The question of where and how man went wrong has plagued philosophers for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
In modern Western philosophy, the basic view of human nature has alternated between the fatalism of the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and the romanticism of the 18th century Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Proffering optimism in these pessimistic times, anthropologist and activist David Graeber, and professor of comparative archeology David Wengrow, take a decidedly Rousseauian view in their new book, "The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity."
They start out with the right question: "Were we always like this - war, greed, exploitation and indifference to others' suffering - or did something, at some point, go terribly wrong?"
The authors do not attempt to address the question however, but try to counter the widespread pessimism about the human prospect with a feel-good story of human history, with the first cities at the dawn of agriculture.
Indeed, in what amounts to a whitewash of human history, Graeber and Wengrow exclaim: "A surprising number of the world's earliest cities were organized along robustly egalitarian lines."
After stating the obvious, that "the past cannot provide instant solutions for the crises and challenges of the present," they aver: "though the obstacles are daunting, our research shows we can no longer count the forces of history and evolution among them." Really?
From that very dubious premise they absurdly assert, "What we need today is another urban revolution to create more just and sustainable ways of living."
Their analysis is at best wishful thinking, at worst disingenuous. The archeological evidence for their claims is scant, and the philosophical soundness of their view of human nature is nonexistent.
And by denying the validity of the core question of how man went wrong, they contribute to the crisis of human consciousness.
Why is having insight into how man went wrong necessary? After all, no explanation, however accurate, will change anyone, much less the basic, disastrous course of humankind.
Even so, gaining insight into how a single, sentient species, which evolved along with all other life within the seamless wholeness of nature, could be bringing about the Sixth Extinction in the history of life on earth, may point us in the right direction.
Rousseau's notion that "once upon a time we were hunter-gatherers, living in a state of childlike innocence, as equals," was naive even in his time. So Graeber and Wengrow attack a straw man by implicitly agreeing, and then refuting the popular idea that human classes, power differentials and disparities of wealth began well after the emergence of the first cities.
Their underlying claim is that humans didn't actually go wrong, and that all we need to do is return to the model of the first cities and bring about an urban revolution. That isn't just Rousseauian; it's purblind.
So did man go wrong, or did nature in evolving a creature like Homo sapiens? After all, evolution gave us the ultimate adaptive strategy of making separations from the seamless whole of nature at will, which eventually allowed us to fragment the earth and ourselves all to hell.
Be that as it may, the responsibility is still ours, and human beings face an unprecedented crisis of consciousness. So perhaps the correct question is, could man have gone right before this critical juncture, and can we change course now?
My feeling is that we could have changed course before, since there have been other crossroads, perhaps many. But for ecological, AI and genetic engineering reasons among others we may be standing at the last juncture. We clearly have to act as though this is it.
Radical change will not come at the political level, through protest and activism, or at the technological level, through innovation. COP 26 simply can't cut it. What will?
A great religious teacher once said, "no teacher, however illumined, has changed the basic course of humankind."
Perhaps that's because the self-made crisis of consciousness, as reflected in man's decimation of the earth, was not global and dire before the present time. Despite shallow diagnoses and prescriptions like "The Dawn of Everything," are there now enough serious and self-knowing people worldwide to ignite a revolution in consciousness?
Though the evolution of 'higher thought' made us fully modern humans, thought is the problem. However the human brain has the capacity for a higher consciousness, not based on thought, which is to say, on separation, symbol and memory.
We have the capacity for consciousness flowing from our potential for insight and understanding. Not problem-solving insights, or new insights of science adding to the accumulation of knowledge.
Rather, a state of insight, which arises when thought is attentively, effortlessly still, and the mind is bathed in emptiness.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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