Paradise Lost

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In the last century, human beings have achieved things that our ancient ancestors would have considered nothing short of miraculous. Humans have built rockets that carry their payloads millions of miles and reach out to touch the Moon and the very “wandering stars” that Ptolemy and the many other ancient astrologers wondered at. And if current science – things like regenerative medicine and metamaterials – is any indication of latent future achievements, even greater wonders are waiting just around the corner.

But for all our achievements, science is really at an all-time low in that it has lost its connection to human ends to a regrettable extent. It has, in many cases, become an end-in-itself. Finding a new fundamental particle or solving a famous mathematical problem is today considered the epitome of progress, despite the impracticality of such achievements. The resources expended to build the Large Hadron Collider could have fed and clothed the world’s poorest for many years or funded many market ventures to reduce the cost-of-living for the ordinary person and meet present needs. The data produced by such expensive research will not likely be practically useful for many decades, if ever. The process by which basic research is funded has unmoored research from any conceivable connection to human ends. As Harold Lewis put it in his famous resignation letter to the American Physical Society, “Some have held that the physicists of today are not as smart as they used to be, but I don’t think that is an issue. I think it is the money, exactly what Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago. There are indeed trillions of dollars involved, to say nothing of the fame and glory (and frequent trips to exotic islands)…”

Another contributing factor to the present predicament of science is the hubristic refusal of the academic establishment to face up to the limits of human knowledge. Man’s ability to know is strictly limited, not only as a practical matter but even in his theoretical ability to know abstract mathematical facts, for example. Generations of people have thrown themselves into books in an attempt to solve every problem, to conquer the unknown, to become gods. From the earliest age, we are taught that the most important thing is to learn what is in books. And while no one can doubt that books contain valuable knowledge, most people cannot articulate exactly why all this book-learning is so important despite having gone through many years of it as a child.

Both Plato and Aristotle held that the pleasures of the mind – reason, contemplation – are the highest pleasures. By contrast, Epicurus held study for study’s sake in low regard. King Solomon said, “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow” and “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18;12:12 KJV)

Man was once in Paradise. Not a paradise of abundance and ease but a paradise of freedom from anxiety or worry except the kinds of anxieties for which his mind and body are supremely well adapted, such as avoiding predators or surviving the elements. In their popular book introducing the subject of evolutionary psychology – Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters – Steven Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa explain how the world has recently changed in important ways:

… A mere two centuries (ten generations) ago, the United States and the rest of the Western world were largely agrarian; most people were farmers. In the agrarian society, men achieved higher status by being the best farmers; those who possessed certain traits that made them good farmers had higher status and thus greater reproductive success than others who didn’t possess such traits.

Then, only a century later, the United States and Europe were predominantly industrial societies; most men made their living working for factories. Traits that make men good factory workers (or, better yet, factory owners) may or may not be the same as the traits that make them good farmers. Certain traits – such as intelligence, diligence, and sociability – probably remain important, but others – such as a feel for nature, the soil, and animals, and the ability to work outdoors or forecast weather – cease to be important, and other traits – such as punctuality, the ability to follow instructions, a feel for machinery or mechanical aptitude, and the ability to work indoors – suddenly become important.

Now we are in a post-industrial society, where most people work neither as farmers nor factory workers but in the service industry. Computers and other electronic devices become important, and an entirely new set of traits is necessary to be successful. Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson (and other successful men of today) may not have made particularly successful farmers or factory workers. All of these dramatic changes happened within ten generations, and there is no telling what the next century will bring and what traits will be necessary to be successful in the twenty-second century. We live in an unstable, ever-changing environment, and have done so for about ten thousand years.

For hundreds of thousands of years before that, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, in a stable, unchanging environment to which natural selection could respond. That is why all humans today have traits that would have made them good hunter-gatherers in Africa – men’s great spatiovisual skills, which allowed them to follow animals on a hunting trip for days and for miles without a map or a global satellite positioning device and return home safely; and women’s great object location memory, which allowed them to remember where fruit trees and bushes were and return there every season to harvest, once again without maps or permanent landmarks.

For the last ten thousand years or so, however, our environment has been changing too rapidly for evolution to catch up. Evolution cannot work against moving targets. That’s why humans have not evolved in any predictable direction since about ten thousand years ago. We hasten to add that certain features of our environment have remained the same – we have always had to get along with other humans, and we have always had to find and keep our mates – so certain traits, like sociability or physical attractiveness, have always been favored by natural and sexual selection. But other features of our environment have changed too rapidly relative to our generation time, in a relatively random fashion – who could have predicted computers and the Internet a century ago? – so we have not been able to adapt and evolve against the constantly moving target of the environment. (Chapter 1 – What is Evolutionary Psychology?)

This fits well with the narrative of the lost Paradise, present in many cultures. Long, long ago, mankind once dwelt in a beautiful paradise where we were continually happy and never experienced fear or privation. We may have even had an unusually long lifespan or been immortal. Then, as a result of Original Sin – instigated by the wiles of the Serpent – or some other misfortune, we were expelled from Paradise or Paradise became stripped of its bounty. We found ourselves in a hostile, desolate land, filled with suffering and bitterness.

In a less poetic form, this is precisely what evolutionary psychology tells us has happened to humanity. Ten thousand years ago in the African savanna – for which our bodies and brains are well-adapted – you would have never known chronic stress and anxiety. You would have experienced fear only sporadically, perhaps during extremely severe weather, tribal raids or during perilous travel or hunting. Your body and your brain are well-tuned to respond to the kind of stresses that exist in the environment.

That man’s environment has changed is not the only obstacle to the attainment of happiness. There are those who benefit from convincing others to sacrifice themselves to the greater good or to unwittingly betray their own, legitimate interests. We see this transparently in the car-salesman or in the greedy corporate lobbyist. But most people have difficulty perceiving the same, ever-present element of self-interest in human nature when talking about people whose roles are delegated an unconditional status as good: police, judges, priests, pastors, charity-workers, philanthropists, etc.

We have been forever cast out of Paradise. Instead, we have MRI machines, jetliners and the Internet. But the dramatic change in our environment has also fostered a need to compensate for our maladaptiveness as well as to guard against organized parasitism and exploitation through the abuse of confidence in those occupying trusted social roles. We cannot and should not try to return to Paradise but any attempt to improve our present condition cannot succeed while denying the deficiencies in the human condition brought about by the Agricultural Revolution and organized parasitism.

Clayton

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One thought on “Paradise Lost

  1. […] a host of mental mechanisms firmly put in place by evolution eons ago. We have already discussed (1, 2) how the human mind seems to have been optimized to operate in small, roving bands of […]

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