The human species, while possessing considerable intelligence and potential for future development, is also cursed by evolutionary impediments that could result in its extinction.
How Could the Unthinkable Happen?
In 1943, at the age of 14, I was a Holocaust doubter. In the small town I lived in Hungary, the Jewish community heard only vague rumors of Nazi German persecutions of Jews in Poland and elsewhere. One summer day I encountered a young Jewish woman very upset by the latest information she had received. She described in excruciating detail massacres of Jews that allegedly took place. Her description even included the mass graves of the victims, where the earth moved as those not yet dead struggled in their final agony. My reaction was simply one of total disbelief. How could a nation, so renowned for its culture, philosophers, writers, artists, scientists and other contributors to civilization engage in such wicked acts? Perhaps the Huns of Attila or the Mongols of Genghis Khan, during the long past middle ages did such things, but certainly not the Germany of the 20th century. I dismissed her as a crackpot, not worthy of my attention. Less than a year later I realized that she was right, and that I was foolish in my innocent disbelief. My experiences at Auschwitz and other concentration camps quickly remedied my ignorance about the Holocaust.
An objective analysis of the origins of the Holocaust discloses the patterns and outcomes that now are recognized in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. While the Holocaust was among the most irrational of the genocides in recent history, many other nationalities, racial and religious groups have been involved, directly or indirectly, in genocidal behavior. Genocides in the 20th century were conducted in countries influenced by the religious philosophies of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism. Geographically, Europe, Asia and Africa were all sites of major genocides. Perpetrators by race were Caucasians, Orientals and black Africans. Thus, genocidal behavior is a human characteristic, in spite of the nearly universal prohibitions against murder, rape, looting and other outcomes of genocides.
Two Fatal Human Flaws
A logical question emerges from the study of genocides. How could supposedly intelligent and civilized humans allow the emergence of such genocides as the Holocaust? Unfortunately, intelligence can be negated or turned to evil use by harmful, genetically inherited human flaws or characteristics. This is a potentially fatal human defect, which even begins to threaten human survival.
The human brain is what makes humans unique. Scientists recognized this fact, when they named our species Homo sapiens sapiens , or "doubly wise humans." But two fatal flaws emerged during human evolution.
Excessive Male Violence
The understanding of the Holocaust must begin with a comprehension of the uniqueness of the human species: the human body and the human brain, and the characteristics that emerged from its structure. The recently published Demonic Males by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson provides this essential foundation. Their summation of current scientific research findings include the following:
Recent archeological evidence proves that the evolution of humanity and the emergence of civilization was accompanied by this genetic predisposition of violence against other human groups. Lawrence H. Keeley in War Before Civilization convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent and more ruthless than modern war.
"The facts recovered by ethnographers and archeologists indicate unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilized version. ... Peaceful prehistoric societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime."
The genetic attribute of the human species has the potential of converting human groups into the most dangerous of predators against other humans. It is no exaggeration to state that the origin of the Holocaust and other genocides can be found in the predisposition to violence against disparate or differing human communities.
With the development of civilization social institutions were invented, which created laws and justice, religion and ethics, and other components of communal value systems to control the violently aggressive human behavior. The capability of the human brain for logic was instrumental in this process. Unfortunately, realistic logic can be easily overridden by appeals to emotions.
First Brain vs. New Brain
Paul D. MacLean, head of the National Institute of Mental Health's Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior has explored the separate neural structures within the human brain. The synthesis of his research and that of other scientists is now widely accepted and used to explain certain aspects of human behavior.
The human brain evolved over an extensive period from its primitive mammalian origin. For the sake of simplicity, it may be divided into two major components: the First Brain and the New Brain:
The New Brain is credited for producing our science, technology, industry, art, music, literature, economy -- in brief, all the institutions that compose our civilization. But much of our actions are dictated by First Brain control of our emotions, passions and instincts that condition our efforts of survival. These basic drives also influence our communications. Properly understood, communications techniques can be employed to persuade individuals and the public to accept our messages. The assumption is, of course, that the persuasion will be used for the advantage of the recipient.
