The Arc of Humanity Bends Towards Benevolence, or Belligerence?
Life can be quite confusing at times, don’t you think?
It’s no accident that we humans often seek meaning in our complicated lives. We try to make sense of the complexities and contradictions in our personal lives, as well as in the chaotic world we inhabit.
I write these columns to explore various issues on my mind, while hopefully contributing somewhat to yours. But writing also helps me on my own life journey and in my own “Search for Meaning.” (Viktor Frankl’s remarkable book by that name, written after his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp.)
In searching for explanations for our quandaries and relief from existential anxieties, we often find solace in beliefs in God(s), other spiritual pursuits, or in secular principles and beliefs.
“Believing” is one of “The Four B’s” that we use to assess the meaningfulness and worthiness of our lives (others are Being, Belonging and Benevolence). Our search for meaning is a major part of the Human Condition, that “diagnosis” (stated seriously, or with humor, or regret), referring to the inconsistencies and mysteries in life.
There is no doubt that Homo Sapiens is the most evolved of all species on earth. I am not saying “worthier,” as I’ve been awed by “lower animals” displays of intelligence, love, protection and other traits we call “humanoid,” in an anthropomorphic way.
But we humans stand supreme in terms of cognitive and verbal skills, communication, consciousness and creativity, reasoning and in our existential search for meaning.
In my own musings, I wonder whether we will continue to evolve our intellectually advanced species in progressive and benevolent directions over the next centuries or, contrarily, will we pursue self-destructive paths towards our annihilation or extinction (wars and global warming, anyone?)
These opposing outcomes are both currently suggested as real possibilities by futurists. This simultaneous contradiction fits the concept of the Yin and Yang, from ancient Chinese philosophy, where forces are opposed yet counterbalanced and connected.
I receive messages from readers of my columns with compliments extolling, or with criticism trolling, my opinions. The same words provoke vastly different and contradictory responses.
I recently wrote that our world feels scary nowadays, as we’re beset by stressful uncertainties, like the pandemic and global warming, racism, hatreds and xenophobia, grinding poverty amidst extreme wealth, all contributing to frustration and fear.
Some readers took me to task for being unduly “pessimistic,” “alarmist,” and a purveyor of doom and gloom.
But when I expressed optimistic thoughts about the remarkable creativity, progress and resilience of humanity, readers said I was unduly “optimistic,” “naïve,” or a “What Me Worry?!” clone of Alfred E. Neumann from (the late) Mad Magazine.
We can hold simultaneous and contradictory mindsets, Yin and Yang dualities. I am optimistic and hopeful about humanity’s future, yet I’m wary and sometimes fear the worst.
Opposing dualities are seen in many human experiences:
Coal-burning factories and carbon-fueled automobiles, airplanes and rockets have enabled amazing human accomplishments, but these technological advances are the sources of dire carbon footprints and global warming which threaten our very existence.
New gene editing and transfer (CrispR) techniques help us cure or prevent serious diseases (sickle cell anemia, for example), but might also be used to preselect human traits (height, musculature, intelligence) for “designer babies,” or for nefarious purposes (“perfect soldiers”).
The same remarkable cognition and creativity which produced awe-inspiring works of science, medicine and the arts, have also developed lethal weaponry which can annihilate our entire species.
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is touted as a major step forward for humanity, but some scientists warn that this advanced technology might prove to be our undoing.
Polite and respectful geniuses who contribute majorly to society can be capable of heinous crimes, and cruel and malevolent people can show generous acts of kindness.
When people read about these dualities, they may be of some passing interest, but when these issues are personalized in terms of the lives of our own children, grandchildren and subsequent progeny, they become much more than “mere” interest: They become “up close and personal,” deeply important to us.
I would need an encyclopedic mind to be able to convey all the wondrous discoveries and creations, the art, music and literature, scientific and medical advances, edifices and modes of travel that have arisen as a result of human minds, hearts and endeavors.
Humans are endowed with remarkably altruistic emotions and behaviors, like generosity, benevolence, empathy, respect, sympathy, caring, wisdom and love, to name a few.
Counterbalancing these positive accomplishments are the wide array of destructive human acts, like brutality, torture, wars, slavery, racism and the weaponry to severely harm each other.
Aiding and abetting these negative actions are corresponding personality characteristics, like wrath and hate, manipulation, lying, deceiving, exploiting, maiming and killing, to name some particularly destructive traits.
In spite of our travails, the Reverend Martin Luther King’s penetrating observation in 1963 that “the arc of human history bends towards justice,” has been borne out over the millennia. Two recent important and timely books, Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and Dr. Perri Klass’s “A Good Time to be Born” cite evidence that humans have progressed dramatically over the centuries in areas like health, education, nutrition, arts and sciences, egalitarianism and women’s rights, even reduction in violence.
During these times of pandemic and social unrest, we might be fearful and pessimistic, so that optimistic statements might be hard to believe. But Dr. King made his comment during a particularly chaotic time of struggle with racism in the United States. Historical facts and science show that Dr. King’s progressive “arc” of humanity is well-documented and persuasive.
So much so, we can even say that, over time, the arc of humanity also bends towards progress and benevolence.
Time: There’s the rub!
The problem is that major social ideas and movements take years to evolve, coalesce and take flight, and during those intervening years of incipient change, there is often “collateral damage” like pain, setbacks, and destruction.
A major challenge for humanity’s survival is for us to emphasize and reward those benevolent traits and acts which have carried our achievements and progressive momentum forwards, and to diminish and indeed “extinguish” our propensities to hateful thoughts, feelings and actions.
To return to my optimism and naivete (see above), I believe that we can indeed be hopeful about the future of humanity, but it will take considerable international commitment: Either we shall live, study, work and play together in harmony, and thereby fulfill our benevolent capabilities and dreams…or we won’t (shudder).