PART ONE: THE IDEALIZATION OF THE OTHER
There is a perennial topic that merits relentless attention, if this bitterly cynical first decade of the Third Millennium is ever to give way to a resurgent spirit of confident problem-solving.
Is modern civilization -- with its fermenting brew of technology, science, consumerism, production, trade, education, social mobility, egotism, extravagance and argumentation -- a worthwhile step along the road to something progressively better and wiser...
...or a mistaken wrong turn in human destiny? One that would be best corrected by a return to older and wiser ways?
Elsewhere, I have posed this as a fundamental question of our times, creating tension as a far deeper level than all of our superficial dogmas of politics and religion. See J.R.R. Tolkien vs. the Modern Age.
Now, on the intelligencia site “The Edge,” philosopher Steven Pinker has resumed his ongoing effort to debunk what may be one of the most pernicious of all ubiquitous romantic notions - one that is reflexively (though unnecessarily) associated with extremes of liberalism. (Indeed, we’ll see that it shares deep roots with the far more dangerous extremes of the far-right.)
I refer to the wholly-unsupported and ultimately unhelpful tenet that, in less politically-correct times, used to be called the theory of the noble savage. Or the widely-shared mythology that life was far more pacific and beneficent in non technological tribes, than it is in our own benighted, arrogant and self-indulgent age of commerce and machines.
“This doctrine -- the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood")."
"But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."
THE UNDERLYING DILEMMA
Pinker is not the only one speaking up about the mythos of Noble Native Peoples, which has become such a reflex cliche in so many Hollywood films that a counter-reformation was only to be expected. (Some critics -- like Pinker -- appear sincerely inquisitive and should not be conflated with those driven by political or social motives.)
My own memic contributions to this topic have been:
1) To set it all in a wider perspective, by appraising a mythology that is strangely similar. Among those engaged the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) -- from radio astronomers, their associates, to many thousands of supporters -- there appears to be a widely-shared and seldom-questioned assumption that altruism must be a universal trait among advanced extraterrestrial species.
This tenet of faith -- in the inherently pure motives of aliens who are seen as far more technologically adept than us -- may have a lot in common with the impulse that Pinker critiques. The drive to romanticize bucolic tribes who were less technologically endowed.
Indeed, the picture may be bigger than even Pinker realizes. I have suggested a common theme, under which some of the brightest members of western civilization have acquired a fascinating and somewhat paradoxical new habit -- perhaps an “emergent property” -- a reflex to extol the moral superiority of the other... the more different the better... a theme that I explore in my book Otherness.
2) To point out how much of this clash may be rooted far below the surface, in deep-down differences of personality. Between people who dwell on the comparative awfulness of contemporary civilization and those who nurse an equally alluring idealization -- perceiving our present stage as one of many along a generally rising trend.
Between those who see change as a lapse from eternal verities and those who invest hope in the possibility of rapid, positive-sum progress.
PROGRESS AS A DISSONANT IDEA
Let’s try to lay out this division in simple terms.
Do you believe in a basic improvability of human beings and human institutions?
Or, like so many, do you find talk of “improvement” worrisome, smacking of arrogant hubris on the part of a species -- and especially a (western) civilization -- that tries repeatedly -- and woefully -- to play God?
I contend that this contrast -- between those who see any Golden Age lying far away -- generally in the deep past -- and those who plant their idealized era in a gradually hand-built future -- goes much, much deeper than mere superficialities, like religious dogma. The split between “look-back” and “look-forward” worldviews may be so ingrained and psychological that it affects and alters perception itself.
Can people who are devoted to one fundamental, emotion-drenched viewpoint even notice evidence supporting the other, let alone engage their counterparts in useful discourse?
A hard lesson of the ages is that we humans are all subjectively biased... though science offers a few tools and habits that let us examine our biases, from time to time.
In this case, as we’ll see, some ironies seem to have emerged from the very best aspects of modern civilization. The very thing that we should most be proud of appears to prevent us from even noticing how very far we’ve come.
Next time: The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?