Friday, August 18, 2017
The problem with tribalism, among other things
According to the fossil record and the study of human evolution and development, modern man (Homo sapiens) has been around for something like 200-300 thousand years (ky). The present theory of human evolution holds that our ancestors began to diverge or evolve from tree-dwelling primates on the order of 6-7 million years ago (mya).
Our understanding of human evolution isn't comprehensive, complete, or conclusive. The fossil record is sparse, and the remains of our ancestors are very hard to find and very hard to study. We live on the surface of a dynamic world where the land is anything but static (think plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) and where climate is variable (scores of ice ages and interglacial periods). With the land and climate in constant flux, it's little wonder that the bones and abodes of our ancestors are difficult to find and suss out.
We humans are clever though, and through the rigorous application of science and the scientific method we've been able to piece together a solid theory of the history of our planet and our species. While we are not absolutely certain of every detail of the past, we've discovered no evidence that would disprove our present understanding.
Now for some scale, context, and perspective.
The farthest back we can see is to about 13.7 billion years ago (bya). That means that our modern telescopes can detect light and other electromagnetic radiation from that far in the past. By using the speed of light as a measuring stick, and by studying various aspects of the electromagnetic radiation we can detect, it looks very much like the universe began (for certain values of began) at about that 13.7 bya mark. It's possible that the universe is older, but because of the character of the physical universe we simply can't see any farther back. We have a solid sense that our measure of the age of the universe is correct, but we don't, and can't, know for certain.
It looks very much like our galaxy, the Milky Way, formed very shortly after the universe came into being. Our solar system, however, is much younger, having formed about 5 bya. Our best estimate of the age of Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years, which is only a tiny bit less than four-and-a-half thousand million years before our earliest ancestors climbed down from the trees and began to go walkabout.
It also looks very much like the first life on earth came into being about 3.5 billion years ago.
On these timescales, the evolution of modern man or H. sapiens was very recent indeed. Compared to our relatively short lifespans, 250,000 years is a long time, but it's only one twenty-sixth of the time since we began to diverge from other primates.
Furthermore, while modern man has been around for a quarter-million years, there is no sign of or evidence of anything like civilization before the beginning of the present interglacial period, about 12-15 thousand years ago. In that sense, all of what we might call recorded (for some values of recorded) history has happened in the last one-eighteenth of the period during which modern man has existed.
The key concept of what most westerners -- and a growing number of non-westerners -- think of as modern civilization is liberal democracy. This is where, for the most part, the sovereignty of the individual is of paramount concern. This is a big change. For most of the era of civilization -- the last 12-15 thousand years -- the individual human held no intrinsic value outside of himself or his family. Those men who gained power ruled their tribes with absolute authority, and their human subjects were essentially cattle. The notion that cattle might have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness hadn't really occurred.
Humans started playing around with the idea of individual sovereignty in a serious way during the period of Classical Greece, about 2,500 years ago, or about the last one-fifth of the age of civilization.
Modern liberal democracy didn't become societally established and codified until roughly 250 years ago, or the last one-tenth of the period of democratic experimentation.
The key and foudational principle of modern liberal democracy is most famously laid out in the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The development and implementation of liberal democracy has been anything but a smooth process. In any such system the institutions of government must elevate the intrinsic value of the individual to the level of sovereign. That's hard. Furthermore, a clear majority of the citizens of a liberal democracy must actually believe in and practice the first principle of democracy, that all men are equal and endowed with unalienable rights -- rights which do not come from other men but from something much larger than any collection of mortal human beings. To get a majority to believe and practice this principle is incredibly hard. It requires the individual to exercise what is perhaps the hardest responsibility humans have ever known -- to see all other individuals as equally human, and just as importantly, to hold themselves to the same standards they demand of their fellows. That's real responsibility, and it's very, very hard.
One of the reasons liberal democracy is so hard is that it's a purely intellectual construct that goes against the grain of much of our fundamental nature. As a species we existed in the realm of tribal groupings for nearly all of the last quarter-million years, just as our pre-human ancestors did for 5-7 million years before that. Throughout all of that time humans were tribal members first and foremost, and their individuality was largely moot. The tribe was all important, and members of the tribe were replaceable cogs. It's actually a good system, and it stood the test of time, at least in the sense that it allowed the species to survive.
When it came time to build civilization, however, tribes had to amalgamate and become cooperative societies. The core of our human nature remained tribal; it's wired into our DNA and it'll take more than a paltry few thousand years to change that fact. But the new and improved thinking part of our human brains learned how to plan and cooperate and do the hard thing today in anticipation of having a more assured and perhaps better existence next year, and next generation, and next century, and so on.
As civilization developed there were countless fits and starts. Mankind was challenged and nearly smashed time after time. Our planet can be a very harsh and unforgiving place to live. Apart from natural, external challenges, civilization has been torn asunder from within as well. Time and time again, great societies rose and fell. In many cases the rot set in in the form of a return to tribalism. Societies divided themselves into groups and the groups went at it hammer and tongs until all that remained was bitter ash and legend.
The rise of liberal democracy coincided with intellectual enlightenment. From the Renaissance through the industrial revolution through the ongoing scientific and information revolutions liberal democracy has been a key driver and player. Whether this is coincidence or not isn't yet provable, but it is certainly the case that the lot of humankind has improved massively by every single metric since liberal democracy came on the scene.
Today, in 2017, we seem to find ourselves at a crossroads. There are great tribal movements afoot across civilization. How will it all play out?
Your guess is as good as mine.
My personal conviction is that civilization is in for a rough time if individual humans do not maintain the sovereignty of their individuality and their independent intellectual development.
Those of us who are blessed to live in this wondrous time have, in my opinion, an absolute responsibility to live and practice the first principle and to behave as civilized men.
But that's just me.