What Went Wrong
In the Spring of 1962, I boarded the S.S. Serbija, bound from New York City to Tangiers, Morocco. The purpose of the trip was to go climbing in the Alps. A secondary purpose was to visit Israel and India. As for Israel, I intended to live and work on a kibbutz for a spell, to see at first hand how socialism functioned. In India, I intended to live on an ashram, to find out about Hinduism. Underlying this urge to investigate alternatives to capitalist society was a deep-seated conviction that the modern world was headed for trouble.
I did climb in the Alps and spend a winter on a kibbutz. My time at the kibbutz was entirely satisfying, and I could easily have stayed on, but my interest in Hindu mysticism compelled me to continue to India. On the way, I spent the next summer in Iran, and arrived in India in early fall. Hoping to find opportunities to climb in the Indian Himalaya before winter, I went first to Kulu Valley. There, I did get to do some climbing, but this was cut short when I came down with hepatitis. I had contracted this blood-borne disease in Iran, from an inoculation for yellow fever that had been delivered with a non-disposable needle.
I returned to the US, and, after my recovery, spent the winter ski-bumming in the West. But, what was I going to do next? I decided that, instead of mysticism, I would give science a chance. I wanted to find out what was going on with humans and our environment. At the University of California-Berkeley, I created an individual major I called “Human Ecology”, as a means to further that interest. I continued on with this quest, becoming a graduate student in Anthropology, first at Berkeley and then at Harvard. I did get answers to my questions, but I did not, however, complete a PhD. I came to the conclusion that the academic life was not for me. Why?
In the fall of 1968, I attended a graduate seminar in Evolutionary Biology, which was taught by the then foremost authority in the world on the subject – a German émigré by the name of Ernst Mayr. The thesis topic he assigned me was to document his conviction that black Americans were outbreeding white Americans. This concerned him greatly, as he was convinced that blacks were less intelligent than whites. I did not outright refuse this assignment. But, after reading more of his thought, I chose to write on another subject. My paper was titled: “Human Ecology and Evolution – Where it’s been, where it’s at and where it’s going – fast”. In this paper, I attacked Mayr directly for elitist comments made in his 1966 book: “Animal Species and Evolution”, that echoed his beliefs about the inferiority of blacks. And, this was, of course, the beginning of the end of my graduate studies.
In the Introduction to the paper I wrote: “Since the author is convinced that man is inevitably committed to self destruction, this paper will take, in large part, the form of a post mortem before the fact.”. The paper’s title included the words: “… where it’s going – fast”. 51 years have now passed since I wrote those words, and today we find ourselves in the initial stages of the self-destruction I then predicted. But, did we get here “fast”? In those days, I would have guessed that we would arrive at this moment sooner, making the same error that George Orwell made in his book “1984”. In neither case has the dreadful event arrived as soon as predicted. But arrive it has.
Despite the nay-saying of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the world’s population is coming to understand that we are experiencing the beginning stages of human-caused climate disruption. The scientific evidence of global heating, and why, is unassailable. The extreme weather events that this heating is causing are seen on everyone’s TV, day after day. Everyone has now become acquainted with this fundamental fact – that, due to the burning of fossil fuels, the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are responsible for the heating. What is not known is whether the heating can be reversed, with current estimates showing that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return. But I presume that we will pass that point with no (or insufficient) action taken. The inadequacy of current efforts to arrive at a international plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions is laughable. No remedy will be found. Welcome to Hothouse Earth.
How did we get to this point? It began about 10,000 years ago, with the transition from a foraging way of life to agriculture. What is the foraging way of life? Foragers depend (there are still a few around) on hunting and gathering. They live in small groups (or bands), are nomadic, and their social life differs from that of modern peoples in a number of notable ways. They engage in thorough going mutual aid and food sharing. They are classless and egalitarian i.e there are no rich and poor, no one possesses coercive authority and each individual has complete autonomy. They are not patriarchal and sexist. They have no formal religion. They have few possessions i.e. no wealth. They also have longevity equal to ours and are free of the infectious diseases that plague modern man. Foraging was a very successful way of life, allowing our species to spread to every livable environment on Earth, ranging from the ice-bound Arctic to the deserts of Australia to the tropical rainforests of both hemispheres. Other critical features of their societies will be mentioned below.
