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Our Future: History as Usual?

What is usual, and what is natural

In my most-recent two columns, I see that I leaned heavily on the phrase of John N. Gray when he describes our likely future: “history as usual.” I want to expand on this. I am going to attempt an outline of the widest-possible generalizations about human beings as a species, in our history, prehistory, biology, and consciousness.

I am in fact going to go where I was taught not to go when I was a committed Marxian activist and communist. I am going to write about “human nature.” Marx himself detested the phrase, for he believed all such statements about humans would be political statements, not scientific ones. He abhorred how economists like Smith and Bentham assumed a fixed human nature which could explain market capitalism and utilitarian politics. Marx laughed at their version of human nature as just a mere idealization of the bourgeois English consumer city-dweller.

Karl Marx revered the sciences, especially physics and chemistry, and he was so enamoured of Charles Darwin’s biological hypothesis about human “natural selection” that he wanted to dedicate his first volume of Capital (1867) to the author of The Origin of Species (1859). Darwin wrote back to Marx declining the honour. Engels wrote a small book entitled The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. This little essay is orthodox Marxism on the subject of the evolution of human beings and the natural selection of humans as biological beings who work.

Marxists after Karl died were noted for their extreme belief that humans had no basic nature inherent at birth. Humans’ behaviours are all subject to learning, Marxists were sure. We have no natural limits on our mind’s capacity that cannot be re-engineered by the power of the State. To make a “new man” by a revolution in social order, change so profound and fundamental that “homo economicus” would be adjusted to fit into the perfect communist society, was the creed of revolutionaries in the Marxian tradition.

Pol Pot is the example most horrible to contemplate, with his massive plan to engineer a Cambodian communist utopia. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and Castro also believed in the power of political action to reform humanity for the socialist future. “Put Politics in Command!” was the slogan of Mao’s  Cultural Revolution. Robespierre in the great French Revolution was a pioneering exemplar of this type of political theorist, with his fantastic idea of a Republic of Virtue, and he was willing to unleash the Terror in 1793 to make citizens conform.

(The topic of social engineering is a favourite theme of John Gray in his writing about revolutions. See hisbook,The Immortality Commission, for a start.)

What is homo sapiens?

I will assume readers know something about human emergence in Africa as a species about a quarter million years ago, or perhaps only 150,000 years. From Africa we spread everywhere.

We know of other species of human besides us, such as homo Neanderthalensis. Species are distinct when they cannot produce fertile progeny if they mate across species lines, so the thesis that we, homo sapiens, might have interbred with Neanderthal humans is not a theory with majority support among scientists. What, then, did happen to Neanderthals? Did they die out as other unsuccessful species would do? What natural enemies did they have? It seems not improbable that homo sapiens would have been hostile to Neanderthal.

Did our ancestors hunt this other form of human into extinction? It must remain a possible explanation until more evidence is produced from the archeological and genetic records.

What one believes homo sapiens might have done, to hasten the extinction of Neanderthal humans, is a pretty significant conclusion, because it colours what one thinks humans are.

Are we killers? Well, yes, because we are hunters. We have hunted for food since we emerged as human beings in Africa. Hunting other animals for their meat, and the great increase in protein we obtained thereby, is a crucial ingredient in the making of human social order, and nourishing our large brains. We are also, by nature inherited from our ancestors, territorial, possessive, beings. We need each other; we are social. We are not naturally friendly toward strangers; we are tribal. We can be friendly to strangers, we can be hermits: these are learned behaviours, not unusual but not what our evolutionary biology would predict for humans.

When one asks, are we natural murderers, the question implies much about our capacities for ending war, aggression and violence. There is a vast literature on this question.

Are humans condemned by our Nature to be war-makers and murderers?

The hypothetical hostility and violence between ancestral humans and Neanderthals is not precisely “murder”. Murder is the killing of one’s own species. (The divine legal commandment we read in standard Bibles has mistranslated the Hebrew; it should read, ‘Thou shalt not murder.”) Killing Neanderthals does not make us natural murderers, but it does feel, to my mind, that if we could kill them in such massive numbers, murder is not too difficult for us.

Aggressionis natural to humans. This cannot be a contentious statement; one has only to sample the scientific literature on this topic to know the truth of it. Culture and nurture must – and most surely will -- alter how we express aggression; of that there is no doubt either.

Violence, motivated by aggression and fear, with our physical body and with tools against other bodies, is also natural to us. Again, culture/nurture affects how violent we let ourselves be.

But our bodies are not well-endowed with killing teeth, claws, horns, or poisonous venoms, as the most-effective predator animals are endowed. Our violence against our own species is not naturally inhibited as it is among great killers like lions and wolves. We do not have the natural instinct to stop ourselves murdering another human, whereas a wolf will not kill a defeated foe when two wolves fight for dominance. Nature inhibits the winner in dominance battles.

