Thursday, February 19, 2015

Starting Humanity Over

Only a few decades later than the rest of you, I finally got around to reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This is the classic novel of a bunch of young boys on a desert island in the Pacific who did not know whether they would ever be rescued. They chose a chief, who tried to get them to build a fire on the mountaintop as a signal to passing ships. However, a renegade chief influenced most of the boys to murder two of the others and to pursue the original chief in order to, it is implied, impale him on a stick. In the process of becoming murderers, the boys also burned down the forests of their island which were their only source of food.

This story directly addresses the question of whether violence is a natural part of the human mind or is something that is learned, a very hot debate at the time Golding wrote the novel and, strangely enough, still debated. Those who thought (or think) that violence is learned might have guessed that these innocent boys would have developed into a peaceful society. But the boys created a society more vicious than the war-torn world from which they had come. The clear message is that hitting the reset button, starting over, in human history, even if it were possible, would not create a utopia, and would be very likely to produce something much worse than modern civilization which at least has a few traditions that restrain savagery.

The Bible has very similar stories. Adam and Eve were in a perfect garden (in which the only thing to eat was fruit) very much like Golding’s island. Adam and Eve could not be satisfied there, however. And, as in Golding’s novel, one of the results of the rejection of paradise is hunting and meat consumption. So humankind started over, this time outside the Garden. Perhaps the most famous Bible story of all was about God pressing the reset button on humankind by destroying everyone in the world except Noah’s family, whom he considered to be perfectly righteous. But this didn’t work. Very soon after Noah’s family emerged from the Ark, Noah got drunk and his family was torn apart by intrigue (with a sexual overtone). Then God pressed the reset button again: this time, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah while rescuing Lot and his daughters. But they had hardly escaped into the mountains before they involved themselves in intrigues presumably as bad as anything they had left behind in the wicked cities. Then God pressed the reset button again, leading the Israelites out of captivity and into the wilderness to start their own new and righteous society, which failed at every step. Finally, God pressing the reset button to start Israel over again in the time of Nehemiah worked about as well as the previous attempts. These stories are some of the epic tales upon which western civilization is based.

Our evolutionary ancestry assures that every human society, large or small, isolated from or connected to others, will have conflict that results from competition and the desire for domination. Leaving a burning hulk of Earth behind and starting over on a new planet somewhere else in the galaxy would likewise fail. Evolutionary science has at least revealed to us that these destructive behaviors are not mindless evil but are the result of natural selection and are therefore understandable even if not excusable.

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