Friday, August 28, 2009

Humanity's Journey

"Very good, Captain. There is hope for you. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope. We will contact you when we are ready."

Star Trek, "Arena"

This sort of line was spoken in more than one Star Trek episode. The Enterprise encounters some powerful and super-evolved race who initially judge humans to be relative savages, but Kirk does something that shows that humans have some evolved attributes as well. The conversation ends with the aliens (rather condescendingly, in my view) letting Kirk know that while humans are not advanced enough for them to deal with, maybe in a few thousand years we will have evolved enough for them to deal with us. (Of course, truly advanced aliens would have simply ignored Kirk and his adversary rather than set up a single combat situation, but then there'd be no show.)

The storyline is on the silly side, but it does bring up a question that's worth considering: where will we be in a thousand years? The pessimist can point to a host of societal ills and say that we haven't made a great deal of progress. The optimist can point to the relative worldwide peace of the past sixty years, and (in the U.S.) the substantial progress made in terms of societal treatment of women, blacks, gays, and other disadvantaged groups.

As for me, in general I'm more of an optimist than a pessimist. (Easy for me, though; I'm a white male born into a non-dysfunctional middle-class family, and have faced few real challenges in my life.) But I do think there's cause for optimism. Of course, we still have many problems that won't go away anytime soon, but I find it difficult to look at too many aspects of the world situation and find things that aren't better than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. Of course I don't mean material things, but rather bigotry, social consciousness, concern for the environment, and so on.

One thing that sadly has changed little is the fact that following one's self-interest is still the dominant social paradigm. Examples of this abound, and I'll probably be writing about them in the future, but the one that leaps to mind now is the drug problem. Everyone knows that Prohibition failed in the U.S. because too many Americans refused to give up drinking, and the money from alcohol sales went to organized crime. The repeal of Prohibition was a protective action, an attempt to slow down the mob's flow of money before they truly took over; America's freedom and democracy were in serious danger.

Five decades later, American consumption of cocaine reached levels at which many millions of dollars a year were being collected by the Colombian drug lords, and the situation in Colombia became desperate. Judges who sentenced drug cartel leaders were assassinated with regularity, the rule of law was seriously undermined, many police and others in law enforcement were on the mob's payroll. The cartel leaders ended up with enough resources to essentially build their own army, and a section of the country came under the de facto rule of the cartel. Did we end the prohibition of cocaine? No, because it wasn't our country that was being taken apart. Granted, cocaine is much more dangerous than alcohol, but I'm very sure that if our country was in such dire straits, it would have been seriously considered. Legalizing cocaine would cause relatively minor social problems in the U.S., and relieve huge ones in Colombia. But it isn't going to happen. Not in our self-interest.

A large part of this has to do with issues of nationalism, from which I believe no country is immune. To Americans, an American life is much more important than a Colombian one. Parity in this regard would be a huge step forward, but even I'm not optimistic that this will happen in the next few hundred years.

I tend to compare the history of humanity to the history of one person. We have childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and so on. Stages of life. We can also say that there are stages of civilization. Perhaps we could say that infancy ended with the emergence of homo sapiens, humans more or less as we are today. To have even reached that point, we had to fight our way up through evolution. Aggression and selfishness was rewarded; if you were passive or let the other guy eat first, you probably didn't live long enough for your genes to be passed on. But since civilization began, we've been (or should be) fighting the qualities that allowed us to survive in the first place. We haven't truly needed aggression and selfishness to survive for thousands of years, but we're stuck with them, at least for now. Will those genes slowly die out (now that passive and peaceful ones can also be passed on), allowing us to have something approaching a utopian society in a millennium, or two, or a dozen? I have no desire to live that long, even if I could, but I would be very interested to know.


  1. That's an interesting, out-of-the box idea to stop the drug problem - well, the *Columbians'* drug problem - I'd never seen it compared with prohibition. Unfortunately, though, the reality is as you've stated:

    > Granted, cocaine is much more dangerous than alcohol

    It's a bit of a stretch for my mind to wrap around the idea of one's government *not* holding one's hand and telling us what is or isn't good for us. Hmmm. Would society immediately go down the drain if it was 'allowed' to have access to BAD THINGS? But we can drink alcohol now; we simply have mechanisms that catch and punish people who abuse it to a point where they threaten the welfare of others. Hmmm. I'm starting to come around more to your idea ... very interesting!

    Are there (Western) countries which permit recreational drugs? Amsterdam is a special case, or is the Netherlands in general open to cocaine use?

    Plus, over time, wouldn't both demand and the efforts of the crime syndicates simply focus on the next illegal drug on the ladder? Maybe not - I have no idea what drove the popularity of cocaine - but, for many people, part of the attraction of something is the allure of 'getting away' with something illegal, maybe.

    We haven't truly needed aggression and selfishness to survive for thousands of years, but we're stuck with them, at least for now. Will those genes slowly die out (now that passive and peaceful ones can also be passed on), allowing us to have something approaching a utopian society in a millennium, or two, or a dozen?

    If this blog entry was a Robert Heinlein novel then I'd feel obliged to point out that, if mankind became a domesticated and passive species, we'd be ripe fodder for the first set of aggressive aliens that came across us and decided to colonise the Earth. :-) That was a theme mentioned in his Starship Troopers, at any rate (and I suspect others).

  2. >Would society immediately go down the drain if it was 'allowed' to have access to BAD THINGS?

    It does seem as though a lot of people think so. If cocaine were legalized, there would be a spike in addiction, and more deaths than there otherwise would be. It would hardly be without cost. I would advocate using taxes collected from selling it to set up treatment centers to help people kick the habit.

    Overall, I would say that the answer to your question is no, but people would have to take more responsibility for their own actions. We're so used to government protecting us from ourselves that it would be quite a shock.

    I'm not aware of other countries that have legalized any drugs, but I've heard that some countries have decriminalized one drug or another, or have unofficially instructed police not to worry about this or that illegal drug.

    >I have no idea what drove the popularity of cocaine

    Clearly, you have never tried cocaine. ;-) I do know what you mean, though. And yes, there would be other drugs, but I'm not sure the mobs could increase the demand for them. Every drug you legalize is one less they can make money from. As for the 'allure' point, you may be right, which would only support legalization. The drug's popularity might go down.

    I've never read Starship Troopers, which is one of the many unfortunate gaps in my knowledge. But I get the point, and it is true. We'd simply have to hope that faster-than-light speeds aren't possible. It's certainly true that as long as there's an enemy, we can't get past this stage of our evolution.