Back to top

COLUMN: Theme for optimists -- Homo sapiens seeking self-improvement

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

-- Carl Sagan

“... Ultimately you are not a person, but a focal point where the universe is becoming conscious of itself. What an amazing miracle.”

– Eckhart Tolle

“Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.”

– Karl Marx

“You’re saying humans are incapable of change?”   “ …I’m saying, they don’t act in any way their coding won’t allow. They’re pretty simple really, each one has just 10,247 algorithms. They want to survive… Once you understand their basic drives, it’s pretty easy to predict their behaviours.”

 – conversation between AI androids, “Westworld” season 2, ep. 10

“Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug. In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will nolongerbehuman.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

 

By Charles Jeanes

Thoughts while watching students protest climate-change inaction

We are not a species without talent, and even genius. We have caused our  planet to undergo changes: volatile climate systems,  air-quality degradation, ocean acidification and trash-accumulation, soil-destruction and -poisoning.

We did this to Earth by activity we called “economic” and considered necessary to our livelihoods. We knew we were causing the changes, for a long time. We had solutions, if applied in time to change our course.

The time to avoid the changes has passed, and now we deal with consequence.

Every day, I see a news piece bemoaning humanity’s dismal incapacity to stop our walk off the cliff we know is in front of us. “We” are all to blame: this is the tenor of a lot of opinion pieces.

I prefer the editorials addressing climate justice,  rather than the ones telling humanity we are defective. No, some bear much more responsibility.

The protests of young people against their elders’ failure to solve climate change are hurtful. I am an elder. How am I to blame?

The Questions

Is it the responsibility of trusted institutions and people exercising power, not the defects of humanity-in-general, for the failures? [I will not develop a detailed response. I will affirm it: “Yes, it is much more on their account than on all of us.”]

Why have human political and scientific institutions failed to steer humans in the mass away from the actions that caused the problem?

Why have humans in the mass been incapable of the alterations in our activity that would have avoided causing the changes?

Why do individuals who inspire positive change among us -- for steering humanity into paths of more compassion, justice, and creativity -- not lead humanity collectively to improve our chosen behaviours and conscious minds?

Can humanity collectively, in the mass, ever improve, so that ecological and economic problems never again rise to the level of the present lethal crisis? [This is the mystery that requires an essay.]

Challenge: change by a quantum leap -- or follow an old rut

I am once again taking up a thankless task of trying to see, in human history, the observed results of an uncontrolled experiment. The experiment is us, the species homo sapiens or “knowing human.” We are sapient hominids, we are conscious, and we are, in evolutionary time (the time of living beings on earth) and planetary time (4.5 billion years earth has existed), very, very new.

The length of time for our experiment as the dominant species on earth is much less than the amount of  time we’ve existed – about a quarter-million years – as a species originating in Africa. We have evidently been dominant only since our emergence from the Ice Ages and the extinction of alternative intelligent hominids such as Neanderthal and Denisovan humans.

Recorded human history stretches only since the earliest records in a script, roughly to the year 3,100 BCE, in an Egyptian stone artefact. That is all we have for historical data upon which to base conclusions about what we are. History is the field I know best. Biology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology are other disciplines which contribute to our self-knowledge.

From History and these other sciences, I try to draw meaningful conclusions. “Meaningful” can in no way be taken to mean universally agreed; but, since there’s a consensus that homo sapiens is the meaning-making species, I am compelled to make the attempt to find significant pattern in our behaviour.

History: telling humans what we are?

“... [W]hat of the normal, usual behaviour of human beings? What is aberrant? Who is sane?

‘Read the histories,’ say the teachers. ‘They tell us who we are, how we have behaved, therefore how we will behave.’

Does it? The history in the bookscreens, Earth History, that appalling record of injustice, cruelty, enslavement, hatred, murder – that record, justified and glorified by every government and institution, of waste and misuse of human life, animal life, plant life, the air, the water, the planet? If that is who we are, what hope for us? History must be what we have escaped from. It is what we were, not what we are. History is what we need never do again... To learn who we are, look not at History but at [civilisation]... the arts, the record of our best, our genius...

