At the Socrates Cafe, the questions were asked: How do you view History? What do you think is the most important historical impact of our time?
My focus will be on the second question, though to understand my answer it might help to have recourse to some brief thoughts on the first question. I view history in a very holistic fashion, as a vast set of networks of varying sizes and shapes interacting with each other in varying ways according to their properties rather than as a linear temporal progression marked by changes in the state of the universe. I take an oddly non-temporal view of history, which is not to say that I think it is not useful to view it from a temporal perspective. It is often quite useful, and one of ways of viewing history which I find most useful and will provide the answer to the second question happens to be one which is framed by a temporal perspective.
I tend to think that the most important historical impact of our time is also the most important historical impact of any other time in the history of our species: the causes and effects of human nature. It is vital to consider how various forces have shaped human nature throughout our existence and how our nature has in turn shaped our behavior in the world. One of the forces which continues to have a most profound impact on our nature is the cumulative effect of interacting networks experienced by our species as survival pressure.
While human nature has not changed to any significant degree in the past few hundred years, the average level of survival pressure we experience has changed dramatically. It’s difficult to explain precisely how profoundly survival pressure has shaped our behaviors, particularly to people who live comfortably in industrialized nations with decent medical care for large portions of the populace and ample food supplies and numerous conveniences. These folks have little experience with the kinds of survival pressure faced by their ancestors even a few hundred years ago, let alone thousands of years ago or more. People who live under harsh survival pressure are much more likely to understand it if we are able to give them respite from it for long enough that they can reflect and take stock of their lives.
Our failure to understand survival pressure and its impact on us has the effect of making it easier for us to judge other human beings much more stringently than is fair, especially given our own weakness and moral failings when subjected to even less pressure than our ancestors faced. It’s much easier to not have to kill anyone when violence is at magnificently low rates compared to other societies because you happen to live in a society with abundant resources and people don’t face the decision to steal or die nearly so often and the folks being stolen from aren’t going to die from starvation if their meal is taken. It’s easier to spend more time working on being compassionate and loving while avoiding violence when you are not staying awake all night to defend your family or your animals from wolves or bandits.
If we can manage to understand how harsh survival pressures shape our behavior, it’s likely that it will help us to understand human nature much more fully. We can gain a better understanding of our violent urges which lead to war, our mating instincts which create problems when left unchecked, our tastes for food and drink that cause obesity, our need for stability and structure to keep us from going insane, and our general willingness to so easily buy into the messages sent to us through mass marketing. Understanding our own behaviors in light of our nature can help us to change those behaviors more effectively where they can be changed and to perhaps redirect them where they cannot. Ancient ascetic traditions have already learned how to do this, and we desperately need to re-learn it if we are to survive as a species through the economic and ecological difficulties facing us in the near future.