Choosing Death Means Death

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has explained that members of one species can follow two contradictory strategies, each an "evolutionarily successful strategy" ("ESS"). (See his The Selfish Gene). For example, some men are faithful to one woman, leading to an increased chance that the children will thrive due to the presence and participation of their father in their lives. Other men seduce numerous women and are uninvolved with their offspring. Both approaches are "ESS's"-- the first succeeds through the quality of the children, the second through the quantity.

Are the two world views which I described in the last essay as the Hobbesian and the compassionate, both ESS's? The answer is: not any more.

In his fascinating On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz observes that human violence is so destructive particularly because self-restraint was not built in during the period of genetic, as opposed to cultural evolution. Animals with built-in weapons--he gives wolves and deer as examples--rarely use them to inflict serious injury on other members of their species. During the millions of years in which humans were formed, their lack of ability to inflict serious physical harm on one another meant that instinctive systems of self-restraint never needed to develop. Add to this the tools which we have created which make violence easy and which permit us to perform it at a distance without seeing the consequences, and you have a dangerous brew indeed.

Absent the possession of any weapon, a human must work very hard indeed to kill another equally matched human, and in fact must put his own life at risk in order to do so. For an illustration from the movies, watch Alfred Hitchcock's Torn Curtain in which a man and a woman spend an appalling and endless ten minutes killing a visitor to their home, stabbing him with a knife and then sticking his head in the oven, finally lying on the floor exhausted after winning a strenuous struggle. The scene is horrifying, but does not glorify violence: instead, it presents it as hard, dangerous and sweaty work.

What Lorenz is saying is simple. Our technological progression has far outstripped our evolutionary balance; traits and countertraits that would take millions of years to develop in the physical world can be imagined, implemented and supplanted in mere years of human time. Nothing in our prehistory prepared us for weapons that kill people we cannot even see, especially for weapons that kill millions of them at a time. Thus (as each of us knows) life is badly out of balance in modern times. Where there is no balance, the Hobbesian dream of Apollonian violence is a dream only: we don't have the calm, or the time, or the god-like overview, to apply only the measure of violence called for in a given situation. We will inevitably apply too much, or too little, never just enough. The Hobbesian, contemplating this discrepancy, will inevitably conclude that the only safe reaction, is over-reaction, as under-reaction means death. So a tooth for a tooth becomes an eye for a tooth, and the end result is that I take your life because I can tell (or I believe) you are thinking about taking my tooth.

In Neolithic times, and up until the nineteenth century, this strategy, though morally repulsive, would have been evolutionarily successful or at worst neutral, because the tools of destruction had not become powerful enough that I would sooner or later destroy myself in killing you. People could pre-emptively slay their enemies all day long, and even the cycle of inevitable retaliation (poignantly portrayed in the "feud" chapter of Huckleberry Finn and in the famous anthropological film, Dead Birds) presented no threat to the survival of the species. A tribe more skilled than its opponents at pre-emptive killing would expand in numbers; two tribes equally balanced would check one another's numbers, without, however, threatening the human race.

Elsewhere, I have called nuclear weapons "the spear that ends the world". Since our imagination has led us to create weapons of previously unimaginable strength, we have placed in the hands of one man sufficient power to destroy the entire planet. While historian Charles Beard, in his introduction to J.B. Bury's The Idea of Progress, speaks of the almost incomprehensible mass of time ahead of us as being the tabula rasa of progress, the Second Law of Thermodynamics simultaneously treats the same unbounded stretch of centuries as the canvas on which to paint the picture of our destruction. The picture (like the imaginary, repetitive and beautiful illustration of the Second Law drawn by the child prodigy in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia) at once illustrates our death, and an algorithm (the statistical probability of any individual destroying the planet, times the number of men wielding the power to destroy the planet times the boundless number of centuries equals a near certainty that sooner or later, we will be destroyed.)

Compassionate and nonviolent behavior fights the Second Law; Hobbesian thinking accelerates it. Now, life is--life should be-- in the business of fighting the Second Law. That we exist at all, that higher levels of complexity arise from lower, that we grow from a seed to an articulate being with the ability to do math, play music and love children, is an offense to the Second Law.

Since humans are imperfect, there is no such thing as a perfectly balanced Hobbesian thinker, applying just the right amount of violence in daily affairs. The incentive, as I said above, is to be safe, to pre-empt the enemy, to strike first and hardest. But applying too much violence-- which inevitably will happen, given the number of powerful men and the span of time --sets us on the slide towards the destruction of everything we know and the end of all life:

If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?

This example of bomb thinking is from John von Neumann, brilliant mathematician, father of game theory, and proponent in the 1950's of pre-emptive nuclear war against the Russians. Neumann's disorderly and violent ideas signal the consequences of Hobbesian thinking. The "war of all against all" ultimately leads to the destruction of everything. Because of our lack of self-governance, the Mosaic law now puts us on the path to total self-immolation; there is nothing in "an eye for an eye" which teaches us to stop anywhere short of that on the path.

Compassionate thinking, in the view of a Hobbesian, courts self- destruction. But the courage of a Gandhi responds that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. There is no exception processing. If we use the gun, we are not otherwise nonviolent. We use the gun because we wish to see the gun in the world, because we wish to be people of the gun, with all that it entails. But if we are men of peace, that is the true bravery; it is not foolishness. We may court our own destruction, but we are fighting the destruction of our species. The Hobbesian may or may not succeed in preserving himself, but aids the Second Law in destroying humanity, by contributing violence to the world. The true risk, the most painful failure of the compassionate man, is to die knowing that he manifested too little love in the world. The tragedy of the Hobbesian, whether he ever confronts it or not, is to have left too much death in the world.