I ask you

Is it true, as Churchill said, that the only thing democracy has going for it is that all the other systems that have been tried are so much worse?

Is it also true that “People aren’t smart enough for democracy to flourish,” as some recent studies suggest?

Is what’s left of democracy going to be one of the earlier casualties on the road to imminent destruction? Or is our great experiment already terminal, having some time ago transmuted into a formal, no longer functional democracy, as Noam Chomsky and others contend?

Here’s my (provisional) theory: Human nature is superbly attuned, via evolution, to promote human survival. Too bad we’re talking about survival in a prehistoric, natural environment that has little relevance to anything humans must deal with in the developed world, circa 21st Century. When it comes to living in this kind of world, all indicators suggest we are maladapted in most ways that count, and it shows – OMG, does it ever show! Based on what has gone down the past 30 years or so, it seems highly unlikely that this brief human experience is going to have a good outcome. It appears as if we’re bent on destroying ourselves, along with countless other life forms. We already have a good start on the extermination of other species.

Evolution at the mammalian level, where we’re classified, is glacially slow, orders of magnitude too slow to help us now. What’s urgently required is cultural adaptation that can compete with our ancient, outmoded biological tendencies. Is that possible? Perhaps, as the rapid evolution of nonsectarian, non-nationalistic science shows. Is it probable? Hell no, based on recent trends, i.e., what has taken place politically in this country in the past 30 years.

In a narrow, personal sense, it won’t make much difference to me: Being old (even if still healthy), I know I’m going to die, sooner rather than later; and I probably won’t be around to watch the worst case scenario play out. So I guess I should thank the impersonal, utterly indifferent, mindless forces™ for bestowing on me the privilege of having lived in the best of times, by far. Not that 1939 to the present has been a cakewalk for me or humanity – far from it. Only, to paraphrase Churchill, all the other times have been so much worse. Imagine yourself living in any century before the 20th.

Suggested epitaph for humanity: It could’ve been worse.

Look, humans never would have made it to this point if we hadn’t been equipped with a “survival instinct” / reality-distorition field that persisted in the face of suffering and hopelessness. As Harvard psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Gilbert ably and entertainingly explains, we have an irrational but no doubt adaptive psychological immune system that keeps us within a tolerable range of happiness and optimism across a wide range of circumstances. (The book is “Stumbling on Happiness” – it could become one of your favorites.)

The message is this: there is such a thing as human nature (natural tendencies, impulses, etc.), and it appars to be maladaptive in direct proportion to the advancements of science and technology. Another way of putting it: survival skills in this world are not encoded in our DNA but require knowledge, understanding, and disciplined cooperation that are sorely lacking and not likely to come online in time to save us from our primitive instincts. You know, like bigotry, tribalism, superstition, ideology and blind faith (reference: Fox News).

Everything besides rational, evidence-based cooperation.So I ask you, is there any reason for humanity to be hopeful? Any reason at all?

Conservative Christians think the answers are in the Bible. Yeah, we need more ancient myths, superstitions, prayers and exorcisms.  That package of ancient nonsense will help us a lot. Unfortunately, that’s where humans are programmed to turn for answers and assurance. Too bad – nothing fails like faith.

Conservative politicians think the answers lie in the unregulated free market and all that entails. Just turn everything over to the plutocrats. Need I point out that’s an unsupported, faith-based ideology, no better than religion?

So I ask you, are we fucked?

I would be grateful to learn that I’m wrong. So have at it, I’m listening. But please, evidence and reason only – no religion, no political ideology. That stuff is tiresome and useless.

This entry was posted in environment, godlessness, science by SJ. Bookmark the permalink.

About SJ

I'm an older married guy, a former college psychology instructor and editor at a national magazine. Every stage of my very full life has been dominated by a passionate interest – from chess to distance running to photography (my current interest). I write under a pseudonym because the opinions I express, particularly about religion, might very well cause problems for my wife and me. I plan to "come out" after she retires. In the meantime, I'll do my best to defend and promote science and reason and to help keep power out of the hands of the proto-fascists who have declared war on just about everything I value.

5 thoughts on “I ask you

  1. Is it true, as Churchill said, that the only thing democracy has going for it is that all the other systems that have been tried are so much worse?

    Yeah, pretty much. Though I dispute that what we have in the U.S. is a functional democracy.

    Is it also true that “People aren’t smart enough for democracy to flourish,” as some recent studies suggest?

    Absolutely, as the link in your question attests. See also: 21st century reality.