Sadly, emotional appeals can make people vulnerable to unscrupulous manipulations, especially by authoritarian powerseekers. Cultures and institutions frequently make people susceptible to fervent enticements. For example, Hitler understood this human characteristic, when he made his emotional, non-rational appeals to his public. He regarded the masses as essentially "feminine," where "feelings and emotions are far more important than logical, reasoned thought." He projected the First Brain manipulation through the relatively new communications media: radio and film. The communications technologies of the video age make First Brain manipulations even more effective, especially where centralized authorities are able to control both the medium and the message.
The Uneven Evolution of Human Civilization
Human civilization developed over many thousands of years. But this evolution was very uneven. While science and technology gave us mastery over the planet and extended tremendously our intellectual capabilities, our moral and spiritual development did not keep pace with this "progress." Without proper controls, science and technology may destroy us. The very institutions that we developed to manage and protect our societies -- government and war -- may hasten this process.
Enmity vs. Amity -- The Tribalistic Mindset
The gradual migration of our ancestors from Central Africa to the four corners of the globe created a wide diversity of differences in physical appearance, culture, religion, ethnicity, language and so on. While this diversity contributed to the rich cultural heritage of humanity, it also created the means for dividing and damaging us. Unscrupulous powerseekers -- politicians, dictators and even religious leaders -- learned to manipulate their subjects through First Brain appeals to racism, tribalism, ethnicity and religious and class differences. In place of amity and cooperation among our diverse groups we have much enmity and mistrust. This is intensified by the almost incredible development and distribution of the instruments of war and violence.
Other human characteristics contribute to the harmful trends. Anthony Storr summarized these negative traits in Human Destructiveness.
Propensity to Aggressiveness
Our normal bent to develop and master our environment often becomes obstructed in our societies, and then it turns into destructive anger, rage and hate. Aggression easily moves to destructive violence and cruelty toward other humans. "Supposedly 'civilized' man is peculiar in being particularly destructive and cruel to his own species."
Obedience to Authority
Unjustified obedience is another harmful human trait. According to Storr, an " important factor facilitating the employment of violence and cruelty by normal people is the human tendency toward obedience." Authorities in human societies can organize and order the employment of violence and cruelty against real or perceived enemies. The sense of individual responsibility disappears when obedience takes over.
Lack of Inhibitions Against Killing
Obedience to authority easily overrides the normal prohibitions about killing one's fellow human. Especially in wartime, "governmental authority overrides the usual prohibitions about killing one's fellow men, and it becomes a duty to slaughter those whom the government has labeled enemies." The "enemy" label can be applied to groups on racial, national, ethnic, class, religious or other differences. " The invention of weapons that kill at a distance has overridden any lingering inhibitions against killing other human beings." Mass murder can also be facilitated by a bureaucratization process, whereby individuals in a chain of events need to feel little or no responsibility for their part of the slaughter. Such a process was cunningly designed and implemented during the Holocaust by Nazi Germany.
Humans also have a "capacity to treat other human beings as inferior, alien or, in extreme cases, less than human." Stratification by class or caste is common in many societies. Extreme cruelty may result when a section of community is regarded as both dangerous and despicable.
These negative traits have potentially serious consequences. Stanley Milgram, author of Obedience to Authority, wrote:
"... man's capacity to lose his humanity when subordinating his individuality to an institutional structure actually threatens the survival of our species. This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline and self- sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority."
Christopher R. Browning supplies a comprehensively documented example of this type of human behavior in Ordinary Men. In 1941-42 Nazi Germany's military police units -- the Order Police -- participated in the genocidal Holocaust. The 500 men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 murdered 38,000 Polish Jews, and participated in the deportation to the Treblinka gas chambers of 45,000 more. Browning describes how "average men" -- neither committed Nazis nor racial fanatics but mostly recently drafted working class family men from Hamburg -- became willing participants in mass murder. Obedience to authority and lack of inhibitions against killing other humans (including women and children), reinforced by peer pressure and the political addiction of antisemitism sufficed to transform ordinary men into ruthless killers. Their conduct was replicated by many other units of the SS and the Wehrmacht, resulting ultimately in the 17 million victims of the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust. This manifestation of human behavior has continued in many other places since World War II, such as the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and the tribal massacres in Rwanda.
