How Much Do Human Needs Shape the Human World

This piece appeared in newspapers in mid-January, 2024.


I claim that civilization has been greatly shaped by a social evolutionary process that people did not choose, but could not avoid. Inevitably, I claim, only those cultural possibilities can survive that confer on a society enough power to survive that “war of all against all” that would inevitably arise whenever any creature steps onto the path of civilization.

Inevitably, I claim, as civilization evolves, the demands of Power have supplanted human needs determining which cultural options survive and spread.

(Google “Schmookler Ugliness” to see the case for those assertions laid out.)

I can imagine the average American might doubt that assertion. We are surrounded by examples of how our society is very well-organized to meet human needs: roads to get us where we want to go, grocery stores that make food abundantly available to us, hot and cold running water, football on TV, etc. etc.

Perhaps in earlier civilizations, an America might concede — in which most of the descendants of free-living hunter-gatherers were enslaved by the greedy emperors of the first empires, or where serfs in medieval societies were oppressed by the nobles who had subjugated them — human needs were overpowered by the workings of power.
But not in the typical human life being lived in the affluent, democratic, United States of America.

Three things to say about that argument:

1) It contains a great amount of truth. Those contemporary societies – which includes the U.S. – that are democratic, affluent, and that grant considerable individual freedom, represent the best effort thus far, in the history of civilization, to create a civilized society in which people generally can get their needs met. In most (but not all) ways, liberal democracies have been a great step forward.

2) It is relevant, however, to look at the history that shows how it came to pass that this kind of civilization came to dominate North America.

Although, as just indicated, there is much that’s good about the kind of civilization we Americans have created, it was not because of our civilization’s goodness, that it prevailed but because of its power.

It was physical force that enabled the English colonies, and then the United States, to squeeze the natives off their land. It was not a contest over which way of life better meets human needs that determined the outcome.
Rather, things unfolded according to the ancient dictum: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” Power decided which of the cultural options would be allowed to survive.

(Force governed likewise how Spanish civilization prevailed in the Americas. At Acoma, in present-day New Mexico, the Spanish even cut off one of the feet of any Native American men who sought to escape the Spanish oppression.)

Then, subsequently, it was again victory in war that – in what we call the Southwest — displaced Spanish Civilization with the Anglo civilization of the United States. (Wrote Emerson: “Behold the famous states/ Harrying Mexico/ With rifle and with knife.”)

Likewise, throughout the civilized world, it has been power that has decided which of humankind’s vast range of cultural possibilities gets to dominate the human world:

• It was the power of industrial European civilization that deprived the aborigines of Australia of control of the continent that had been theirs for 50,000 years.

• It is through wars, that the “United Kingdom” got united, as England brought Scotland, Wales, and Ireland under its domination. (And something of the sort has been true of how virtually all the nation-states were formed, from Europe to China.)

3) What is good for people is often the same thing as what power requires. (Just as it pays the dairy farmer to keep his cows fed, in order for a society to prevail in the ongoing intersocietal struggle for power, it must be able to feed its people.)

The requirements of power evolve: in our times, for example, military might has come to depend less on warrior ferocity and more on a population educated to be able to create and operate sophisticated weaponry. (A society that treated humans as nothing more than human livestock would never be able to field fighting force for today’s kind of warfare.)

The evolution of the technology of war has changed what societies, needing to prevail in that “war of all against all,” require of their members. That’s an important part of why the “Free World” won the Cold War: in that decades long struggle for global domination, the dynamism and productivity of free societies won the battle against tyranny.
The overall pattern of history gives us no assurance that the recent triumph of free societies is permanent.

If the victory of the Free World was a product of that same selection for power that – at an earlier stage of power’s evolution — drove civilization into an era of cruel tyrannies and widespread enslavement, we cannot blithely assume that our blessings being permanent.

We cannot trust that the future continuation of the selection for the ways of power will favor systems that do a decent job of meeting human needs.

Therefore it is important that we eliminate that systemic force so that so that it will be humankind that chooses its future. Not a selective force that, so far, no one has been able to control.

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