As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.
Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.
But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.
Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.
We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.
But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.
Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.
But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?
Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.
Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.
Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.
In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.
Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.
(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)
My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.
My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.
It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).
Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.
But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)
Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.
It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).
Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.
However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”