Oh Humanity!


Competition vs. Cooperation
They're a yin/yang pair, flip sides of each other, each interleaved with the other. In a team sport you cooperate with your teammates to compete with the other team. However, the analogy of games to life can be taken too far. Ex-football coaches become gurus who know how to win, a skill that they promote as universally relevant. But in life neither the rules nor the teams are as well defined.
     I am a cooperator; I like to work with others to produce something that benefits all. Competitors treat life as a zero-sum game — whatever they get is at the expense of someone else. It's ironic that the most ruthless competitors, who use their abilities to grab more than their share of life's material rewards, like to portray themselves as cooperators: they deserve what they've got because they produced it all themselves.

     Cooperation came into being, in the course of evolution, as a competitive strategy; competition is essential to life in a way that cooperation is not. This is part of the reason why it's difficult to achieve cooperation on a global scale. Is it possible that the process of evolution could have evolved differently, with cooperation as its basis instead of competition?

Simplifiers vs. Complicators
Simplifiers have an innate need for security, so, like bulldogs, they clamp onto a few ideas and won't be shaken from them. The world is simple because they force it into a simple framework.
     Complicators feel nervous about settling on anything. They live in a fractal world, where each sort-of truth turns out to be, on closer inspection, a spider web of complications and caveats.
     I'm a third type, who always seeks the middle ground, and tends to feel that it's the moral high ground. "Moderation in everything, including moderation," said the head monk of Shangri-La, leaving none of us with anywhere to stand.

The Paradox of Excellence and Mediocrity
There's much more mediocrity in high places and excellence scattered everywhere else than would be found in a well ordered world. There are those who must believe in a well ordered world and will deny the evidence to keep on doing so, but our current U.S. President, George W. Bush, is a good counterexample to the notion of perfect correlation between excellence and position.

Mental and Spiritual Taxonomy
The organization of Roget's Thesaurus (which simply means "Treaure" in Latinized Greek) fascinates me because it's an attempt to map the space of human concepts and feelings. The top-level categories, abstract relations, space, physics, matter, sensation, intellect, volition and affections, are divided into sub-categories and these into sub-sub-categories. The purpose is to help the reader find particular words, but few readers, I suspect, are aware of the grand structure of the whole.
     I know of two other systems of mental and siritual taxonomy: the ancient Chinese Yi Jing (or I Ching or Book of Changes), and astrology. The Yi Jing, originally a fortune-telling system, divides our mental and spiritual space into 64 situations, and then subdivides each one further depending on how it's changing into another of the situations (hence the "Changes" in the name). The text is obscure and difficult, with layer upon layer of emendation and interpretation accreted during its 3,000-year history. One gets a strong emotional picture of each situation (I've tried to represent a few of them in music).
     Western astrology is another fortune-telling system, based on the positions of the sun and planets in relation to the stars and to one another, at the current moment, and the moment of birth. Where the Yi Jing uses a top-down system, where one of the 64 big-picture situation is picked first, and then the details are added, astrology uses a bottom-up system, summing the various influences to create the big picture. The most significant is the sun – where is it in relation to the fixed background of the stars? Then the planets are figured in one by one, and then their relationships – are they across from each other or in conjunction? Each house of the zodiac (a zone of the star background), the sun, each planet, each possible relationship has a particular emotional, mental or spirtual character, which is combined with the others to form the horoscope.
     Other large-scale non-scientific systems that are rich sources of philosophy and metaphor to aid our general understanding are the great world religions, alchemy, and the works of Freud and Jung.

     Because of its focus on the big picture, I find the Yi Jing's system the most compelling and interesting. Roget's system is dry and intellectual, and provides no way to combine elements. The horoscope does, but the combination is laborious, and a waste of time if one is interested in these systems only in the abstract. I certainly don't accept that they can predict the future, or that my character is determined by my moment of birth.

Isn't it amazing how quickly and reliably we recognize the sex of another person, even at a distance? And how accurately we track the gaze of another from far away? A distant eyeball subtends such a small angle of vision, but we can tell, with a little mental click, when it's looking back at us.

Kid Science
Einstein suggested that children have a more flexible, potentially deeper awareness of the world, before they're educated. I wonder if the same isn't true of human culture — it's as easy for us to see foolishness in the science of "native" Americans and ancient alchemists as in the science of children, but what sorts of wisdom and imagination have we lost in suppressing their world views?

