The Best of Times. The Worst of Times

Updated: Jun 27, 2020

(an addendum to Section 1 of Democracy STRUGGLES!)


Think back on your knowledge of history. When would you say humanity emerged from savagery and barbarism?

  • Was it during the Roman Empire?

  • Because of the Magna Carta?

  • After the American Revolution?

  • At the end of the US Civil War?

  • On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918?

  • With the final verdict of the Nuremberg Trials? (or with the lurch of the last trapdoor?)

  • With the formation of the United Nation?

  • In the dodged holocaust of the Cuban Missile Crisis?

  • With the signing of Civil Rights and Voting Acts of the 1960s?

  • The election of Barack Obama?

  • The impeachment/resignation/25thment of dumvald j trimp?

Or maybe we never really were all that bloodthirsty in the first place? At least not by nature. Perhaps we’ve only behaved in certain ways because of tricks of history? Contaminated understandings and miscalculations? Somewhat toxic social arrangements still needing a little reconfiguration? Maybe all we need is a little attitude adjustment to our political economy?

Does all this sound too silly?

Are we humans essentially “the same” as when our species first popped up into the archeological record about 200k years ago? This same record suggests big game hunters were taller and stronger than descendants later “trapped” by settled agriculture and civilization. More recent records indicate, that in the past few generations, humans in the advanced industrial world have again grown taller. (This is attributed to more meat in the average diet.)

The above is all quite speculative. Even more speculative is the idea of domestication.

An experiment conducted on a Russian fox fur farm may demonstrate something about domestication. It took experimenters approximately forty generations to breed “tame” foxes. And these playful little pets were not only cute and cuddly, they exhibited similar physical characteristics to other domesticated animals (floppy ears, piebald fur patterns, etc.) In this experiment, the only animals allowed to breed were those who displayed the most friendliness and least amount of fear when interacting with humans.

Friendliness and trust.

* * * *

Could we humans be domesticating ourselves?

It’s superficially plausible.

We humans certainly don’t selectively breed ourselves solely on the criteria of friendliness and trust. But friendliness and trust probably make up some percentage of the factors contributing to how we form stable breeding pairs. Friendliness and trust must also play some role in supporting individual survival. And as our human societies grow more complex and difficult to navigate, this may be becoming ever truer.

Or not.

Perhaps, in the very long run, we might already be responding to selection pressures in favor of not only trust and friendliness, but also for abilities to do mathematics and employ still other higher-level thinking skills? And could (on the same extended timescale) empathy, compassion, and tolerance for uncertainty be playing ever more statistically significant roles in human evolutionary fitness?

It’s not impossible . . .

The idea is simply that cultural evolution may affect human biological evolution. This would be little different from the ways we collectively influence the genetic expressions of certain traits in pigs, dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, goats, horses, soybeans, peaches, and Swiss chard.

To think seriously about this may be to find it more reassuring than horrifying. At least I think so. But the idea of us consciously trying to engineer our cultural and biological future does raise certain hackles. And this becomes more understandable if one contemplates just who might “control” such an engineering project. It might be more acceptable and more comforting to imagine “progress” as an organic process emerging from trillions of individual choices guided with “free market precision” perhaps by some benevolent deity, the “cunning of reason”, or the fortuitous “invisible hand” mistakenly celebrated by slack apologists for capitalism.

But engineering is what we do. Termites construct castles. Beavers build lodges in ponds deepened by dams firmly packed and tightly patched with their very own flat paddle tails.

We engineer cities and cultures. And we do so both unconsciously - and with the very best laid plans. And, sometimes, with the very worst.

"Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend," observed the Marquis, "will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof," looking up to it, "shuts out the sky."

The above is extracted from A Tale of Two Cities published in 1859 and written, of course, by Charles Dickens. A more famous excerpt is the soliloquy with the line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done . . .

But the most memorable line in the book might be it’s opening:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The age referred to by Dickens is the time of the French Revolution which broke out in 1789. The US Constitution was ratified during that very same year. For this double reason, 1789 might be considered a culmination of the historical era known as the European “Enlightenment” even though it’s sometimes (plaintively?) argued that the “Enlightenment” remains an ongoing civilizing project in Western (and World) historical development.

For the average American it might be tempting to serenely imagine that our Constitution’s ratification represents the “best” of those times, and the French Revolution with its Terror, the “worst”. After all, the Constitution provided some proven measure of stability that has allowed some significant advancements in the actual practice of democracy. French society, it has been argued, is still rocking and rolling on the shockwaves caused by its formative revolution.

But it might be more edifying for a student to do her best to imagine how each of these events may have encompassed both the best and the worst - even if not in the same proportion. That may also be the best way to view 1789 as a pivotal year for “democracy” as we know it in the western world.

This presentation (it really is a bloody slideshow . . .) is expressly intended to avoid any glorification of democracy. This is not to disparage democracy - nor to diminish its importance in any way. Rather, the idea is that democracy is too fragile, too contingent, and too shallowly rooted in human culture for it to be taken for granted. Democracy is far too delicate and uncertain for it to be spoon fed like Dylan’s Casanova in “Desolation Row”