The ‘Biology’ of Civilization….

By Dwight Owen Schweitzer
Posted on July 28th 2008 .

We began as single celled organisms, simple, self contained, able to reproduce and eventually evolve into infinitely more complex organisms; the latest iteration in that hierarchy is the human body. The history of humankind oddly mirrors this evolutionary experience. Given what we know, ours is also a history of organization and control from the cave to the pyramids we have watched the organism of humankind experience the ebb and flow of the very forces that enabled single celled organisms to come together for the same reasons, safety, control over the forces that threaten them and to enable them to better cope with the infinite challenges their environment imposed. Now if we imagine that human beings are single cells in the ‘body politic’ the evolution of how those cells have organized themselves to meet the very same challenges on a global scale that their single celled ancestors did in microcosm we might better understand the challenges that face us and more importantly how best to cope with them.

The human body suffers from disease in much the same way as the body politic and the results are not appreciably different. Despite the best efforts of those who would turn back the wheels of civilization and our evolution towards the same harmony we hope our own bodies eventually find, we have yet to suffer from a fatal disease. This, despite the best efforts of the Bubonic plague, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot and the numerous other enemies of the body politic that have diminished us but not extinguished us in much the same was as any disease decimates the human body but leave it the ability to ultimately regain its’ health and perhaps have its’ ‘immune system’ learn from the scourges of the past to keep it from ending our journey towards ‘everlasting life’ the equivalent of man’s dream of immortality.

How odd that at just the time when diseases and their carriers have become more virulent to the human body as the worldwide AIDS epidemic amply demonstrates, threats to the body politic have achieved equal levels of potential devastation. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, global warming and the delivery systems for biological weapons are now capable of achieving in the hands of a few, the mass extinction of all humankind for the first time in human history. We are no longer at war with ourselves for hegemony of land or resources or even race, we are at war with our ability to survive as a species. We search the heavens for the comet that will do to us what we think another did to the dinosaurs while we neglect coming to grips with the fact that were we compared to a human body we would universally be determined to be dysfunctional to the point of recklessness. Events have finally moved faster that our ability to understand their implications or our ability to energize our ‘immune system’ to protect us from what is now ourselves.

When I was born, the damage that could be done by any number of ‘diseases’ threatening the body politic were relatively minor and no one except perhaps the Jews, were at risk of total annihilation by any known force or group of forces confronting humankind. In my lifetime that has changed from, at worst, winners and losers to life or death for us all. The first taste came from the acronym ‘MAD’ which stood for ‘mutually assured destruction’, the threat posed by the use of the nuclear arsenals of the former Soviet Union and ourselves in a global nuclear war. The body politic responded with such vaccines as the ‘hot line’ between the White House and the Kremlin, and proxy wars like Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan to keep the Dr. Strangelove’s in our respective countries from taking us over the brink. The so called ‘military industrial complex’ created in World War II, and once tasting life became too big to kill, the equivalent of an ‘inoperable cancer’ that we kept in check one day at a time. By keeping it fed we also kept it in check as ever escalating defense budgets demonstrated and woe to the leader who tried to turn off that faucet. .

What is there to learn from all this one might ask? It is that the dangers we face are not in our stars but in ourselves. If we can all die together from such a variety of ever more numerous threats, the way we live together must be so organized that we can best cope with the threats they present. If we continue the analogy with the human body, such concepts as ‘nationalism’ are the equivalent of the kidneys wanting to be more important than the liver, the lungs first then the heart, more room for the intestines less for the stomach and so on. Such are the nation states of the world whether they be a relatively expendable collection of cells such as the appendix or the very heart of the global economy, we are one world now and if we can all die together we need to improve the way we live together to insure that we not only continue to do so but do so as a people and not as an us and a them. .

Oddly enough, the very gulf between the generations which evidence suggests is wider than ever before, offers us the most hope for a better future in a more coherent world. Young people from all over the world routinely chat and share their similarities and commonalities in messages over the internet by the billions every day at a time when their parents consider themselves lucky to have ‘video professor’ to learn emailing. Governments, once seen as the focus of our daily lives for good or ill and given a measure of respect at least for one ideologically based side or the other, are now held in the same esteem once reserved for used car salesmen and to a greater degree as ones age decreases. Oddly enough the popularity of Barak Obama is curious evidence of the very distaste in which government is held by an increasing number of ‘my fellow Americans’ especially the millions of younger voters who have rallied to his banner more than likely due to his apparent inexperience than his intellectual expertise.

The inevitable changes to come, forced upon us by ‘warp speed’ technology will spell the difference if not between life and death, at least the health not only of the planet but of the systems in place for dealing with the myriad of threats that will increasingly face us. Make no mistake, we face threats from every conceivable direction and source ranging from climate change, food shortages, to disproportionate population shifts and resource use and misuse. We are seeing the tip of an ever shrinking iceberg and as it shrinks so do our chances of avoiding the environmental disaster it portends, if I can be forgiven for mixing my metaphors. People speak but do not listen, information floods us but does not enlighten us, the validity of opinions is often measured by the loudness of the voice expressing them and in the end we know too little, trust institutions no longer equipped to respond to the challenges that face us and lack the vision and the will to make the changes to our mind set that the demands of our changing world require. As a consequence we are meandering ever closer to the abyss, looking backwards while thinking we are seeing the future.


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