Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

How Is Humanity Doing?

Where are we going? We move through spacetime, consuming energy and dispensing it, growing from blastocysts to embryos to babies to children to adolescents to adults, learning as we proceed, but most of what we learn seems to be little better than what our ancestors learned.

Sure, we have different skillsets than our grandparents. Most of us can do things they never dreamed of, while they did things we can’t conceive of. But have we made progress?

Some of the problems we’re struggling with are different than the ones they encountered but that’s largely because we’ve discovered new information informing us of challenges people didn’t anticipate 50 or 60 years ago. For example, few of us understood the severity of global warming back then. A fair number of us don’t understand it still.

Many of the truths we uncover about ourselves are essentially the same truths espoused by Socrates and Aristotle. We fear the new and different. We hang onto our tribal affiliations. When we reach full adulthood, we achieve wisdom of a sort, but as a species, have we actually grown?

A new generation of celebrities writes books about how we can be our best selves, spouting off “knowledge” that has been passed down for generations and yet continually gets forgotten.

Humans today still engage in despicable acts: terrorism, mass shootings, murder, rape, robbery. Those are just a few radical individuals, you say. Most people are good. Yet we can’t stop those few radicals. They continue on, disrupting our society, while we offer thoughts and prayers for their victims as if those words will somehow magically prevent further violent actions.

We rail against the large companies that enrich the wealthy off the backs of the poor and the middle class even as we continue to buy goods from Walmart and Amazon. We decry the spoilage of nature as we dispose of trash that overflows our landfills. We castigate our elected officials and then re-elect those same people, hoping for change.

We don’t seem able to change the groups we belong to, and we can’t change the world if we can’t change those groups. So how are we better than we used to be? In what way have we progressed as a society?

The truth is that we haven’t. We’re not better than we used to be; we’re not smarter; we’re not more ethical. Yes, we’ve made strides. We no longer believe slavery is good (except for a few outliers who think religious texts justify it). We generally believe in gender equality, though that’s not universal.

But it’s disappointing that we’re still largely the specimens we were a decade ago, a century ago, a millennium ago. The rich and strong still decide the fate of the weak and the poor, who still struggle against the constraints placed upon them by the strong and the wealthy.

We don’t cooperate with each other as much as compete against one another. We work with our tribes to exert control over other tribes, always striving for advantage, never content to assist the whole of humanity unless we can accrue at least the promise of some benefit to ourselves.

We are no better, no more noble, than elephants or lions or chimpanzees. We just think we are. And that maybe makes us worse.

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