A Simplified History: Friends and Bullies

I’ve kept it simple: just three dates.

200,000 BC – origin in paradise. Humans have existed in our present form for around 200,000 years. For most of that time, we were hunter-gatherers living in small tribes. There are no written records, but archeologists and anthropologists can make educated guesses, based on unearthed artifacts and on observations of more recent tribes. Our ancestors had few material comforts, but they had good social relations, and that may be the main ingredient for human happiness. They were friends, egalitarians, sharing everything of importance. This was not by choice, but a necessity of the hunter-gatherer way of life. There was no incentive for greed or corruption, because there was no way to gain personal advantage: One could only “get ahead” by bringing the whole community ahead. Anyone who tried to dominate was a threat to the tribe, and drew ridicule; if he persisted, he would be exiled.

Sharing is still what we teach our kids, still where we turn in crisis, still who we are genetically. We are social animals; solitary confinement is not just punishment but torture. Even a hermit lives with the memory of his mother. To some degree, all mammals are social animals: Our first experience in life is to be totally helpless, to be cared for by parents or other caretakers who expect nothing in return. No infant would survive without that care. But the period of dependency is longer for humans than for other mammals, because we are born with fewer instincts; we are as flexible as a computer that has not yet been programmed. We are heavily influenced by culture.

Different human cultures have existed in different times and places on Earth. Indeed, some other primates are capable of cultural change too. The biologist Robert Sapolsky has made a wonderful 9-minute video about how one tribe of baboons accidentally made a lasting change in its culture, from a hierarchy of bullies to a horizontal network of friends.

10,000 BC – fall from grace. About 12,000 years ago, human culture changed from friends to bullies, the opposite of how Sapolsky’s baboons changed. How did that happen? Well, the ice age ended, and agriculture began in several places. Agriculture made it possible – not necessary, but possible – for us to switch from sharing to hoarding.

That economic change has had terrible sociological consequences: Your happiness and well-being are no longer linked with mine; your loss is not my loss and might even be my gain. When resources or opportunities are scarce, we compete against each other for our very lives. Empathy is replaced with fear, hate, lies, greed, wars. Warlords and their descendants become rulers. In English, the word “noble” can mean either “admirable” or “descended from warlords”; our rulers think those are the same.

If we don’t share, we must trade – for labor, food, rent, interest, influence – for everything. Trade may bring profit to both traders, but more to the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position. Thus trade, even when voluntary and honest, increases inequality. Lacking empathy, the powerful also increase their advantage by coercion and deceit. The rich get richer at everyone else’s expense, in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Thus economic inequality has become enormous. That’s not an aberration, but an inevitable feature of our present economic system.

The rich praise the system:

  • The rich claim this system produces innovation. There is a small particle of truth in that claim: People who are tormented and desperate may come up with more new ideas to try. Most of those ideas fail, but the powerful don’t care what happens to the people who fail. And the fans of capitalism try to give it credit for science, just because capitalism and science were present at the same time. Hey, I was born in the same year as Tom Petty; can I be praised for his music?
  • The rich claim that the market is wise and efficient, that it allocates resources where they will be most useful. That is false. The market can only calculate with the numbers it has. The poor have no money to be counted, so they are ignored by market calculations. Likewise, negotiations of buyer and seller ignore side effects on other parties. These side effects, called “externalities” or “externalized costs,” are enormous and harmful. In particular, global warming is about to pass a tipping point and kill us all. How “wise” or “efficient” is that? Again, this is not an aberration, but an inevitable feature of our present economic system.
  • The rich claim that our system brings highest pay to those who are smartest, hardest-working, or most useful. Even if that were true, it would be cruel and uncaring, as it makes no allowances for need. Our needs are not proportional to our productivity. But at any rate, the claim is false. Our present system pays most, not to those who produce the most, but to those who control the most. Your boss is not necessarily more useful than you, but he makes more money than you because he stands between you and the money. In English the word “earn” can mean either “acquire” or “deserve”; the rich think those are the same.

Money is influence, and so the small wealthy class of bullies ends up ruling. That’s called plutocracy, and it’s what we’ve had for 12,000 years, though it has changed its form through feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism. And plutocracy has disguised itself as democracy: Statistics show that, regardless of elections, the rich get the public policies they want and the rest of us don’t. Without other changes, a real democracy wouldn’t be much improvement anyway: Lacking empathy and misled by the corporate press, we can’t vote wisely.

Power corrupts the powerful, because they lose touch with everyone else. And power attracts those who are already corrupt: Sociopaths are the best climbers of competitive hierarchies. The rich profit from lies that perpetuate poverty, wars, and other great suffering. The rich must compete against each other for short-term private profits, and so they cannot plan for the future; our species may soon go extinct from nuclear war or climate apocalypse.

NOW – hopefully not the end. We must follow Sapolsky’s baboons, and return to friendship and sharing. That change is necessary to save the ecosystem, but that change will bring us more than just survival. The poverty, wars, fear, hate will be replaced with empathy, friendship, love, joy. Religious people may call it “rapture.”

This change won’t be accidental, like Sapolsky’s baboons; it will have to be conscious and intentional. The first step surely is to get more people talking about it. Pass this essay along if you like it.

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2022 Jan 20, version 1.11.

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