Survival and Suicide Manuals
The purpose of life, and therefore of human existence, is first and foremost "survival" -- the prevention or at least the postponement of death.
Since occasionally survival becomes difficult, a number of "survival manuals" have emerged. These are designed for conditions where the needs of the human body are not met -- lack of water or food, excessive cold or heat, hostile environment and so on. For example, the U.S. Army Survival Manual covers many situations where a soldier may become stranded and has to improvise shelter and nourishment until rescue. Survival Is a Dying Art is another such manual, but designed for civilians who may encounter natural or man-made catastrophes or disaster type situations, With the rise of crime, terrorism and general deterioration of the urban environment, we now even have The Urban Survival Handbook.
Ironically, advances in modern medicine have created a need for "negative survival" manuals. Medical technology developed conditions where there is a "prolongation of death." This refers to situations where the patient has a terminally fatal condition, which formerly would have resulted in merciful death and the end of suffering. Now it is possible to hook up terminally ill people to life-supporting systems. These force the dying -- or even brain dead -- to stay alive, frequently at considerable pain and discomfort. The counterpart of the survival manual is therefore a "suicide manual." Final Exit by Derek Humphrey is an example. The book summarizes the various methods whereby an individual can commit suicide. Of course, the justification is always the existence of a terminal illness, the exhaustion of acceptable medical treatments, and the presence of unbearable suffering.
These survival and suicide manuals are for individuals who get into extreme situations or conditions. But over the centuries entire societies or cultures found it necessary to develop codes of ethics for human conduct that may be considered survival manuals. Examples of these global survival guides are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the Koran, and the precepts of Buddhism and Confucianism.
One would think that human groups want to survive and not to commit suicide. But incredibly, modern civilization developed -- and frequently implemented -- what may be called "political suicide manuals." And these suicide manuals had a greater influence in the 20th century than the survival manuals of the great religions. It is no exaggeration to suggest that much of the violence and destruction that now threaten human survival were instigated by these suicide manuals:
On War by Carl von Clausewitz proclaimed that "War is a continuation of politics by other means." He advocated total war, which is directed at all of the enemy's resources. During the 19th and 20th centuries, On War became a virtual bible of politicians and militarists to justify the tremendous expansion of military forces and the resolution of conflicts by violence instead of peaceful means. The rich industrial countries' resources were wasted on ever larger armies, equipped with ever more lethal weapons. The outcome of these suicidal activities were two World Wars, many other aggressions and the development of weapons of mass destruction. The militarism of Europe and America then infected the liberated former colonies and dependencies of Asia and Africa as well. Total death toll of this century attributable to On War: 65 million.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proclaimed the need for the class struggle, between the allegedly irreconcilably hostile classes of workers and the capitalists. Its urge for bloody violence and revolution was eagerly embraced by ruthless powerseekers, who gave the world the wars and genocides of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Total death toll of this century attributable to The Communist Manifesto (and its successor Capital ): 97 million.
Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler asserted the superiority of the Aryan race and its destiny to rule the inferior other races. This ultra-racist doctrine called for German domination of Europe and the world, and the destruction of other groups deemed to be inferior. It led directly to World War II and the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust. Total death toll of this century attributable to Mein Kampf: 36 million.
Unless we develop new global ethics for moral conduct that advance human survival, the spirit exhibited in these political suicide manuals will prevail and may extinguish the human species.
