Letter from an Optimist

3 05 2010

I was kicked out of class once in high school because a teacher overheard me say something was “bull”. Not “bullshit,” just “bull”. I couldn’t help myself; she’d made an offhanded comment that infuriated me, and for no reason I could identify. In fact, it took me years to figure out what it was that made me so upset.

What’d she said was in response to someone’s asking a question about the future of literature. She’d said, “There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything’s been thought of before you.”

It was no coincidence that she was an evangelical Christian–that particular cliche is actually from Ecclesiastes 1:9; “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”–and a general curmudgeon. Years later I formulated the proper response: you and I are both new things under the sun. We’ve never been before, and will never be again.

Optimism has its merits, and delusion is not one of them. Pessimism and cynicism are always more en vogue; thinking the world is on its way to a better future, that the history of humanity has much in it to make us hopeful, just isn’t cool. It reeks of naivete; and the cool kids never want to be caught in a fit of humiliating enthusiasm. Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” As an optimist, I have to believe that “Hell is people like Sartre.” Robert Burns was right to note the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, but it requires willful ignorance to simply ignore the immense progress the human family has made towards solidarity, peace, and the highest ideals that have survived since the inception of civilizations: namely, cooperation, friendship, and love.

There was a point in the history of human evolution when the human species, due to ecological and climate pressures, had been reduced to a number so small they could have all fit in a high school gymnasium. Crowded on the eastern shore of Africa, they split up. It was the only choice if they were going to survive; resources were simply too scarce. Those early humans–our common ancestors–left in waves, in bands of varying sizes, living and surviving together. Humanity fanned out across the globe. Before a single history was written, humans had made it to every habitable continent on Earth. Like no other mammalian species, man could be found in every corner of the globe. From that small, terrified group, humanity had found ways to survive in every imaginable condition.

Soon the agricultural revolution rolled around, popularizing such hit human activities as trade, village building, and slavery. The ensuing millennia were filled with unfathomable shows of cruelty, privation, pestilence, and war. But after tens of thousands of years of wandering, humanity began to come together again. Over the years since written history emerged, humanity, however clumsily, has lurched towards a sort of family reunion, bringing all the descendants of that fateful group who first began the exodus from their suddenly hostile home. Cast from Eden, it took us some time to find one another again.

It hasn’t been easy, but generation after generation, slowly but surely, we have grown our human community outwards from our parochial bands. It is not naive therefore to believe that the human family will not one day be fully reunited, living in imperfect harmony.

The goal of “human solidarity” so beloved of the international Left is not Utopian; looking at the development of human societies from their earliest roots as hunter-gatherer bands in the savanna; it doesn’t foresee a future free of conflict, but rather one where the social bonds that encourage cooperation and peaceful coexistence–if not perfect egalitarianism–become more and more generalized and less parochial. And it isn’t just abstract; it has its roots in a human history that has, in painful fits and starts, demonstrated a basic human urge to cooperate, and to, over time, abandon baseless distinctions of race, creed, tribe, and the rest.

The improvements have been incremental. Perhaps the most powerful tool that the study of evolution provides us is the ability to conceptualize long term, incremental change. Small, imperceptible changes can, over long periods of time, culminate in grand qualitative changes. There’s a good way to illustrate just what this means.

Imagine a map of the world:

Now, draw a line from the tip of India, up along the coast to Pakistan, from village to village to Afghanistan, through Iran, and thence to Iraq, through Iraq to Jordan, Israel, up through Turkey and Istanbul; hop the Bosporus into Greece, through the Balkan states and into Italy; along the Italian boot up to southern France. Let’s end the line by heading up to the English Channel and hopping into the UK.

Now, imagine taking one person from each village, town, or city along that line and standing them shoulder to shoulder. There is a good chance that the two people on either end would not be able to understand one another; but at any point in that line, the two people in line would be able to make themselves understood to each other fairly easily.

We tend to think episodically, with clean breaks between sets of things. But reality is much more gradual. There is an unbroken slope between all those human beings in our thought experiment.

So, think back to that small group of our ancestors–all of our ancestors–huddled up on the eastern shore of the African continent, facing that pivotal decision. Huddled around fires, tired and broken, and facing extinction. They struck out from there–broke up the family–and conquered the world. Societies developed–what the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun dubbed asabiyya began to take hold, which we’ll return to–and, as communication facilitated trade and movement, the family began to reunite. Slowly, with backslides, but surely. The units of social organization grew from the kin band to the clan to the tribe to the region, and beyond.

That is an inspiring narrative–and one that doesn’t gloss over the creation of brutal exploitative systems that increased in scale.

