We’re stuck in another election cycle here in the US. Things got ugly pretty early on. I keep hearing a lot of bizarre rhetoric from people and friends that I’d rather not like to believe they would actually say. However, I do enjoy election cycles, because I’m very interested in watching people gather into groups according to political ideology. The cooperation within groups and the conflict they come into with other groups is very much a part of who we are as a species.
It’s healthy that one side should prompt and galvanize the other, because out of all of that, our finest ideas are forged. We live atop the collective foundation of years of knowledge, trial and error — the wisdom of generations. We could never and should never tear it down and start again. No one person, no matter how brilliant, could ever deconstruct it all and reconstruct something from scratch. Conflict and competition are what shape and mold and sharpen us. It’s part of the natural law that governs us.
We are only but a tiny sliver of nature. And of course, we are subject to its laws and nature is a tyrant. For many of us, the concept of survival of the fittest may seem vague and distant, but our perceived safety and distance from it is an illusion, masked by the protection of the group. Our group protects us, but is itself is always subject to the war of survival. We often see just how vulnerable we are every time we’re faced with a natural disaster or disease pandemic.
Modern humans have been on the planet for about 200,000 years. Civilization is only about 6,000 years old. We are still very much a product of that 194,000 years. We’ve adapted to our new surroundings surprisingly well given how rapidly our environment continues to change, yet we oftenfail ourselves — or at least the version of ourselves we’re trying to be — because we are still subject to crushing biological law that has been part of our genetic makeup since before we were even the species we know ourselves to be today. Though we’ve been subject to them through many variations, the whole of human history has been dictated by these big three natural laws:
Competition is most widely practiced among us in the form of cooperation. We cooperate, but usually in the capacity of some kind of group — a team, a family, clubs, schools, cliques, tribes and most importantly, nations. These groups endlessly compete with one another. They tend to take on the personalities of the individuals who make them up, individuals who are themselves slaves to their own hunter-gatherer biology. The groups we form are who we are magnified.
Our countries have often been so historically savage to one another because they are still doing the business of primitive humans. We need to remember that the agrarian, industrial, and especially the digital revolution, has only happened within a blink of an eye. These groups in which we are all a part of in some way, which all compete with one another in some manner, merely reflect that. By nature, we are rapacious and mercenary because of what evolution had demanded of us as a species up until very recently. It’s only been with the advent of the camera and the dissemination of media — the ability to see images of modern warfare up close — that we’ve finally been able to gradually take a step back and collectively agree on the horror and inauspiciousness of war. As time goes by, it’s no longer held in high regard by the patriotic and the naïve and seen more as a total tragedy. This has been a great thing. However, as I’ll explain later, we live in a delicate balance and when it tips, new problems emerge.
Natural selection is still very much with us. I don’t need to tell you that nature selects for success. Nature is not a democracy. We are all born unequal under it. Our success as an organism is largely due to the genes we inherit. We are all profoundly unequal to one another in ability. Difference and inequality are the indispensable framework in which selection builds and evolution grows out of. As human civilizations grow more complex, the inequality within becomes more baroque. These inequalities in society reflect natural inequalities. As economies and industries develop, individuals specialize and adapt to them. The people who are able to adapt and excel in a new field or are the best among us at what they do become unequally valuable to other people within the group.
The individuals who cannot adapt or specialize to the changing environment — like the artisans in the wake of the industrial revolution — tend to lose out and become worse off than before. We see this today with the rise of geek and computer culture. At one point not too long ago, computer and comic book geeks were dateless outcasts in suburban basements. Now they are part of the driving force of our economies, completely dominating industry and entertainment. Those who can’t keep up make themselves more and more alienated and unemployable. The same old rules apply. The strong get stronger, the weak become weaker. I want to be clear about what I’m talking about here. I’m not talking about approximate equalities. Of course, we can aim for approximate equalities and without question we should. Legal equality, freedom from discrimination, and equal educational opportunities all provide a major survival advantage to the group. It would only be at our peril for us to deny them to anyone.
Nature is more species-oriented than individual-oriented. High birth rates and high death rates are the norm in the natural world. Breed as much as possible and weed out the results. Because of this, we are programmed with an incurable craving for sex. Digging back through the millennia, into ancient and primitive civilization up to the present, sex is everywhere — in our advertisements, our entertainment, our pornography, our literature — it’s arguably the most motivating factor behind life itself. Sex is always in the background, behind everything — spinning the gears, driving life along and bringing more into existence. Sex is life’s weapon against death. The organism survives long enough to successfully mate and reproduce, making copies of itself — the next-best thing to not dying. The cycle plays out ceaselessly, creating endless new forms in the process.
It is, of course, a numbers game. In history, we often see high culture civilizations with low birthrates overrun by barbarians with high birthrates which displace the culture and multiply, causing regression and collapse. It’s very often hordes from the north sweeping down on the south. Classic examples are of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, the Sumerians, the Guptas, among many others. Nature will always favor virile fertility over high culture and low birth rates.
When these groups become too big and the food supply diminishes, the Malthusian rules apply — famine, pestilence, and war as the agents of dispatch. As famine and pestilence become less and less of a problem and wars aren’t fought like they used to be, with far less casualties, we are beginning to see our sheer numbers become more and more of a problem. Our advances in technology were unforeseen by Malthus, yet he would argue that these advances are only prolonging what is to come. There are limits to the soil. Eventually there will be too many mouths and not enough resources. The solution remains obscure, but I believe it involves actually taking a look at these laws that dictate our behavior, understanding them and then, beginning to actively work with ourselves within the group for the benefit of our own joint survival.
A deeper understanding
I’m not trying to rain any gloom or doom on you here. This is all pretty much common sense stuff. I decided to write this in an effort to promote an understanding of why we do the things we do. I believe that the more we understand human nature — that true free will is an illusion, that we are governed first and foremost by our biology, that we are still adapting to a rapidly changing world that none of us completely understand — we can promote a greater empathy for each other as a group. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t hold each other accountable for our actions. Biological laws are no excuse for breaking social contracts. Though the more we understand that our societies are driven first and foremost by competition, selection and sex, the more we understand ourselves and are better able to come to peace with the world we live in.