If only similar patterns and laws could be worked out for human nature! Might we be able to construct an ideal society? One well-suited to decent living by all?
Many thinkers about human nature have operated on assumptions that people ought, logically, to behave in certain ways. Freud based it all on early sexual trauma and repression, Marx on the notion that humans naturally make decisions based on rational, satiable self-interest, while Machiavelli worked out his scenarios assuming all humans interact through power relationships and domination. All are a priori assumptions, based on limited (and personally biased) observations of people and society, rather than any verified and fundamental discovery about human nature. Each writer was able to "prove" his point with copious anecdotal evidence. But, as Ronald Reagan showed us, anecdotes prove nothing about generalities, only about possibilities.
THE RELEVANCE OF EVOLUTION
Isn’t it strange that few social theorists – from socialist to libertarian – ever cite this long epoch, when humans were few, but when a vast majority of human generations suffered darwinnowing pressures, thriving or dying according to their fitness to meet challenges in a harsh world, unprotected by the houses and markets of the last 5,000 years? (I am qualified to speak here, as a peer-published author in the field of sociobiology.)
So, what might tribalism tell us about human nature, that was missed by Marx and Freud and Rand and all the others, with their post-literacy myopia? What traits seem to be shared BOTH by tribal and “civilized” societies? Are there any deep, ongoing themes?
Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation, has overwhelmed what might otherwise have seemed to be the individual's self-interest. Nor should this be surprising, since, for most of the last million years, human beings lived in clans. Any man or woman who lost the faith and confidence of his or her tribe was in great danger. Often effectively dead.
This can be taken out of the realm of abstraction and brought close to home. Try to imagine your own childhood. (Or ask any kid between the ages of ten and nineteen.) Picture how urgently you needed the approval of a small group of friends. (A group coincidentally (?) about the same size as a prototypical Cro-Magnon tribal band.) Picture how it would have felt at that age to have all your pals suddenly turn on you, rejecting you, turning you out into the cold.
Sure this happens all the time, and parents tell their kids -- "Don't worry, you'll make new friends."
At one level, that of the rational pre-frontal lobes, we know this to be true. And yet, this hardly helps. Even if a kid knows abstractly that there are plenty of opportunities, and this should not matter much, his or her gut still wrenches, as if life were on the line... which it would have been, back in the old days, if the tribe ejected you from its circle of comradeship. (Need any other explanation for the inherent conservatism of most human tribal societies, indeed, nearly all societies of any kind?)
Human beings can be very flexible defining what is "my tribe." More often than not, the major determining factor is fear.
AND NOW THE KEY POINT: OUR HORIZONS OF WORRY AND HOPE
When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.
the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger.
Anthropologically speaking, it is "murder" to kill that which is fellow tribesman or citizen (someone identified as inside the tribal horizon). In contrast, it is not murder to kill that which is inherently outside the tribal horizon. (For a cinematic allegory, recall the film "Little Big Man" in which the Cheyenne call themselves the "human beings". And that film was pro-Native American!)
My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance -- in terms of space, time and kinship -- of the "horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.
These horizons come in several varieties.
1) There is a "Worry Horizon"... what threats concern you and your neighbors. Here we see that worry is quite a different thing than Fear! The average modern American probably worries as much or more than tribal peoples did! Worry will never go away since it seems embedded into our nature. If immediate needs and threats are dissipated, that only shifts the locus of worry somewhere else, depending to some extent on individual personality. But fear is another matter. Fear controls what it is that we are worrying about.
2) There is also a “Time Horizon” having to do with how far into the future you devote your attention – either in dealing with threats or seeking opportunities. If your children are starving, you are more concerned with the next meal than with the next harvest. If the harvest looks okay, you turn your thoughts to longer range matters. Storage, trade, capital improvements… or whether slow loss of topsoil may affect your heirs 200 years from now.
3) Another horizon might be called the "Otherness Horizon” - where one looks not for danger but for opportunities, adventures, new allies, new mating partners. This is also, in anthropological circles, discussed in the rubric of "exogamy". (Clearly, this is one of the roots of science fiction!) This could also be called the “Horizon of Inclusion” since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy negotiating partners, and wher you draw the line, calling others foes.
What seems clear, examining historical records and a broad range of cultures, is that all of these horizons expand and contract in the manner described above. The amount of worry may remain relatively inelastic. But the topic of worry changes dramatically and flexibly. Yes, the horizon distance can be affected partly by cultural memes and personality. But overall, these horizons seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear.
OUR FAVORED (OR WEIRD) MODERN PERSPECTIVE
By these lights, most contemporary Americans live in an unprecedented society, where the vast majority of families have not known starvation or even significant want for so many generations that those kinds of fear are almost abstractions.
This, in turn, has allowed traditional tribal bounds to relax and spread so far that "tolerance" and "otherness" are words of totemic power in this culture! Indeed, it is interesting to view the expanding circle of citizenship and inclusion as first the American colonies and then the Republic began experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity and fear-reduction. The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism…) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set… then wrestle with the next stage of the process. Continuing the widening of the circle.
While horrific injustices remain, and substantial fractions of the population appear unwilling to let go of their prejudices, there is at least as large a portion of citizenry which seems eager to extend the trend of expanding inclusion and empowerment farther still.
Yes, fashionable horizon/inclusion issues can cause fluctuation at the boundaries. Note how nationalist patriotism was considered an archaic and rather quaint viewpoint in recent years, until an uptick in fear after 9/11 caused a partial contraction of horizons for many. Suddenly, flags were all the rage.