   What about the controller, the civiliser itself, the mind? Was it civilised? Did it control itself? There seemed to be no reason why it should not; yet its failures to do so constituted most of what was taught as History.”

          - from The Found and the Lost, p.707,717 “Paradises Lost.” by U. K. Le Guin

This is the choice one makes, about History. Either we must indeed be what it tells us we have been -- or it is what we will escape from by intentional plan, by  evolving our minds to be unlike what consciousness has meant until now.

Evolving consciousness

The quotations I offer as epigraphs for this edition of the Arc are a sample of the sort of high and low expectations for our species, voiced by thinkers like Marx, Harari, and Sagan.

Are humans the “consciousness of the cosmos” -- beings who are driven to make life better for other sentient life-forms -- or beings ruled by egoist drive and hedonist satisfaction?

In several previous columns I have addressed the question of humanity’s supposed evolving consciousness, its claim to make progress in the quality of our minds and the capacity of our understanding.

My motive for hoping we are, indeed, progressing in this way, is fear: there is much to be frightened of, in the prospects of our planet and our species, if homo sapiens continues its usual behaviours as witnessed in recorded history.

Now, I know “history” is a constant argument; all that has happened is simply the past -- but what thoughts we hold in our minds about the past is History. We do not remember a consensus history in one collective mind, shared by all humans. A species-wide, single history of humans in the past is a fantasy.

As for the future prospects for homo sapiens, massive death tolls from a host of threats are not mere pessimists’ predictions; they are realistic assessments of events given the trajectory and pattern of human behaviour to this present time. I tend to suppose hope of progress is unrealistic.

A new Dark Age appears unavoidable, in my judgment: a massive fall into desperate times where survival, not civilization, will be the motivation. Such an age is what David Suzuki means when he envisions “a massive die-off” of humans as a result of the age-old causes: natural disasters, wars of all types, famine, epidemics. This is what philosopher John N. Gray means by “history as usual” without progress in our being, without change in the quality of our consciousness.

The natural being of humans

We argue endlessly about the nature of human beings. We appear horrible / beautiful as a species simultaneously, as a two-sided object.

“Human nature. A strange combination of words” -- to quote Leguin again.

One can view us a collective whole and be depressed or inspired. One can view individuals and be moved to horror or joy, when one takes an example of individual beings as the evidence for one or the other.

As I write this, Penticton, BC, is reeling in shock after a man my age murdered four people he knew with whom he had some grudge; Ontario is staggered by the murder of a 17-year old boy by boys aged 15 and 16. In Saskatoon, children aged 8 to 13 have swarmed and beaten an adult in a playground.

Crazed loners with grotesquely powerful weapons have attacked synagogues and mosques recently. Bombs have killed and injured hundreds in recent years, set off by individual humans motivated by who-knows-what madness.

I need say only the names Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama to cite  single persons whom readers will adduce as examples of individuals of unusually high moral behaviour. Heroic human beings are not rare in the news.

At the same time, a collective response by tens of thousands of anonymous people to the fire at Notre Dame has produced stupendous sums of money for repair. Rich nations have responded to help poor ones in disasters such as the relief effort for Indonesia’s earthquake victims over a decade ago; Jeremy Rifkin was convinced by that compassionate outpouring that humanity is evolving toward “the empathic civilization.”

Staying with collective measures, but looking for the negative face of humanity: on April 17, Northern Ireland witnessed another lethal event in its long violent history of sectarian wars. As I write, China is brutally suppressing Muslim Uighurs within its borders with the approval of the Saudi Crown Prince for holding the line against “terrorism.” Sri Lanka has witnessed a mass horror for religious reasons, perpetrated by Muslims against Christians.

