07 July 2008

Preliminary scenario 2

Supposing that the physical world may be taken at face value and that the inferences drawn from it about the past of the planet are correct, we have the following picture of the past of the human race. Through geological ages the world cooled and life began to swarm upon it. Life forms struggled for survival and more complex forms emerged and developed. Very, very recently in geological time tribes of ape-men began to appear approximating to present-day humans in intelligence. Tribal groups wandered and fought for territory. Gradually they began to settle in favourable places and to develop some of the techniques that were possible to settled dwellers, always subject to attack by other marauding tribes who envied their advantages. But settlement became gradually the predominant style of life, and settled tribes began to manage their affairs so that they remained in one place for long periods of time.

There was little freedom for individuals within these tribes, which began to be what we call civilisations, and increased control of the environment was gained slowly. It could have been gained much faster if the human race had had a tendency to value the sort of ability among its members that might lead to advances in knowledge, but it did not. Similarly, species might have evolved much more rapidly if they had had a tendency to recognise and protect those individuals among their number who differed most extremely from the norm in a way that would tend towards the next evolutionary development; but why should they do that? Why should it seem of any importance to a lungfish, even supposing it to have a high level of intelligence, that they should evolve sooner rather than later into amphibians that could live on the land? If it had seemed of importance to them, they could have protected and aided the fish with the largest lungs and the strongest fore-fins.

The advantages that might have accrued to the human race from a tendency to value and protect intellectually gifted individuals were less remote, but still unquantifiable, and it would have been necessary to appreciate intellectual ability for its own sake, not for the benefits it might produce, which would have been difficult to foresee. Nevertheless, it is possible to imagine that it might have happened. A tribe which happened to have it inbuilt into its genetic constitution that it admired and protected exceptional individuals among its members might have been at a sufficient advantage in the struggle for survival for this genetic constitution to have become predominant. There is little sign that this happened; perhaps the time-scale within which the human race was struggling towards settled civilisation was simply too short for such a factor to take precedence over the survival value which attached to other factors, such as the value for the tribe of compliant members, and the value for individual survival of destructive jealousy towards individual rivals.

However, even so, the advances in control of the environment built up exponentially, slow as they were. The human race farmed better, made better tools, built better shelters to live in. But the great leap in control came suddenly and accidentally, as a result of a short period of increased freedom for individuals. This came about as a result of the development of the idea of individual property and commerce. This made it possible for some individuals to gain a good deal of freedom for themselves within the tribal framework, and the ability to make use of the commercial possibilities was correlated with intellectual power. The concept of individual property was associated with a right of the individual to bequeath property (i.e. freedom) on his death; he tended to leave it to his descendants and they tended to inherit the abilities which had made it possible for him to gain his property in the first place. Only "tended" of course, but that is all one can hope for in an evolutionary situation. This made possible an enormous expansion in scientific knowledge and a development of idealistic principles, which included, at least for a time, an ideal of appreciation of exceptional individuals and of progress as an abstract concept.

But the tribal forces in human psychology reasserted themselves. So much had been gained in the way of knowledge, now they could see their way (or thought they could) towards living perfectly adequate tribal lives without allowing individuals any further freedom from tribal control. People could live blandly and uneventfully, they could enjoy the pleasures of feeding and breeding, they could be free from disease and discomfort until they blandly and uneventfully died. There was no longer any need for intellectuals. The tribe would have a few in the tribal universities but no one would have to be allowed to become rich any more. The tribe would take possession of all the advantages created by individual freedom and use them to keep individuals in a state of contented unfreedom.

This is the point of history at which we live.

(from the forthcoming book The Corpse and the Kingdom)