The End of Race
It is inevitable that the division of humanity into races will vanish. The division came from local adaptation by large groups of people separated by the difficulty of travel. Now that the difficulty is relaxed, intermarriage is gradually mixing the races. I say "gradually," but that's our quick historical time scale. It's extremely rapid when compared to the rate at which inter-racial differences came into being. We'll all be brown some day. When will this process be complete? In a hundred years? In a thousand years? How much variance will there be in the human form once we've reached the end?

Idealization of Childhood
When I was a kid, my parents told me to enjoy my childhood because it would be the best part of my life. They were both intelligent, accomplished people, PhD college professors, so I can't imagine where they got this idea. I don't think it was true for them, and it certainly wasn't true for me. I spent my childhood wanting to grow older so I could have some measure of control over my life.
     Why do we increasingly idealize childhood? Why is the normative individual in our society getting younger and younger? As Wynton Marsalis remarked, up until the 1960s, mainstream commercial music was made for adults. Today it's made for teenagers, and the demographic is getting younger each year. Ditto for movies. Is the rock-and-roll manic adolescent excitement the only emotion anyone wants to feel? Was adolescence the best part of everyone's life? Or is it an escapist idealization of those times? Or is culture so much a consumer product that we become culturally disenfranchised once we pass our peak music- and movie-consuming years?

Vicarious Overload
The print media are forever decrying the amount of violence on television – that by the age of 12 our children have seen tens of thousands of simulated acts of violence.
     What worries me more is the sheer quantity of vicarious experience this portends. How many simulated years has the average teenager lived, through TV and other forms of virtual (but hardly virtuous, or even realistic) reality? Does the accumulation of vicarious experience outweigh personal life experience?
     This isn't confined to the young. A celebrity is a person marketable as a commodity with whom many consumers have fantasy relationships. The popular sitcoms are the nation's circles of friends. How much of our friendship space is given over to these people who don't know or care about us?

Men and Women
How much are men and women different? I'd say about 15% – the other 85% is the same between the two sexes. I suspect that many estimates of this would be higher, as is implied by the existence of university women's studies programs. Of course, the inherent differences can be culturally increased: Afghan men and women lead lives more different from one another than do men and women in the U.S.
     The same question can be asked about races and nationalities, leading to the question of how much within us (this is all that matters) is human nature and how much is determined by our particular luck and circumstances.
     This percentage measurement is very subjective. We'd probably all seem alike if we had space aliens to compare with, especially if they had three sexes instead of two.

Life 101
I have memories of my father teaching me basic rules of life, such as "the hot water faucet is always on the left." One reason I never wanted children of my own is that teaching the basics – Life 101 – doesn't appeal to me. I'd rather teach the more advanced course, if I can figure out the answers myself first.

The prime male fantasy is invincibility. Though physical violence is rare in civilized lands, a primal fear still lurks, and men, especially, whose biological role is to fight when necessary like to fantasize about not being concerned about the outcome of physical confrontation. Action movie heroes play to this fantasy – they are so tough they can beat any number of men in a fight. The perfect male virtual-reality game would be a world where one could beat any man and have any woman. Neither should be too easy.

My wife Benita is forever saying that "people are stupid," and most of the time it seems to me that she's right. Maybe she means that she and I are a little smarter than average, but more likely she's deprecating human nature, a form of misanthropy.
     Human evolution stopped as soon as we got smart enough to take evolution to the next level and build societal organisms with ourselves as cells, as animals are made out of smaller cells that evolved to the point where they were capable of serving as good building blocks. When we meet life from other planets, will we find this effect to be universal, so that races evolving independently end up with the same level of intelligence, the minimum required to form a complex society?
     Or will we find a race that's way beyond us? What would it be like for us to live side-by-side with a race as much smarter than us as we are smarter than dogs? We would understand very little of what they did or why, but their projects would usually produce miraculous success. We would be their servants, companions, or pets, as dogs are ours.
     Would they be smart enough to avoid the dopey things that we humans do, such as war? Would they be able to organize themselves more equitably and efficiently so that none of them starved? Is there any way they could have evolved to be fundamentally cooperative instead of competitive?

So Many People
Sitting here in the Las Vegas airport watching strangers stream by reminds me how astonishingly many people there are. This is apparent here, as when I'm visiting new cities. I remind myself that the million or so people I will have seen by the end of my life are a tiny fraction – a six thousandth – of all the people alive on this planet.
     My own subjective world of thoughts and feelings seems huge to me, so multiplying it by just the number of persons I can see right now requires an intense act of imagination. Extending this world-wide, to all the humans I will ever see, times six thousand, I try to imagine an immense spiritual cacophony, a field around the earth.

