This week I am teaching Darwin again, Darwin being a staple of the Simon’s Rock Sophomore Seminar, required of all students. I have always found The Origin of Species difficult to read, but lately I am realizing why: because Darwin seems so sure that aggressive competition, the infamous “survival of the fittest,” is THE biological paradigm on our planet. All species are locked in a relentless “battle for life,” from which only the strongest and best adapted (which often means the most ruthless) will emerge evolutionarily victorious.
However, there have been some persistent voices in the past few years arguing that Darwin understated the case for altruism and empathy as an evolutionary advantage for human beings. Jeremy Rifkin, in The Empathic Civilization, argues that cognitive neuroscience is now proving that we are in fact at least as empathetic, as a species, as we are aggressive. He believes that the linking potential of the internet age has the power to help us overcome the divisiveness that marred the past 500 years or so of human history, and make a great leap forward in our social evolution.
“The information communication technologies (ICT) revolution is quickly extending the central nervous system of billions of human beings and connecting the human race across time and space, allowing empathy to flourish on a global scale, for the first time in history,” he says.
“If we can harness our empathic sensibility to establish a new global ethic that recognizes and acts to harmonize the many relationships that make up the life-sustaining forces of the planet, we will have moved beyond the detached, self-interested and utilitarian philosophical assumptions that accompanied national markets and nation state governance and into a new era of biosphere consciousness. We leave the old world of geopolitics behind and enter into a new world of biosphere politics, with new forms of governance emerging to accompany our new biosphere awareness.”
Human beings’ amazing use of technology has always been both our blessing and our curse. Technology is enabling me to send these ideas out into the ocean of the Web, a digital message in a bottle that could potentially reach millions of people across the globe. Amazing!
But my reliance on electricity generated by oil and coal to perform this technological wonder is the Achilles heel of the whole enterprise, since collectively we as a species are overloading the biosphere with our wastes and driving the planet to the brink of what Darwin would call an “extinction event.” Our own.
Will we make that great leap forward that Rifkin is foretelling, waking up to the necessity of moving from global competition to global collaboration in a new, more localized model?
Rifkin imagines a future global society based on the localization of energy sources like solar, wind, tidal and geo-thermal, as well as the re-localization of agricultural and manufacturing economies.
“In this new era of distributed energy,” he says, “governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage. Just as habitats function within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the biosphere in a web of interrelationships, governing institutions will similarly function in a collaborative network of relationships with localities, regions, and nations all embedded within the continent as a whole. This new complex political organism operates like the biosphere it attends, synergistically and reciprocally. This is biosphere politics.”
I believe that this rosy vision is theoretically possible, but I sure don’t see anything like it on the horizon today. Rifkin puts his faith in the upcoming generation, who have grown up as “digital natives” and are more likely, he thinks, to be collaborative across traditional national and political boundaries. Facebook Nation!
Maybe so, if the young can be roused from their entertainment media trance and made to see the urgency of the mission.
I read with dismay yesterday that the U.S. video-game industry is one of the most highly subsidized sectors of our economy, rewarding, for example, the makers of “Dead Space 2, which challenges players to advance through an apocalyptic battlefield by killing space zombies.” Dead Space 2 shipped 2 million copies in its first week of sales.
How can we expect young people to focus on serious, urgent issues like global climate change when they’re so busy chatting with friends on Facebook and killing zombies on Wii?
If this is the best we can do as a society, then I’m sorry, folks, but maybe an extinction event is not only on the horizon, but, as Darwin would say, “for the good of all.”