The Mystery at the Heart of the Human World

This piece appeared in newspapers as an op/ed in September, 2021.

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My whole adult life has been spent trying to understand the forces that shape the human world

Understanding those forces seems to me of urgent importance for two main reasons:

1) The first is that – clearly — something problematic is going on in our human civilization. I’d say that’s supported by the general sense among thinking people that there’s a serious possibility that – over the coming several centuries — human civilization could destroy itself.

(My gut feeling: the chances for the self-destruction of civilization are a coin toss– roughly a 50-50 proposition.)

We are compelled to recognize the possibility that the human story will culminate in self-destruction in view of the fact that, within just the time-span of living memory, we have witnessed two ways that the great growth of human powers threatens such catastrophe:

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 demonstrated the real possibility that we might destroy ourselves through a nuclear holocaust. Although that showdown ended peacefully, it is widely understood that the two superpowers came close to plunging into a nuclear war that likely would have meant the end of human civilization. In the current international system, other such confrontations can be anticipated—and probability theory tells us that, given enough repetitions, what can happen eventually will happen.
  • Environmental destruction is another visible way we might destroy ourselves– a possibility that grows ever more palpable before our eyes, as we watch the escalation of climatic disasters — unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires, droughts and flooding — as a result of humankind destabilizing the planet’s climate system.

If you grant that real possibility of self-destruction, you’ve got to agree that there’s something seriously amiss with how the human world functions.

And can there be anything that should motivate us more powerfully than the possibility that the story of humankind will culminate in the destruction or at least significant damage to all we hold sacred? Motivate us, in order to protect our deepest values, to understand this this destructiveness and how it might be stripped of its power in our world?

2) That need for understanding is all the more urgent because it is clear (to me, at any rate) that our current understanding – of ourselves, and of why the story of human civilization has so much destructiveness in it – is dangerously mistaken.

Many people, over the millennia, have jumped to what seemed to them an obvious conclusion: the ugliness we see in the civilized human world must surely prove how fundamentally flawed our human nature is. (Ideas of “original sin” and “human depravity” capture how deeply that self-condemnatory image runs in our culture.)

That conclusion — that the reason for so much strife, tyranny, and cruelty in human history must lie in human nature  — seems unavoidable to those people who believe that the whole must be just the some of its parts. “What else could it be?” they would ask.

But systems very often have dynamics that arise independently out of the properties of the system, and are not a function of the nature of the parts. And here’s what seems to me a powerful clue that something like that – a force generated by the system – has been operating:

Imagine one surveyed people, asking what kind of world they would like to live in, giving them a choice of various dichotomies: one at war, or one at peace; one permeated with injustices, or one that is fair to all; one fueled by hatreds, or one shaped by love; one in which cruelties are inflicted, or one in which kindness governs human interaction; one that frustrates human needs, or one that fosters human fulfillment.

Wouldn’t the vast majority of people say – with real sincerity –they’d prefer a world that’s full of love and not hate, that’s kind and not cruel, peaceful and not filled with conflict, just and not unjust, etc.?

That reveals a great mystery at the heart of the human world—a mystery we would do well to ponder: Why is it that – despite nearly everyone preferring one kind of world – the actual world that has emerged through history has contained so much of what the great majority of humankind don’t want?

Doesn’t it make sense to imagine that if we human beings – throughout the course of the human story — had been in a position to freely choose what path human civilization would take, our world would be quite different? I.e. that the human world would far more fully realize those values (peace, justice, love) that we credibly claim to hold?

Doesn’t that fact – that the civilization that we see in history differs so strongly from the world we humans would prefer – constitute clear evidence that the human world has been powerfully shaped by forces independent of human preference? Is that not evidence, in other words, that “free human choice” has long been – in many profound ways — overwhelmed by systemic forces?

Showing how such destructive forces arose, and how they’ve operated – moving through civilized societies over time — is what my life’s work has been devoted to.

—————–

Andy Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution and of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It.

If you grant that real possibility of self-destruction, you’ve got to agree that there’s something seriously amiss with how the human world functions.

And what should motivate us more powerfully than the possibility that the story of humankind will culminate in the destruction or at least significant damage to all we hold sacred? Motivate us to want to understand this this destructiveness and how it might be stripped of its power in our world.

2) That need for understanding is all the more urgent because it is clear (to me, at any rate) that our current understanding – of ourselves, and of why the story of human civilization has so much destructiveness in it – is dangerously mistaken.

Many people, over the millennia, have jumped to what seemed to them an obvious conclusion: the ugliness we see in the civilized human world must surely prove how fundamentally flawed our human nature is. (Ideas of “original sin” and “human depravity” capture how deeply that self-condemnatory image runs in our culture.)

That conclusion — that the reason for so much strife, tyranny, and cruelty in human history must lie in human nature  — seems unavoidable to those people who believe that the whole must be just the some of its parts. “What else could it be?” they would ask.

But systems very often have dynamics that arise independently out of the properties of the system, and are not a function of the nature of the parts. And here’s what seems to me a powerful clue that something like that – a force generated by the system – has been operating:

Imagine one surveyed people, asking what kind of world they would like to live in, giving them a choice of various dichotomies: one at war, or one at peace; one permeated with injustices, or one that is fair to all; one fueled by hatreds, or one shaped by love; one in which cruelties are inflicted, or one in which kindness governs human interaction; one that frustrates human needs, or one that fosters human fulfillment.

