Sunday, April 9, 2017

No Utopia

A germ has infected the minds of bright people, deep thinkers, and intellectuals in almost every Western society. Its inception dates back almost 2,500 years to Plato and his Republic. The infection resurfaced again in the 16th century with Sir Thomas More and his Utopia, and once more and with even more virulence in the 19th century with Karl Marx and his writings in The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. The essence of these various outbreaks—the DNA of the germ, so to speak—is that humanity can reach a perfect state, a lasting condition of peace and plenty and universal brotherhood, if everyone would just let the brightest people among us order society according to rational, scientific, humanitarian principles.

This notion is in stark contrast with the other two principles of social organization. The first of those organizations goes back to the monkey troop: let the strongest, smartest, and (hopefully) wisest people in the tribe, confederation, or nation fight among themselves until the (hopefully) best person wins; then we will all obey him (or rarely, her) as our alpha male (or female), chief, king, emperor, or führer. This principle saw its heyday in the English Wars of the Roses. The second principle is less ancient and was developed in Greece at about the same period that Plato did his writings: let people come together, offer and consider arguments, and choose among themselves the best course of action, with the process overseen by a committee of citizen caretakers. With later refinements to address issues like dispersed populations, protection of the rights of the minority, and delegation of the popular will to elected representatives, this principle has come down to us in various democracies and in our own republic.

The main difference between the utopian ideals of Plato, More, and Marx and the other organizing principles of either kingship or democracy lies in the nature of time. A king or queen is supported, followed, and obeyed for only a brief moment in history—even if the king or queen and his or her followers don’t understand this and think accession to the crown is forever. The monarch’s decrees and orders are binding only for a limited period and subject to change with changing underlying conditions. Some decrees may become the basis of popular tradition and so live on for decades or centuries beyond their origin. But a new king with a different appraisal of the political, economic, defensive, or agrarian situation, or new experience of changed conditions, can issue new decrees that point social energies in a different direction. Similarly, the proposals and laws that democratic societies or their democratically elected representatives enact are always of a temporary nature. Some of the society’s core values and principles, such as those bound up in the U.S. Constitution, are intended to endure for the ages. But even these sacred documents are always subject to interpretation and amendment. The essence of either the kingship principle or the democratic principle is that law and the social organization which supports it are flexible, subject to the imagination and understanding of the people being governed, and able to respond to changing political, economic, and other conditions.

But the bright minds of the theorists—Plato, More, Marx, and all those who sail with and believe in them—look for a social order that transcends the changing nature of human understanding and imagination. They aim at the end of politics, economics, military aggression, agricultural variation, technological invention, and other underlying conditions. They expect to initiate the end of history itself. Their social and political views are flexible right up until the new and improved social order that they have devised takes over and operates so perfectly that nothing further can change. When you reach perfection, there’s nothing more to say or do.

Of course, human nature abhors perfection. We are restless creatures, always thinking, always plotting and planning, always sampling and judging, always looking for greener grass and trying to breed redder apples, always wanting more, always itching with a kernel of dissatisfaction. This itch is what motivates the bright minds looking for utopia in the first place. But those minds never stop to consider that restless humans, given an eternity of bliss, will soon want to reject their perfect state and move on to something even newer and better. That is the lesson of the Eden story.

The more hard-core, dirigiste thinkers among those bright minds have already concluded that human nature will ultimately need to be changed in order to fit into their perfect societies. People will have to become more self-sacrificing, more contented, less quarrelsome, more altruistic, less greedy, more … perfect, in order for their new and enduring social order to function. Stalin famously supported the researches of Trofim Lysenko, the agrobiologist who taught—counter to the principles of Mendelian genetics—that acquired traits, the products of nurture, could be inherited by later generations. Lysenko was working with plants and seeds, but Stalin and his acolytes believed that the same technique could be worked on human beings: get them to change their behavior, rethink their own natures, become the new Homo sovieticus—and human nature would be changed for all time to conform with Marxist-Leninist principles.

People do change, of course. While genetic mutations—especially among brain functions—tend to be slow and often self-canceling—especially when they work against social norms—people are always susceptible to new ideas. Religions with their coded values and ethical propositions can sweep across populations much faster than any physical mutation can sweep down the generations. Christianity raises the values of love, reciprocity, and cooperation. Islam raises the values of uniform belief and submission to religious authority. Buddhism raises the values of right thought and action in a hurtful world. And, yes, Marxism-Leninism raises the values of personal selflessness and obedience to political authority.

But these core value propositions are still subject to change. Inspiration and revelation harden into orthodoxy, become challenged by disputation and reformation, and succumb to new and different inspirations and revelations. The one exception to this change process would seem to be the scientific method, which is a form of either anti-revelation or continuing revelation. Arising in the work of 16th and 17th century thinkers like Galileo and Descartes, the method values observation and experimentation as the only support for—or disproof of—conjecture and theory. By its nature, the scientific method is flexible and perpetually adjusts its findings to changes in—or new discoveries about—those underlying conditions.1

We’ve been riding a wave of technological change derived from the scientific method for four centuries now. Observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and analysis have variously given us the steam engine, telephones, radio, television, computers, evolution, and genetics as well as far-reaching advances in our thinking about physics, chemistry, and biology. Human life is qualitatively and quantitatively different from what it was four hundred years ago in those societies that have embraced science as an organizing principle along with the Western tradition of personal liberty and free-market exchange of ideas, goods, and services.

And yes, along with our understanding of biology, chemistry, and physics, our understanding of human psychology and social structures has vastly expanded. We have become the animal that studies itself and thinks about its own future—not just on a personal level, but as a social organism. But we are no closer to finding a “perfect” social structure, because human beings are still descended from irritable, distrusting, independent-minded monkeys rather than docile, cooperative, obedient ants or honeybees. No amount of religious indoctrination, state orthodoxy, or applied lysenkoism will remake the mass of humanity into H. sovieticus.

Get over it, bright minds. In the next hundred or a thousand years, we may reach the stars, transmute the elements, and be served by mechanical intelligences the equal of our own. But we will still be irritable, distrusting, independent-minded creatures, half-angel, half-ape, and always looking for greener grass and redder fruits. And that flexibility of mind, combined with our stubbornness and independence, is what will keep human beings evolving and moving forward when more perfect creatures and more orderly societies have vanished from this Earth.

1. To quote physicist Richard Feynman: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is; it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” Unfortunately, these days some of our lesser scientists—and their lay followers—seem to think that scientific propositions can be “settled” for all time and somehow made immutable.

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