Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Contingent beings

Civilization is a historical artifact.  It is not a natural part of our genetic endowment.  Nor is it a logical or inevitable result—an emergent property—of human intellect.  The same is true of domestication more generally.   The fact that humans are capable of organizing their lives in this way, or more accurately that they acquiesce to having their lives organized in this way, does not make domestication a fundamental characteristic of human nature.  And the claim that domestication is a fundamental feature of what we are is on par with the claim that the internet is somehow a latent feature of our brain circuitry.

In short, for human beings, civilization is a contingent presence.  It doesn’t have to exist.  That is especially true for the present form in which civilization has taken, a form that is the result of countless improbable accidents of history and geography and climate.  Rewind the tape of human existence and let it play forward again from the beginning, and it is unlikely that it would happen again—or if it did, that it would happen in a similar way (my apologies to Steven Gould).

Unfortunately, what’s done is done, and we can’t simply back up to a more human and humane point in time. 

So what happens if we press fast forward…?

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