I have been enamored by the idea that humans are generally not adept at properly inhabiting the world they have created for themselves. My reasoning is that only a small sliver among us have made significant breakthroughs that have propelled all of us into an era where we don’t understand the inner workings of most of the things we use. If you were to ask the average person, they will not be able to tell you how electricity is generated, delivered to homes, how cellphones work, how internet works, how wifi works, how speakers work, how refrigerators work, hell even how toilets work! Yet we use these complicated things, we have allowed them to shape our lives, we have allowed ourselves to trust them and rely on them for most of our present day needs. Most of us are still poop throwing monkeys.
So in another one of my musings about the same topic, I went down a train of thought that led me to what I thought was a fairly conspicuous but fairly deep fact about how we as a species make progress. What is it that differentiates us from other species to give us this massive an advantage? You have the usual suspects- agriculture, language, tools, etc. And they are great suspects, but as we often realize, there are other species out there who use one or more of these (maybe barring agriculture in the way we do it) and still haven’t been able to unlock the next level in evolution like we did. One could argue that we just got lucky, or that agriculture allowed us to develop the rest and it snowballed from there. What I feel is often missed, and hopefully as a composite along with the other factors, will allow us to get a better understanding of how we might have made progress, is another important suspect, and that is what I wanted to talk about here.
- principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior
This one is barely mentioned as a breakthrough invention, but that may be because it is so intrinsic to our nature that we may have a hard time defining what was genetically given and what we laid on top, but given how important it may have been to our success, I think we should spend a little effort figuring out the line. There is also the aspect of selective evolution– that once a morality was established by the evolutionary winners, the losers might have been kicked out of the gene pool.
But if we give a little more thought to this, we can see that there are some distinctly human concepts, like religion, that started out as a proxy for an organized and documented form of a shared moral framework. And I don’t think any baby is born religious, so religion could be classified as what we laid on top of our intrinsic sense of good and bad. If we work backwards from there, we can see that any sort of ethical framework that has been agreed to by most individuals and they can articulate the key elements of, is a human arrangement, and let’s just draw the line between genes and man here for the sake of argument.
So why do I feel it is such an important invention? The reason is that in order for the 0.1% among us who had/have the brains/skill/chance to propel the rest of us forward, they need to be valued for what they do, and that valuation is often tied to our sense of morality. While one could argue that technology is amoral– you can build nuclear reactors and bomb of the same basic elements, our moral frameworks allow us to choose one over the other as being worth pursuing, worth developing. Without this basic infrastructure in place, destruction could become as valuable as creation because destruction can often benefit people (quite often more than creation) in the short term.
This is incidentally also an argument against a natural selection approach towards markets, for in a completely amoral marketplace, the direction of progress might get lost. Hopefully, we as a species, can control it in time every time. Maybe this is one of the few instances where the individual alone cannot drag us forward.