Where Are We Going?
These are troubled times. It seems that not too long ago, our country was filled with hope for a better future. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized the end of the Cold War, and democracy was on the rise. Progress was in the air.
But the dream has faded. In the United States, working- and middle-class Americans have largely been left behind by globalization, automation, and corporate greed. Incomes and opportunities for middle-class and blue-collar workers have stagnated, while the wealth of those at the top has soared. Our country is severely divided. The American Dream of rising from the depths of poverty to social and economic success through hard work and perseverance has been more and more difficult to achieve.
We are now engaged in a great struggle to preserve our democracy against the forces of autocracy. Throughout human history, autocratic regimes have dominated over democracies, and many experts believe this is because evolution has given humans a genetic predisposition for hierarchically structured social and political systems that favor autocracy.
Many people are surprised to learn that our opinions and social perspectives have a strong genetic component. We all have inherited a mixture of traits that favor a hierarchical society and authoritarian rule and traits that favor an egalitarian society and democratic rule. Those with predominantly hierarchical and authoritarian traits have a genetic predisposition to believe that some groups are superior to other groups and should dominate over other groups. People with these genetic predispositions have an intrinsic bias toward authoritarian rule and a mindset to follow authoritarian leaders. In contrast, those with predominantly egalitarian traits have a predisposition to believe that all humans are morally equal and should have equal rights and opportunities. People with these innate predispositions have a bias favoring democracy over autocracy.
Natural selection has given us selfish traits that help us in our struggle for resources, status, prestige, mates, and survival. While selfish traits, such as greed and deception, may promote individual success, they are counterproductive in social groups because they inhibit cooperation. Natural selection has also given us tribal instincts that promote cooperation and loyalty toward members of our own tribe but foster hostile and xenophobic behavior toward outsiders. Tribal instincts provided adaptive advantages to our hunter-gatherer ancestors but are counterproductive in today’s diverse societies. They make it difficult for us to cooperate with those who are different than we are—those of another race, religion, socioeconomic group, or political party—and this inhibits democratic cooperation.
Despite these obstacles, much of our human nature supports a cooperative society. This is evidenced by the transition of our societies from small hunter-gatherer tribes to large nation-states with diverse populations, in which individuals cooperate across a large spectrum of diverse groups with people they don’t even know. Cooperation has become the driving force of evolution. We humans are social animals and experience love, empathy, altruism, and kindness toward one another. Our need to connect with something larger than ourselves has given us a sense of grand purpose and has promoted self-sacrifice for the betterment of the group. These cooperative traits support an egalitarian society and democratic governance.
How can we influence these competing behavioral traits, some supporting hierarchical societies and authoritarian rule and others supporting egalitarian societies and democratic rule? While our behavior is guided by our human nature, it is shaped by our cultural environment. We cannot change human nature, but we can make changes in our cultural environment that will influence our behavior. WHERE ARE WE GOING? will explore how we can change our culture to produce an environment that will bring out the “better angels” of our human nature, so we can cooperate and work together to achieve a more egalitarian society and save and preserve our democracy.
Why Are We Here? takes us on a journey from the Big Bang to the origin and evolution of complex, intelligent life in a search for the meaning of human existence. How did chemistry come to life? How did the release of oxygen by cyanobacteria change the natural history of life? How did mass extinctions reset the clock and reshape the course of biological evolution? Why are we Homo sapiens so dominant? We share over 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees, yet we build vast civilizations, while chimps are confined to forests and sadly to experimental laboratories and zoos. How come? How will cultural and technological evolution, which have now transcended biological evolution, shape the future of life on our planet? Can we escape the many existential threats that hover over us? Bruce Brodie takes us on an educational and deeply fascinating journey that will give us new perspectives about how we think about our world, our place and purpose in the cosmos, and the future of humanity.