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Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider

(About a 6 minute read)

The spider had been stalking the fly for minutes.  There didn’t seem to be anything on the barren patch of ground to attract a fly.  I expected it to finish its investigations and leave.  But it would only buzz away a few inches when the spider approached it, then in a minute or two return.

Sometimes it would allow the spider to get very close before flying off.

Continue reading “Lessons About Human Nature Learned From a Spider”

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How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists

(About a 7 minute read)

Three days ago, I posted on how the division of societies into elites and non-elites was a relatively new thing in human history that began as recently as 5,500 years ago on the plains of Sumer.

Before that, our ancestors had lived in small hunting/gathering groups, and were fiercely jealous of their freedoms — so jealous that they resented and opposed any attempts by someone, or some group, to rise up above the others. In short, they were non-elitists, egalitarians. You can find that post here.

My post prompted the astute Sha’Tara to observe that there must have been some reason why the ancient Sumerians suddenly (in historical terms) decided to surrender their freedoms to a small group of elites, despite their egalitarian instincts and customs. That is an excellent question, a question I hope to address in this post.

Continue reading “How Our Egalitarian Ancestors Became Elitists”

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How Our Ancient Human Nature Influences Politics Today

(About a 5 minute read)

In light of recent fossil discoveries in Morocco. it now seems true that our noble and esteemed species of fur-challenged, poo-flinging super-apes is at least 300,000 years old.

By most scientific accounts, we spent almost all of that vast time evolving to live in small, remarkably egalitarian, social groups of typically about 200 or so individuals.

Not only is the evidence conclusive that our own species was always a social animal living in groups, but it is nearly just as conclusive that the parents of our species, and their parents, and their parents — and so forth — were all social species going back for up to 20 million years.

All of which almost necessarily means that we have spent “considerable” time evolving, adapting, to cooperate with, and even to depend on each other, for our survival.

But it goes even further than that. Much further.

Continue reading “How Our Ancient Human Nature Influences Politics Today”

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Late Night Thoughts: Magic, Leadership, Feminism, Poetry, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

There are places you can visit at night in the San Luis Valley and not see an artificial light for miles.  If you stand in one of those places when the moon is down and tilt your head back until you are gazing nearly straight up, you risk falling into infinity.

I have never know a daytime sky to appear as deep, as vast, as infinite as a nighttime sky, though some of the crisp autumn blue skies of Colorado do seem to have a touch of the infinite.  Nothing, however, quite compares to stars by the thousands set in the black ocean.

Although you cannot possess the vastness of the night, you can long to possess it.  Long just as intensely as ever someone longed to requite an unrequitable love.  Long because its beauty makes you feel alive, and you want that feeling to stay with you forever.

It is wiser, though, to set aside any feelings of possessiveness.  Let them pass by you like winds without trying to cling to them or nurture them anymore than you would try to cling to or nurture those winds.  For possessiveness clung to kills the heart, kills love, even in human relationships, let alone in our relationships to nature.

To love the night so intensely that you might be in some sense renewed, reborn by it, you must be willing to let it go.


Some years ago I took Becky’s children, Leah and Aaron, to a public Easter egg hunt.  Watching them and the other children dash about unsystematically exploring one possible hiding place after the next, and often the same hiding place they’d explored only moments before, I suddenly realized there was a sort of logic to their apparent randomness.  The logic of magic.

They were, it seemed to me, selectively picking “good” spots to explore, while ignoring “bad” spots, spots that perhaps did not seem to them magical enough to hold an egg.   And they would return to those good spots time and again, because, of course, magic.

The little legs of Easter
All hunt the same bushes
Each pair runs to check
And recheck the same spots

It’s the logic of magic
It’s found in good places
And appears where it wasn’t
Just a moment ago


On a blog I recently came across a post by a young woman in which she expressed pride in being a leader.  She so reminded me of myself many years ago.  Had you asked me back then if I was proud of so often being the leader, I would have told you that I was, and I probably would have recited the choicest passages of my résumé, whether you wanted to hear them or not.

Then, in my 30s I finally got enough experience of people to have two or three modest, but still significant, insights into — not leaders — but followers.  It seemed to me then that there were two main (but not only) reasons people follow other people, and that neither reason was all that good of a reason for me to be proud they were following me.

Perhaps the best reason people follow is because they think their leader is going where they want to go.  People who harbor that reason won’t allow you to lead them down just any old path you want to take them.  They only go down the path they themselves want, and they stick you out front largely so you, and not them, must take the risk of being pounced on by a tiger waiting for its next meal to come loping along, full of pride at being allowed to play leader.

