The famous physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, in speculating on the long-term future of the human species, summed up matters by saying those prospects will largely depend on “…whether the language transmitted cultural sense of responsibility proves sufficiently powerful to control the DNA transmitted sense of aggression”.
There is little to quibble about that. Upon second thoughts though, and risking lese majesty, I would have preferred a broader phrase (such as ‘selfishness fuelled aggression’) instead of simply the word ‘aggression’. For, the key concept is ‘selfishness’. Aggression is but only one of the many sub-sets of useful evolutionary mechanisms driving a ‘selfishness’ that promotes both survival and mating opportunities (which, in turn, result in the differential reproduction driving species adaptation over time); but that same ‘selfishness’ (this time in the garb of self-preservation) also knows when it is prudent to flee or submit, instead of being aggressive.
As always, the story of living creatures (us included) is more complex than appears at first glance. For example, many of you may be wondering how this key concept of ‘selfishness’ can ever be reconciled with the countless examples (including many striking ones) of altruistic behaviour we see in Nature (most notably, parental sacrifices for offspring). But that is too long a story to relate here. If you are interested in exploring this subject further then read the Richard Dawkins classic, The Selfish Gene, first published some four decades ago.Going back to the Hawking quote, how then do we develop, sustain, and reinforce that language transmitted cultural ‘sense of responsibility’?
Traditionally, the job was accomplished in many ways. There was the natural and crucial role of parental upbringing (it is worth noting that, compared to every other species, we need a greater proportion of our average life-span to become adults); social norms (such as laws, customs and social hierarchies); peer pressure (through personal example, and the creation of suitable myths and historical narratives); and, of course, religion, with its curious mixture of purported rewards and punishments (albeit after death).Underwriting the practical effectiveness of these mechanisms were the facts that traditional societies were fairly static and relatively isolated from each other; and the vast majority of the populace were passive because they were powerless and fully occupied in the daily struggles of a precarious existence.
But all those old certainties are now pretty much history. Particularly in the last 50 years or so, an unimagined increase in freedoms of all sorts (including economic) has radically altered the political and cultural landscape everywhere. Add the impact of modern (especially, communication) technology to the resulting mix and societies have largely been wrenched free from their old moorings. Passivity is a thing of the past. Fear (of hell, the law, the future, and even parents) has seen an accelerating decline. And we think today more in terms of our rights and entitlements than our duties and obligations. What then has happened to ‘the sense of responsibility’ Hawking was talking about?
That cultural concept is looking increasingly shopworn, and badly frayed at the edges. For the illiterate poor, it was always largely rooted in fear of authority (divine and temporal). For the rich and powerful, it was never more than a useful stick to beat others, intended primarily to promote their own privileges and authority. Only a steadily growing middle-class, intent on protecting a stable social and political system that has been their ticket to continuously increasing political power and income, took the concept seriously. And, being educated and free-thinking, they sought and found new and solid social and philosophical underpinnings for the concept in the modern framework of a secular and rational morality. The two most important consequences of the new framework were the conceptual creation of many new responsibilities of the state and the expansion of individual rights and freedoms.
Now I am a firm believer in what modernity stands for. The achievements have been phenomenal. But let us at the same time not forget its limitations. The shifting of many responsibilities to the state has weakened the personal and individual sense of responsibility. And all those new entitlements and rights for citizens, when added to the burden of responsibilities the modern state is now supposed to bear, have created a social and political environment where expectations usually far outstrip resources.
Socialism was found wanting because its idealistic aspirations failed in practice to penetrate the thick armour of selfishness enveloping human nature. A more rational rather than dogmatic approach (‘progressive taxation to fund social programmes is the necessary price we pay to buy social peace and stability’ someone said) has worked better but is also under threat from its many in-built anomalies. Is there now a need for a thorough going revision of the ‘social contract’ idea underpinning modern societies?
I think of such matters because I am trying to assimilate and understand a variety of confusing events and developments from all over the world. There are the current killing sprees in Karachi and the unabated fervour of our jihadist elements. In the US there is the astonishing rise of the ultra-right Tea Party movement. Greece, Spain and Portugal have a serious financial and social crisis on their hands (with Italy and France teetering on the brink). The UK has seen rioting; and upheavals and uncertainty stalk the Arab world. What is going on?
And neither are such events new or novel. If you think Karachi is bad, think of Rio. Over the last decade, in a city of roughly 10 million, a staggering 25-30,000 people on average were murdered every year, mostly in gun battles between drug gangs in the favela slums that ring the beautiful city. And many Mexican cities bordering the US (not forgetting the more well-known examples from South America) are virtually controlled by drug gangs. Argentina and Mexico have seen financial chaos and meltdown and Zimbabwe has broken all modern records for economic mismanagement and currency inflation. Paris has seen its immigrant riots. Most astonishing, the Tea Party movement in the US (comprising mainly lower-middle and working class people) has blocked Obama’s efforts to withdraw tax breaks for the extra-rich and extend Medicare benefits for the poor. And let us not forget that all these countries enjoy income levels far higher than us.
As a complete non-professional in everything, I am not foolish enough to pretend I have any satisfactory answers to our problems. Nevertheless, certain aspects of a new paradigm should be apparent. We need to find new social mechanisms to tone down individual expectations and bring fresh life and vigour to the irreplaceable concept of ‘a sense of responsibility’. I suppose the magic key is ‘jobs’. So, above all we need a revolution in economic thinking. With so much to do in practically every sphere of life, why can we not put people to work usefully (and here I do not mean giving them the mostly unproductive type government jobs)?It took the genius of Keynes to solve the riddle of unemployment in the midst of willing workers and idle factories. Where is the new Keynes who will show us how, in a global economy, the trillions in available hot capital can be profitably employed to meet the enormous unsatisfied thirst for goods and services? – Dailytimes – Munir Attaullah