Sagan & Druyan: Propensities and Predispositions

A couple hours ago I finished that Carl Sagan/Ann Druyan book I mentioned a couple days ago, and it’s remarkable how its conclusions resemble my own recent observations about how certain forms of human morality align to conservative politics, and Trump worship.

Here are passages from the last three pages. Keep in mind the book is about the history of life on Earth and how the study of all life, but in particular the lives of other primates, illuminates our understanding of ourselves. Also keep in mind that the book was published in 1992. Yet from the middle of the third paragraph below, it could be about today.

We must stop pretending we’re something we are not. Somewhere between romantic, uncritical anthropomorphizing of the animals and an anxious, obdurate refusal to recognize our kinship with them–the latter made tellingly clear in the still-widespread notion of “special” creation–there is a broad middle ground on which we humans can take our stand.

If the Universe really were made for us, if there really is a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God, then science has done something cruel and heartless, whose chief virtue would perhaps be a testing of our ancient faiths. But if the Universe is heedless of our aspirations and our destiny, science provides the greatest possible service by awakening us to our true circumstances. In accord with the unforgiving principle of natural selection, we are charged with our own preservation–under penalty of extinction.

And yet we go from massacre to massacre; and as our technology becomes more powerful, the magnitude of the potential tragedy grows. The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability. We might have thought that the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust were enough to innoculate us against the toxins there revealed and unleashed. But our resistance quickly fades. A new generation gladly abandons its critical and skeptical faculties. Old slogans and hatreds are dusted off. What was only recently muttered guiltily is now offered as political axiom and agenda. There are renewed appeals to ethnocentrism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, and territoriality. And with a sigh of relief we are apt to surrender to the will of the alpha, or long for an alpha we can surrender to.

Ten thousand generations ago, when we were divided into many small groups, those propensities may have served our species well. We can understand why they are almost reflexive, why they should be to easy to evoke, why they are the stock in trade of every demagogue and hack politician. But we cannot wait for natural selection to further mitigate these ancient primitive algorithms. That would take too long. We must work with what tools we have–to understand who we are, how we got to be that way, and how to transcend our deficiencies. Then we can begin to create a society less apt to bring out the worst in us.

Still, from the perspective of the last ten thousand years extraordinary transformations have lately been playing themselves out. Consider how we humans organize ourselves. Dominance hierarchies requiring debasing submission and obedience to the alpha male, as well as hereditary alphahood, were once the global standard of human political structure, justified as right and proper and divinely ordained by our greatest philosophers and religious leaders. These institutions have now almost vanished from the Earth. Chattel slavery–likewise long defended by revered thinkers as preordained and deeply consonant with human nature–has been nearly abolished worldwide. Just a minute ago, all over the planet, with only a few exceptions, women were subordinate to men and denied equal status and power; this also was thought predetermined and inevitable. Here too, clear signs of change are now evident nearly everywhere. A common appreciation of democracy and what are called human rights is, with some backsliding, sweeping the planet.

Taken together, these dramatic societal shifts–often in ten generations or less–provide a compelling refutation of the claim that we are condemned, without hope or reprieve, to live out our lives in a barely disguised chimpanzee social order. Moreover, the shifts are occurring so swiftly that they cannot possibly be due to natural selection. Instead, our culture must be drawing forth propensities and predispositions that already reside deep within us.

Brief interjection — here’s the notion that there’s a range of tendencies in human nature, a diversity of tendencies, precisely because circumstances (the environment) changes and without a range of potential responses, a species like ours would go extinct. Or perhaps the ones without such a diversity did, and we with our range have survived. Also, I’m eliding a paragraph of genetic similarities…. To finish Sagan and Druyan:

We have been dismantling ancient institutions that no longer serve, and are tentatively trying out others. Our species is becoming an intercommunicating whole, with powerful economic and cultural bonds linking up the planet. Our problems, increasingly, are global in venue, admitting only global solutions. we have been uncovering the mysteries of our past and the nature of the Universe around us. We have invented tools of awesome power. We have explored the nearby worlds and have set sail for the stars. Granted, prophecy is a lost art and we are not vouchsafed an unclouded view of our future. Indeed, we are almost wholly ignorant of what is coming. But by what right, what argument, can pessimism be justified? Whatever else may be hidden in those shadows, our ancestors have bequeathed us–within certain limits, to be sure–the ability to change our institutions and ourselves. Nothing is preordained.

We achieve some measure of adulthood when we recognize our parents as they really were, without sentimentalizing or mythologizing, but also without blaming them unfairly for our imperfections. Maturity entails a readiness, painful and wrenching though it may be, to look squarely into the long dark places, into the fearsome shadows. In this act of ancestral remembrance and acceptance may be found a light by which to see our children home.

End of book, except for a brief epilogue in which the authors say that “chronicling the dawn of our species and its evolution up to the invention of civilization” will be the “subject of the next book in this series.” Alas, that book was never written; Sagan died in 1996. After SHADOWS, his last two books published before he died were PALE BLUE DOT (reviewed here and here) and THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD (reviewed here).

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