The Most Dangerous Game
Proponents of extending the currently imposed shut-downs over Covid-19 are perhaps more right than they know.
Humans are dangerous and we always have been.
Staying at home, staying away from each other, closing public spaces- permanently- probably would save lives. All things considered, avoiding the company of other humans forever might be advisable.
People carry diseases. We are also panicky, violent, and illogical; plus we are highly intelligent, which makes us even more dangerous. Many humans are armed with deadly weapons, like guns and three-thousand-pound machines. People operate these speedy automotive death machines while distracted, on drugs, drunk, or otherwise impaired every day.
Lives are lost due to human carelessness and greed even more often.
The human race has not always been improved by our willingness to live in close proximity to one another. The story of modern human innovation hasn’t been all cell-phones, sliced bread, and anesthesia.
Might Makes Right:
How the Agriculture Revolution of 12,000 years ago became the Nuclear Arms Race we know today.
With the Agricultural Revolution came the end of life as anatomically modern humans had known for over 200,000 years.
12,000 years ago human societies knew enough about farming techniques to create a surplus in the tribe’s food supply- consistently, and for the first time.
Oh, there were upsides.
A surplus of food in a small society meant- for the first time in human history- not everyone had to get their own food. After the Agricultural Revolution, people who didn’t have to raise their own food could do other things; art, science, math, engineering, invention.
Writing was invented.
With a surplus crop came the need to store and manage it. Which explains why the oldest written accounts archeologists have ever discovered have been…tax records.
This is one of the reasons we know so much more about the ancient Egyptians than we do about other ancient societies; Egypt was a nation of accountants who kept meticulous tax records.
Once a growing village had someone to manage their food surplus thus, that person had to be given a share of the food: Taxes and government as we know them were born.
There were other downsides as well.
The Weaker Sex
Back when human beings were mostly gatherers and scavengers- hunting wasn’t as prevalent as movies about cavemen have led you to believe- physical strength and size weren’t really that important.
Endurance mattered more, as did resilience, good health, and intelligence. Physical size and brute strength would have given an individual relatively few advantages in daily life.
Food was gathered by the tribe and immediately eaten. There wasn’t a surplus; there was no way to preserve a surplus anyway. Sharing would have made more sense in a small, extended family tribe than hoarding something while it rotted away.
Once there was a farming food surplus, everything changed. A community could support more people, which made the food surplus a great asset. But it also became a liability.
There were famines, droughts, and other calamities. And there were other tribes; other villages, other people without a food surplus. A food surplus was always imperiled, as were the goods for which community members bartered their wealth and the land on which the crops were grown.
Communities suddenly needed someone to protect the food and the crops; and that someone would need to be physically big and strong. Ideally these big, strong someones would need to be bigger, stronger and fiercer than the other village’s someones.
And with that, human females- who had for 200,000 years probably held community power fairly equally with males, females being equipped with other strengths besides physical size like better endurance and the ability to bear children- became the weaker sex.
Perhaps worse, the need for physical strength to protect the food surplus naturally gave rise to a need for even more strength.
Unfortunately for everyone- age to age, down through all the ages since- that meant better weapons.
The Arms Race
Until 10,000 B.C., for 200,000 years of anatomical modernity (which means humans 200,000 years ago had brains and bodies very similar to ours today and were not animal-like) the greatest achievement of humankind had been not going extinct. And the hand-axe.
The hand-axe was a simple tool; a rock, held in the hand, shaped on one side to a dull edge. With this, humans fashioned shelters, dug graves, cleaned fish, and defended themselves from wild animals.
After the Agricultural Revolution, the hand axe was quickly replaced by a series of more and more advanced, specialized tools. Only too quickly, mankind began creating tools made for only one purpose:
Killing other humans.
The spear and arrow were soon followed by better weapons. Humans who didn’t have to produce their own food were busy little bees. With science, writing and the wheel came deadlier innovations, like those in the metallurgical arts
After humans learned to work metals, the arms race began in earnest.
Harder and harder metals were forged. Maintaining a strategic arms advantage over your nearest neighbors became the human way. The chariot was a huge leap forward, or backward, depending on your view of war; as was mankind’s discovery of gunpowder and projectile weapons.
But no strategic advantage in the arms race lasted long; what one can do, another can do. The Egyptians may have been the first to face the Hittites riding chariots into battle: You can bet next time they had their own chariots.
And here we are today: Ever on the brink of nuclear annihilation and global war- which could break out at any moment given the geopolitical situations in North Korea and Iran. And elsewhere.
The Agricultural Revolution led directly to mankind sitting on a surplus of food- plus enough atomic, biological and chemical weapons to destroy the world and everything living creature on it.
Maybe humans aren’t meant to live together and share resources in close communities. We certainly haven’t spent the last 12,000 years acting like it.
The main benefit- maybe- of people living in close proximity to each other has been the rapid exchange of ideas. This phenomenon did result in our current age of technological wonders.
Today, scientists working around the world on similar problems have an unprecedented amount of access to the full body of research on their subject. This wasn’t always the case.
Once, a thousand years might have elapsed between major leaps forward in human innovation. Then, there were hundreds of years between major leaps. Then, decades. Now, it seems like days.
This exponential increase in human ingenuity is a direct result of a faster, more effective exchange of ideas. Which has resulted directly from our tendency to congregate in large numbers made possible only by massive surpluses in the food supply.
Of course, this is all an intellectual exercise. A thought experiment. No one really thinks we should stay away from each other forever, for the good of all concerned: Who would take them seriously?
Pandora doesn’t go back in the box. The adverse winds, once released, blow Odysseus where they will. Once eaten, fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil changed humankind permanently.
We’ve formed colossal societies and abused the privilege. Humans have spent the last 10,000 years at war, when we haven’t been exploiting and enslaving our fellows. We’ve domesticated and consumed animals which have given rise to every major epidemic humans have ever faced.
Perhaps our sympathies should be with those sensible souls who still insist it isn’t safe yet to return to society.
Of course society isn’t safe yet; it was never safe.
The real question is not whether we have the guts to return to societies as we have built them, but how we ever found the audacity to build them in the first place.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)