Dangerous Evolutionary Baggage

In 1980, the late (great) Carl Sagan made a powerful plea on COSMOS, not just to Americans but to all of humanity:
"In our tenure on this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage - propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders - all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence - the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the Cosmos an inescapable perspective awaits. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national identifications are a little difficult to support when we see our Earth as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and the citadel of the stars. There are not yet obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours rush inevitably headlong into self-destruction." 

Of this, a single question comes to mind:  Can we not strive to create a society which appeals to those most positive aspects of humanity, while limiting the impact of our shared evolutionary baggage?

I find myself coming back to this question time and time again; I can't escape it.  The greater part of our world is dominated by an economic system that - in its purest form - plays to our most primal, base qualities.  It tells us to give in to our selfishness and aggression, to unleash our competitive desires in a sphere where we literally decide between comfort and misery, life and death.  And it concludes that if we do this for a long enough time, we will create the best society possible.  This form of thinking has such a stranglehold on mainstream thought that so-called scholars and experts openly declare that capitalism has "won".  They say we have reached the end of history.

Personally, I find it unfathomable to believe that this is the best we have to offer as a species.  It must be a sad, lonely existence for those who do.  They project triumphantly, but what real gains are there underneath the rhetoric?  What solace can be found in claiming there must always be such suffering in the world?

After all, capitalism ferociously attempts to answer my question in the negative.  It is indeed the very antithesis of a society which facilitates the best in us and discourages the worst.  It fights progress, hates compassion, and denigrates all forms of justice.  Worse, it takes our collective humanity and crushes it; takes our interconnectedness, smashes it into tiny pieces, and forces those pieces to fight for its pleasure.  In capitalist society we define ourselves not through our thoughts and relations, but through the businesses we support, the cars we drive, and the clothes we wear.  We literally think in brand names and logos.  We are not who we are - we are the things we like, and the jobs we hold.  We network not to meet new people, but to sell ourselves.  All this we take it for granted as if it were the natural course of things, our dehumanization nearly complete.

Everything in this life is looked at as an investment, no matter its true nature.   Even something like education is swooped down upon and made into a cost-benefit analysis, with only faint relation to its stated purpose of offering knowledge and self-improvement.  Our coming of age is burdened with the heavy weight of choosing between 'healthy' well-paying careers, 'worthless pieces of paper', and all manner in between.  But this is what the system does - it forces us to treat what are otherwise idealistic times with cruel and selfish pragmatism.  It tells us that, through the powers of the free market, society has already made the decision of what jobs are necessary for us and what are not.  That, therefore, we should not waste time considering what benefit our talents will bring to others, but instead focus on ourselves.  No matter what good deeds we do, our primary concern should always be to gain from them.  You see, it just works out better for everyone that way.  Don't question it, just do it.

It is no surprise that this mindset translates so fluidly into neoliberal policy, and that of the West's approach to the rest of the world.  The richest of nations have always claimed to offer charity to the poorest.  But as Eduardo Galeano said, "charity is top-down, humiliating those who receive it and never challenging the implicit power relations."  And what we have in reality is even worse than that.  Our language is not that of the solidarity Galeano has long fought for, "horizontal and tak[ing] place between equals".  It's not even that of charity.  We go on instead about 'investment' and 'economic growth'.  We tell these countries that just simply seeing them improve is not enough for us; we must also materially benefit from the transaction.  Even self-identified socialists speak to the developing world in this manner, despite the fact it is the same logic multinational corporations use when they defend their grisly policies in these countries - that they're improving the conditions of the average person with their investment.  Not coincidentally, this is the same type of philosophy the World Bank and IMF were built upon.

Now, despite very real backlash against neoliberalism in the Americas (among other places), we've reached the point where left increasingly is defined as 'capitalist who cares for the poor', while right is 'capitalist who is more than okay with letting them starve'.  Where John Maynard Keynes, and his near-equivalent in this day Paul Krugman are progressive heroes; and Larry "I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that" Summers can be accepted among the ranks of the American left.  The overall message is clear: You can care about the poor and disenfranchised.  You can even help improve their position in the world.  But you can't challenge the implicit power relations.

That's the recurring theme under capitalism: money is power, and power is everything.  It's in this dog-eat-dog world that we foster the worst of what human beings have to offer.  We teach our children - whether it be implicitly or explicitly - that life is about who is better than whom.  We teach them we are individuals all playing the game, trying to get ahead - our wealth the score. 

And there's a reason we call a person's wealth their 'worth'.  Forbes explained the mentality perfectly when it introduced its annual The World's Most Powerful People this year by stating: "There are 7.1 billion people on the planet. These are the 71 who matter."  If this mindset is not evidence that something is drastically wrong with our social order, I'm not sure what is.

But all is not lost - yet.

It's easy to let the true nature of the world we live in affect us to the point of depression - or worse, apathy.  To allow the most powerful, soul-destroying forces to break our will and reduce us to putty.  But, against all odds, our humanity invariably shines through.  Despite having our spirits crushed day after day, so many of us are able to stand back up again and speak truth to power.  It's this kind of spark, I think, that kept Carl Sagan so optimistic about the fate of our species.  I can only hope one day we manage to marginalize - rather than embrace - our evolutionary baggage and prove him right.

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