And yet, it is a sign of this culture’s deeper confidence that our horizons of inclusion have not appreciably contracted. Today we give a kind of culturally-based honorary citizenship to dolphins and consider it murder to kill as alien a creature as a whale. Science fiction thrives in such a culture, since it brashly extends horizons in both time and space as far as human imagination can take us. The threat horizon is occupied by vicious invader-aliens and the exogamy horizon by beautiful ones... or else cuddly ones that merit nurturing protection from our own, freely-elected government!
It is important to note, of course, that such charts can only give a rough average. Within any culture there will be many individuals whose fear levels - or personal way of responding to fear - are quite different from the surrounding norm. Indeed, these differences are what we tend to notice from day to day. Certainly Timothy McVeigh had very different concepts of "inclusion horizons" than many of the fellow citizens he slew.
Indeed, might one diagnose some recent phenomena in these terms? Why is it that citizens of New York and Washington DC – direct victims of 9/11 terrorism – remain utterly “blue state” in their fealty to expanded horizons – in time, threat and inclusion – while “red state” attitudes (perhaps oversimplifying) seem to draw closer in: e.g. higher enmity toward non-natives and immigrants, less concern about environmental degradation, more concern over “war” on terror, less interest in science and more in a pending end of the world?
Is this model the best one, yet, at explaining such differences? Certainly it is far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.”
Also, different cultures will react to prosperity and peace in markedly different ways. I believe it will take many generations of peace before the deeply ingrained Russian proclivity toward paranoia and pessimistic gloom will be forced to give way to a cheerier mien. Likewise, so long as most children in the Middle East are raised with fairy tales that preach revenge as a high human value, horizon-widening will at best be a jerky process. (Skim 1001 Arabian Nights and tally the few tales that DON'T involve revenge. Indeed, much the same can be said of older western myths, collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. The counter-push by tolerance messages - e.g. Sesame Street - is recent!)
An interesting side issue: what happens when fear goes to zero? Do we get infinite horizons? I suspect that there is more than a little religious writing on this subject. Indeed, might this be the purely detached compassion that is written about in Buddhism? Is it one of many traits we must achieve, before deserving to become apprentices in the Workshop of Creation?
CAN WE KEEP WIDENING HORIZONS?
No mistake, I approve of this trend toward ever-widening horizons. (Which may be the deep underpinning of science fiction, by the way.) Indeed, like millions of others, I am impatient for it to go much farther. It is ironic, though, how few seem to realize that the new era of Omni-Inclusion is based upon prosperity and lack of fear brought on by prosperity, and that our morality of universal tolerance would have been considered terminally sappy and dangerous by every other culture in human history.
This is – in my view – the deepest smug insanity of the left. Yes, the “right” obviously suffers from shorter horizons. That is their dire craziness. But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply ASSUME, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent. One that is based upon unprecedented levels of wealth and satiation. Indeed, were they to preach this doctrine of hyper-tolerance to ANY of the ancient “wise tribes” that they so revere, they would have been laughed out of camp!
Indeed, can this process be pathological at some level? Jason Cawley wrote: "There is such a thing, comical as it sounds, as a Gaia Liberation Front. They have decided that mankind is dangerous to life on Earth. They have given up on warnings preventing eco-catastrophe, have passed the stage of welcoming die-backs to hunter-gatherer existence, have realized that capitalistic assaults on nature are a programmed possibility of man, revealing therefore man as a form of cancer within life, and have decided this applies even to "indigenous peoples" because they might develop technology someday. Because of that whole chain, they have decided that mankind must be wiped out before life is. They only debate how to do it. The public relations position is voluntary mass suicide, but among themselves they are more direct and pin their hopes on an engineered virus, airborne and lethal to humans, which they propose to make before anyone else learns and uses enough biotech to screw up the planet."
On the other hand, if one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense. Face it. Rousseau was a sap. All of this is about Locke. The sooner the “wide-horizons” people realize it, the more effective they will be at pursuing their agenda, of widening horizons ever farther!
liberalism in the older and truer meaning of the word. It is utterly compatible with the four accountability arenas, for example (science, markets, democracy, courts… and the candidate for becoming a fifth arena – the internet. For example, markets work best when competition is both encouraged and tamed… when it operates under rules of fair play that maximize creativity and minimize blood-on-the-floor. This can only happen when market participants must treat each other as competing teams, not deadly foes.
Indeed, one of the major outgrowths of our unprecedented experiment in universal citizenship has been a fundamental change in the shape of the modern social structure. Society as diamond, and not pyramid, is partly a product of technology (making a new class of slaves called "machines", to occupy the lowermost tier), but also a result of having trained several generations of children to think in terms of non-zero sum games. But more on that anon.
Hence, once again, we see that this is not a matter best handled on a left-right basis. Both dogmatic extremes ignore history and are effectively quite mad! One side resists the widening of horizons while the other would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.
Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency, while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition within the tent!
The crucial issue is this - can the long process of expanding human horizons be studied in order to determine crucial narrow points and bottlenecks that inhibit horizon broadening, among both individuals and cultures?
If such bottlenecks can be found and diagnosed, might a judicious application of philanthropic funding help unblock the process, here and overseas, so that both tolerance and far-seeing investment practices take greater hold?
(part of an ongoing series aimed at a nonfiction book about humanity and the future… if I can ever interest a publisher...)