Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No respect

Another way that the mismatch between our genetic expectations and civilization manifests is in the lack of consistency between our inborn tendencies regarding dominance and submission and the machine’s artificially-imposed hierarchy and demand for obedience to arbitrary authority. 

All social primates show some degree of social stratification according to dominance.  For humans, nature divides dominance among a variety of context-dependent categories, physical strength, prior experience, personality, and natural leadership ability, for example.  Civilization partitions dominance additionally according to mechanical role in the hierarchy, sometimes in a way that overlaps with natural categories, as when a person with a personality predisposed to leadership is assigned a dominant role.  Frequently, however, the match among natural leanings, assigned role, and context do not comprise a coherent package. 

Consider in this context the phrase, “Have respect for authority.”  This common parental admonition is an example of how reification can be used to take an existing psychological tendency, in this case a natural sensitivity to dominance relationships among individuals, and yoke it to a mechanical requisite of civilization, in this case, the need to coordinate with an artificial power hierarchy.  Authority is not the kind of thing that could possibly be the target of the cluster of psychological postures that are subsumed by the word respect.  You can respect individual people who hold a position of authority, but the only possible responses to authority itself are obedience and compliance.

And, of course, their opposites.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Blame it on evolution

Here is a piece that looks at the relationship between the environmental crisis and human psychology: The Human Nature of Unsustainability.  The main premise of the article is that human evolution is at least partially to blame for the destruction of the biosphere.  Natural selection as hunter-gatherers has endowed us with certain predilections that, while quite adaptive in the Pleistocene, are not working out so well for us today.  Specifically, it turns out that our evolved environmentally-hostile tendencies are being reinforced by our modern “technological prowess and addiction to continuous material growth.”

I’ve seen this before: the underlying message is that the damage caused by modern industrial civilization is an emergent property of human nature.  We can’t help ourselves.  It’s just part of who we are as a species.  Termites build termite mounds, humans build planet-devouring civilizations.

Our unsustainable global situation, according to the author, is a result of growth-oriented economic views that are enhancing our evolved expansionist drives: “The entire world today is in the thrall of a particularly powerful ‘meme complex’ whose effect is to reinforce humanity’s K-selected expansionist tendencies.  The global community shares a socially constructed vision of global development and poverty alleviation centered on unlimited economic expansion fueled by open markets and more idealized trade.  This growth-oriented mythic construct has shaped the lives of more people than any other cultural narrative in all of history.”

There’s no denying that.  But even ignoring his reification of “global community,” this “meme complex” has attained dominance only because other memes have been systematically annihilated through 10,000 years of conquest and genocide.   And it has to be continually “reinforced” and maintained through the regular application of violence and massive doses of oppression.  This “shared vision,” to the extent that there is such a creature, is not an emergent property of our evolved human nature, and would very quickly evaporate if members of the global community were left to pursue life on their own terms.   

To add insult to injury, the author doesn’t even get evolution right: “Part of the reason [for the unsustainable nature of civilization] is the incomplete evolution of human consciousness—Homo sapiens is very much a work in progress.”  Apparently we are only half-baked, and as a result we are a “conflicted species” because our consciousness has not fully integrated our instinctual emotional drives with our rational moral sense.   

I thought the New Age went extinct in the early 90’s.

The author is clearly right in claiming that part of our problem is the dramatic mismatch between our evolved psychology and the urban-industrial lifestyles that are currently being forced on us.  But he is wrong in blaming evolution for the planet-wide destruction caused by the machinations of global civilization.  Global industrial civilization is not an emergent property of our biology.  Industrial civilization is an unlikely and unpredictable outcome of very specific historical circumstances (a Black Swan).
He ends the article in an all-too predictable way by suggesting that the solution to the problem of civilization is to apply more technology: “All the world community needs is a commitment to a collective solution, unprecedented political will, and the creative engagement of communication technologies!” and then we will be able to “socially reengineer ourselves.”

We have the power to repair our evolutionary defects through collective commitment and an unprecedented act of political will (read: massive centralized power and control), and the obvious first step is to friend each other on Facebook.