The descent of man
You are sitting with friends and family around the campfire. There is no electricity. It has yet to be invented. Despite the relative harshness of the setting, everyone is in great spirits. Its been an exhausting but successful day and so there is food for everyone. Over the course of an evening people are called upon to sing or tell stories. Having a ‘party piece’, so to speak, is key to social inclusion.
You are sitting with friends and family in a well-appointed room enjoying a postprandial drink. You marvel at the talent of your friend who is working her musical magic with the harpsichord. There’s a knock at the door. Some new guests have arrived. The proceedings resume after everyone has heartily welcomed the new arrivals.
You have just had dinner and after a tough day at school you settle down to watch TV. The signal is noisy as the TV has only just been invented. There is a knock on the door. Relatives from overseas have paid you a surprise visit. You hear the shrieks of delight at the front door, but you are ‘all in’ on this series climax of Doctor Who. You have a sense of how this will play out. Sure enough, despite your resolution to keep watching, your mother turns off the TV and admonishes you for not acknowledging your cousins. You are then talked through the process of hugging your cousins and kissing your aunt. You deeply resent this incursion into your limited leisure time, but you play along.
You are having dinner with family friends. You haven’t seen them for some time. You have ordered in some food. Nobody sits around the table. Everyone is locked onto their devices. The adults are wading through their work emails or arranging further ‘social’ events, such as this. Despite the peacefulness of the setting, one of the kids is doing all she can to put on a brave face whilst knowing she is the focus of a of live-stream bullying fest taking place on her iPhone. Unbeknownst to her family, she is searching the web for videos on how to commit suicide on a budget.
These four scenarios are chronologically ordered snapshots of our recent past. The trend doesn’t augur well for mankind. Or at least for those of us living in ‘developed’ societies.
What’s your problem?
It is worth reflecting on what it is to be human. Firstly unlike most plants we are not rooted to a fixed location. We are designed to move. We are designed to move away from threats and towards opportunity. We are not Venus flytraps that can wait for food to land on us. Though Deliveroo and the like have made this possible. Over the millennia our ability to move has increased in sophistication. We can balance on our hind legs and thus are better placed to spot opportunities and threats. We have sophisticated limbs that enable us to navigate a variety of terrains. We have intricate paws that empower us with fine motor control. However daily, we operate this beautiful machinery with the grace and dynamism of a beached sealion.
Our sophisticated movement is just one distinguishing characteristic of our human nervous system. The other is our cognitive capability. Our ability to think in concepts, solve problems and pick up on weak signals in very small data sets. As with movement, this is not a unique characteristic of our species, however we are relatively turbo-charged in this respect. Arguably the most sophisticated application of our cognition is our ability to socialise. Other animals do this well too. But we can do it at great scale. We can organise ourselves in social groups comprising millions of people. It is this ability to co-operate as a pack or tribe that has led to us being the species that has a veto on whether other species live or die.
You might say that what makes us human is our ability to move through any environment and be socially dextrous.
We didn’t stumble across these traits. Our ancestors, through their curiosity and courage and willingness to learn, bequeathed them to us. Yet here we are today spending most of our lives on a couch or at a desk staring at a piece of technology.
If the definition of species superiority is the ability to control other species, then the robots have impressively managed a bloodless coup. What is even more impressive is that we haven’t yet realised it.
Many of us know deep down that there is something not right. But we can’t put our finger on it. Some of us are so sufficiently troubled that we self-medicate. Workaholism being an example of where such self-medication is rebranded as a noble characteristic. This is yet another telling sign of our descent.
What’s the plan?
There is no quick fix solution. And I am not the only one to pick up on this trend, so reparations are to some extent underway. Ecological initiatives that look to change our behaviours and curb our exploitation of the planet’s resources will indirectly trigger a reversion to a more natural state.
I am advocating that we need to recognise what makes us fundamentally human and to then recreate the conditions that enable us to express our humanity and thus restore harmony, both internally and with our environment.