    Is what’s left of democracy going to be one of the earlier casualties on the road to imminent destruction? Or is the great experiment already terminal, having some time ago transmuted into a formal, no longer functional, democracy, as Noam Chomsky and others contend?

    The U.S. is indeed a formal democracy. But so was Iceland. Not any more. International arrest warrants issued for their bankers. Politicians and parties thrown out of power. A new constitution. Which is why we never, ever hear about it in U.S. mainstream media.

    I hear what you are saying about human evolution. But something has haunted me ever since I read a few passages in a book by Dawkins (possibly The God Delusion). I might mangle this—it’s part Dawkins, part Iris, which is never a good place to start—but let me try and take a shot at it here.

    As you point out, (genetic) evolution is orders of magnitude too slow to help our species adapt to a rapidly and radically changing physical environment (forget for the purposes of my argument whether such dramatic changes are attributable to human activity or not—it doesn’t matter). And, as you also point out, what is required —at a minimum—is rapid cultural evolution that can tamp down innate biological tendencies. Is that possible?

    Yes. Yes, it is. It has already happened in the West over the last 60 years, with the emergence of widespread access to effective contraception. Contraception is, at its very essence, anti-Darwinian.

    Why does every Abrahamic religion divinely command woman to the status of submissive breeding sow? Because before the advent of modern medicine, this was by far the most adaptive reproductive strategy for a human population. In fact, nearly every single one of the social and economic systems that has evolved and flourished over the course of known human history has involved the exact same biological strategy: females giving birth to as many children as possible, all fathered by a single male.

    For example, my own grandmother was one of eleven live births, and she was far from unique. Several of her siblings died in infancy, a sad circumstance which was also far from unique. And after birthing eleven children, it is unsurprising that her mother died when my grandmother was very young—hardly a unique tragedy in the early part of the 20th century. Older female siblings would forgo schooling to raise the younger ones; older male siblings went to work in factories to support them, ran away, or joined the military.

    Much poverty and misery ensued from this state of affairs. Still, from an evolutionary perspective, it was a winning strategy: my grandmother and several of her siblings reached adulthood and spawned several children of their own (one brother died at war before fathering any children… that we know of). For every woman who died giving birth to a stillborn baby, or one whose children did not survive infancy, there was a woman like my great grandmother belting out healthy baybees year after year like a machine until she could bear no more. The population boom in the West during the last century is a testament to this reproductive strategy. Sure, it begets unbearable suffering: systemic poverty, bereaved husbands, motherless children, kids mourning their siblings, etc. But it works. It is undeniably a successful evolutionary strategy for human populations. And evolution is indifferent to suffering that does not affect reproduction.

    Enter the Age of Enlightenment (which has always struck me as a teeny, tiny exaggeration, no?), and with it germ theory. Sanitation. Medical advances. The agricultural revolution was already well under way, and then came the industrial revolution, shifting cultural evolution into high gear, so to speak. The preachers held to their pulpits and howled in righteous protest: first at the black men, and then at the women who dared to seek the vote. (Not very breeding-sow like of ’em, I guess.) Oh, how the clergy spat and shouted! And the god-fearing politicians pranced and preened! And there were all sorts of other social sanctions, too: unmarried pregnant women shunned, or exiled and coerced to deliver their baybeez and hand them over for adoption. The despised “spinster aunts.” The dreaded “whore” and “slut” epithets hurled at nonconforming women, and every other means of ostracizing by polite society.

    I am sure I don’t have to point out that these same cultural memes are in force today. But they are not in full force, and here’s why: contraception.

    Given the choice and the means, women have far fewer children than their great grandmothers did. Overwhelmingly, in fact: 98% of American women have used birth control to avoid pregnancy. They are choosing to have far fewer children (if any), and to have them later in life when they do, focusing on the quality of their offspring’s lives—and their own—wherever a decent quality of life is possible.

    Priests are still shrieking about how god loves breeding sows from their pulpits, of course. But still, this most ancient of biological imperatives is easily overwritten with little more than a silent prayer, and often not even that: nothing more than a $5 co-pay. Contraception has led to huge cultural shifts in an infinitesimally tiny period of time: women in the workforce, women as a political force, women as autonomous sexual beings, women as other-than-breeding-sows. It is nearly impossible to overstate the speed and enormity of this change in Western culture. And it is nearly impossible to imagine anything more hostile to the ultimate, most primitive, most innate biological imperative.