Wouldn’t the vast majority of people say – with real sincerity – they’d prefer a world that’s full of love and not hate, that’s kind and not cruel, peaceful and not filled with conflict, just and not unjust, etc.?

That reveals a great mystery at the heart of the human world—a mystery we would do well to ponder: Why is it that – despite nearly everyone preferring one kind of world – the actual world that has emerged through history has contained so much of what the great majority of humankind don’t want?

Doesn’t it make sense to imagine that if we human beings – throughout the course of the human story — had been in a position to freely choose what path human civilization would take, our world would be quite different? I.e. that the human world would far more fully realize those values (peace, justice, love) that we credibly claim to hold?

Doesn’t that fact – that the civilization that we see in history differs so strongly from the world we humans would prefer – constitute clear evidence that the human world has been powerfully shaped by forces independent of human preference? Is that not evidence, in other words, that “free human choice” has long been – in many profound ways — overwhelmed by systemic forces?

Showing how such destructive forces arose, and how they’ve operated – moving through civilized societies over time — is what my life’s work has been devoted to.

—————–

Andy Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution and of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It.

Understanding those forces seems to me of urgent importance for two main reasons:

1) The first is that – clearly — something problematic is going on in the human civilization.

That something is seriously “problematic” should be evident, given the general sense that there’s a serious possibility that – over the coming several centuries — human civilization could destroy itself.

(My own gut feeling is that the chances for the self-destruction of civilization in the coming centuries is a coin toss, a 50-50 proposition.)

It should be evident that there’s a real possibility that the story of human civilization will culminate in self-destruction in view of the fact that, within just the time-span of living memory, we have witnessed two ways that the growth of human powers threatens such a catastrophic outcome:

  • The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 demonstrated the real possibility that we might destroy ourselves through a nuclear holocaust. Although that showdown ended peacefully, it is widely understood that the two superpowers came close to plunging into a nuclear war that likely would have meant the end of human civilization. In the current international system, other such confrontations can be anticipated—and probability theory tells us that, given enough repetitions, what can happen eventually will happen.
  • Environmental destruction is another visible way we might destroy ourselves– a possibility that grows ever more palpable before our eyes, as we watch the escalation of climatic disasters —
    unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires, droughts and flooding — as a result of humankind destabilizing the planet’s climate system.
  • through environmental destruction is a possibility growing ever more real before our eyes these days, as we absorb the repeated news of – i.e. increasingly destructive extreme weather due to our destabilization of the planet’s climate system. All demonstrating how the increasing power of our civilization has grown to the point where it can wreak profound damage on the biosphere (on which we inevitably depend for our lives).

Clearly, that real possibility of self-destruction constitutes sufficient proof that something is importantly amiss with how the human world functions.

And the possibility that the story of humankind will culminate in the destruction (or at least significant damage) to all we hold sacred, should move us to inquire how that problem is to be understood, and then how it might be solved (or at least greatly reduced).

2) Which leads to the second reason I regard it as urgent that we understand the forces at work in our world: that it seems clear to me that we have not well understood either ourselves as a species or why the story of human civilization has entailed so much torment and destruction.

Over the millennia, it has seemed obvious to many that the explanation for the ugliness we see in the civilized human world must be a reflection of how fundamentally flawed is our nature as creatures. (Ideas of “original sin” and “human depravity” capture that self-condemnatory image that runs deep in our culture.)

To those people who believe that the whole must be just the some of its parts, it seems a necessary conclusion that the reason for so much strife, tyranny, and cruelty in human history must lie in human nature. “What else could it be?” they would ask.

But systems very often have properties and dynamics that arise at the level of the system, and are not a function of the nature of the parts. And here’s what seems to me a powerful clue that – for human beings living over the millennia in civilized societies – something like that is going on.

Imagine one surveyed people, asking them what kind of world they would like to live in, giving them a choice of various dichotomies: one at war, or one at peace; one permeated with injustices, or one that is fair to all; one fueled by hatreds, or one shaped by love; one in which cruelties are inflicted, or one in which kindness governs human interaction; one that frustrates human needs, or one that fosters human fulfillment.

Wouldn’t the vast majority of people say – and say it with real sincerity – that they’d prefer a world that’s full of love and not hate, that’s kind and not cruel, peaceful and not filled with conflict, just and not unjust, etc.?

Therein lies a great mystery at the heart of the human world—a mystery we would do well to ponder: Why is it that when just about everybody would prefer one kind of world, the one that emerged in history contains so much of what the great majority of us don’t want?

Doesn’t it make sense to imagine that if we human beings – throughout the course of the human story — had been in a position to freely choose what path human civilization would take, our world would be quite different? I.e. that the human world would far more fully realize those values (peace, justice, love) that we claim to hold?

Doesn’t that fact – that the civilization that we see in history differs so strongly from the world we humans would prefer – constitute clear evidence that the human world has been shaped by forces that are independent of human preference? Evidence, in other words, that “free human choice” has long been – in many profound ways — overwhelmed by systemic forces?

Showing how such destructive forces arose, and how they’ve operated – moving through civilized societies over time — is what my life’s work has been devoted to.

—————–

Andy Schmookler is the author of The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution and of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It.

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