Politics on the mass-collective scale proceed as ever, with ups and downs in prospects for amelioration of the human condition by governmental activity. One person sees hope, another only deterioration, in our prospects. Me? I need more time to prepare a response.

Layered society

I am going to map out a simple, even simplistic, pattern of human living in large societies, stratified or layered societies, that might offer a big answer to a big question: why is social and economic justice, egalitarian sharing of political and cultural power, and compassionate living with decent, humane relations across extensive populations, so very rare?

The model of a society that meets these minimal standards is the way humans once actually lived: at the point of our “success” in achieving dominance on the planet over all other species… the way homo sapiens lived, according to the best evidence we have, about 40,000 years ago, when we were hunter-gatherer-foragers. No other hominids competed with us after that. We did not invent the use of fire – we have possessed the use of fire during all our existence as a species.

["Fire was first controlled by humans anywhere from about 230,000 years ago to 1.4 or 1.5 million years ago, depending on which evidence you accept as definitive". Evidence for the use of fire by Homo Erectus beginning some 400,000 years ago has wide scholarly support. -- Wikipedia]

Use of abstract language is newer in our prehistory. It too, might be to blame for our Story of Separation, according to Eisenstein. Naming things gives humans an illusion of control. Bad things flow onward from that ...

The decent, sharing, compassionate society I sketch here, has evidently existed. Humanity was always not ordered into society with layers, some few above, and many below. This was our norm for most of our species’ history.

Ruling class, ruled, and mediators: a three-class model of human society

Humans in society, as I said, lived as undifferentiated groups, before we ceased to be hunter-forager-gatherers. There were no permanent leaders, no chiefs, no politicians, no hierarchy, no wealthy few and non-propertied many. This was the time when we were all just “the People” and egalitarian ethics prevailed.

The Tao Te Ching seems to portray society in three fractions: the People; the noble princes, lords, kings and emperor; and a section of humanity who are sage and wise, benevolent and understanding. Some among the third grouping may be “clever” with malevolent intent toward the People; they are not part of the people nor in the lordly fraction. This is my interpretation of a social order the Tao appears to be describing -- not in clear language as a model, but implicitly -- and my model of three fractions of humanity is inspired by this book. Other classic texts have comparable tripartite notions of society.

Was agriculture good for us? Read Harari’s Sapiens for a perceptive commentary on how the Agrarian Revolution re-engineered us.

Property changed all that had been normal for humans before we learned agriculture. When one person could own, and monopolize use of, herds of domestic animals and acres of soil, inequality resulted. Agriculture and domesticated beasts made social layering possible. A class of lords came to be a human societal norm; the invention of the State occurred with hierarchy.

From that time, perhaps 10,000 years ago, hierarchy and layered society has been the iron frame over our history. Homo Sapiens would never be the same after this social order evolved. For a great many people, humanity began to ascend to civilization only because of agriculture, and Civilization is a glorious, wonderful, quite positive phenomenon in their minds. Without it, there can be no Shakespeare, no Plato, no Jesus, no Michelangelo, no Beethoven, no Einstein. Charles Eisenstein, in his first book, The Ascent of Humanity, offers a profound interpretation of what forms the process of civilizing humans forced our consciousness to fit into.

At this point, the reader knows viscerally whether she or he aligns with a perspective of progress in human history, and endorses The-Ascent-of- Humanity thesis, or not. Civilization has its glories, no doubt. Do they justify the agonies inflicted on the “losers” in our “ascent”?  The First World is a fine place to live; the “developing world” much less so. Progress marches on? One’s own sense of justice will produce a personal judgment on that.

[I personally loved a short tale on this theme of universal justice by U. K. Le Guin, The Ones who walk away from Omelas. Read about it here:   https://www.tor.com/2017/08/07/ursula-le-guins-the-ones-who-walk-away-from-omelas-defies-genre/]

Rulers and ruled: the two layers are relatively easy to imagine for most of us. But the third fraction -- between rulers, who possess so much and are a small minority, and the ruled who are the large majority, are humans difficult to describe and to comprehend as one fraction; they are immensely variegated in labour contribution, ownership of wealth, exercise of power, and cultural qualities. I call this third fraction the mediators.

