Archive for December, 2010

tl;dr

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Can’t be bothered to wade through that last entry? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. The basic argument is actually pretty simple; I just went off on lots of tangents about the evolutionary history that has led us to this point, and I also ran through some of the implications of these ideas, and how they relate to everyday life. Here are the key points:

- The historical and evolutionary evidence indicates we are in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one. Also, the evolution of our attitude towards violence is closely tied to the evolution of religion. Religion greatly reduced the overall violent nature of our societal groups, but it also gave rise to war when these societal groups clashed, which is why we are now moving on and seeking new alternatives, in order to build on the progress that has been made.

- There are two characteristics which all pro-violence viewpoints have in common: they are reactionary, and they come equipped with a system of ethics designed to eliminate the problems associated with all the other pro-violence worldviews that have failed in the past. This ethical code allows people to feel superior to other practitioners of violence, which is why they can sustain their position even as violence continues to cause problems throughout the world.

- Whenever this system of ethics fails, people simply refine their ethical code and start again. But in reality, there is no such thing as a system of ethics that can prevent the harmful consequences of violent behaviour.

- Violence is a fear response: we experience fear, we try to enact control, violence is usually the simplest act of control so it is the first thing people turn to (ie. it is the path of least resistance, which is something our brains always find appealing). But modern violence carries an unusual quirk: because nonviolent ideas have already permeated society to a significant degree, people are now trying to regulate their violent behaviour. This means that when they experience fear, and thus the desire for control suddenly makes violence seem an attractive option, they try to repress that response, because they have been taught that it is wrong. This is the key mistake. Repression only delays the response; it doesn’t eliminate it. In order to properly move on from violence, we need to stop repressing these actions, and learn to let go of them, and embrace the feeling of inner peace that stems from this action. Then we can all go frolicking together in meadows, etc.

- Because we are still in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one, most of the pro-violence worldviews that exist today can be viewed as the memetic equivalent of transitional forms. Many of them will provide useful, if rather unstable, stepping stones on the way to that long-term goal, but they are clearly unsustainable, and we will eventually have to complete the transition. And yeah, I know it’s probably hard to look at some of the wars and such that exist today and think “well, at least we’re making progress”, but it seems that that is indeed the case, even if we still have a long way to go.

Anti-violence post #2

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

We have come a long way. Even a study of recent history will reveal remarkable changes, but when you look back at the last 100,000 years or so, in which we have gone from a few thousand tribespeople on the African savannah to almost 7 billion people spread all over the planet, you really just have to sit back and marvel at the extraordinary changes which have occurred. Not least of which because this has all happened with only relatively minor changes to the human genome; as far as we can tell, there have been a series of superficial adaptations to environmental conditions, but aside from those, we are essentially still the same as the first people to look up at the stars, all those thousands of years ago. All the subsequent changes, the evolution of civilization, technology, and everything else we take for granted today, are the product of cultural evolution, derived solely from the tenuous transfer of memes from one generation to the next.

This evolutionary process shows no signs of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. We are even today caught up in this vortex of inexorable change, running as fast as we can just to try and stay in the same place, as the saying goes. Naturally, the question arises: where exactly are we headed? It is a difficult thing to predict, but by looking at some of the selective pressures in play today, we might gain some insight into where we’ll find ourselves tomorrow.

Perhaps the most significant driving force behind the changes that have taken place is the fact that our exploding population has put immense pressure on our traditional territorial tribalism. When we grow tired of our neighbours, we can no longer just pack up and find somewhere else to live, as we’ll simply run into more humans who are likely to be just as defensive about their land as the people we left behind. Varied responses have arisen to deal with this pressure in the past: war, politics, diplomacy, and perhaps most interestingly, the expansion of social groups to include members of many different tribes. These supertribes required a powerful rallying point for social cohesion, and so we began to exaggerate the abilities of our leaders, so that their stature would match the size of the tribe, and everyone would gratefully serve them due to their unmatched power. But this line of thought soon required extending beyond the realms of human possibility, necessitating the invention of a concept above nature – the supernatural. These mythical leaders grew ever more powerful as social groups increased in size (the bigger the group, the better the odds of survival, marking a new evolutionary paradigm directed towards group selection), spurred on particularly by tales of past leaders, who were no longer around and thus could be exaggerated without any fear of being proven wrong by a need for real-life demonstrations of power. Eventually, they were removed entirely from reality, and we had ready-made gods inhabiting an imaginary realm, laying down the foundations for religion. (Ancient Egyptian culture provides a famous transitional form, exhibiting both gods and the god-king pharohs. And let’s not forget that modern Catholicism is at least partially derivative of Egyptian mythology…) But ideas that worked well in the past can wear out their welcome, such as when religious warfare leads to violence on increasingly unprecedented scales, creating marked conflicts with our kin-selected propensity for altruism and empathy. Expanding social groups gave us the ability to extend empathy beyond our immediate kin, and so ironically, turned us against the very thing that opened our eyes to the concept of a wider culture in the first place. The evolutionary march continues, and religion is on the way out, having been supplanted by nationalism and hopefully, eventually, a single, worldwide, humanist culture.

Population growth opens up other sources of pressure: the need for sustainable food sources, the need to consciously limit our impact on the environment, the need for more efficient infrastructure – and, especially when aligned with our increasingly devastating arsenal of weapons technology, the need for effective conflict resolution. It is now necessary not just to end conflicts after they arise but to figure out why they occur and how they can be prevented. A thorough understanding is required to ensure that we don’t bumble into a catastrophic and irreversible war – which, as close calls in the past have illustrated, is an all too real possibility.

Naturally, the pressure to finally put the concept of war to bed has brought forth many proposed solutions, some of which will ultimately be seen as having played a part in uncovering the final answer; others will merely be smirked at amusingly or maybe even scoffed at incredulously (*cough*pre-emptive self-defence*cough*). For mine, I would put my money on a fairly basic idea: the promotion of the positive aspects of human potential (trying not to use the term “human nature”, it is a fairly misleading concept), coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the motivations behind violence, greed, and other negative behavioural traits, which is now being brought to light through modern scientific discoveries. This understanding will allow people to make properly informed choices, and will highlight the absurdity of choosing to pursue violence, when its predictable consequences are fully laid bare. This is more of a long-term strategy, obviously; people who have already developed violent behavioural patterns are likely to be too fearful to change in the short term, because their fear has been magnified by their violent actions. But over successive generations, changes which seem impossible to us will become inevitable and unavoidable. Widespread education and rapid advancement of knowledge, coupled with constant reinforcement of empathy and other positive aspects of human behaviour, have already worked significant changes over the course of history, and this pattern shows no sign of stopping – indeed, it is only accelerating.

(more…)