Rational Religion

Contact the author:
tuppennyprofet - at - aol - dot - com
(translate into a real email address)

Inherited Obstacles to Humanity:  And the Unlikelihood of American Democracy


 In the process of evolving we have picked up a lot of baggage, some of which probably saved our bacon at one time or another in our saga, but now is useless; or worse. 


Our "in-group-out-group" relationships are one example.   After several million years of surviving the worst that nature and our fellow primates could throw at us, I imagine the urge to band together in groups of a certain size is programmed in. 


The idea is to have enough help to turn away most threats, whether from starvation, the climate, or other animals, (or the guys on the next block) without letting so many individuals into the cohort that personalities interfere with harmony: or it's too much of a hassle to feed them all.


Too many human beings living in one place is never a good situation.  We are too individual.  Our big brain feeds a voracious imagination and gives us too many ideas. 


Ideas are a problem.  We tend to get testy and defensive about our ideas.  We can't quite understand how everybody else doesn't share our ideas.    Sometimes we set out to convince them, which seldom does much but piss them off; sometimes we marvel at how stupid their ideas are.  At any rate, ideas lead to friction. 


If you have too many weird ideas the group may decide you're not worth dealing with any more.  They may simply kill you, or they may throw you out.   If they kill you, they have probably pissed off some of your relatives, or maybe just some people who happen to share some of your ideas.     If they toss you out, some of your family and compadres may choose to go with you.  One way or another, there is a schism;  which, when you are digging roots and whacking rabbits for a living is probably a good idea.    Don't over-exploit the neighborhood.  


Now you've got two groups of manageable size, instead of one, big quarrelsome one.  If you move far enough away from each other, in a few generations probably nobody will even remember that you're all  related. 


Then comes the other side of this particular double-whammy.  Not only are we programmed to clump, we are inclined to exclude.   


Other people, we know from personal experience, cannot be trusted.  They are exploitive, aggressive and entirely out for themselves.    We know how to manage these tendencies in our immediate relatives and clan-mates, because we have learned to make of ourselves, each, a smoothly-fitting piece of the local social puzzle.


But comes a lone outsider, looking for a home?  We don't know his peculiarities, and he's bound to have a few.  He's liable to be in for a rough time, unless he's got some special skill or attribute which makes him valuable, or at least tolerable, to us.   For his part, he's going to emphasize the "go-along-to-get-along" elements of his personality.  He's going to be nice as pie and he's going to work hard to make himself as much like us as possible.  Just another piece in the puzzle.  If he's lucky he'll make it, thereby enriching the local gene pool; which is another good idea. 


A lot of outsiders showing up together, of course, is out of the question.   They are a whole other "in-group" and their very cohesive social structure is a threat to ours. 


We'll probably fight with them;  not over anything in particular, but over the possibility that they will sometime in the future want something that we want at the same time.


As long as there weren't all that many of us, and plenty of room, the "in-group-out-group" dynamic worked pretty well.


One of the reasons it has worked is the "natural" tendency of every "in-group" to settle into some kind of manageable hierarchy; a pecking order, just like a well-run henhouse.


On the premise that just about everybody has an exaggerated estimate of her or his own personal worth, a lot of people in every society are going to feel that they ought to be running the show.


Now, even among the few with the actual talent to do this, there are too many competing egos to permit them all to try to control the society.  Too many chiefs is never a good idea, especially when there are external threats and internal emergencies to be dealt with.


So a "natural" hierarchy shakes out and everybody lives within its rules, written  or traditional.  There may even be constant changes of rank and responsibility, but if the society itself is seen to be of preservable value it will tend to survive these internal machinations and the changes will come to be an expected part of  accepted tradition.


After all the king is bound to die every generation or so, and his heirs are not guaranteed to be capable of running even their own lives; let alone anyone else’s; so they must be replaced.   Occasional regicide can be a part of the historical way of doing things;  look at England from King John to Victoria.  But it was always England, even when the Roundheads were running it. (And the most lasting thing the Roundheads achieved was to demonstrate to most of the English how much they missed their king.)


In the case of this country, it is generally accepted that, partly by happy accident, partly by serendipitous socio-philosopho-politico-economic conditions, a plurality of people with rare insight and talent existed in the same part of the world at the same time and so managed to create a unique and self-replicating political entity which proved able to both promote and control  a constantly-changing society of uncommon and theretofore-unheard-of stability and staying power.


True, the entity muddled through its first hundred years or so by expediently ignoring some of its more schismatic controversies; and stumbled on through most of its second century by pretending that the bulk of its problems had been solved, thereby preserving unfortunate social traditions and political habits some of which plague us to this day.


But the United States endures as the largest nation of the freest individual citizens the world to now has known; and a big part of the reason is that it was intentionally created to exist and function in a chaotic universe.


By expecting Change, and planning for it, the founding American political entity has carved out an island universe of institutional stability for its citizens to live individualistic lives within.


This may or may not prove to have been good for us in the long run, but for now it is the only way that many of us could conceive of living.


The laws and traditions of the United States, by design or accident, have managed to outflank both the "in-group-out-group" reflexes which would threaten us all with exclusion (by making it possible for a wild variety of "in-groups" to exist side by side without incident save for an occasional lynching or gang killing) and the "pecking order" syndrome (by holding periodic elections so that nearly everyone who really wants to can take a crack at becoming part of the power structure, for a while.)


There is no way to judge how long this improbable political marvel will continue to endure, because we are flying blind, here.    Nobody has ever done anything remotely like this, for this many decades in a row, before, so we are in uncharted territory.


We seem presently to be dragging a number of other nations along with us, by example, but the whole thing is a house of cards and may come down around our heads, given a sufficient worldwide economic disaster or even an effective cabal of well-armed and well-connected terrorists.


(Or a cabal of our own ultra-jingoistic politicians, who happen to come to power at a delicate time in our national history; as may be the case at present...This essay was written in January, 2003)


Our safest defense is to run our economic institutions according to the highest standards of responsibility and integrity; something which we have obviously not been very good at for the last generation and a half;  


 And to refuse to let the terrorists stampede us into surrendering our individuality in exchange for a little more personal security.


Meanwhile, world-wide....There are over six billion of us at the moment, careening towards 9 billion.  And there isn't any room any more. 


(Sure all of us could statistically  be shoehorned into Texas, with no greater population density than that of many large cities, but the infrastructure required to keep us alive would pollute the planet at least as much as we now do all spread out.) 


A few of us in fortunately-constituted societies such as the United States and Western Europe are temporarily able to ignore those facts; but it's only temporary.


Unless enough of us; those with the raw power to run things, at least; catch onto the fact that the only viable in-group is all of us, the Universe will not be troubled with our particular infestation for many more centuries.