We have world peace

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - March 22, 2012 - 12:00am

We are at peace because we are weird. That is how I understood the conclusion of Mark Pagel, a fellow of the Royal Society, as I listened to him in the Guardian’s podcast with Alok Jha. He wrote a book called Wired for Culture: The Natural History of Human Cooperation which just came out. In it, he is saying that we humans have been the most successful species in terms of coping with what nature dishes out because we are the weirdest of all. We are weirdest in that we were able to fashion a peculiar and very successful way to deal with nature. That “weird way” is called culture. And this culture he says is characterized more by cooperation than competition, and thus decreasing violence. 

Pagel said that in the beginning it was our raw genes that got us to be part of the group of surviving species fighting it out in the planet but when modern humans invented culture — a way to think about coping with the environment and sharing it with others — the game changed. We no longer had to wait for our genes to find a way to get us through the messes we find ourselves in since we now could outsmart nature by employing culture. This, he said, started 10,000 years ago when domestication of plants and animals started. It seemed, it also started our self-domestication. We have had, overall, increasingly good ideas since then on how to stay adaptive humans in a temperamental world.

He cited an example saying that humans can go to a desert and learn how to adapt rather than to wait for genes that inhabit creatures like camels to survive the desert. We have learned from one another across space and time and this has brought us the gold prize in nature: the ability to survive and reproduce. He said that learning from one another is how we have built up a “cultural immune system” that filters ideas so that we mainly put the ones that work to flourish. One of the good ideas is “cooperation” in all levels such as “charities, opening doors for others and even dying in wars.” While violence is nerve-wracking, they still remain as “taboos” and grab headline news because they are not as effective as cooperation as a strategy for survival.

Celebrated Harvard intellectual Steven Pinker, a psychologist, also arrived at the same idea in a book entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes that came out late 2011. He examined all kinds of wars within and between societies since prehistory and even came out with the ranking in terms of casualties. He said we may feel like the world is getting increasingly violent but looking at data across human history, what we have now is practically a peaceful world. 

Pagel’s proposition that we have evolved with a seething desire to understand is beautiful, hopeful and inspiring. This has given way to ingenuity that comes up with ways and tools to respond and control the changing environment. This is what gave birth to science. And because we understand nature, we also can predict possible outcomes. Without that wired desire to understand, our species would have been part of the great flops in natural history — joining the ranks of extinct life forms. 

But I am thinking, how long will this human edge last? Two hundred thousand years is still only a portion of 10 million years — the estimated lifetime of any species before they go extinct. We still have a way to go before we prove ourselves invincible. Pagel also noted that the info age has hastened and magnified the rate by which we learn and share with others. Ten thousand years ago, a human was affected and could affect only 50 to 100 individuals. Now, just look at how many thousands of friends one has on Facebook alone and how they affect each other’s minds. Just thinking about Facebook gives me some kind of cyber-agoraphobia. But that is another problem. 

For now, we know it is because we are weird that we were able to enjoy the triumphs we have had so far, over biological nature and largely, over our dark nature. Next time you are asked what you want for your birthday, wish for something else. World peace is here according to scientists, whether you feel it or not.

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com

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