The Myth of a Constant Humanity

Reading through the pages of National Geographic and archaeology books as a kid.  I would often encounter passages that asserted human beings had been more less unchanged as a species since the rise of Homo sapiens.  The line was drawn somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Geologically an instant ago, historically too long ago to touch off debates about present day peoples.  At the time I sucked up all this information, not putting any thought into this proposition.

Most every book or publication I read as a kid asserted that there are no significant biological differences between different groups of human being.  Because all populations of humans are easily capable of interbreeding all are assumed to be more or less equivalent across the ages.

When I read through my first books on ancient history and mythology, writers always went out of their way to point out that people thousands of years ago in lands far away were having the same thoughts and issues that we do today.  Part of the intent was to make ancient history seem more immediate to young readers.  Another, now obvious subtext was the idea: humanity is constant across time and place.

Years later as an adult, I was reading about game theory and the co-existence of different survival strategies in the male populations of various species.  Our initial supposition might be that a single most successful strategy would outcompete all others.  Such is not the case.  Instead, all strategies settle into a Nash equilibrium and coexist.  A common pattern in species is to have a protector male and a seducer male.  The protector’s strategy is to gain dominion over a harem and then stand guard.  He is the manly man.  In many species, the sneaky seducer male is hard to tell apart from females so he can blend in.  The seducer male infiltrates the harems assembled by the manly men.  In this system, there’s an optimum ratio of the population that could be composed of manly men and an optimum ratio for girly men.  If there’s too many harem makers, it’s a field day for the seducers.  If there’s too many seducers, there’s not enough dupes holding on to harems.

Humans are most definitely a species in which we observe a wide variety of survival and reproduction strategies.  As conditions have changed for the human species, a different set of individuals succeeds in reproducing.  While many traits of humanity are universal, their distribution and degree varies widely across populations separated by time and/or place. At our present accelerated rate of social and technological change, the selectors for fitness are also constantly changing.  We can therefore assume that the composition of the human race has the potential to change radically with every generation.  Every generation is a new human race.  Our lifetimes decide what the human race will become…

We can derive through common sense that every isolated human population has selected for unique distributions of traits or even combinations of universal traits that result in new, unique attributes.

Politically correct wisdom insists it takes millions of years for any significant differences to arise between populations.  Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case with other animals.  A Russian geneticist named Belyaev managed to breed wild foxes into domesticated animals within a short time.  The wild ancestors of barely a decade ago would snap and growl at any human that came near them.  The descendants on the other hand exhibited all the traits we associate with domesticated dogs.  They wagged their tails, barked, and were receptive to human body language.  Amazingly, they also developed the patched and multi-colored coats we associate with domesticated dogs.  One trait(tameness) when strongly selected for resulted in many unintended changes in linked traits.  Based on this result, one could anticipate an extensive degree of variation between isolated human populations.

If wild dogs can be turned into domesticated dogs within several generations, it makes no sense to suppose that isolated human populations exposed to varying stresses for thousands of years would be the same.

When it comes to human beings, it’s not just the body that is bound to show a great deal of variation but also the mind.

Living as skilled urban professionals for centuries produced the Ashkenazi Jews and the Parsees, both groups known for superior skills in logic and reasoning.

Millennia of wilderness survival produced the Australian Aborigines, a population with a poor aptitude for logic skills but with a highly developed intuitive/pre-conscious mind.  They are able to easily enter into trance and meditative states.  They also have an ability to sense magnetic fields that is vestigial at best in other human populations.

The assumption that human traits are constant across place and population fails to bear up against the least bit of scrutiny.  The idea of human uniformity is unfortunately the only view we will ever see espoused within the bounds of political correctness.  We can expect it will stay that way for the time being because an entire card house of beliefs and values has been built on this shaky foundation.

Why The Hippies Failed: The Futility of Cultural Rebellion in the 60’s and the 70’s

The years of rebellion.  Of challenging authority.  Of unrest and desire for change.

All these copious energies didn’t succeed in pushing their society towards change.  In fact, they dutifully pushed the pendulum one way for a little while and then let it go.

This period is seen in retrospect as a time for new ideas, yet nearly every movement or faction was at most pseudo-intellectual.  ‘Original’ ‘ideologies’, were advertised with catchy slogans:  “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Then what!?

“Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

What happens when you turn 30 and have attachments to established ideas?

Many period organizations flaunted their activism, their ‘deep’ and radical thinking, their protests, their new styles of dress or public nudity.