The second reason people follow seems to be that they themselves feel too insecure or threatened to lead themselves.  Such people would follow a chimpanzee if it promised them security.  And they are often so frightened of something that they would follow the chimp down any path the chimp chose to take, even the path to hell — just so long as the chimp kept reassuring them it was the safest route.

In either case, being a leader has less to do with special you, and much more to do with them, than your pride constantly tells you it has.  But add to all that the fact that about one-quarter to one-third of all people are such poor judges of character that they are incapable of distinguishing a wise leader from a damnable fool, and you end up with a pretty poor foundation for taking much pride in the fact people will follow you.


On my second night in Colorado, I left my motel room to drive to a high place in the mountains where I got out of my car and witnessed a moon so seemingly huge that I had the absurd, yet remarkably visceral desire to see if I could touch it.  And I actually did stretch out an arm to it.   It appeared, then, to be just beyond my reach.

At the time I felt I was a refugee.  Earlier in the year, I’d gone out of business, lost my wife, my house, my friends, and most of my possessions.  It seemed to me that night that all my accomplishments in life were behind me, and that I’d been a fool to have for decades valued all those things more than I valued simply loving life.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And there’s nothing that I know
Do I ever understand?

I just wonder how it is
That all the things we ever did
Could mean so much more to us
Than the love we freely give.

For I am but a passing thing
From one moment to the next,
And with each moment’s passing
There is nothing left.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And for all the things I know
Do I ever understand?


Few movements are as misunderstood these days as feminism.  Which is a bit strange because the movement is by and large based on a simple, easy to understand, ideology at its core.  That is, it’s a form of egalitarianism.  Specifically, the form of egalitarianism that asserts women ought everywhere to have the same rights, freedoms, and liberties as men.

Unfortunately for feminists, decades of anti-feminist propaganda have convinced vast numbers of people that the true core of feminism is misandry, the hatred of all things male.  And even more unfortunately, there are a few self-described “feminists” who feed and inflame that image of all feminists by themselves being actual misandrists.

What’s true of feminism, though, is true of all large movements, for every such movement has its lunatic fringe.

I wonder why.  Indeed, I quite often wonder why every movement has its lunatic fringe.  But I have yet to arrive at an answer that satisfies me.


Have you ever reached the cardboard backing of a paper tablet only to find yourself torn between throwing it away and saving it for some use only god knows what?


I had an uncle who grew up in the Great Depression when frugality so often meant the difference between eating three meals a day or merely two or one.  He taught me around the age of six or so never to throw away a bent nail.  “It’s a perfectly good nail.  Just hammer it out so it’s straight enough to use again.”

Shortly after my eight birthday, he taught me to shoot a rifle.  “Here’s your one bullet.  There will be no more bullets today.  Now aim well and carefully, Paul, so you hit the can with it.”

I took forever to aim, but I hit the beer can.


As a rule, the more convinced we are that we are right, or have got hold of the truth, the less likely we are to have seen deeply into the matter.  So often, to look deeply is to become aware of how uncertain the truth is.


The notion that our minds at birth are Tabula rasa, blank slates devoid of any innate knowledge, biases, instincts, etc., is an ancient one, dating back to at least the ancient Stoics.  It basically asserts that almost the whole of what we are as persons will be ultimately derived from our experiences in life, or from what we learn from them.   It is also a perennial idea in the social sciences.  And, last, is almost certainly nonsense.

For instance, humans have just too many ubiquitous behaviors for us not to be, at least in large part, an instinct driven species.  Moreover, we seem to be born with talents — that is, with aptitudes or predispositions — for various things.    We also seem to be born with inherent cognitive biases.  And there is at least some evidence that we even have in us at birth the rudiments of arithmetic.

All of which suggests the notion that we humans are connected to our past in much more profound ways than merely through the continuum of time.  Our DNA is ancient, and we are in so many ways, the manifestation of our DNA.

Throw Your Rockets Far

I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
Somewhere we walk in the yellow grass;
The sky huge, but our feet owning each step.
Somewhere we hear the shorebird’s cry
From a beach in Africa we never left.
Somewhere we are shaman, warrior, gatherer,
Women and men intimate with our past.

No, I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
What at eight you simply feel
On your lawn at dusk when you throw a bottle rocket
With a warrior’s grace — and hard at the moon.

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Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

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The Social Brain

(A 9 minute read)

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

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The Limits of Being True to Yourself

Like most Americans, I devote far too much time to thinking I’m a grizzly.

Grizzlies are a solitary species who can survive by themselves without the aide of any other grizzlies, and — as the world knows — most Americans believe themselves to be rugged individualists who can survive alone without the aide of any other Americans, excepting only the 90% of their lives when they can’t.

