Monday, January 4, 2010

The Needs Of The Many

Roughly 6.5 billion people inhabit the Earth. It is a staggering number, given the limited amount of land suitable for easy habitation and the irregularity of abundance of natural resources. Add to this the seasonal fluctuations, which bring forth habitability changes, and the dynamic weather, and the spread of humanity across the globe is even more remarkable. True, there are other species with larger numbers, and with perhaps greater reach, but none other than Homo sapiens has shown an ability to move beyond the simple forces of nature and evolution, to control its own destiny.

Yet, for our ability to circumvent the natural systems that govern our planet, we are still slaves to the legacy of our ancestors, whose fight for survival was more contentious, more cutthroat, more subject to the vagaries of change. That we are here is testament to their stamina, endurance, and cunning, as their knowledge of the world they lived in was limited, and the vast expanses before them held dangers aplenty. With no ability to predict future events, subject to the whims of a restless planet, somehow they grew, thrived, and were able to begin to wrest a living from the earth, to escape the endless cycles of forced hardship. Even so, they were forced by their environment to adapt, to build behaviors that protected them, allowed them security and growth. Though the forces which shaped those behaviors have been vastly mitigated in millions of years, their impact on us remains.

Our ancestors had to be cautious, conservative, mindful that their group was one of many fighting for scarce resources. Strangers -- those not of the same tribe -- were regarded with suspicion and hostility. Where two groups came into contact, each was made wary of the other, and no doubt, where a resource (food, water, shelter) was coveted by more than one group, there was fighting. In the end, those groups that contained the most adaptable, most adept members, grew stronger, while others died out. This continued throughout millions of years, honing the faculties and skills of the progenitors of Homo sapiens, eventually leading to the humanity we see today. And while we have advanced far beyond anything our ancestors might have dreamed of, we have not shaken the same instincts and behaviors that guided them through the tortuous landscape that was primitive Earth.

We still look on those who are "unlike" us with wariness and hostility. Our desire to hoard resources to ensure our survival, while depriving others of those resources to weaken them, is inherent in our social, economic, and foreign policy. We still fight over those resources, though on a vastly larger scale than those human tribes that roamed the plains eons ago. Even when we live in abundance, we squander it, failing to prepare for what may come, reveling in the simple pleasure of having, as if to have these things means they will always be available. We feel that the things that make us powerful are somehow anointed, given sacred form, and make us more worthy than those who do not have the same things or do not share the same beliefs.

Our advancement as a species equipped us with the mental horsepower to shape and mold our world, to form communities and civilizations, to harness previously unfathomable energies, to move beyond the simple mechanisms of natural selection, and to weather changes in the environment that previously would have crippled our ability to survive. Even so, while the mind has been turned to worthwhile pursuits, and has brought us the marvels that fueled our growth and expansion, we continue to drag along the dead weight of our ancestral behaviors. No amount of mental computing power has seen fit to erase them.

They plague us still, these demons of ancestry. They are the impetus behind bigotry, racism, narcissism, greed, violence, lust, and the need for power. To each of these, a primal emotion attaches itself, overriding the reason and logic of the cerebral cortex, stimulating us at our very core, filling us with fear, envy, loathing, and spurring us to actions that have no place in the enlightened society that our advancement has supposedly led us to. We are not tribes, circling a dwindling watering hole, fighting for survival; we are a species with knowledge and power, capable of forging the infrastructure that ensures that no member of humanity need go without. We have left the dry, barren, dusty plains, and ascended to the lushness of cool, green forests, running water, and bountiful harvests. Still, at the margins, the dry rot of the millennia remains, gripping us amidst our cornucopia. We become petty, insular, unreasoning, savage, treating each other as no better than the animals we arose from, all the while guarding our territory, hoarding our precious commodities, striving to be the last standing amongst our peers.

If we are to succeed fully, to grow beyond the simple savagery, then we must shake off the chains that tie us to a distant and primal past. Our new brain, with all its gifts, must assert dominance over our primitive brain, which stood us in good stead in the past. We must forgo fear, anger, hatred, division, and dogma, if we are to become more than a mere collection of people, but a singular humanity, with a reach that extends far beyond our atmosphere. The longer we wallow in the mud, the less likely we are to survive what lies ahead, and the disasters that lie before us pale to those we know today. We have the capacity to move beyond simple existence, to place a stamp upon the universe. To do so, will require the acknowledgment that we are not few, but many, and that the needs of the many must be met if we are to survive.

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