Being an optimist is not being Dr. Pangloss. The optimist doesn’t believe that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds“; to the contrary. The optimist believes that things can get better–which assumes the present is not the best, and the past was worse.

Granted there are challenges to human survival–ecological, primarily. None of this is to minimize the horrors that people suffer through every day–the genocides, the deplorable condition of women in basically every society, civil wars and appalling, grinding labor exploitation. Nor can those tragedies be treated as anomalies or unfortunate side effects. There’s no doubt that suffering is elemental to the human condition–to life, really.

But so much of the history of humanity–particularly since the Enlightenment–has been devoted to alleviating that suffering.

Darwinists have struggled for generations over the problem of altruism, particularly as the understanding of natural selection has settled on a “gene-centric view” (by no means universally). How can altruism be passed on genetically if it by definition requires self-sacrifice on behalf of others? Kin selection–sacrifice for kin based on the fact that kin will transmit genes to future generations–is also not sufficient, or at least not comprehensive enough. The answer falls somewhere near kin selection though–survival strategies based on mutual aid. It is far from a settled question, but what’s emerged is that humans have a strong capacity for cooperative strategies. This may be a by-product of kin selection–humans evolved in an ecosystem where they traveled in extended kin groups, thus developing an instinct to cooperate with animals that look like us, given that they were likely to be our kin–but the result is an enormous, and inspiring, talent for cooperation. There are nearly seven billion individuals in the human species, and we live in dense communities by the millions–sometimes tens of millions–and violence and cruelty are relatively rare, and becoming more rare. As the human species has exploded in size, our willingness to cooperate has increased, not decreased.

Evolution has given humans a very specific set of mental hardware, upon which an enormous range of operating software can be written through cultural conditioning and, more importantly, intergenerational programming. Language is the most obvious example of this: it is not biological, but our biology makes it possible, and each generation teaches it to the subsequent generation. Some things we teach consciously–the vast majority, we teach by example.

Take for example the Romans. We laud them now as paragons of reason, as the first flowering of “western civilization”, but of course Roman society was brutish and cruel. This is true not just as a matter of reality but in theory, as well: meaning the Romans valued cruelty and violence as virtues rather than condemned them as necessary evils. This was the norm for those ancient societies. The ancients weren’t so wise.

As human societies grew more and more dense, these “virtues” were selected out. The pockets of humanity where violence and coercion and power-for-its-own-sake are revered are few and shrinking. There is in large part a general human consensus that borders should be shaded, peace maintained, and the quality of life raised for as many as is possible.

This is where Ibn Khaldun’s construction of asabiyya, or “group feeling” (loosely translated) comes in. Khaldun, writing in the 14th century, noted that what we termed “society” was generated by groups who had developed an asabiyya that transcended the lowest levels of sociality–the kin group, the clan, the tribe–and reached a more abstract plane. Where people had a “group feeling” towards others not plainly tied to them (as by living in the same small town or belonging to the same extended family clan), the creation of states and societies was possible. This observation, arrived at in some ways separately (though reinforced by it) provided an important theoretical understanding of the Enlightenment goals of internationalism and cosmopolitanism–and nationalism–that allowed human groups to grow broader in the scope of their solidarity.

Still, we exist in a continuum. We exist at one infinitesimal point in the slight upward slope of human history. The systems created by humanity to meet human needs and satisfy human desires are often fundamentally flawed, generally unfair, and immensely wasteful. Yet, compared to for example most feudal or pre-feudal slave systems (as for example in antiquity), the capitalist mode of production as a strategy for perpetuating the human species has been marvelously successful compared with the societies that preceded it. Yet, like those systems, it is unlikely to survive too far into the future.

This is why I bristle when popular intellectuals treat history as a “cycle” or when reactionaries (both left and right) treat the past, particularly “the ancients” with reverence, as though human society has lost something it once had, rather than made immense advances.

Is optimism meaningful if the window we are considering is the entire history of human existence? If what we have to be optimistic about is the grand scale of human development in a time frame incomprehensibly larger than our own lives, is “optimism” really useful?

The answer is yes. The progress of humankind over the eons was not necessary or inexorable. There is no teleology in evolution or human society. Humans capitalized on those elements in our genetic makeup that allow for or encourage cooperation. This was the cumulative result of the tireless efforts of millions of people who believed in the conception of human solidarity and had a vision that humanity did not need to organize itself around its worst impulses, and did not have to glory in violence and coercion and exploitation. That humanity has made such amazing progress does not mean we must make progress in the future, only that we can.


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