Ruling Class

People rule other people when they lead, or command, or abuse, their fellows and the latter follow or obey or submit. Humans who are able to rule know they are different from the ruled, and invent ideas about their nobility and special qualities justifying their place “above” the subjected majority. How did rulers emerge from the mass, rise to be dominant over the mass, in the past? No one knows. If anyone tells you they know why, they lie. It happened in prehistory. It is easy enough to make up plausible hypotheses about the puzzle. Any and all are merely guesses. Somehow, egalitarian human society dissolved.

Some factors in keeping us unequal

Any intangible human invention, an idea, belief, habit of mind – anything not material that explains why humans act in patterned ways, is culture. Nature is our biology, our chromosomal blueprint and inherited physical attributes, but culture is not inherited with our genes. Is the person ruling over fellow humans a natural or cultural phenomenon? Without doubt, that ruler rules by virtue of culture, not nature. Agriculture belongs in human culture, not in our nature.

A ruler has both nature and culture as instruments of power over others. A strong body, an intelligent brain, physical or characterological assets, might explain a ruler having dominant status. Landed property gives a ruler power, since people without it will obey people with it for the sake of sharing what is on the land: food crops, trees, animals, water. A culture defines ownership, law, right.

The ruling fraction is quite definitely advantaged by ruling, and their advantages improve their inherited natural gifts, since Rulers are better-constituted, physically and intellectually more endowed than the Ruled; the latter eat less well, have less leisure for cultural pursuit, and work their bodies harder than the former.

A noble individual knows him or herself superior because it is obvious they do many things better than the commoner; they use violence better, for example, because they practice it as a lordly cultural attribute.

The Ruled

Why do the ruled not force the rulers to bring back the golden times of no layered society, of no hierarchy, of egalitarian ethos and economy? Why are commoners so common, and lack the qualities to assert their equality?

Here is a mythological reply to that:

“In the earliest time, the people have their constant inborn nature… They are one in it, and not partisan, and it is called the Emancipation of Heaven. Therefore in a time of Perfect Te[“virtue”] the gait of men is slow, their gaze steady, mild. … In this age of Perfect Temen live the same as birds and beasts, group themselves side by side with the ‘ten thousand things’ [= all of creation]. Who then knows anything about junzi[lord or gentleman] or xiaoren[common or petty man]?... men have no wisdom and their Tedoes not depart from them … Then along comes the Sage [=wise one] huffing and puffing after ren[“benevolence”] reaching on tiptoe for yi[“righteousness”] and the world for the first time has opinion [or doubt, departure from constant inborn nature].”

                                         –from the Zuangzi, a classic of Taoist parables.

In the West we know the tale of Genesis in the Bible best as a mythologized vision of a golden age, the life of humankind in Eden. There is a plethora of tales from a multitude of cultures, depicting the golden, perfected past.

The cultural point to be made is, humans imagine a time in the misty past when perfect justice prevailed. That past contrasts with present reality, and the ruled know it was a better time for them. But the People do not create tales in civilization; that is work for the mediator class. Storytelling belongs to all in the Edenic state of society.

Rulers and ruled: the reality of all recorded history “since civilization arose.” The mediators, the third fraction, originate because of hierarchy existing.

Mediators

The People appear in the Tao, in the Bible, in the Vedas, in Greek myth and aboriginal story, as an undifferentiated mass. But distinctive individuals are able to emerge from the mass and be the protagonists of story.

Rulers love any tale that makes a lord look exceptional; such a story implicitly reinforces the notion of the inequality of individuals, the excellent, noble quality that sets a person above others. Who invents story? In Eden, anyone can. In layered society, the mediator class between ruler and ruled is the social fraction where one finds the makers of story.

