The Secret Weapon That Can Save The World: Part 1 – To the Cliff – or Not
Humanity is on a march to the cliff.
Humanity is on a march to the cliff, the cliff of man-made ills. As we fatalistically prepare to hurl ourselves over the edge, there is something we need know: this suicidal urge is not destiny, it’s a choice, and choices unlike destinies, can be altered.
Can we make the choice to change directions before we careen off the edge?
Yes, we can, if…
In the distant past, nature took care of evolution, making humans more and more fit with every passing generation. The human system was in balance, and humans were on the path of continuous improvement. All of that changed, however, about 10,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution.
What started with the technology to domesticate plants and animals, culminated in in the technology to obliterate ourselves in ways we can’t even imagine. The human system got out of balance and it is coming perilously close to flying apart.
Our system is out of balance and lurching perilously.
Why are the world’s most pressing problems also the most resilient? No matter how much we try to suppress war, economic turmoil, environmental collapse, poverty, and ignorance, they persist.
The common explanation, proposed by Thomas Hobbes and popularized by Konrad Lorenz, is that genus homo sapiens, going back a million years, has always been warlike, greedy, and savage, the inevitable consequence of our “killer ape” ancestors.
Violence and oppression made easy by lethal weapons and digital technology.
This simple-minded explanation has become the justification for humanity’s greatest social failures. After all, if it’s hard-wired then it can’t be changed, so why bother trying?
The tragedy of this justification is that it offers no hope for the future, only the numbing inevitability of more violence and oppression made easy by increasingly lethal weapons and digital technology. In essence, this biological fatalism tells us that we poor humans simply can’t help flinging ourselves over the edge.
Our forebears were cooperative, egalitarian, and relatively peaceful.
But there is hope. Our fate as greedy bullies is not sealed. Research in the fields of anthropology, paleontology, and archeology, among others, indicates that human self-destructiveness is not embedded in our DNA and is, as a matter of fact, more constructed than innate.
Tendencies of males and females worked in a complementary way.
Evidence for this can be seen in a number of different areas. Our Paleolithic mobile forager ancestors were for the most part fine people. Archeological and anthropological evidence suggests that they were cooperative, egalitarian, and relatively peaceful.
They didn’t indulge in war or wealth, they shared what they had with the others in the group, and on occasion, with other groups.
Of course, they had their issues, but there were mechanisms in place to keep the system in balance. There were heavy sanctions for aggressive behavior, bullying, boasting, and just plain being too big for their britches. Sanctions went from public ridicule to expulsion or.
Women’s tendency toward social stability balanced men’s tendency to aggression and risk-taking.
The values of the group, masculine and feminine together, protected the common good of the band, in what Christopher Boehm calls, the “moral community”. The small innate differences between the inclinations of males and females worked in a complementary manner.
Women’s tendency toward social stability balanced men’s tendency to aggression and risk-taking; stuff got done and everyone benefitted. Women, whose gathering, fishing, and hunting of small game made a majority contribution to the subsistence economy, shared power equally with men, and the social system turned like a well-balanced wheel.
Storability led to hoardability.
Ten thousand years ago things started to change. It was then that humans turned their collective feet in the direction of war and the cliff. The agricultural revolution ushered in huge social changes and gave birth to a near (but not quite) universal way of life. This new lifestyle was built around durable foods in the form of domesticated animals and plants such as grains and pulses, which could be stored for prolonged periods of time. Storability led to hoardability, which, in turn, led to the creation of wealth and social stratification, the elite and the far more numerous poor.
New kinds of men were invented.
Ultimately new kinds of men were invented: the warrior, whose job it was to protect the stores of food from marauding outsiders (and envious insiders) and, as it turned out, to do some marauding of their own, the priests, whose job it was to keep the growing numbers of poor in line, artisans, who worked for the elite erecting private palaces and building public works, and a cadre of shifty edge dwellers including shysters, free-riders, bullies, and thieves.
Women foraged less and less in the proto-agricultural days, and with the decrease in women’s food provisioning came a decrease in their social standing. Women went from high-status “breadwinners”, to mere food processors and helpers without influence in the grueling work of farming. With the loss of status came the loss of women’s position, particularly as a counterbalance to men.
The wheels wobbled under the weight of war, greed, and rampant social inequality.
The social system became increasingly skewed in the direction of males, their needs, values, and inclinations. Risk taking and aggression, male tendencies that had been so valuable in hunting but also posed a threat to the harmony of the community, now went unrestrained within the band and outside.
“Male” became synonymous with humanity.
The new “moral community” that now consisted almost entirely of men’s voices, no longer protected the interests of the whole community equally, but increasingly protected the interests of men exclusively, and especially that of elite men. Over the course of several thousand years, the imbalance in the system between men and women reached a tipping point and the wheels wobbled under the weight of war, greed, and rampant social inequality.
As the social system became masculinized, male values, norms, and behavioral tendencies overtook public life. Eventually, “male” became synonymous with humanity, and male tendencies came to be considered natural human behavior.
Silencing of women’s voices allowed war and wealth inequality.
While it’s true that it was the agricultural revolution that laid the footing for war and wealth inequality, it was the silencing of women’s voices that allowed them to become a way of life. Like all complex systems driven to imbalance, the human system as we’ve known it is not sustainable.
Note: This is not a story about men or women, or about perpetrators or victims. This is a story about history and what happens to a complex system that becomes imbalanced. Most importantly, it’s a story about what we can do to rebalance our human system.