As a species, we do not behave rationally; we behave instinctively. We get sucked into gigantic organisms where we might feel a sense of belonging that takes no heed of where it is taking us and what it is doing to us. Mobs run on a combustible fuel made by instinct. Ken Burns, co-producer of an epic 18-hour documentary film called “The Vietnam War” that is about to be released to the world, had this to say in an interview with Christiane Amanpour: “War is essentially, obviously, dehumanising.”
It’s not. I know what Burns is trying to imply – he explains afterwards that one has to dehumanise the enemy in order to do war with it – but in the bigger picture, warfare is not in any rational way evidence of inhumanity. We call it inhuman or dehumanising because we cling to far-fetched, romanticised notions of what humanity is.
Homo sapiens is measurably an evolving species, as indeed every biological species appears to be. Evolution, as we understand it, is an ongoing process of sequential changes to the properties of an organism brought about by interaction with its habitat, with only one apparent goal: The success of the species. A species is successful if it thrives; in other words, if the number of reproducing adults increases continuously, meaning that for any given period, the number of viable births must significantly exceed the number of deaths. Thriving depends on how well that species competes for nurture in the biosphere, and that rests in turn upon natural selection doing a good job of enabling individuals most suited to propagation of the species to come to the fore. The genome is constantly being modified by the imperative to bear children and protect them until they can take over the job of procreation.
A superficial summary of the purpose of evolution suffices here. It is sufficient to allow us to grasp that the overarching determinants of our behaviour are extra-conscious. Our rational minds are merely spin doctors for behaviour that is actually directed by a greater, species-wide set of rules. Our thoughts and arguments might be able to change behaviour temporarily and locally, but that’s about it. Instinct is an output from a chemical stream far removed from our mental theatre, and which has aims and objectives that are not in the least bit democratic. It’s the ultimate dictatorship. Individuals within the evolving group merely put their chattering faces to work in discouraging other individuals or groups from interfering with their instincts in all sorts of artful ways. Allegiance to that higher power is not optional.
I’m afraid that any notion of what motivates humans to behave as they do collectively that claims that we do what we all do because of rational decisions we take, is delusion. Our conscious choices affect only the tiniest details of where societies go on their voyage of evolution. No participation in any war that I know of was purely the result of calculated reason. Sit down and talk to just about anyone – we all hate it. If that was what determined the outcome, there’d be no war. There’d be no partisanship or nationalism or patriotism or games of rugby either. Those things are in essence quite silly, but to a healthy member of the species, they are immensely compelling and even enjoyable. I love rugby and watch it religiously. It’s a violent territorial game that involves players hurting each other. You’d have to dig pretty deep to find where that love gels with my dedication to protecting animals from pain. One thing is certain, though: I did not come to love rugby by a process of logic. It was a visceral motivation, and I think it is closely related to my instincts.
This thing is much, much bigger than we tend to think it is. Nature doesn’t stop ten kilometres up from my garden. Galaxies conform to the patterns of nature, and each one contains billions of earths. Down here, we are animals, a type of primate, and what ethologists have discovered by studying animals and their behaviour is that we differ from other primates only in detail. Our overall behaviour follows the same rules as other animals generally, and other humans in geographically remote locations almost exactly. A cat born here follows the same methods and techniques as a cat in Mongolia, even if they are separated from other cats shortly after birth. The rules come to them chemically, and so do ours.
We have no real idea what our participation in social technology ultimately portends. We are part of these vast global ant colonies or beehives, serving the queen without knowing or questioning why we serve that queen. I don’t think we are even aware of what or who the organic director of our cyber family really is, but I can tell you this: It is not human.
Franklin Foes, author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech” may be onto something momentous, but don’t hold your breath. What we know intellectually won’t save the species. All it will do is adjust the amount of personal conflict we go through in our daily lives; for the worse, usually.
Anyway, this part of what Foes had to say on Amanpour:
“[big tech giants] play an outsized role in our lives. We see it with our phones, which we feel psychologically separated from, when they’re in another room we feel like a piece of our body is missing. And they’ve come to play this outsized role in the way we perceive reality, they stand between us and the news, and they play massive roles in shaping markets, in shaping democracy, in conversations, in shaping our future as a species (sic). So I want to make sure that as we ease into this future, that we do so with intention…we’re in the process of merging with machines.”
Something to think about.