Friday, October 16, 2009

Post No. 137e: A Funny Thing Happened to Us on the Way to the Forum (Part 5)

This is a continuation of our daily excerpts taken from “New World New Mind.” This is the fifth excerpt in the series. For an introductory explanation of why we have chosen this book to share with you, click here.

[Please keep in mind that this book was published in 1989. All of this is copyrighted material, and we are simply sharing portions of it with you.]

Chapter 1 – The Threat within the Triumph (Continued)

“In this book we’ll say a great deal about threats – the dangers to us, to our civilization, to the very capacity of the Earth to support human life – that exist because we have changed the world so completely. We’ll concentrate on the difficulties our minds have in interpreting and even perceiving the new kinds of threats and responding appropriately to them.”

“In our view, there are several parts to the human quandary:

“The world that made us is now gone, and the world we made is a new world, one that we have developed little capacity to comprehend.

“The old world for which our perceptual systems were ‘designed’ was one where the overall environment was a relatively stable, limited one in which threats were signaled by short-term changes and action was usually required immediately. Consider the branch-flood-bear kinds of threats that our human progenitors faced over millions of years of evolutionary history. Apes, australopithecines (our first upright ancestors), early human hunters and gatherers, and the inhabitants of early civilizations, like other animals, had evolved quick reflexes to deal adequately with such threats.

“The benefits of having evolved ‘quick reflexes’ also accrue today; in modern life we also must often react quickly. On hearing a cracking sound from our chair, we are instantaneously apprehensive and ready to act. If a child lurches into the street ahead of our car, we hit the brakes even before thinking about it. If we’re not half-witted, thunderclaps over the golf course tell us to put the clubs away quickly and retreat to the clubhouse for a drink. An unexpected intruder in our house arouses an automatic series of responses that we interpret as fear and a physical necessity to fight or flee. These are all reactions that would serve us well against bear, burglar, breaking branch, or downpour.

“All nonhuman species evolved to fit into their physical habitats, and people originally evolved to do this as well. Human beings, however, have changed the world more in the last ten thousand years than their ancestors did in the preceding 4 million. Much more than any other species, we have turned the tables on the physical environment and made it change to fit us. Clothing, fire, dwellings, and agriculture all enable people to live where none could before. Modern human beings have left their evolutionary home in subtropical Africa to live all over the earth, in the freezing winters of Alaska as well in the scorching deserts of the Middle East. More importantly, human beings have built entirely new environments: farms, villages, towns, crowded cities, ocean liners, even underwater dwellings, and more. Human beings can even live for brief periods away from earth itself.

“The human experience has been one of expanding creations and adaptations. This cyclic pattern spooled us, in an evolutionary instant, from small groups of hunters and gatherers into a complex civilization. Agriculture led to the construction of cities and the population explosion. Cities led to epidemics of the diseases of crowding and to large-scale warfare. Public health measures led to further increases in population and then, by permitting people to live longer, to an increase in cancer and heart diseases. Cities also led to universities and the uncovering of many secrets of the universe. And uncovering secrets of the universe led to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.

“And the pace of change itself becomes even faster. Next month, the world population will increase by more than the number of human beings that lived on the planet 100,000 years ago, a time when evolution had already produced a human brain almost indistinguishable from today’s model. In the next 4 years alone more people will be added to the Earth than made up the entire population living at the time of Christ. It is difficult to comprehend this kind of world, and most people, too many, have been unable to do so. Human inventiveness has created problems because human judgment and humanity’s ability to deal with the consequences of its creations lags behind its ability to create.

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