The following is how I will be beginning a series — and/or book — titled “The Fateful Step,” which describes the profound consequences of humankind’s taking the step — unprecedented in the history of life on earth — onto the path of Civilization. It demonstrates how any creature taking that step will inevitably — if also inadvertently — will unleash destructive forces that warp how that creature’s civilization will develop.
Every five years, the members of a given Harvard graduating class are invited to “speak” – in writing — to their classmates by sending in some statement to be published in a compendium of such statements (accompanying contact information, occupation, and family), that then will be sent as a bound book to every member of that class for whom the university has an address.
I am a member of the Class of ’67, and so our 55th Reunion is coming up. Which means all the members of the class have again been invited to write something for inclusion in a nice bound book that will be coming to us in a few months.
In my statements for these books, I’ve always tried to say something meaningful. But this time I found myself also playing it safe– feeling afraid to put myself out there one more time, since one generally gets nothing back, leaving one wondering how one’s statement was received.
Playing it safe, in this case, meant talking about my Heirloom Project, which explored what older generations pass along to those who come after. That question becomes meaningful when a Class – coming up to a 55th Reunion — reaches a stage of life where the end is a lot closer than it was when, as young men and women, we had been together. What I wrote seemed worth sharing, but I said nothing about myself.
I ran my proposed statement past my brother, asking what he thought of that offering for that reunion book. He replied that he’d have liked for me to be more self-revelatory, and in particular to bring in what he knew was going on with me about my life’s work, including the Big Idea that had launched me on the whole course my life has taken.
With that encouragement, I decided to take the risk of saying what’s most important to say about where I am in my life.
I began with this:
“I feel very fortunate in my life. The one major frustration: a sense of having failed to accomplish a crucial part of the mission I’ve pursued since I was 24.”
After describing a couple of major domains of life in which I feel fulfilled – marriage and creative work – I turned to describing that “failure, the Mission Unaccomplished”:
“In 1970, an insight into the story of humankind came to me with so great an impact that the whole course of my life immediately changed. Right then and there, I made a promise (I didn’t know to what) to do everything I could to convey what I’d seen to my fellow human beings—because it seemed clear to me that if that understanding were to become part of the consciousness of our civilization, it would have a beneficial impact.
“That idea made its public debut in 1984 in my first book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. That book made a bit of a splash for several years, so the idea got out there.
“But then something strange happened. I’ve had years to ponder this surprising combination, but it remains a puzzle:
- That book got published, making very bold assertions that, if true, would have profound implications for how we understand our history and ourselves;
- That picture of the human story got big enough play to make contact with the thinking world;
- But, somehow, that thinking world apparently did not feel obligated to either refute or accept those consequential claims;
- The result was that the idea – which had struck me so impactfully – pretty much disappeared within a decade, leaving no visible impact on the world, save in the minds of a scattered few.
“While I am probably stuck with that outcome, [I continued,] I’m not resigned to it because I still see how getting that understanding out into the world could conceivably help fortify us in the effort to steer toward a better human future.
“Previously, in my efforts, I’ve led with the central insight that hit me in 1970– demonstrating the inevitability that the breakthrough into civilization would generate a social evolutionary force that would drive human civilization to develop in directions not of human choosing (and in many ways contrary to human well-being). But these days, to highlight that asserted “beneficial impact,” I lead with two statements that follow necessarily from that central idea:
- The ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large. And
- Any creature, on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos, that takes the step that humankind took ten or so millennia ago onto the path toward civilization – extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life – will find itself swept up in the same social evolutionary processes that have made the development of human civilization as tormented and destructive as it has been.
“It has always seemed clear to me that, if such an understanding were to seep deeply into the Weltanschauung of our civilization, it could have important liberating effects. (For one thing, it would relieve us of the burden that we imbibe from our culture—a culture in which such concepts as “original sin” and “human depravity” have played such important roles over the centuries, and in which the declaration “That’s human nature” is almost always accompanied by pointing to bad behavior.)
“It would fortify our ability to steer our world in better directions for people to understand that we are better creatures than we have generally believed (and that, therefore, we are more capable of creating a more whole world than we’ve imagined).
“That “beneficial effect” might matter. It appears to me roughly a toss-up whether – over the next several centuries — human civilization will get its act together or whether our story will culminate in some self-inflicted catastrophe. (And for the long haul, it will be one or the other.)
“If that basic question –thrive or self-destruct — is anything like a toss-up, that could tip either way, then it follows that any beneficial contribution, any impact, could matter.
“So, I find myself, in my mid-70s, playing out the mission with the intensity of an NFL team late in the 4th quarter, refusing to accept defeat (though any other outcome looks like a long-shot), trying every avenue that might succeed, leaving it all on the field. Taking risks.”
That statement was the most meaningful thing I could say on that forum, assuming the purpose was to share where I am in my life. But I also recognized that, at the same time, this statement was an illustration of what it talked about – at the age of 75, my playing like an NFL team behind in the 4th quarter, striving to win (with winning defined as getting a Big Idea –along with others I’ve built upon it in the past half century — further out into the world before I die), determined to leave it all on the field.
The forum was not appropriate for presenting that Big Idea, but telling my story necessarily involved in pointing toward it.
And it was in the back of my mind that any classmate whose interest was piqued would be able to check it out.
- I’d mentioned the book – The Parable of the Tribes – which was the fruit of more than a decade of work to develop and articulate what I’d seen about the story of the civilization-creating animal. (And which remains in print with a good university press.)
- And any classmate that wanted to see what I was making a big deal about would see my website address, which gets included with the Reunion book’s furnishing of various “data” at the heading of each classmate’s entry. www.ABetterHumanStory.org, on which they could find articulations of that Big Idea that had changed the course of my life. (Such as the piece, “What Rules this World?“)
Coming from hope, however slim. I liked to envision a few classmates venturing to see what kind of “insight” was being offered.
And then, who knows what might happen? History is full of unexpected connections being made, a sequence of improbable events, eventually having an impact on what thereafter unfolds. These people in almost finished their mid-70s would likely have more time to explore something that piques their interest. (But for the same reason – getting old – they’d likely no longer have the clout they once had.)
A long shot. But one makes one’s best available play.
Taking risks, I’d said. Like taking the risk of putting myself out there in so bold a way to my classmates.