Weak Institutions to Control Human Aggressiveness
The problem of human aggressiveness is compounded by new developments. World population is continuing to increase dramatically. Millions of young men growing up in declining or underdeveloped societies, seeing little future for themselves, become ready to engage in violence. Many governments, products of political mismanagement, encourage aggression against their neighbors, different ethnic groups, religious communities and other so-called "enemies." For example, there is an almost classic tendency of governments facing domestic crises to instigate foreign "adventures." Sadly, organized religion has lost much of its influence in controlling violence in human societies. In some countries religious groups, especially of the fundamentalist variety, themselves become advocates of violence.
Aggressiveness of the Bad People -- Passivity of the Good People
Perhaps the most serious problem is that war and violence seem to pay in our current political environment. Dictators and political factions that engage in evil actions are seldom punished. Even after they are defeated in wars little, if any, retribution is applied. For example, only a few thousand Germans were punished for killing the 17 million victims of the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust. Some of the Turkish military were exiled for the Armenian genocide of World War I. Similarly, few members of the Khmer Rouge suffered punishment for causing the death of more than a million Cambodians.
Current events in Bosnia and Rwanda and many less publicized horrors in today's world confirm this fact. Genocidal massacres occur, women are raped in large numbers, millions become victims of famines or are forced to leave their homes. The good, decent people of the Western developed world react very slowly, if at all. Actually, the political leaders of these countries frequently encourage the various authoritarian regimes by supporting trade contacts, providing weapons sales, giving loans and other development assistance and furnishing other forms of financial or moral support.
Devolution: Retrograde evolution; degeneration.
The human species is supposed to be at the apex of evolution on our planet. Our ability to dominate other life forms is convincingly demonstrated by actions that have caused the extinction of many other species and are now threatening the survival even of such formidable predators as lions and tigers. Until this century, our continued scientific discoveries and technological inventions seemed to confirm the ongoing human evolutionary climb.
Events of the twentieth century are now reversing human evolution. It is now appropriate to explore the realities of human devolution -- the actual or threatened dehumanization and degeneration of Homo sapiens by political mismanagement and the uncontrolled war institution.
Human Evolution vs. Human Devolution
Scientists now conclude that the biological evolution of our species essentially stopped about 100,000 years ago. For better or worse we are what we are, even with such flaws as the First Brain vs. New Brain contention. Our progress continued through social institutions and systems, which enabled the functioning of increasingly larger human communities. Human evolution can only advance through social evolution -- the improvements to our social institutions and new social inventions that are needed to ensure human survival.
Until the 20th century human evolution continued at a steady pace. Beginning with World War I, human evolution began a prolonged decline -- what we may call human devolution. This trend continued through World War II and the Cold War period. Such negative developments as weapons of mass destruction, police states and authoritarian governments all contribute to the downward trend. If this trend is not reversed, the 21st century could bring about the collapse of civilization and even human extinction.
The Exhibit A.1 interactions chart, "Causes of Human Devolution/Decline" shows the interactions among the various human conditions and events that could produce this ultimate catastrophe.
Our Progressive Dehumanization
The scientific and technological developments of this century resulted in a tremendous increase of lethality and destructiveness of armaments. The military is able to survive this increased lethality of weapons through the practice of distributing its forces over a wide extent of territory. However, neither the civilian population -- largely concentrated in urban areas -- nor our environment could escape the effects of nuclear and other highly destructive weapons.
A little recognized by-product of these military "advances" is our progressive dehumanization. Americans especially ought to be sensitive to this issue, as many of their ancestors were victimized by being treated as a lower form of humanity. First and foremost was the institution of slavery practiced on black Americans. But many of the immigrants of the 19th century were, or had, ancestors who were serfs -- persons bound to a piece of land and subject to the will of the owner of the land. For example, serfdom in the Russian Empire kept in subservience millions of peasants, who were only emancipated about the time of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
While both slavery and serfdom were finally abolished in the 19th century, our current period brought about new levels of human degradation. Although a repugnant task, it is possible to list these various forms of progressive dehumanization:
While slavery was a dehumanizing social institution, there was considerable economic -- and some moral -- incentive for the master to treat his slaves with some degree of humanness and preserve their life. Serfdom in Europe was strictly regulated, with legal limits to the lord's power. Both these forms of dehumanization granted some level of humanity to their victims.
