I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (UK) and I must say that it is arguably one of the most important books I have ever read (well, listened to in this case). There are so many great nuggets and things to think about in its very digestible pages.
For this post, I’ll just speak briefly about a point he makes in seeing humans, over history, trending towards living together in greater union of larger communities, and in manners that are actually very conformist.
This is different from the rest of the animal world, where species and the geographical groupings are defined by genetics. Behaviours of chimpanzees and gorillas in their troops and groups haven’t really changed for hundreds of thousands of years and are broadly defined by their genetic heritage.
On the other hand, human group behaviours differ widely: in the 20th century alone, the German nation arranged itself into six very different political networks.
We may like to think, for example, that the essence of Europe and its present incarnation as the European Union is based on democracy, inalienable human rights, freedom and so on, but the truth is that it’s a whole mishmash of difference. Some people may argue that it is a very clear evolution of democratic ideals stretching back to ancient Greece, but the democratic experiment in Greece only lasted 200 years. This is perhaps a narrative spin.
Harari’s point is a philosophical one here and one very similar to that which I’ve made countless times: that European civilization is whatever we make it. Christianity is whatever Christians make it. Islam is whatever its adherents make it. They have made very many different things out of these mimetic networks over the centuries and millennia. There is no essential property to European or Christian identity, despite what many will claim. This may be somewhat covered up by the fact that humans are very good storytellers and have weaved ancient and modern narratives into something that is intended to be coherent.
Orthodox Jewish media outlets have been criticized over the last decade for using Photoshop to get rid of women in photographs in, say, the operations room in the White House when reporting the news, in the name of orthodox and conservative values, as also seen in similar strains of Islam, in attempts to be traditional. And yet when archaeologists have dug up ancient synagogues at the time of the Talmud, they have found no sign of gender segregation and have found depictions on the walls of women seen in a way that would be completely incongruous to the supposedly traditional, Orthodox Jews of today.
But to get back to my main point, humans have a tendency to coalesce over time that is in distinct contrast to the animal world that, during speciation, splits off never to reconverge. Modern Britain is a result of the convergence of Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans, Celts, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, more modern immigration from the Empire and so on. These mergers don’t always last, as you can see with Brexit and the potential breakup of the European Union. That said, humans seem to have a tendency to coalesce closer together so that these breakups are most probably only temporary. Over time, isolated tribes have coalesced inevitably to form larger and larger communities and societies. This is now looking fairly global. We have a habit of making links across groups and homogenizing practices amongst those groups.
These commonalities are indicative of a global move towards a homogeneity can best be exemplified with the worldwide Olympics. Imagine trying to hold a global Olympic competition in the year 1016. Not only did humans not exist in nation-states, but the way we did things was so vastly different that a competition like that would have just been impossible. Although when you watch a modern Olympic Games, it looks like a celebration of differences, it is actually a representation of a huge array of commonalities, both in the way the sports are carried out, measured, categorised, rewarded and so on, and also in the way that the competing countries are arranged and ordered internally.
Let’s list a few commonalities that apply to all our almost all present countries or communities:
- The world is split entirely, in any meaningful sense, into nation-states.
- These nations seem to almost universally have parliaments.
- These nation-states are members of the United Nations.
- Almost all nations have national anthems that are very similar in style: a couple of minutes of orchestral music with words that are almost all interchangeable with the words of other nations.
- Likewise, all nations have rectangular flags, with the exception of one, and all have varying geometrical arrangements of colour.
- The economic market place and common economic language and mechanisms.
You get the picture. There are many more commonalities that emphasise our march towards a larger collective as opposed to our desire to remain fragmented individual tribes of isolated difference.
When the newfound Islamic caliphate was in some way established under ISIS in recent years, when it murdered tens of thousands of people and walked into cities and pulled down icons and statues and marks of cultural and religious identity that did not conform with their own, they put their stamp of rejection on the rest of the world. However, when they came across banks with stashes of US dollars (with all of the religious and cultural iconography that a dollar bill contains), this universal emblem and object of value and economy was still cherished. Odd, that.
My point of saying this is that I am becoming less and less nationalistically bothered as time goes on and the more I think about things. It is not to say that everyone thinks like me but I can see a general movement towards a global economy, culture, homogeneity that, for conservatives, will be an anathema, but that seems to be an inevitable coalescence.
The bumps in the road that are populist, nationalist movements are arguably only short-term and temporary barriers to this inevitable conclusion. We will get people like a few of the commenters here who decry the genetic mixing of the “races, demanding a conservative maintenance of genetic purity in whatever that might actually mean. Now, we can argue about whether such homogeneity and global conformity is really something to be desired. But there is a difference between what we think might be the best way to organise the world and the way that humans naturally tend in their behaviours.
Humans form great advantages by forming into greater groups (nations). It allows us to specialise to maximise the productivity and usefulness of all of the people. Huge systems develop massive competitive advantages. Healthcare systems, armies, welfare systems and so on.
The flipside might be to look at the corporation that is Amazon. The coalescence of products and services under one roof is great for the consumer, but will it always convey such an advantage as it becomes a monopoly? Is the gain only short-term? Will a one world order be beneficial or ripe to be taken advantage of by the power-hungry and authoritarian? Is this even a fair analogy? Those free marketeers who advocate for choice might find new, fertile soil for such an outlook: nation-states and decentralised politics.
Does nationalist politics play into the worldview of the individualist? One would certainly think so – a one world order seems to be the collectivist utopia that such individualists and libertarians have heart attacks over. The problem is, such individualism appears to run contrary to human desires to coalesce. The question is, how will this play out, going forward? Especially when global problems (climate change, land use from agribusiness, etc.) require global solutions dependent on working ever more closely together towards unified change.
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