There was constant display and drama, but the failure of the many rebellion cultures was their almost unanimous lack of a complete and compelling ideology.  Seemingly every group was wrapped up merely in the thrill of breaking rules.

No one seems to have really honestly thought about a world where the rules were broken for good.  Beyond fuzzy notions of a final triumph of love, peace, and freedom there was utter vacuum.  To the extent that there was any thought at all, they seemed to believe that world and its problems would be solved with new hairstyles and hip catchphrases.

The aversion expressed towards persons over 30 was indicative of the mood.  No coherent idea of a future existed.  A group of young people embraced a widespread fantasy that they could be rebels living forever in the first glamorous party days after the revolution.

No one was seriously asking:

-What happens after our revolution has succeeded?

-What happens after our rules become the new establishment?

-Are we the first people to live in small groups of co-dependent members?  If not, why would it result in a society of pure love this time if it didn’t succeed before?

-When societies go through a change in leadership, existing hierarchies re-establish themselves. Why would the final triumph of our movement be any different?

-Doesn’t it take more than drugs and slogans to hold together a society for any length of time?  Does our vision produce a society better than the previous one?  If so, why?

From thinkers such as Aldous Huxley came the idea of using hallucinatory drugs used by tribal shamans around the world to achieve personal enlightenment.  The counterculture embraced these ideas in theory, but the reality was one of far less thought and imagination.  The drugs were much more a means of self-indulgence and social defiance than self discovery.  They were another way of fitting in with the counterculture along with the costumes and the music.  They had shock value in the orthodox culture and therefore the ability to get much desired attention.  Ultimately, the sacred drugs of the shamans joined the canon of party drugs.

The hippies are a prime example of the shallowness and banality of social defiance for its own sake.  If one fails to move beyond breaking the existing rules they are still very much a part of the system they denounce.  It is the rules of their society that define them and give them meaning.  They need the accepted order to give them recognition as outsiders and make them into celebrities.  Success in overthrowing the orthodoxy would destroy them.  So they are limited to making loud noises before they eventually retire to a life of obedience.  Having vented their youthful passions in futility, they are ultimately more docile than previous generations.

The shallow thought, the lack of a concept of future, the absence of a coherent grounding ideology meant the 60s and 70s counterculture more resembled a child running away from home for a few days rather than a serious attempt to leave home and start anew.

The case of the hippies teaches us that undertaking social protest with a mob mentality is a way to become a mere cyclical fluctuation of the quotidian.  A blip on the graph of society.  A simple swing of the pendulum.  A force soon nullified by exhausting itself and by instigating an opposite reaction.  Indeed, the hippies in their recklessness did much to discredit criticism of the orthodoxy for decades to come.

Someone who would really bring change has a responsibility to move beyond platitudes and demagoguery.  To create a true philosophical foundation for a new order.  To study past upheavals and plan for all the setbacks, excesses, and downfalls.  To figure out why predecessors failed.  To know why their system is better after the revolution.

A shallow ‘rebel’ lives in the present and dies after the day of revolution.  A true rebel thinks first of the world after rebellion and constantly asks, “Is this world truly better than the one we have now?”

Extreme Competition Reduces Adaptability

Builds Upon: Introverts vs. Extroverts: Survival of the Fittest

Once, I read the words of a writer who likened our society to an impressive body builder:  stronger and more intimidating than anybody else but loaded with metabolically expensive muscle mass and lacking any fat to support it.  Simultaneously unstoppable yet unable to so much as sustain itself.  A goner if a constant supply of nourishment were cut off even for a moment…

There are lots of advantages to being a hyper-competitive society, but in the modern era such an intensely burning society runs the risk of burning out while any lesser flames it failed to extinguish burn on indefinitely.

The definition of fitness changes yet our civilization is not very adaptable to environmental stresses.  Our major cities can’t be moved.  The slightest lapse in transportation and supply results in shortage.  Any lapse in constant expansion results in crisis…

Ancient Rome was a highly competitive society dependent on constant expansion.  When expansion stagnated, so did the Empire.  The economy was dependent on the constant influx of slave labor.  No conquest=No slaves=Crisis and decline.  Without enough new riches from conquest, military men plundered their own government.  Like a starving human body, it began to consume its own muscle tissue.  Their system proved unable to adapt precisely because it was competitive and therefore dependent on expansion.