    As an aside, I think that this issue is where the social and economic conservatives meet. Excess humanity, particularly when impoverished, is a capitalist’s dream: it’s a cheap labor pool to exploit. In terms of our own war-based economy, the means of production of the singular commodity necessary for warmaking needs to be tightly controlled: wars need soldiers more than any other commodity. And women make soldiers in their very bodies—and when they’re not making little soldiers for the future, they’re making little soldier-makers for the future. This is why we so often find misogyny and war tracking each other so tightly, in virtually every society, present and historical.

    Now this isn’t as true as it once was: modern warfare requires not so many soldiers as it once did. It requires more and more sociopaths with excellent video game skills, sitting in comfy desk chairs, safe within our very own borders. But this is an even more recent development than reliable birth control. If the breeding-sow meme is going down this hard (and I do believe it is going down), the warmaking soldier meme will go down just as hard. To wit: the Pentagon is considering issuing drone strike operators medals for bravery. On the other hand, the controversy over “women in combat” is becoming moot.

    In sum, radical, rapid cultural adaptation is not only possible, it has happened in your lifetime. If it continues despite the protests of priests and politicians, and more and more women have access to reliable birth control, populations will quickly stabilize, and then decline modestly. Wages and standards of living will rise, as labor becomes less exploitable—the last thing conservatives want. Why do you think they’re fighting so hard to keep women under control and pregnant?

    I think it’s too late for them: that cat is out and about, and it is not going back in the bag. You may disagree, of course. And if the oligarchs succeed in truly devastating the world economy and we cannot muster the moxie of Icelanders, you may well be right.

    So, you ask, are we fucked? I say YES—but in the best possible way, i.e., without worrying about babies.

    (Re: tarot vs. the bible for guidance, I’ll take tarot. Not as much misogyny to be found there.)

    • this is an extremely difuciflt issue for me. When my teenage daughter got pregnant I wanted her to abort and she told me loud and clear, NO. Now my granddaughter is one year old and I have to admit, my daughter was right. I think in the moment when a couple chooses to have sex without protection they have taken their decision pro choice ends here where a new, third life has started. But then there are the what if like rape, severe brain damage/disability of the fetus, etc. It is extremely hard to come to a satisfying opinion. And I also see your point that a legal abortion at a US clinic is better than illegal bullshit. I don’t envy any pregnant woman who is confronted with the question wether or not been there done that.For me one of the American cultural mysteries is the fact that those who oppose war the most are also those who support the killing of unborn life and those who are pro war are those who want to protect unborn babies. Shouldn’t the ones who support the killing on battlefields be the one who support the killing in clinics? And those against ending life in wars, shouldn’t they be the ones with the most compassion for unborn life? One of the things hard to understand for alien XYZ alias Munichmaedchen.

  2. OMFG. You know, sometimes I get all triyng-to-be-reasonable about this, and then I hear something like this radio commercial from the second look foundation (a front for some Catholic group), and I just want to scream. Actually, I do, but it’s in my car so only I hear it.I’m going from memory, so I have probably left out some of the lies, but:Claim: Roe v. Wade gives women the right to abort on a whim up to the moment of delivery. Bullshit. Setting aside the fact that you’d be hard-pressed to find even one person who in fact did this, Roe v. Wade established a tiered system based on trimesters, with increasing restrictions allowed the farther on the pregnancy has gone.Claim: There are X thousand abortions a year after the 5th or 6th month (I forget which). [Later] 25% of pregnancies end in abortion. Two facts that are probably true (or close enough), but when juxtaposed falsely imply that a large percentage of pregnancies are terminated after that date. In fact, 87% of abortions happen in the first trimester. About 1% happen after the 21st week (approximately 5 months). Probably not a lot of on a whim abortions in that bunch.And let’s not leave out the fact that saying for any reason implies that women who have abortions are doing it for no good reason, when the facts run counter to that unstated assumption.It just pisses me off when people lie like that. It destroys whatever shred of respect I have for them, and also if you’ve got to lie to advance your position, what does that say about it?[Statistics from Guttmacher institute]

  3. @Deepak – the late term abortion bogeyman is a canard that has been laid to rest, over and over and over. Most of the anti-choice “arguments” are lies, or at best wildly distorted rhetoric bearing little resemblance to reality. The appeals they make are emotional, not rational. The problem is that they often work on a populace that eschews critical thinking in favor of faith-based belief, i.e., things are true because (a) I want them to be true, and/or (b) some “authority” says they’re true.

    @Brian – I’ll respond to your comment in a post, and drop a link here.

  4. Pingback: Once more, nicely. | The Feminist Hivemind

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