Loving Thy Neighbor
When Jesus echoes the old testament, saying "love thy neighbor as thyself," he's stating the plain human truth that each of us has concentric circles of love and caring. We care for ourselves, then our families, then friends, then those that live near us and are like us, and then, last, those who are far away and different. The Greek word for "neighbor" is "plesion," which literally means "the near one." He didn't say, as he could have, "love everyone..."

The Human Phenotype
How long would it take, if human breeding could be selectively controlled, to develop "breeds" of human beings as distinct in physical characteristics (phenotype) as dog breeds? Probably just a few hundred years.

Human Nature
Though I am a secular humanist, I can't see why everyone is so enamored of and focused on human nature, especially when we don't really know what it is. "Man is the measure of all" is narcissistic, a silly relic of the bygone age when humanity was at the center of the universe.
     When I hear the term "human nature," I mentally break it into two parts: the part that is universal to all races of intelligent beings in the universe, and the part that is particular to humanity. It's hard to distinguish the two in the absence of actual examples of extra-terrestrial races.
     In the same way that our idea of the range of human nature is provided by the variance in individuals that we encounter, and in the same way that we can calibrate the position of our own society and culture within the space of other societies and cultures that we've visited in our travels, we would have a much better definition of human nature if we had a set of other intelligent races to compare with.
     If we think of human nature as a multidimensional space defined by the cloud of points for the characteristics of all human beings, past and present, where is that space in the overall map showing the natures of all intelligent beings? There is probably an extensive overlap with the spaces of other extra-terrestrial races, but we won't know until we meet them and see where we stand in relation. This is the real answer to "what is human nature?"

The word "innocence" comes from the Latin nocere, which means "to harm," so the root sense of the word is "not harming." I tend to think of innocence as the opposite of experience, with the potential for harm going the other way. Innocence, for me, is not so much a lack of experience as a failure to have been harmed by it and, as this is difficult to sustain, innocence later in life is a triumpth.
     In a Tai Ji Quan game called Push Hands you go round and round, back and forth pushing your opponent's arms and being pushed in turn. The goal is to push your opponent off balance so he or she is forced to take a step back. By being open and in close contact you can feel what your opponent is going to do, and can react in time to avoid being pushed straight through your center. All it takes is a subtle deflection of the push to one side or the other. You don't need to conceal who or where you are, you can open up to intimate contact, you just need confidence in your ability to deflect an attack with minimal violence. This is the innocence that comes only with experience.

Laissez Faire & the Zero-Sum Game
The competitors who make a million dollars a year say their wealth comes from their productivity. They've earned everything they've got and they deserve to be left alone to enjoy it. Laissez faire! But their success is built on the fabric and facilities provided by society for common use. Here's a thought experiment: would we all make a million dollars a year if we had a society made up of nothing but these winners? Of coursse not. Our productivity would probably rise somewhat, but not enough so they could all keep their six-figure incomes.
     The second component in acquiring wealth is the zero-sum game. This term was coined by John Von Neumann to describe situations where winnings of one player must be offset by losses for others (so they add up to zero). Society's economic winners are better at playing the money game (some might call this "scamming the system"), so they end up with a larger share. Is this fair? Does an investment banker really deserve to earn ten times as much as an engineer who designs bridges? Their contributions are equally important to society, the level of training and aptitude required about the same. The investment banker is better at playing the money game, so he wins.
      But the other extreme isn't any fairer: "from each according to ability to each according to need." This is the communist leveling thought experiment where everyone puts his income in a big pot, which is then divided equally. It avoids the inequities of the zero-sum game, but throws out the baby with the bathwater. There's no economic incentive for productivity or innovation. The ideal would be to reward productivity and innovation without rewarding gamingof the system, but this is impossible in practice (and maybe even in theory). So the best we can do is to redistribute wealth somewhat through progressive taxation. We need to find the right balance point between too much laissez-faire, which increases the economic pie, but slices it unfairly, and too much socialistic leveling, which bakes a smaller pie but distributes it more equitably.

Haves and Have-Nots
The have-nots are dangerous because they have much less to lose and more to gain from disruption of the existing order. The hungry are keener and take risks in order to win; when they do they gradually get lazy and complacent, setting the stage for the cycle to begin anew. This happened with Rome and the barbarians, and it's happening now with America and China and the Muslims. The best time to live is the time we're living in now: after the peak in the curve, when decay has set in but the walls are still holding.

