The Dawn of Civilization
Long ago, a relatively hairless breed of two-legged ape eked out an existence that was nasty, brutish and short. Conflict was a key contributor to their misery, but eventually, they noticed that cooperation often worked to reduce their suffering. This led them to wonder whether they could improve their collective lot with a system of behavioral regulation. What, they asked, if we were to institute mechanisms that encourage cooperative behaviors, and discourage uncooperative ones? Mightn’t that result in better lives for all?
With little to lose, they gave it a try. Trial and error led, over time, to a set of rules that prohibited various ways of advantaging oneself at the expense of others. Lying, stealing, cheating and killing were all found to be mostly harmful, and consequently outlawed. Truth-telling, promise-keeping, the idea of fair dealing, and the concept of property rights were all found to be mostly beneficial, and consequently celebrated.
The system worked. It bought the apes a measure of security. Exploitation, violence and death declined. Lifespans increased. Cooperation proved rewarding, and it generated wealth and comforts previously unknown. The apes became fruitful, and multiplied. Each individual had to forego opportunities to advantage themselves at the expense of others, but because others were making similar sacrifices, everyone came out ahead. It was a good system. Everyone won.
But the apes were selfish and short sighted. They understood, abstractly, that the system afforded them a better life in the long run, but they experienced its limitations on their personal freedoms in a more visceral way. The very regulations that improved their collective lot required them to make personal sacrifices, and this felt unfair.
The apes chafed at the rules, and found ways to circumvent them. In public, they’d preach the virtues of honesty, fairness and integrity, but in private, they’d lie, cheat and steal. Unaccustomed to examining their own hypocrisy (or dwelling on the fact that the system was premised on each submitting to the very same rules they would have others observe), the system had but a tenuous, conditional hold on their allegiance. The apes lost sight of the common good, and private advantage-taking grew rampant. Nothing was regarded as sacred—not even the basic rules governing their mutual association—and the system succumbed to the manipulative dealing of special interests. It dissolved into anarchy. Everyone lost.
Fortunately, a second system emerged to take its place. In fact, the apes gave it features that addressed the earlier system’s vulnerabilities. It seemed obvious that the system needed the backing of a powerful, all-seeing authority figure—a kind of alpha male on steroids—so they imagined a cosmic enforcer of all that is right and good, and told stories about him (yes, they assumed him to be male). To their astonishment, these stories were actually believed. Not only were the younger apes exceptionally credulous, the resulting beliefs seemed to induce more cooperative behavior!
A potent idea spread from ape to ape: the system of behavioral regulation was actually based on the will of a powerful super-ape. Young apes were taught to revere this super-ape, and regard his wishes with deference and awe. Some apes felt they had special insight into the super-ape’s wishes, and wrote them down; other apes imbued the resulting texts with sacred significance. Surprisingly, this served to stabilize the behavioral system. Shared devotion to sacred beliefs afforded a strong sense of tribal solidarity, while moderating individual selfishness. The second system lasted a long while.
From the start, though, it was plagued with difficulties. Doubts arose, and threatened the consensus that allowed the system to work. The apes learned to suppress these doubts by celebrating something they called “faith”—unthinking devotion, basically, to the official mythology—and denouncing “heresy”—the practice of thinking for one’s self. This allowed the apes that claimed to have a direct channel to the super-ape to abuse their influence, and abuse it they did. Scrutiny revealed contradictions in official accounts of the super-ape’s will, and questions arose about the proper interpretation of sacred texts. New, better methods of inquiry emerged, heretical ideas found favor, and doubts multiplied. The consensus dissolved into a cacophony of squabbling sects, each wedded to their own mythology. The system succumbed to sectarian warfare.
A third system emerged from the ashes of the second. Its premise was that regulations must be based on actual evidence of what works to improve collective well-being. The apes resolved to apply the new, better methods of inquiry to understanding their condition, and to do so without sentimentality or delusion. They resolved to investigate what really works to improve it, and to base all exercises of political power on facts available to all, interests shared by all, and reasoning accessible to all. They named this collective resolve “humanism,” and gradually, over many centuries, it became the basis of their civilization.
But for a long time, the third system remained troubled. Its members—refugees from the first and second systems—brought with them all manner of de-civilizing impulses. From the first they brought selfishness and greed. From the second they brought fear and superstition. Naturally, each ape felt the pull of self-interest. Many thrilled to romantic fictions of lives unencumbered by law or restraint. Others yearned, in some fashion, for the comforts of tribal orthodoxy. The apes’ wisdom—their capacity for reason, compassion and emotional regulation—remained underdeveloped, and they vented their frustration upon one another.
The longed-for civilization was slow to develop, and the apes experienced periodic crises of resolve: Was this third system truly sustainable? Would their shared humanism prove a strong enough social “glue”? Could they, without recourse to collective delusion, maintain the requisite solidarity, and see their fledgling civilization through difficult times? Or was it better—safer—to retreat to the comforting embrace of the cosmic super-ape?
The end of the story has not yet been written. What ending would you give it?
Andy Norman teaches philosophy at Carnegie Melon University and received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in Free Inquiry, Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, and dozens of journals. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife of 20 years, two fascinating kids, and a dog that couldn’t care less about Frisbees