|We are social animals. It is our nature to want to belong. It is Darwinian: We learn from each other and we survive by working in teams. We help each other out. Our community, our tribe, adopts us, accepts us, and teaches us what we need to know. Our very existence is in many ways indistinguishable from that of the groups we belong to. For most of humanity, life has enduring meaning only with others of our own kind.
In light of that incredible imperative — physical, social, emotional, intellectual, moral, rational, instinctive — to belong, it is amazing that we are different from each other at all. What reason is there to be different? Especially since, as ee cummings tells us, it’s so much easier to be the same?:
to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else
means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,
and never stop fighting
Similar arguments have been made, by Daniel Quinn and others, that a single human ‘taker’ culture with a remarkably, perhaps dangerously, homogeneous value and belief system began to squeeze out all other human cultures about thirty centuries ago, and is now virtually ubiquitous on Earth.
Some recent scientific studies have suggested that evolution on Earth has largely ground to a halt, a consequence of the massive loss of biodiversity as our monolithic species and culture squeezes out all other life forms on the planet, as medical advances allow the weak-gened to proliferate as well as the strong, and as continued intermixing narrows the diversity of the human gene pool. We are in fact both ‘punier and smaller-brained‘ than our Cro-Magnon ancestors, for reasons not well known. Perhaps our culture and homogeneity have lowered the barriers to human survival, or perhaps our ancestors were just too strong and too smart for their own good.
So with all of these forces working to make us more the same, what is it that drives us to be different? What is it that has made individuality, individual rights, personal freedoms, and diversity not only acceptable but admirable, desirable, even worth dying for? Why are Roddenberry’s Borg Collective the ultimate alien bad guys and not the model of human perfection?
Despite all our chemical and social programming we are not all alike, and with the possible exception of American neocons (I’m being sarcastic) we don’t want everyone to be and think alike. Is this Darwinian as well? Is the need for incessant evolution, the constant trying out of minor (and sometimes major) differences in the makeup of species to see if the survival result is a little better, even more ingrained in humans, and in fact in all life, than the need to belong and conform?
I think our reverence for individuality and ‘different-ness’ can be explained in a single Darwinian word: competition. We compete with other species, and with others of our own species, by using our competitive advantages. These competitive differences determine our success at choosing a mate and our role and rank in our community. If all ganders in a flock were identical, the process by which the geese selected their mates would be chaotic, and the process of determining the rank in the migration pattern would be anarchic. We celebrate our differences because they determine our life partners and our roles, what we do in our communities, and, as I’ve said before, what we do defines who we are. So all of life is a continuous tension between the imperative to belong, to conform, and the imperative to be different. Too far in one direction and we’re a nondescript drone, a non-breeder. Too far in the other and we’re a lone wolf, an outcast.
Ultimately, however, we are not much different from each other. I believe humanity would be more resilient, smarter, and perhaps living a utopian existence if there were much more diversity of human cultures, values, beliefs and behaviours than there is in the brave new world of 21st century Earth.
And that raises yet another question, one that is perhaps more important than the question of why we tolerate and even celebrate difference between individuals. And that question is: What can we do to encourage even more difference, more diversity, more distinctions that could re-jump-start the process of evolution and perhaps at the same time save us from pandemics like AIDS (which thrive on our homogeneity) by increasing our species’ genetic resilience?
The book I’m now writing, or which more accurately is writing itself, is a future utopia with a much reduced human population and an absence of physical suffering and deprivation, achieved by simply re-channeling human energy and ingenuity from trying to sustain unlimited growth to trying to optimize well-being of all life on the planet at an eminently sustainable level.
What is interesting is that this utopian world also produces rapidly increasing human diversity, as a byproduct of (i) a radically decentralized politic and economy, and (ii) the freeing up of time from the struggle to survive, allowing serendipitous, highly focused human activities towards new scientific and artistic goals that were previously unimaginable (or at least unimagined).
When I was younger, I was a great believer in centralization. One world government, I was sure, would lead to global peace and prosperity and quick solutions to global problems. It seemed to me to be more efficient, to allow greater interchange of different cultures and hence to produce pragmatic, innovative solutions that would probably not occur to more parochial local authorities. The problem, as I’ve learned since, is that centralization just doesn’t work. What it accomplishes is to isolate decision-makers from both the source of the issues and problems their decisions are about, and the impact of those decisions. Any efficiency achieved by reducing functional duplication is more than offset by the cost of insensitive, undifferentiated and ill-informed decisions and actions that the isolated central authority takes.
Despite examples to the contrary (the DMV and megalomanic condominium councils come to mind) I now believe that governance of communities, nations and corporations is best when it is as decentralized as humanly possible, where the people making the decisions are personally affected by them and face to face with others affected by them. My novel is leading me to believe that decentralized organizations are also likely to be more diverse, in fact astonishingly so. You’ve seen some of the isolated New Guinea tribes on National Geographic. You’ve seen the strange proclivities of inner city subcultures. Be prepared for some surprisingly unusual characters, events and innovations in The World That Could Be. This book is turning out to be a lot more fun than I’d expected, and an amazing mental exercise.
(Artwork above: Hummingbird Muses by Saskatoon artist Jonathon Earl Bowser)
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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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