I believe we need to tackle this at three levels:
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
Many of us are severely aware that we need to move. There is a trend related to doing 10,000 steps per day to stave off our demise. This is to be encouraged. But it is the equivalent of owning a Ferrari and not taking it out of first gear. I would encourage full body engagement. Certain activities play to this. Martial arts is a good example. However you might be the type of person who wants to use your elbows for disfigurement purposes. Keep in mind there are less bloody martial arts including aikido and tai chi, which embrace harmony rather than conflict. I practise parkour and would strongly recommend this fully body pursuit. It can be scaled to your level of comfort and ambition. It is also very social.
In cities, sociality and civility are entwined. When it comes to the rush hour, there is a sense with some people that the public transport system was created purely for their personal transportation needs. This self-centred narcissistic behaviour is a form of societal cancer (sociopathy). You might be thinking that it’s ‘dog eat dog’ out there and behaving in a civil manner makes you prey. So you leave for work each day on an ‘attack mode’ setting. This is cognitively draining. And in a world where your value comes from cognitive endeavours this is the equivalent of flushing cash down the toilet.
Civility is the mechanism that enables people to live in close proximity of each other without reverting to violence to resolve the most minor of infractions. We need to reclaim it.
Whilst I am focusing on movement and sociality here, there are other anthropological drivers that we need to express to feel alive. Click here to explore further.
I have written extensively about the industrial era and how despite the economic benefits it has yielded, it has generally had a denaturing impact on humanity. Fortunately we are leaving the industrial era and are being forced in many respects to return to our true nature.
Most people in the industrial era were cogs in the machine, technology placeholders whose key skills were compliance and the ability to follow the operations manual. As we are witnessing, the technology is maturing to the point where we no longer need humans doing process work. If your career is built on process work, you have a problem. Organisations need people to deliver value over and above that of a piece of technology. Increasingly our cognitive abilities will be at the heart of our value proposition.
But to harness this cognitive capacity, we need to create the conditions for talented people to express their creativity, detection skills and so on. To do this, we need to create environments where people can express their themselves anthropologically. Movement and sociality are two such drivers. I have identified seven more. You can learn about them here.
Employing workers for their cognitive abilities is a win-win-win (employer-talent-market). Post industrial organisations such as Google and Netflix are doing this already. Not so easy if your business is built upon distrust and a conveyor belt.
Smart organisations that provide environments for people to express their true nature will likely be more successful and will be playing an active role in helping people reclaim their humanity. Click here to find out more.
At the most fundamental level, societies provide a framework for enabling us to live long enough to reproduce. Ideally society would also provide an environment that gives us a general sense of satisfaction with our existence, at least to the extent that we are willing to operate within its strictures. A sense of satisfaction comes from knowing our expectations are likely to be met. Being social animals we would hope that our society would give us a sense of connection with others. Perhaps you can reflect on that the next time you shoulder press a fellow passenger to claim the only available seat.
The problem with many societies is that the leaders are adopting an increasingly patronising approach.
Social welfare is a real example of how to keep poor people poor. Consumerism coupled with tax benefits, and even careers, are mechanism to keep the middle class compliant. The very nature of schooling needs upheaval. It is currently designed with denaturing factory employment in mind.
The reality is that societal leaders have no real control over the fortunes of their people. That illusion worked okay for a few hundred years, but the game is up. You can almost hear the tear of social contracts being ripped up. The post-industrial age puts us all back out on the savanna. That’s not great news if you are an overbred Labrador Retriever or a denatured process worker.
Societal leaders need to accept what is happening and put plans in place to empower the citizens. Our natural desire for security and certainty is being replaced by increased uncertainty and volatility. But those citizens that adapt will be trading the comfort of security with the excitement of freedom. This is how we were designed to live.
I have written about creating a super-resilient society here.
To sum up
Humanity’s current trajectory, at least in developed societies, is in a fast descending tailspin. Nature doesn’t mind either way. We are relative arrivistes and so are still likely on probation. But Nature doesn’t really exist, it is simply a handy retrofitting concept to encapsulate speciation and the ability to adapt.
We appear to have lost our ability to adapt. We have society and business models that encourage process adherence and compliance, to varying degrees. Consequently we are losing our ability to engage with our terrain and in applying our cognitive skills to adapting in a way that benefits humanity in the large.
I think it’s time we rebooted humanity. It won’t be easy, but it will be empowering. And in any case, we owe it to our ancestors not to throw away their hard-earned gains.