Ultimately ancient Rome was like a flightless peacock.  The male’s huge fan is the result of generations of competitiveness. Yet, not only does growing the tail require a huge amount of energy, it is unable to escape a predator that would be harmless to drab and normal birds.

Hadrian’s Error

There was once a Roman emperor named Hadrian.  He ruled over the Roman Empire near its peak and went down in history as a gifted administrator and prolific builder.  He had the good sense to consolidate the gains of his huge empire rather than overextend it.  He is usually portrayed as a good emperor but rarely as a great one.

Once, as I was wandering around the basement of my University’s library, I found a book by a historian who addressed history’s judgment of Hadrian.  He portrayed Hadrian as a particularly able bureaucrat, but lacking in strong personal convictions and ability to inspire people.  He worked tirelessly to improve the system while having scarcely any sense of what it all stood for.  I doubted the historian could be so certain that Hadrian was as he described, but this opinion stuck with me.

The lesson was clear.

Progress, improvement, efficiency for its own sake is hollow.

Domitian’s Error

I once heard the story of a Roman Emperor named Domitian.  He was terrified of being assassinated.  He was so afraid that he polished the pillars of his palace so he might see the reflection of anyone attacking him from behind.  His fears caused him to act cruelly at the slightest instigation.  Everyone around him came to be treated as a potential traitor.  Sure enough, Domitian’s behavior began to create enemies all around him.  His obsession with deceit and betrayal gave rise to the very scenarios he most feared.  Soon, he actually was surrounded by people who plotted against him.  Finally, Domitian was assassinated.  His fears had driven him toward the object of his fear.

Thus the irony of a Domitian’s error:  our tendency to cause the problems we most wish to avoid by striving hard to avoid them.

The First Generation

Builds Upon: The Anthropology of Nerd Societies: The Formation of New Group Identities Within Industrial Civilization

Every generation in human history until now has had access to a large body of relevant information from the previous generation.  Now, in post-industrial societies, change is so rapid that the older generation can provide little in the way of skills and experiences that are meaningful to the young.  Add to that:

-Coherent extended families are oftentimes absent and there is also a high likelihood of growing up with just one parent or being traded back and forth between separated parents.  There are fewer sources of knowledge from the previous generation.

-Children spend their youths principally in schools being raised by one another rather than with their families.  Their role models become their contemporaries rather than their elders.  There is little desire or opportunity to reach for past knowledge.

-Children for the most part are no longer given critical survival skills by elders.  Since the time they have been able to walk, they have easily mastered technologies that confound their elders.  They have less reason than previous generations to absorb knowledge from elders.

-Both parents are constantly working.  And even when adults are in the home, they are usually sitting in front of the television.  There are few opportunities for cultural transmission to take place.  In fact, corporate advertising has more opportunity to form a child’s world concept than do any actual people.

-Indeed, a gigantic mass culture is shared by countless millions regardless of ethnic group or economic status.  This dynamic popular culture supercedes traditional cultures in importance.

The result as this trend grows larger, is that each subsequent generation grows up with less and less of an idea of past and tradition.  This a trend that only grows as each new set of parents has less to pass on than the last.  Knowledge passed through multiple generations eventually begins to disappear for good.

In short past, roots, and traditions are quickly fading from existence in post-modern societies.  Each new generation comes into the world as if it were the first generation in human history.  The result is a vacuum that mass culture tries to fill.  But a culture that is for everyone is for no one.  A critical need goes unmet.  Millions struggle with lack of identity and loneliness.

A vacuum cannot remain empty for long.  Systems tend to settle into equilibrium.  The birth of first generations, millions thrust into the world without a meaningful past or cultural identity will result in great searches.  Since these searches can yield nothing that is meaningful in the post-industrial world, invention must ensue.

If a group of children were to grow up without any input at all from a previous generation, they would have to make up a new language, a new culture, a new code of values, a new corpus of shared stories.  Everything would have to rebuilt from scratch, a new city would arise on top of old and forgotten ruins.

Today’s children will one day have to pursue exactly this approach.  In the absence of fertile soil to grow in, they will have to provide it for themselves.  They will inevitably reinvent history, culture, and even language and religion.

When civilization fails to civilize its children, the children must civilize themselves.  In a time when society is the largest it’s ever been, when every corner of the map has been accounted for, it still is not safe.  There is a new dark continent, a new outland from which waves of threatening unknown peoples come.  Ironically, a civilization that fails to transmit itself creates its own barbarians.