There’s a lot of gloom and negativity around at the moment, especially in liberal quarters.
Brexit disaster, US presidential election disaster, religious fundamentalism on the rise in many countries across the planet, no sign of the demise of capitalism, and too little being done to combat the environmental catastrophe on our doorstep. Is it really so bad – a return to the insanity of centuries past – or is it a global cultural blip?
I like to take the long term view. For thirty years I’ve been studying human evolution: biological evolution, psychological evolution and the arrival of consciousness, and cultural evolution. I think humanity has had certain ideas – the existence of a soul or spirit, the existence of an afterlife – for 40,000 years at least, and those two basic concepts may have existed in Neanderthal cultures. Other ideas – the belief in a pantheon, or latterly in a monotheistic god – have been around merely for thousands of years.
Since the arrival of patriarchy 5,000 or so years ago we’ve seen an orgy of violence, genocide and war. But indications suggest the amount of warfare is less now than it used to be – a notion I made use of in my novel No Grave For A Fox, although it was for an ‘inhumane reason,’ the prevalence of humanity-diminishing technology delivered via the nexus. If a reduction in warfare is the case, is it possible that cultural evolution is shaking us free of juvenile masculine norms – what Carl Sagan called ‘the long childhood of humanity’? Or will the prevalence of and emotionally numbing effect of technology simply change who the world’s elites are?
Many people argue that history is either cyclic, or up/down and liberal/conservative at random. The notion of slow progress towards a wonderful utopia is scorned in modern times. Well, I would caution some care in that regard, since a single utopia could easily be replaced by an ecology of socially suitable utopias for a far better result… but that’s maybe a blog for another occasion. But returning to that idea of slow progress towards a goal: is there any evidence for this?
I think there is, and it is this: understanding of the real world, through methods that assume the independent existence of the real world – i.e. without input from human imagination – is a cumulative one way process. By this I mean the scientific method. But by this I don’t mean science, which is socially constructed as much as it is reality constructed. I mean human beings assuming that the independent real world takes nothing from imagination, testing that real world, seeing what happens, then modifying hypotheses until they coincide with it; until they become theories.
Or even laws – like Newton’s Laws of Motion. We’ve had around five hundred years of what for want of a better term I’ll call modern science. We can’t go back on Newton, we can’t go back on Einstein, we can’t go back on Darwin, we can’t go back on Watson & Crick. In the long run we can’t go back to faith, to imaginary explanations, to souls and ghosts and all the rest of it. The cumulative process of understanding is irreversible in the long run, because the real world out there is real – independent of our imaginations. On the macroscopic scale it exists inviolate.
And we can’t go back on Freud. Each of us does have an unconscious mind, which is the overwhelming majority of the mental model we use to grasp the real world. Our understanding of ourselves as a conscious species is also a cumulative one way process. We are only a hundred and twenty years on from Freud’s momentous breakthrough, and we’re only thirty years on from Nicholas Humphrey’s social intelligence theory of consciousness. My optimism, my hope – over thousands of years, it has to be said – is that eventually we will have a full, true description of the human condition; and once we have that we can understand human behaviour in all its extraordinary variety. We can understand the universal existence of religion in prehistoric and historic societies; the reasons for the existence of love, humour and emotions; why we sense the passage of time; why we need identity and a home; and perhaps most of all why we all feel the burning urge to explain the world around us.
We exist on a historical continuum of human values. That continuum – and this will annoy my post-modernist readers – begins with simple, imaginary, incorrect ideas. We have learned that rocks and trees don’t have spirits. We have learned that the Earth goes around the Sun, to the considerable demotion of humanity. We have learned that people shouldn’t be slaves and we have learned that men and women deserve equal rights.
When our grasp of reality coincides with reality, perhaps then liberals will be able to relax and have a nice cup of tea. So give human progress time. Give it another 10,000 years.