlightened savage, but they do seem to imply that all the toxic elements of human society were never seen before ‘civilisation.’ I'm not convinced. Slavery, possession and dominance, violence, and injustice have all (as far as I'm aware) been elements of tribal society as much as of empire. The only differences are those of scale.

And the fact is that, while tribalism worked for humanity and for the planet, it was significantly less than perfect. Surely we should search for something that works even better? And we're making progress. Now, in the 21st century, we're not that far from learning how to live without armed, violent conflict. Part of the world is managing that, and I don't believe that there has ever been such a general concurrence that ‘there's a better way.’ Some nations have figured out how to rehabilitate criminals without exiling them or locking them up permanently. Some societies have managed to move beyond traditional patterns of relationship and family, and have found themselves far better off as a result.

So, the million dollar question: do we steer towards our animal-instinct heritage, or away from it? My money's on ‘away.’ As Richard Dawkins says (paraphrased):

As a scientist I believe in evolution and natural selection, but as a human being I believe that we must fight it; that we must not take the values of natural selection as our own. […]

Evolution has created, in us, the ability to introspect. Evolution is now conscious, and can, by our efforts, change itself for the better.