As the last Ice Age ended, the worldwide climate warmed, and foragers began to experiment with the planting of seeds and the taming of wild animal. Agriculture and animal husbandry were invented. What were the immediate consequences of these inventions? First, that nomadic foragers became sedentary farmers. They needed to stay close to their crops. As they became more effective farmers, their efforts yielded surpluses, for which they needed to build storage structures. This led to the establishment of villages. Then, due to the increased food supply, populations grew, with towns and cities following. Stored food had become the first property – the first wealth – and, inevitably, the more aggressive individuals in these early societies managed to secure more of that wealth for themselves. Thus began what we quaintly call “civilization” – rule of impoverished masses by elites, large-scale slavery, religions that legitimized rule by the elite, wars of conquest, empire building and so on. Has anything changed since this all began, 10,000 years ago? Nothing has changed. Here are a few examples chosen at random: at one time, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and British monarchs still sit on thrones; prior to Japan’s loss in WWII, Emperor Hirohito was regarded by his people as a “divine ruler”, and Japanese pilots cherished the opportunity to become kamikazes; Islam is pitted against the West, with religious rulers calling the shots in Iran and suicide bombers killing people throughout the Middle east and beyond; China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines (named for King Philip II of Spain) and many other countries have fallen under the control of one kind of despotic regime or the other, with the US perhaps not far behind; much of the world’s wealth is spent on weapons, while the rest of it is falling increasingly under the control of fewer and fewer individuals; individual autonomy is being lost to more and more of the world’s population.
Despite the evidence of the above-cited examples, scholars of the human condition are increasingly of the opinion that humans are innately motivated to be “prosocial” (as opposed to anti-social). Humans are the most social of all animals but the so-called “eusocial” insects. Our ability to organize ourselves together to meet any and all environmental challenges that were presented throughout hundreds of thousands of years and multiple glacial periods testifies to the effectiveness of that social predisposition. One social scientist (Nicholas Christakis: “Blueprint, The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society”, 2019) has defined the “social suite” – a group of biologically based behaviors which underpin human society. They are: “the capacity to have and recognize individual identity, love for partners and offspring, friendship, social networks, cooperation, preference for one’s group, mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism) and social learning and teaching”. Christakis and others in a multiplicity of disciplines – sociology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, political science, economics – have shown that this is who we are. Why, then, are we now at each other’s throats?
What, in other words, went wrong? In order to answer this question we must first take a closer look at the “social suite”. For instance, what does Christakis mean by “mild hierarchy/relative egalitarianism”? He explains that “… we accord more prestige to some group members – typically, those who can teach us things or who have many connections – than to others”. Prestige, of course, is not the same thing as authority. The interpretation of hierarchy Christakis puts forward does not include coercive authority. Egalitarianism (even relative egalitarianism) means that there is no “boss”, and the maintenance of same brings with it the need to curtail “bossy” behavior (“bossy” is a term used by one group of foragers). No human likes to be bossed around, or to be bullied, taken advantage of or dealt with unjustly. Studies of foraging people have shown that such disruptive behavior can usually be curtailed by peer pressure (such as would occur in a group of friends). But when peer pressure doesn’t do the job, or the offense is more serious, a band may resort to banishment or murder. A few men will come together to drive away or execute someone that they have deemed to be incorrigible. Clearly, it is critically important to a mutually aiding group to deal decisively with miscreants. This self-policing mechanism preserves the very necessary harmony of the group. Additionally, although his mention of relative egalitarianism implies the human desire for social equity and self-determination, I find that Christakis fails to stress how very great this need is. It is this need, after all, that causes people to rise up and throw off their shackles.
The self-policing mechanism of peer pressure (or worse) requires that every member of the group knows and coordinates with every other member of the group. This condition is met for a foraging band of, at most, a few dozen people, but can this mechanism work in larger groups? And the answer is that this mechanism does not work in a group that surpasses a certain size. What, then, is that size? In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. He experimentally determined that it is, on average, 150 persons, and this is now known as “Dunbar’s number”.
Here is the answer to the question: What went wrong? Societies growing to numbers in excess of 150 persons is what went wrong. Societies of this and greater size cannot effectively curtail anti-social behavior through peer pressure/self-policing, and become vulnerable to that behavior. Before you know it, the tough guys take over, which is exactly what happened as the foraging way of life yielded to village life. And it continues to this day, with the nastiest and greediest members of society in charge – the oligarchs and their chosen leaders, such as Putin, Duterte and Trump.
An avaricious civilization expanded around the globe. Mongol hordes ravaged Eurasia. The European sea-faring nations conquered and looted most of the rest of the world, with King Leopold of Belgium killing 10 million Africans. Turkey invented genocide, with its Armenian massacres. Germany started two World Wars, and killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others. The US fought two colonial wars in Asia. The Khmer Rouge killed a million in Cambodia. And right now, the newly installed Bolsonaro regime in Brazil is removing protections for Amazonian tribes, while accelerating the cutting of the Amazon rainforests. It is a shit show. What started innocently enough 10,000 years ago has metastasized into a planet-gobbling force. There is no stopping it, and it will be business as usual until the planet becomes too hot to do business. That is the way it will end, for both us prosocial humans and the antisocial ones that we let get out of control.