Yesterday, I recall someone saying, “Humanity has never collectively learned anything.” I suspect there is some truth to that statement. At the very least, it certainly seems true enough when you see how often history is repeated.
We still make many of the same mistakes made by the ancients. For instance, Machiavelli is almost as much of a sure footed guide to politics today as he was hundreds of years ago in his own time. Or, to take a more immediate example, Obama seems in some cases to be using the very same techniques to manipulate and deceive people as Bush and Cheney used. Individuals might learn something. But do societies?
Of course, on one level the question is absurd. Societies do not have brains, and they therefore have neither memories nor learning in the same sense that individuals have brains and memories and learning. But before we dismiss the notion altogether, we should remind ourselves that individuals create culture.
“Culture” is learned behavior (as opposed to inherent behavior) that is transmitted from one generation to another. So, when we ask whether societies ever learn anything, or whether “humanity has ever collectively learned anything”, we are simply asking whether a culture ever changes. And the answer is “yes”.
Historically, most cultural change has been slow. Humanity is traditionally a very conservative species; slow to learn anything new; just as slow to let go of anything once learned. This seems to be especially true, the further back we go in time. Stone Age cultures seem to have lasted essentially unchanged for thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands years. But as we get closer to our own time, cultural change slowly increases at a growing rate to the point where today it can seem blindingly fast. In fact, today cultures change so fast it’s hard to distinguish between a cultural trait and a fad or fashion.
So, there is a very real sense in which it is grossly incorrect to say that “humanity has never collectively learned anything”. Yet, if that’s true, then why does it seem so very difficult — perhaps even impossible — for humanity to learn certain things? For instance, why are people deceived today in precisely the same ways Machiavelli describes people being deceived 500 years ago and before? Why does it seem we cannot teach people to escape being fooled by politician’s tricks that are as old as civilization?
Or, do we even try to do that? And, if we don’t do that, then how do we ever expect to keep our liberties?