It is hard to watch the craziness of the current American political scene and not wonder whether the republic can outlast our widespread stupidity. (If you’ll allow me a bit of typical American bloviating, perhaps we are so “exceptional” as to be the only country able to drag the rest of the world down with us.) Attitudes toward science, paranoia rampant in subpopulations with gerrymandered political representation, and religious fervor do not engender pride in the human species. But wait, that is a narrow and time-specific viewpoint. History provides sufficient instances of American depths and heights to take at least a little comfort in the hopeful patriotism that counsels us to cheer up, we’ve come through mass psychoses before.
And it’s true, we have. The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 almost taught us a lesson, but not quite, as we proceeded to demonstrate with the Sedition Act of 1918 and Joseph McCarthy after that. And I need not mention (though obviously I will) the religious fundamentalism that has swept the country more than once, including enough “Great Awakenings” to label generations by them (I’m a Billy Graham baby, my parents were of the Billy Sunday era).
But what moved me to this posting was not anything so myopic as concern about American current politics, American history of the past two centuries, or even the world over the most recent few millennia. No, as pessimism goes, that’s all child’s play. I despair of the inability of our species to devise societal interactions so that we aren’t forever stumbling over our own shoelaces (and even before we had shoelaces). I’m trying to take the hundred millennia view here.
Primate evolution conspired to produce an unparalleled brain, one good enough to come up with language, mathematics, atomic bombs, and TV reality shows. I admit being mightily impressed that a few of us figured out the heliocentric system, plate tectonics, interplanetary flight, magnetic resonance imaging, the Higgs Boson, and are hot on the trail of dark matter. Not to be outdone, religion-infected brains spawned virgin sacrifice, witch-burning, Thor’s bad thunder habit, transubstantiation, infantile Islamic cartoon upset, and the Tea Party.
Even without religion, getting us to act intelligently as whole societies with our individual opinions and peculiarities hanging out is, species-centrically speaking, downright embarrassing. We can’t even make sense as a handful on a board of directors, much less as a population across a whole political state and much, much less, across a whole world. The comedy of errors that led to World War I comes to mind, but listing all the familiar examples is unnecessary. On the bright side, we did manage to emerge intact from Mutually Assured Destruction, but that reprieve hardly constitutes a citation for excellence in interpersonal relationships writ large.
In day-to-day life, I’m about as optimistic as I can be without being irretrievably insufferable. But as genuine as this happy face is, my confidence in the human race to do intelligently much of anything outside technical realms and art is quite another matter. To say I’m gloomy would be to vastly overstate my optimism. It isn’t that I think everything’s going to hell in a hand basket by next week, at least no more than it already has, but that we human beings are so lacking in the intelligence and integrity departments that evolution will simply have to start all over again. We aren’t up to it.
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