The Faces of Humanity

All major human conflicts are essentially what Jonathan Swift called the war between the “Big Endians” and the “Little Endians” in Gulliver’s Travels. In Swift’s novel, Lilliput and Blefuscu are island nations ruled by emperors. Those from Lilliput broke boiled eggs on the larger end, while those from Blefuscu broke their’s on the smaller end. Swift’s readers at the time would have recognized that his metaphor suggested that the British political parties at the time, the Whigs and Torys, were fighting a war based on minuscule and inconsequential differences. That appears to be a common theme in human history: Most wars are fought over differences that could be worked out in kinder, gentler ways. One of the reasons for we have so many wars over inconsequential differences is that we really don’t have a good understanding of human history.

Most of what we think we know about human history isn’t really correct. We now know that those we call “human” weren’t alone in the category of bipedal “tool users.” It is reasonably well-known now that Neanderthals were also present and that they didn’t actually lose the Darwinian struggle with humans. They interacted with and sometimes mated with early humans. Less well-known is that a third group, the Denisovans were also part of the mix. This all happened, of course, long before anybody was keeping a written record. In those early days, humans (and Neanderthals and Denisovans) had to pass information from individual to individual and from generation to generation orally. Before the days of writing, those who could remember and retell stories were responsible for maintaining cultural information. That would include information about where to find food and water and where competing tribes of others were located.

That aspect of human history continued a long time. In pre-history, when groups of humans (however the Neanderthals and Denisovans mixed in) encountered another group, the groups engaged in warfare. Even though the natural resources at the time were ample for both groups, one group basically eliminated another, The losers who lived typically became slaves for the winners. As the groups enlarged over time, city-states arose, along with walls for protection, occupational specialization, and royalty. Tribal chiefs gave way to kings and queens. The separation between the royals and others was extreme. The buffers between the royals and the serfs were a growing business class and a professional military. This stage lasted a long time. During this period, information continued to be passed from individual to individual and generation to generation orally. The Greek poet known as Homer is perhaps the best known example of the way information was passed from individual to individual and from individual to groups. Eventually, of course, people started writing things down. We don’t really know how writing was developed, but most speculation focuses on the record-keeping needs of the military and commerce.

Many think of the Biblical character Moses as the author of the first five books of the Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, but those early Biblical stories were transcripts of stories previously passed from generation to generation orally. Ancient people had to track their history orally, and it was important to know who was related to whom. That’s one of the reasons for what are typically known as the begats in several chapters of the Old Testament. It was important to know who was related to whom for a variety of reasons. Humans still do the same kind of record keeping, but these days we do it with birth certificates and other printed (and electronic) records. It is important to recognize that oral histories are not necessarily wrong, but they are more likely to be metaphorical than factual. The story Noah’s Ark, for example, is highly unlikely. Even in Biblical times the world was too large and contained too many species for one guy to go out, collect two of each species, and put them on a boat—even a boat much larger than the Ark described in the Bible. The flood, however, has metaphorical truth, and flood myths are common. The planet may well have been flooded in ancient times, even if none of the stories about it is factually correct.

What’s important to recognize is that all humanity shares a common history and a common fate. We are all in the same metaphorical boat. If we keep fighting about things no more important than which end of boiled eggs should be opened first, we aren’t going to survive as a species. Both Protestants and Catholics, for example, believe that their vision of God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit is correct, and both have been willing to fight and die in support of their view. In the world of Islam, Shia and Sunni are also willing to fight and die over which end of the boiled egg to open first. Even Buddhists, who theoretically renounce all violence, have been known to engage in religious hostilities when they believe their faith is being attacked. Religious arguments are basically “My loving god is more powerful than your loving god, and I’m going to prove it by killing you.”

If it weren’t so deadly serious, it would be laughable. But that’s not the only thing that’s going on that could easily result in the destruction of life on the planet. Humans have been very busy exploiting natural resources—burning fossil fuels and polluting rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. As recently as 200 or 300 years ago, it would have seemed impossible to ever pollute the oceans or rivers so much that they would lose their capacity to support life. That no longer seems the case.

In the nineteenth century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote In Memoriam A.H.H., which contained a reference to the way Nature is “red in tooth and claw.” Although we like to think of ourselves as better than the rest of nature, we are part of it. We no longer kill what we eat up close with pointed sticks. We have created an industry (actually, more than one) to do that for us. The same is true for the way we compete for other resources on the planet. We create industries to provide us with what we need to survive and be comfortable because it no longer possible for one individual to do everything that needs to be done to survive. Our industrial base may well be what’s often called “the last straw,” or the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It is not the one last straw that proves too much for the camel. It is rather the accumulated weight of all the straws.

Even if humans have a cataclysmic war or pollute the planet so badly that most current life dies, however, life on earth will go on. The evolutionary process will simply sigh, say, “Oh, well,” and start again, hoping for a better result next time. That may, in fact, have happened previously. The theory is that at one time, dinosaurs ruled the earth. An asteroid hit the planet, ending life as the dinosaurs knew it. One of the current theories is that Earth has actually begun its sixth extinction, and this time it’s our fault. We have reached the point at which no place on earth is free of pollution. Our oceans are full of plastic and our rivers catch fire. If we want humans to be a species that survives, we need to learn to pay closer attention to the peace-makers than to the war-mongers. We need to start producing more things that foster life and fewer things that blow stuff up and poison the air, water, and soil.

The principal question at this point is whether it is too late for humanity to take corrective action. Are we so entrenched in our disparate visions of right and wrong that we can’t agree on a way of going forward that doesn’t involve killing those who hold different beliefs? There was a time, of course, when a war in one location didn’t have much influence on other locations. That’s no longer the case. At this point, a war anywhere influences everyone everywhere, if not with actual combat, with refugees and human migrations. Global warming has also begun to increase migration of people whose territory is becoming flooded or where temperatures exceed the limits of human and animal endurance. The combination produces a lot of friction between different groups of people competing for limited resources in some locations.

Many readers will believe that God (whichever one they believe in) will save us, but I don’t think so. My sense is that the All That Is will simply go on creating more diversity for eternity. Humanity is, after all, just one expression of the “life force” in the cosmos. The cosmos is very large, and we have no idea what other expressions of life force are “out there.” I happen to have a bias for humanity—it’s a species I am very fond of, and I would like to see it last awhile longer. If humanity survives long enough to look, perhaps we (humans) will eventually know the meaning of the Zen Koan, “Show me your original face before your mother and father were born.”