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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 6/17/17

A Better Human Story #4-- Humankind's Perilous Step into Terra Incognita: The Rise of Civilization

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Of course, all that is true. The opportunistic operation of the evolution of life has created, in the system of life, a true "struggle for existence," in which the flesh of one creature opens the opportunity for a predator to make food of that flesh.

But that truth is not the most fundamental truth about the system. All that competition and predation and parasitism takes place within an overarching system in which a kind of order is maintained. It is a synergistic order that contains the conflictual elements within an overarching wholeness. Although in the dynamic order of an ecological system, new forms can arise, while older forms can go extinct, the overall tendency of the system is to find a balance in which the viability of the whole system is preserved.

The wolf may be cruel, but when it kills the lamb, the death of the lamb is not an injury to lambkind. It is part of the pattern of survival not only for wolves but for the sheep as well. If there were no wolves, the sheep would overgraze the land, and before long the foundation on which the lives of the sheep rests would be undermined.

Recall the American chestnut, virtually obliterated from the North American forests, in which they had played so important a role, when the Chinese chestnut was suddenly introduced onto the American continent. The Chinese chestnut carried with it a fungus. While the American variety of chestnut was devastated by the sudden arrival of that fungus, the Chinese version of the chestnut and the fungus had evolved over millions of years a relationship that allowed them to co-exist.

As the ecologist Gregory Bateson once wrote: "No creature wins against its environment for long."

So given enough time, the parasitism of the fungus, like the predation of the wolf, gets contained in a larger wholeness.

That's what it means for a creature to be living within the niche in which it biologically evolved.



It is in the context of that evolutionary perspective that we can begin see the implications of a creature, by virtue of its unprecedented intelligence and creativity, breaking out of the biologically evolved order.

On the face of it, the escape from a creature's biologically evolved niche appears to be a route to a new kind of freedom.

In its original hunting-and-gathering form, human society was essentially confined within some narrow parameters. Except in extraordinarily abundant situations, a social group could not be larger than what one might find among primate societies generally. Which also meant that social organization would necessarily remain rudimentary.

Although human societies, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, adopted important cultural features -- like language, fire, ritual -- even with such cultural developments, those human societies remained, in terms of their size and structure, essentially continuous with our primate past.

But once, people started re-shaping the ecosystems around them -- domesticating plants and animals in order to increase the amount of food available to them --those old restrictions begin to fall away.

Greater food production, over time, can support larger and more settled populations. Greater efficiency in acquiring food frees up labor for other purposes, making it possible for societies to employ kinds of division of labor unavailable to the previous hunting-gathering bands. The development of political systems is one of those new forms of division of labor, and that, in turn, makes it possible for a given society to control ever larger geographic domains.

Once human societies cross that threshold into domestication of plants and animals, ever larger and ever more complex becomes ever more possible.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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