Primates, our nearest animal relatives, will not murder in fights between members of a band, but males will kill the babies of other males when it is a question of whose genes will be reproduced. Gorillas, chimps, and baboons, have hierarchies with alpha males at the top. The alpha rarely has to do anything more than show his teeth and roar to exert his leadership.

None of these facts about humans and primates and predators, can make a compelling case that war is in our nature. War is not simple murder taken to a mass level. It is so much more complex than one-on-one violence. When a collective of humans – a band, tribe, city, nation or empire – goes to war against a peer collective, then politics, culture, economy, and mentality are all implicated in a seriously-complex fashion.

War might be ultimately a phenomenon we could (nearly) eradicate. But, our ideas, politics, economies, cultures, and mentalities would all have to be first transformed so fundamentally that perhaps we would have transformed ourselves into a new species before that would happen. I have discussed war at length in earlier columns, and cited many reference texts.

History and prehistory are not a source for evidence that humanity can quickly move beyond war and competition… which brings us back to “History-as-usual” and my thesis.

Civilization and Barbarism: history begins

Barbarism is just a word, but one laden with value judgements. Marx had another phrase for barbarism, referring to life in tiny agrarian villages even in his own time: “the idiocy of rural life.” Intellectual and cultural elites have always held non-urban ways in contempt, since only city institutions and economies have a place for such elites to flourish.                                                                                                        

Humans before the agricultural revolution, before the urban revolution, were barbaric in a simple sense, because we did not live in cities (civis and polis  are Roman and Greek words for “city” and from them we derive our word for civilization/citizen and politics/politeness in English.) We could only make urban life work for us when we became farmers instead of hunters and gatherers, and in cities we began to live in stratified social order, in hierarchy, with social classes, with division of labour, and the invention of the State as our ruling institution. People who had all been roughly equal when living as hunter-foragers now became separated into categories in which some were higher and “nobler”, and the majority were lower and “common”.

From the time of the invention of literate urban civilization to this moment is the time we have recorded history; our earliest record of history is a record in writing, and all history before writing is prehistory. Egypt supplies the earliest written record, in stone, from about 3100 BCE. In other words, history means the last 5,000 years, and nothing before that.

In the entire span of history we can discern simple, broad patterns that do not vary much. The idea of a linear Progress only occurred to us in the European civilization that emerged about the sixteenth century, when Europeans from the west and north of that continent embarked on a process of bring the entire globe under their naval, commercial, military, political, economic and cultural domination. Until the idea of linear Progress emerged then, the usual concept of history among known cultures envisioned human life according to a cyclic pattern. Rise, plateau, and fall, was the pattern for societies. The Golden Age was gone, deep in the past.

(Although it has been argued that the Israelites saw their God YHWH designing and executing the progress of his chosen people to become a “light to the gentile nations” in future, this argument fails. Israel too had to recognize that its own history showed a wheel pattern, and at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, Israel fallen to the bottom of its wheel of fortune under gentile tyranny; the 12 Tribes had climaxed under Kings David and Solomon, then decayed and been ground down by Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and finally Romans. They awaited a messiah.)

The Human Condition: “god-like” tools, “animal” minds

Our tools and technologies go on proliferating and astounding us; our minds seem pretty much the same as human minds at the time of the Pharoahs and the Crusades: this, dear reader, sums up my attitude to our present situation.

The brain is the physical organ that has natural limits, and those limits are what determine whether we will ever transcend our usual history. So we have to know the evolutionary history of our biological organs, the brain foremost, to understand our natural limitations.

The brains we have are the brains that were adaptive for an animal that emerged in Africa under a certain set of environmental, ecological, and physical limitations, as all species must be adaptive. The “old” (or “reptile”) brain is the closest to the spinal column, and the unique neo-cortex of which we are so proud, is the frontal lobe at the top. The limbic system is the emotional brain, and developed much earlier in our evolution than the rationalizing cortex.

Most of our brain parts are not unique to us. Other mammals have well-developed grey matter too; the dolphin is a stellar example. But it is still astounding to state the facts of numbers for our brain: in a three-and-a-half pound organ, there are 100 billion neurons, and 100 trillion connections. Mind boggling, oui?

We have, since our biological origin as a species, created new environments (cities foremost among them) for ourselves to inhabit by applying our own inventions. But the brain that lives inside the invented habitats of our creativity is the same old brain. And the brain is the residence for the mind. Some call mind the “ghost in the machine.”

Mind is not brain, I most certainly believe. Consciousness is still a mystery to our scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology, but new tools to probe consciousness, biochemical energies, and the neuronal-physical “grey matter” in our skulls, go on being developed all the time. So far as we know now, a mind cannot exist independently of a brain to give it a home. The concept of minds-without-bodies is a foundational idea of human religious practices, generating our belief in deities, spirits, and other intangible intelligences around us.

Perhaps the answer to why humans are “conscious,” in a way unlike any other animal life-form, will be discovered soon. Until then, the mind/brain mystery remains at the crux of my question, Do humans have a nature that is beyond alteration by our created environments (i.e. our cultures, nurturance, educations and socialization)? In other words, do we have limits? I think we do. We are limited. Knowing our limitations is acceptance of human nature.