The Value of Human Life
With our usual hypocrisy we pretend that the dollar value of human life is infinite. But we all know that trade-offs are made. There are professionals who make a business of this:

  • the Special Master who decides the compensation for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack: he takes into account age, marital status & number of children, income and job potential, etc.
  • the wrongful-death jury consultants, who advise lawyers on the likely amounts of jury awards (based on more subjective factors) so they can settle for less

My father used to point out that, whenever a big public-works project was undertaken, the result would be the deaths of some of the workmen. Air and water pollution lead to deaths that could be avoided by reducing the pollution. We are aware of these trade-offs but we don't reduce the pollution. We could reduce deaths in automobile accidents by lowering the speed limit, but this country already has low limits, compared with Europe. In the end, though we will never admit it to ourselves, we make the rational decision that it's worth killing a few people for most of us to save time.

Death was obviously required for evolution to get us where we are today but, given that we've all but ceased to evolve biologically, is it of value now? A thought experiment: imagine a new genetic treatment that would freeze our age permanently so we could pick our peak. We'd quickly become a world of perpetual 30-year-olds, and we'd have to restrict new births to match the rate of death from accident and disease, to avoid Malthusian unpleasantnesses.
     Would this be a better life, to have the prospect of potentially infinite life, but (probably) no children? Would we get tired of life like the ancient Sibyl? Would a 500-year-old become wiser than a 50-year old? Maybe the treatment would be so expensive that only the very richest could afford it. They could continue amassing wealth for centuries instead of decades, and we'd have the equivalent of the Medici competing with J.P. Morgan and Donald Trump. Death is starting to sound pretty good.

Love is multidimensional in the same way that intelligence is. We rate intelligence with a number called IQ, which implies a single dimension: low to high. But there are many kinds of smartness and stupidity. One can be good at math, or with words, or artistically intuitive, cunning with money, persuasive, deeply understanding of others’ motives and feelings. Surely these are all types of intelligence, and an individual can rate high on some of the scales and low on others, in just about any combination.
      So with love. The Greeks began the catalog with eros and agape, the first sensual and sexual, the second the empathetic fellowship of “love thy neighbor…” These are points or planes in the space of love whose dimensions include sexuality, selfishness, biological and cultural connection, degree of intimacy, intensity, and more.

Parent Polarizations
There are psychic areas where your parents have no sway, and others where their influence dominates. In those you are variously polarized — you unconsciously assume their attitude or rebel against it. This is an emotional meme.

Spiritual Biomass
How much pain does an ant feel? It must be less than ours, but similar - both are chemical reactions in our brains. The Buddhists ridiculously equate the souls of all living things. How about plants or microbes, do they feel too? Homo sapiens is grossly outmatched in biomass by ants and microbes. How about our spiritual mass? What percent of the feeling on the planet belongs to the human species?

Chain of Being
There is a chain of life stretching from the simplest organisms — single cells with no nuclei — up to humans. We're the most complicated, and think and feel the most. There is a gradation within each species as well. A newborn baby is lower on this chain than a mature adult. How much ethical weight should we give to differences in place on this chain? Should animals be treated like simpler humans (not killing them or using them for human purposes) as some animal-rights activists propose? Should we never boil water for fear of killing microbes, as the Jainists would have us do?
      My own answer is that we must treat animals ethically. We shouldn't raise the animals that we eventually eat in intolerably cruel conditions. But the ethical weight of a creature is lower the lower it is on the chain.

I visited Auchwitz today; it is an evil, evil place. The lesson is not "how bad the Germans were" but rather "human nature has a very evil dark corner where we have hidden the capacity to commit atrocities."
      The human race is becoming racially assimilated. I ask myself, if we were assimilated culturally as well, so there were no language or ethnic differences, would that remove the possibility of another atrocity like the Holocaust? The answer is no; we would divide ourselves arbitrarily into red and blue teams and they would still want to kill each other sometimes. Competition and contention are in our blood.
      Writing "In the Penal Colony" around the time that the first world war began, Kafka brilliantly anticipated the human aspects of the Nazis' "final solution to the Jewish problem." He depicts a technically brilliant machine for executing prisoners by piercing their skin with thousands of needles in the form of an admonition given as part of their death sentences: "Be Just" or "Obey Your Superiors." The pride that the officer in charge of this machine takes in its technical perfection and in the design of the process of the prisoner's death, and his total detachment from its cruelty and the unjust judicial process anticipate the inhuman efficiencies of Auchwitz.

A refractive spiritual bubble around each of us makes the outer world we perceive correspond to our inner world, as a raindrop produces a tiny upside-down image of everything around it. It's a two-way projection between the inner and outside worlds. I'm influenced by what I see in the world, but I project what's in my self onto the world I see. That world is an expression of who I am. For us to understand each other these exocosms have to coincide, and they often don't.

Copyright © 2001-2005 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.