In our own century the old forms of dehumanization became obsolete, and even outlawed. But in their place new, and even worse, forms of dehumanization emerged.
Many Holocaust survivors experienced the degradation of being a mere statistic of Nazi Germany. As concentration camp inmates, they were condemned to perish slowly from hunger and exposure, while performing essentially meaningless tasks. These human victims of inhumanity were often building air fields, roads, even advanced jet aircraft and missiles for the defense of the Third Reich. But it was all for naught, because the Germans had no longer the fuel to fly the planes or the missiles. The purpose of this futile exercise was to show with "facts," or statistics, that large numbers of people were working on the war effort, and to give some reassurance to Hitler, Speer and the other leaders of Germany. The ultimate function as a statistic was to increment -- or, in case of death, decrement -- by 1 the appropriate tables of numbers. Still, there was a small incentive on the part of the Nazi bureaucrats to prolong the existence of these concentration camp inmates, and with luck and endurance some were able to survive.
But the ultimate dehumanization of millions of Americans -- and their counterparts in the former Soviet Union -- was to become targets of the nuclear war planners of the superpower war machines. Under the policies of mutual deterrence, considerable resources were used to facilitate target planning. Target lists were prepared, targets were ranked according to priorities, and appropriate combinations of nuclear weapons and delivery systems were assigned to the targets. Of course, most frequently the targets were located in or near urban areas where most of the American and Soviet populations lived. In the end, we were the targets.
All our ambitions, hopes, fears could have gone up in radioactive dust in an instant -- beyond our control, or indeed beyond the control of our military, if terrorists or other irrational forces would have used nuclear weapons. Unlike that of a statistic, the death of a target would not even be recorded in somebody's statistical report. Even with the temporary end of the Cold War we have no assurance that in the future mass destruction weapons will not be used on target populations.
It is especially ironic that Americans, who as a group are most concerned about their appearance, health, comforts, entertainments and other expressions of their humanity, have allowed themselves to become victims of the ultimate form of dehumanization possible! What can be done to reverse this down slide toward human devolution?
The Lesson of the Holocaust Memorial
A visit to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington offers a complete summation of the negative tendencies of the human species in the 20th century:
As long as wicked people are active and aggressive, and good people only reactive
and passive, war and violence will flourish and the human condition will worsen.
We may believe that good shall overcome evil behavior, especially since there are
far more good people than bad ones. (While there are inherent tendencies toward good
and evil in all humans, moral values instilled by communities tend to foster good
behavior.) Unfortunately, wicked people are often able to gain power because of their
aggressiveness, dynamism, initiative, morale, momentum and even chance. Once power
is gained, the modern hierarchical structure of the nation-state, and the powerful
technologies available to the military and police forces, make the overthrow of authoritarian
regimes very difficult. This accounts for the survival of the dictatorships in Iraq,
North Korea and many other countries, in spite of the obvious failure of these regimes
to improve the lot of their people.
The outcome of this regrettable tendency is the continued repression of humanity throughout the world. Although the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an increase in the number of democratic governments, human freedom has not increased significantly. This was the conclusion reached by the Freedom House (a human rights organization based in New York) in its 1994 Annual Report. As of January '95 only 20% of the people of the world lived in free, democratic societies. About 40% lived under "partly free" governments, while another 40%, or more than 2.2 billion people, lived under authoritarian repression. There is also a danger that "many democracies could backslide. Despite the growth in democracies many are at risk from internal divisiveness, rampant corruption, overarching influence by militaries and oligarchies, or destabilization from abroad." The Freedom Review, the official publication of Freedom House, also reports that there are now 23 million refugees and 26 million displaced people throughout the world, whose plight can be attributed directly to political mismanagement and the resulting violence.
The ultimate outcome of this gradual triumph of evil could be the breakdown of
our civilization, and even the extinction of the human species. The next chapter
explores further these future dangers.
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