23 March 2018

Explaining our miraculous flourishing


There is no God in Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. But the book nonetheless revolves around a miracle. “The Miracle” is the shorthand Goldberg, a bestselling author, syndicated columnist, senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, uses to describe the escape of our species from the depths of ignorance, poverty and every-day conflict to the heights of scientific achievement, material abundance and relative peace.

To appreciate Goldberg’s Miracle, consider the following. Homo sapiens are between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. Yet the modern world, with all the conveniences that we take for granted (I wrote this article sitting on a plane 8 kilometers above ground, using an internet connection provided by a satellite orbiting 37,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth), is merely 250 years old. Put differently, for the first 99.9 percent of our time on earth, progress was painfully slow. Then everything suddenly changed. Why? That’s the question that Goldberg strives to answer.

Goldberg has written two previous and popular books, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change and The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. Goldberg’s writing style, as the titles of his books suggest, is geared towards a mainstream audience, but the AEI fellow researches his books with care. Of human nature, Goldberg writes:

“Humans were not designed to live in the market order of contracts, money, or impersonal rules, never mind huge societies governed by a centralised state. We were designed to live in bands, or what most people think of as tribes. The human brain is designed so that we can manage stable social relationships with roughly 150 people… We were designed by evolution to be a part of a group, but that group was very limited in size. These groups took on a variety of structures, but the basic anatomy was generally the same. There was a Big Man or some other form of chieftain or ‘alpha.’ …In the most basic sense, these bands were socialist or communist in that resources were generally shared. But the genetic programming clearly emphasised us over me. We still hold on to that programming and it rubs up against modernity constantly.”

Based on the above paragraph, readers will be able to deduce the crux of Goldberg’s argument. The Miracle happened not because of, but in spite of, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Our rule-based society, where equality before the law takes precedence over the social and economic status of the individual, a staggeringly complex global economy that turns strangers from different continents into instant business partners, and a meritocratic system of social and economic advancement that ignores people’s innate features, such as race and gender, is both very new and extremely fragile.

The Miracle emerged, probably by chance and after hundreds of years of trial and error, in the splendidly quirky island of Great Britain. It then spread, however imperfectly, into other parts of the world. Today, the outposts of the Miracle can be found not only in Western Europe, North America and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), but also in Asia (Hong Kong), Africa (Botswana) and Latin America (Chile). An extraordinary achievement.

In a refreshingly non-relativistic manner, which is one of Goldberg’s trademarks, he writes, “I believe that, conceptually, we have reached the end of history. We are at the summit, and at this altitude [political] left and right lose most of their meaning. Because when you are at the top of the mountain, any direction you turn – be it left toward socialism or right toward nationalism … the result is the same: You must go down, back whence you came.”

And that descent (decline, if you will) is the key threat that we all ought to keep in mind. The forces of tribalism always linger just below the surface and are never permanently subdued. From Russia and China to Turkey and, to some extent, the United States, the all-mighty chieftain is back in charge. From the darkest corners of the web, where nationalists and anti-Semites thrive, to the university campuses, where identity politics flourish, group loyalty takes precedence over the individual. These dangerous sentiments originate, it is true, in human nature. But their renewed lease on life springs, as Goldberg reminds us, from something much more banal – ingratitude defined as “forgetfulness of, or poor return for, kindness received.”

We are the luckiest generation that has ever lived. On average, we are longer living, richer, healthier, more educated, safer and, even, happier, than any other people who have ever lived. Is it too much to ask that we start behaving in a manner that is commensurate with our good fortune?

Suicide of the West is a rich and highly readable book. The progress of our species is described with an appropriate sense of marvel and, perhaps, a little bit of well-earned pride. It is also a deeply humane work, with the author genuinely concerned about the threats to human progress that lurk ahead and for the well-being of his fellow creatures.

Marian L. Tupy is senior policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.