Sometimes, when I feel my head exploding over the sorry state of our poor, overheated planet, I find it helps to step back from immersion in our species’ affairs and assume the vantage point of the disinterested alien or far-future anthropologist. An accurate analysis of the extreme disfunctionality of human society and the wreckage of our planet is not possible from within the contemporary belief systems of capitalist-communist, christian-muslim, democrat-republican, etc. As alien-anthropologists, let’s examine homo sapiens in 2012 and see what we find.
We begin with the great apes as a point of reference to see what evolution and history have made of the third chimpanzee (scientist Jared Diamond’s term for homo sapiens). Great apes have well-defined characteristics that we also see in dear old homo sap: the love of imitation and games; cleverness with tool use and gestural language; polymorphous sexuality (bonobos); male dominance (gorillas); violence and warfare (chimpanzees); bonds of affection within family and clan; nonreciprocal altruism; and finally, a strong moral sense of fairness and justice alongside a sizable capacity for the practice of “tactical deception.”
Anthropologists have made a study of “tactical deception” in primates, which is just as it sounds – the use of deception to manipulate your fellows into giving you what you want. A 2004 study by Richard Byrne and Nadia Corp, psychologists at St. Andrews University in the UK, found that the sneakiest monkey and ape species are those with the biggest brains, because it takes a lot of processing power to invent and carry out deceptions. Here are some behaviors that count as sneaky among primates: to avoid a beating from the dominant silverback, a female gorilla hides in the bushes to mate with her boyfriend; as his mother is about to swat him, a juvenile baboon stands up and hoots, “Lion on the horizon!” fooling everyone, including his mama; a lucky chimp spots a cluster of ripe fruit and covers his face to hide his delight – he’ll come back later when no one is around so he won’t have to share.
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To a human primate, these are all familiar types of behaviors, but the human carries them much further. Humans are masters at deceiving themselves as well as others. Here’s an example from history: the feudal lord has taken half the peasant’s grain, underpaid him for his wife’s weaving and raped his daughter to boot. The peasant tells himself that all is well: the lord is protecting him from the bigger, meaner lord next door, and besides, the lord supports the Church and the priest tells the peasant that he will find his reward in heaven.
This mixture of justification (the mean guy protects me from the bigger, meaner guys next door) and self-deception (my reward will be found in heaven) enables the primary system of deception (taking your grain and raping your daughter are sanctioned by God). And thus it has been throughout human history.
But there are countervailing primate characteristics that turn the tables on the manipulators when conditions are right. One of these is a strong emotion of empathy for the downtrodden. There are many examples of apes and monkeys who extend a hand to help a fellow or comfort the loser of a fight, whether or not it is a close relative. Primates stand up for themselves as well. Primatologist Frans de Waal has many observations of “inequity aversion” among primates. In one study, capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task. Grapes were preferred, but if both monkeys got the same reward, there was never a problem. However, if the monkeys were rewarded differently, the one who got the cucumber would soon rebel by pelting the researcher with the rejected cucumber slice.
For humanity, however, this primal moral sense of justice is confounded by the complex, ever-shifting web of deceit so expertly constructed by the Machiavellian powermongers. As in the feudal system, it is the combination of the power structure’s physical force advantage and the individual’s habit of self-preserving self-deception that binds the system of oppression in place. Feudalism only became possible when a warrior class was able to monopolize metal weaponry and horses. Self-deception combined with spurious justification became necessary to allow the oppressed to assuage their primal sense of injustice. But no matter how papered over or concealed, humans never lose this moral sense completely, because it is genetically encoded. And when they have the opportunity – when a physical advantage opens up and when some new cultural innovation lifts the fog of deception, humans rebel.
In this fashion, humans have made History – a spiraling arms race of deceptions, revelations and the establishment of new orders with their own new tricks and traps. Myths and legends of every time and place both celebrate and revile the deceptive “trickster” personality. Joseph Campbell describes the trickster as, “A fool, and a cruel and lecherous cheat, an epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture-bringer also.” It was the trickster who stole fire from the gods for the benefit of humanity and who invented agriculture, thus enabling the growth of civilization and its inequalities. It is the trickster also who leads rebellions against the established order. Barack Obama and Julian Assange both have aspects of the trickster figure – the quintessential mixed bag of tricks.
According to legend, it was the trickster who initiated human culture. The story has a beginning, but does it have an end? One of the primary deceptions that keeps the powerful in place is the management of perceptions around rewards. In feudal times, the rewards came after death, in heaven. Under capitalism, the trickle-down rewards are more immediate but far more tawdry. Wal-Mart or Bloomingdale’s, it’s all just stuff that we are destroying the planet to manufacture. And as the developing world catches up in consumerism, the true price of stuff is felt more acutely: all the coal burned in China to make cheap goods and all the gas burned in America for cheap joy rides are heating the atmosphere and drying up the corn crop that tricksters have told us will fuel the joy rides after the oil in the ground is all used up. But the corn is also our food, so where does that leave us?
We are left with a new opportunity for truth. The deceptions of 200 years of industrial capitalism are dissolving. There is no such thing as limitless economic growth. Humans will cling to these deceptions anyway, just as they have clung to the idea of heaven and the divine ordination of oppressive regimes, but such fantasies are becoming harder and harder to maintain. Sooner or later, the truth will out and the rebels will ascend.
The questions that humans should ask themselves now are: what are the deceptions and self-deceptions that are most crucial to reveal, and what are the physical advantages and technologies that the benevolent and compassionate tricksters among us can use to promote equality?
Many fine humans are working on these problems every minute of every day, but I believe that an alien anthropologist would point to the primary deception of endless economic growth as the most important truth in need of revelation. The dangers of population growth, climate change and resource depletion are also under-reported, even in the progressive and oppositional media.
The Internet is often touted as a leveling technology that promotes liberation and equality, but there are others as well. Our feudal forbears lived in a solar-powered society, but they did not have photovoltaic panels. Any human with a few hundred dollars can purchase a self-sufficient power system that will keep their personal Internet portal up and humming, along with a few lights so they can read books at night, should the powers-that-be pull the plug on the grid. The industrial economy has also supported an amazing expansion of human knowledge in every field, including new ideas in agriculture, energy and health that can be put to use to build more self-sufficient and egalitarian agricultural communities.
We have heard a lot about the tipping points of complex systems like economies, and we fear what can happen when climate tipping points are reached, but human moral outrage also has its tipping point. The Occupy movement is one sign that the tipping point is here.
This is just the beginning of a new age of primal moral outrage at the endless depredations and deceptions of the power elite. Let’s hang on to our strong sense of empathy as we embrace moral justice.