Can Humans be Free from our Biology?

As I outlined in my introduction, there have been many who believe the answer to this question is Yes. Humanity can make itself whatever it chooses to be. I disagree. I assert this: Human activity is subject to alteration by cultural instruments, but there is a limitation upon human transformation imposed by human evolutionary biology and by constraints of the mind/brain.

“The fundamental patterns of behaviour laid down in our early existence as ground-dwelling, social, territorial, hunting apes still shine through all our affairs – no matter how lofty those affairs may be.

“If the organization of our earthier, baser activities – our feeding, our fear, our aggression, our sex, our parenting – had been developed solely by cultural means, there can be little doubt that we would have got it under better control by now. We would have twisted human organization this way and that by good planning, to make us suit the increasingly extraordinary demands put upon us by the advances of our tools and technologies. But we have not.

“We repeatedly bow our heads and admit our animal nature; we tacitly admit the existence of a complex beast that lurks within us. If we are honest, we will confess that it will take millions of years and the same process of Natural Selection that put the animal in us, to change it. Until we alter it, our unbelievably complex civilizations will only be able to thrive if we design them in such a manner that they do not conflict with, nor try to suppress, our basic animal demands…”

“The naked ape [i.e. human] of today is so proud (of) the massive cultural explosions, the dramatic progression, that led him in a mere quarter million years from making a fire to making spacecraft, that he is in danger of being dazzled by it all and forgetting that beneath the surface glamour, he is still very much a primate. Even a space ape must urinate.”

“Unfortunately, we tend to forget that we are animals, with certain specific weaknesses and certain specific strengths. We often think of ourselves as blank pages upon which anything can be written. We are not. We come into the world with a set of basic instructions, and we ignore, or disobey the parameters at our peril. In what promises to be the evermore-crowded world of the future, our politicians, administrators, and other super-tribal leaders must recognize that in all the societal creations they rule, there is an animal, a human animal, a primitive hunter from a tribal unit, masquerading as a super-tribal citizen. This human animal is desperately trying to match his ancient inherited qualities with his extraordinary new technological situations. By the time our children are in charge of the situations, the human species will no doubt be facing problems of such magnitude that it will not be just ‘interesting,’ it will be a matter of living or dying.”

The long quotations above are excerpted and edited from two books by Desmond Morris written in the 1960’s, The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. They are not irrelevant today, and they say what I need to be said here, about human nature and human mutability.

History in a paragraph

Humans live in large collectives and are ruled by minorities who are elite by virtue of owning great wealth, power, leadership abilities – and by (frequently or rarely) exercising a calculated violence upon the ruled subjects. Humans accept inequality while occasionally resisting elites with force; no civilized society since recorded history began has been without social layering, inequalities, and some form of rulership. Humans are endlessly inventive of cultural artefacts in the form of art, religions (which are not only elite inventions, but are organized by elites for their own purposes) habits of parenting and education, and in their sciences for understanding the world around them. Humans do not live in conformity and sameness without creative individuals resisting it and generating novelty, until novelty is stale and the process begins again. Urban habitat has increased steadily across the planet over time, and global population has exploded exponentially in the last two centuries. Civilization began in small localities and has expanded until all the varieties of human organization have met and now coexist in a planetary community, while certain fractions of it (those societies deemed ‘Western’) are still domineering. Collapse of past civilizations has originated in wars, social rebellions, ecological disasters, famines and diseases, either singly or in combination. Accumulation of the knowledge of physical and material data, and application of new technologies for human use of the planet, proceeds in a linear fashion, but no corresponding accumulation of knowledge in the realms of morality, ethics, politics or religion, can be discerned over time. War is as probable now as at any previous time. Ecological change harmful to humans is now accelerating; humanity is a prime cause of current changes. Humans do their best to adapt to changes, but their best, as revealed by the historical record, will not suffice to stave off catastrophes for some populations in some lands, while some of the less-affected will help the afflicted as much as they feel able to do.

Conclusion

History-as-usual will be history that does not contradict the sweeping generalizations of my previous paragraph.

As for the progressive increase in our scientific knowledge and technological magic, no doubt it will continue. It is not what we know but how we use it that reveals our limitations.

As has been true all my life, and throughout history, some humans on this planet have benefitted hugely from the breakthroughs of science (recently in medicine and electronics, most demonstrably) while many have not felt the magic of Western progress touch their lives at all.

The main determinant of which individuals benefit most from this progress, is, wealth and power. The elites thrive with the new discoveries, for they can afford them. The rest of us make do, getting as much access to the cutting edge of science as we can buy.

Referring to how humans are inhumane to their fellows using the wonderful tools we have to choose from, Einstein summed us up with this witticism: “Our technology has outrun our humanity.” He believed humanity means compassionate behaviour. That is an opinion, not a fact about humanity’s natural kindness toward our own species.