Are We Getting Better as a Species?

Humanity is a shitshow.

The difficulty of watching the hourly horror dispatches from Ukraine is not counterbalanced by any hope for a better, safer future. Instead, the messages that are being drilled into the heads of all rational onlookers are these:

  1. Humanity will always be held hostage by sociopaths that climb to the top of the heap, because that is what sociopaths do, and no cultures have stops in place to check this.

2. Technology can create wonders to save us, but its work in the destructive sphere outstrips its progress in those salvific areas, crafting more horrible things to destroy us every day. Hypersonic missiles, Novichok and other new chemical poisons, new biological weapons courtesy of synthbio, etc. have very short lab lives now before being tested on actual humans. Did you see that it took almost a year to clean up the town of Wiltshire after an exposure to a truly minuscule amount of Novichok? Entire vehicles had to be buried in the earth. Just wait until we all see what synthetic biology has up its dark and capacious sleeves. That one is really going to be a mindblower.

3. Make your way to the hinterlands, away from the cities which will become primary targets more and more with each increasing year. Self-reliance and sustainability are our friends.

I realize most of us will continue with our faith that our “ordinary existence” will continue uninterrupted by historic tragedies exploding in our front yards. But it is a faith that seems to be continually tested and on the verge of becoming outmoded and untenable in these days of pandemics that reach every single doorstep.

The lesson that is quickly coming home to anyone who thinks is that we are all intricately connected now. That what we do each day and in each sphere of influence in which we operate matters so much. This has always been true, but the powerful and the rest of us tended to ignore this important truth. Individuals and governments acted with similar impunity.

Everything is becoming weaponized now. Even language has become weaponized to the degree that political campaigns are run with slogans that are really weapons, promising future discrimination against certain social groups or classes. Kyle Rittenhouse aimed at and shot fellow Americans through the scope of a slogan.

Part of the problem is that humanity has not been honest with itself. We idealize ourselves. To call ourselves a work-in-progress is a sadly hilarious understatement. We didn’t have modern sanitation until roughly two centuries ago. Virology is a little over a century old as a science (discounting early lucky guessers like Jenner). Life expectancy was pitiful until the twentieth-century. Our last world war in which 3% of the entire global population perished was not all that long ago. And we have been continuing to wage wars and practice genocide right up until this very moment. Technology changes but human nature does not. This is the central problem not just of our time, but of all times.

We work on ourselves as individuals and seek education, therapy and other means of self-improvement. But do cultures and nations really work on self-improvement? The problem is that most of them seek to remain static, become reactionary. Politics and religion are the two great shapers. We see these Kulturkampfs of discussion and ideological challenge playing out on social media apps but this is not formal change. This is boundary-setting and tiny turf wars. They are more conflict substitutes than conflict resolution. We pretend they are “safe” forms of mini-wars but they sometimes lead to body counts in the real world. Diametrically opposed positions are entrenched. This situation exists in many modern nations.

If countries could go into therapy, most of them would be well-served to do so. But here is where we reach the problem of power. Social organization requires leadership and governments that allow heads of state to have absolute power will always put humanity’s lot in the hands of one individual who may then destabilize the entire world, should he or she be sitting on a nuclear stockpile or other Pandora’s box of weaponry.

To look into my crystal ball, I would say neither religious fundamentalisms nor political idealisms can last more than a few more centuries. They will probably merge into a new humanism. This will be incredibly painful to achieve and hundreds of millions if not billions of people will be sacrificed to achieve this state of universal detente. This is the only way in which the planet will ever come to peace. There will be universal vigilance for moments of atavistic sliding into the old ways of violence. But eventually people will be united across seas, across languages, across cultural differences. I know some people believe all national boundaries will disappear and that may happen too.

Whether you get the message from this or that messiah, the truth is it’s in your own interest to have love for everyone, even those benighted by hate. When we model this behavior, we are opening a door to a future that may have rendered war extinct. The other possibility is that we live in a state of continual barbarism, that we rise to the mastery of the seas, skies and outer space and yet cannot achieve mastery over ourselves and continue killing one another over resources which are enough for everyone with proper organization and goodwill.

I do realize the irony that the world’s attention has been riveted by the mass murder in Ukraine and that we disregard the massive slaughter going on in other countries whose inhabitants are not Caucasian. There was not the same level of lamentation for the victims of Syria, Yemen or even for the ongoing slaughter of peaceful Mexican citizens at the hands of all-powerful drug cartels who act with total impunity. The world is on fire and the planet itself is telling us “Enough!” with drastic climate change threatening all nations.

We need a new bible. One which will not serve up any sectarian god with vengeful propensities but which will give us a yield of principles which will give us a perpetual Peace Dividend, not a flimsy one which lasts a few decades between world wars. Why am I hearing David Byrne’s voice here: “Drugs won’t change you, / Religion won’t change you, / Science won’t change you.” These are some of The Greatest Hits of Civilization. And where have they gotten us? Check today’s news for the answer. “I need something to change your mind.” Apparently, it hasn’t been invented yet.



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William Keckler

Writer, visual artist. Books include Sanskrit of the Body, which won in the U.S. National Poetry Series (Penguin).