But when there are no rulers, there are no stories of ruling individuals. The division of humanity into two fractions, the few and the many, the powerful and the less-so, the possessor and the have-not, is the first division.

By their very place between ruling class and subject people, the mediators are bound to be fewer in number than the people, but more numerous than the rulers. Mediators are not just the story-makers, the artists, and the musicians. Yes, they are all that. They are also people of special skills, engineers, builders, metal-workers, priests, bureaucrats – all of these types are mediators.

And here is the mediators’ dilemma: when there is a ruling class, there must be politics. Does a mediator wish to see the People have more, have the kind of good life once enjoyed in the golden past? Or does the mediator wish the ruling few to go on ruling, and will the rulers reward the mediator for conforming to the rules of inequality? Politics depends on the mediator section of society.

No matter the form of Government – monarchy, democracy, aristocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy and so forth – any Government at all is the absolute playground, arena, stage, sphere, and ecological niche of the mediator fraction of society. Anyone who is concerned with government functioning within society, is a mediator. I do not mean voters. I mean politicized individuals who pay much more attention to politics, who might earn a livelihood in political activity and/or government, not being merely ruled as the People are.

These political types are part of the mass of intermediate people between Rulers and Ruled, with artists, cultural producers, clergies, intelligentsia, professionals, elite athletes, bureaucrats, civic functionaries, and purveyors of entertainment. In modernity, this an enormous fraction of human society.

Multitudes of mediators: modernity

The First World today has a vast number of individuals in the mediator fraction. All are more politically aware than the masses of the Ruled. All pay attention to politics more than the People but not more than the Rulers do.

The Rulers know the Mediators as both instrument of their rule, and potential threat to it. Mediators may be people resembling Socrates, Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed: teachers.

Luther, Stalin, Mao, Robespierre and a host of [mostly] men in the history of Revolutions have tried to re-engineer humans to fit an ideal of what the particular leader believes to be an improved humanity. Ruling classes have been overthrown and new ones have taken their place, due to actions by the mediator fraction of society, who can occasionally mobilize the People.

Mediators are individualists. The core of their being is in their sense of being an individual character, an essential soul, a unique spark of personhood. Individualism is part and parcel of the evolved human mind in the condition known as “modernity.” In the affluent, capitalist, liberal First World, there is a host of people holding this conviction as a self-evident truth. Individualism is a way of being in fine harmony of values with a great deal of capitalist economic behaviour, and that harmony makes the latter immensely powerful against any change to its reign over the globe.

Liberal democracy requires robust citizenship, individuals who hold government and public activism in high regard. Liberty of the individual has gigantic meaning. Rights are developed in such a society.

For those born to the First World, into the “middle classes,” any other social order or system of value is utterly alien. I personally cannot easily conceive of being less individualistic than I am. It is not a virtue in a moral sense, yet I do love to be a Self.

Conclusion

I am of course a mediator, as a writer, professional academic, journalist, and sometime politician. Politically, I look to my sort of folk to take humanity forward to a better future that will look a lot like the past – egalitarian, humane, compassionate – in the world I imagine could exist without stratified society. I align myself with the reformers and revolutionaries, but without wanting to copy their social-engineering nightmares.

But there is absolutely nothing in our past to suggest that humans will become more motivated to create my vision of a good world than some other vision. A mediator might simply make the best of the stratum in which he or she lives, or strive to climb closer to the ruling class. The Rulers accept, and co-opt, the brightest Mediators who will play by the rules.

Being constantly driven to arouse the People to rebel, to reform, to revolutionize society, is a path of life some mediators want to pursue. There is room for them to do so in a society like Canada’s. But they will not only be struggling against the Rulers, they will be in conflict with many other Mediators who see no good reason for revolution.

It seems, then, I find myself in agreement with Le Guin’s remark, quoted above, that History is what we must escape from, not learn from as a model of what humanity is and must be.

The point indeed, is to change it.

“Who shall do the hard thing? Those who can.”