The Origin of the Species
I’m a little too old for a mid-life crisis, but not too old, I hope, to admit that I’ve been wandering far too long in the dark wood of error. So let me cut to the chase: Individualism is dead; we are social creatures.
The rhetoric of individualism has sustained me for decades. It all started, I suspect, with a collegiate encounter with John Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. The notion that society, and government, are products of a social contract struck me like a thunderbolt, electrifying me for decades.
Why did it take a lifetime to realize that the notion is foolish, dangerously so?
Locke was a physician and philosopher writing in seventeenth century England. He penned the Two Treatises in 1688; it was a polemic against royal absolutism. Locke wrote about a state of nature in which individuals lived in a state of pre-social anarchy. To secure the benefits of living together, individuals entered into social and political contracts. From this rhetorical foundation sprang notions of popular sovereignty and consent as the basis of public authority.
The political history of western liberal democracies for the past 350 years has been a commentary on Locke.
Locke was given to such rhetorical whoppers as the following: “Thus in the beginning all the World was America,” by which he meant that in the state of nature, the Earth was vacant, devoid of civilization, a place of anarchic freedom.
This is naïve philosophic anthropology. Where did Locke think these proud, free individuals came from — the brow of Medusa, springing fully formed, autonomous, possessed of speech and learned skills? We know better. It takes a community to raise an infant. Before there were individuals, there were groups.
And what of the notion that North America was a vacant and verdant paradise, just awaiting the arrival of Europeans? This continent was inhabited by complex civilizations long before it was “discovered” by Europeans. We may well have conquered the continent, engaging in genocide to make it ours, but North America was far from empty when the first Europeans arrived.
We forgave Locke his naivete so long as it served our interests. Shaking lose from royal prerogative, and such notions as the divine right of kings, marked progress. But the rhetoric of the state of nature has run its course.
Locke regarded nature as a stable stage on which the human drama unfolded. It is a secularized version of Genesis’s creation story, a notion particularly appealing to seventeenth century Englishmen.
But nature, as we’ve learned since the Industrial Age began in the eighteenth century, is no mere passive spectator to the human drama. We’re now transforming nature both consciously and as a by-product of our conduct. Climate change science teaches us that much though we compete with one another in the social realm for the limited spoils the Earth offers, we also, as members of a species, compete with other living things to survive in a natural world of limited resources. We’re fouling the nest that sustains us.
The Anthropocene Era is upon us, a unique time in world history in which our ability to change the natural world transforms what once the stage into a potent actor. Nature is no longer a spectator; it is an unpredictable force. We ignore our impact on our habitat at our peril, as rising oceans, bizarre weather patterns, drought and the extinction of one species after another teaches all but the willfully blind.
Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of the Earth may lack the rhetorical punch of Locke’s Two Treatises, but its conceptual architecture has the potential to change our politics and vision of ourselves in fundamental ways.
Wilson is a retired Harvard biologist. He earned early renown for his work in sociobiology, explaining the behavior of insects in terms of evolutionary theory. In his latest book, he raises fundamental questions about the human condition. How, he asks, as did Locke, do humans learn to live together? What accounts for a sense of altruism, or selfless regard for others?
He posits two sources of natural selection, the slow winnowing of a species by the trial, error and the passage of time. Natural selection accounts not just for traits that yield individual adaptation, but also accounts for what he calls “eusocial” — pronounced “you-social” – behaviior. Why, Wilson asks, if evolution is all about the survival of the fittest, do we nonetheless live in a society characterized by multiple generations, a division of labor and self-sacrificing behavior? Of all living species only a couple of dozen live as we do, among them ants, termites and bees.
An evolutionary account of the human condition will discomfit those for whom the answer to life’s largest mysteries is a simple declaration of faith in God. But theology suffers from explaining too much: A theory with an answer for everything succeeds, ultimately, in explaining nothing. Locke’s state of nature, like the Garden of Eden, is a convenient fiction, a rhetorical plaything.
We’ve thrown off the mantel of kings with the language of individualism. Now we’re paralyzing ourselves with this outgrown rhetoric. Look at the gridlock in Washington: Our elected officials fiddle with individualist political rhetoric while the Earth simmers.
We need a new rhetoric, a new vocabulary for the joint projects that unite us. Nature is no longer the passive stage on which we strive as individuals for satisfaction. We need a new naturalism, a new political vocabulary.
The Earth is ours to despoil or to embrace together in cooperation. We must cooperate with a sense of urgency if our kind is not merely to thrive, but to survive.
Lockean individualism has run its course. The state of nature is no paradise to which we can return. Rather, nature is the changing world around us. Can we, as members of a communal species, muster the resources to nurture the world on which we all depend? Or will we succeed in creating the conditions necessary for our own extinction?