Despite any appearances to the contrary, I was born resenting authority, social pressures to conform, the powers of both the government and the uber-wealthy, and leash laws for dogs.  I have only grudgingly come to an understanding in middle age of the legitimacy of many of the claims society makes on us.  But I still rebelliously ask, “Why must it be this way?”

Of course, the short answer to that question is: Human nature.  Some pretty conclusive science shows that our brains are to an extent hardwired to deal with living in groups, and there is even a theory now that the very size of our brains is an evolutionary result of social living.  Annoying as it might be to us wannabe grizzlies, the evidence is substantial that we are a social species.

Yet, the recognition that we are a social animal can be taken too far, for we are not even close to being as social as some species.  Mole rats and honeybees are both far more social than us.  No, humans are more like an improbable mix of social and solitary animal.  That mix is the root of much conflict.

History shows a perennial tension between the rights or claims of society and the rights or claims of the individual.  Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.  During most of that time we lived in relatively small, more or less egalitarian groups of hunter/gathers.  Those groups left no historical records, but from what might be known of them by studying the last very few hunting/gathering groups left on earth, they not only tended to be egalitarian, but they also leaned towards individualism.  There wasn’t much difference in power or authority between people.  Everyone had a voice in group decisions.  And even leaders could not typically compel people to follow them, but usually had to persuade them  to do so.

All of that began to change about 5,500 years ago when the first complex, hierarchical societies were invented in what is today Southeastern Iraq.  Now you have distinct, hereditary ranks in society: Royalty, nobles, commoners.  And you also have the invention of alarming, new ideologies justifying the ranks.  These ideologies almost always take the form of “The social order was created by the gods, and the gods want us to stick with it”.  In general, these complex, hierarchical societies have tended throughout history to lean unpleasantly towards the social conformity side of human nature.   Which is a mild way of putting the fact that, for the most part, they have trod very heavily on individual human rights.

Of course, the rights of the individual are crucially important to anyone concerned with being true to his or herself.  The tragedy has been not merely that complex, hierarchical societies have trod heavily on human rights, but that they have for the most part done so unnecessarily.   For instance, in many times and places, cheerfully suggesting that the ruler was an imbecile could easily get you murdered by the government.  And it still can in some places.  But today we have many examples of societies that somehow manage to endure and even thrive despite the fact nearly everyone in them is absolutely convinced their rulers are imbeciles.  Criminalizing such things, and murdering the people who indulge in them, is not only immoral, but unnecessary to protecting the social order as well.  Yet overall, doing so has been largely the norm for complex, hierarchical societies.

So are there any limits to being true to yourself that your society can legitimately impose on you?

Well, I think there are two general areas in which your society has a right to impose limits on your being true to yourself.  First I think it has a right to require you to be socially responsible even if that means you can’t always be true to yourself.

By “socially responsible” I mean that your society has a right to obligate you to (1) respect the rights of others, and (2) to cooperate in promoting the general welfare.  Basically, that means (1) that you cannot abridge someone’s rights merely because you would be true to yourself to do so, and (2) you cannot dodge your obligation to help in promoting the general welfare merely in order to be true to yourself.

To give examples: Your society can demand that you do not steal from someone, and thus deprive them of their property rights, even though stealing from them would be a case of your being true to yourself.  Furthermore, your society can demand that you pay taxes to support public schools, since public education promotes the general welfare, even though paying taxes might in some cases deprive you of money you could otherwise use to more fully express yourself.

Second, I think your society also has a right to require you in some circumstances to be environmentally responsible even though that might mean you cannot always be true to yourself.

By “environmentally responsible”, I mean your society has a limited right to obligate you to help create or preserve a livable environment not just for yourself and other humans, but for other species as well.  I say “in some circumstances” because I can imagine how giving your society an unlimited right to compel you to help create or preserve a livable environment could easily result in tyrannous acts.  “By the way, your government has decided to demolish your house and return your land to its natural state.  Please vacate by Saturday.”

So, to my thinking, those are the two general ways that society can legitimately limit our right to be true to ourselves.  Of course, it is endlessly debatable how they should be applied in practice.  But then, what isn’t endlessly debatable these days?

Every society has an image (and most often more than just one image) of what is an ideal human.   In all too many complex, hierarchical societies the ideal for the elites has been notably different from the ideal for the commoners.  The elites are encouraged to be true to themselves; the commoners are encouraged to suppress themselves in the interests of maintaining the social order.

At times in ancient Greece, the ideal for an adult male elite was to become a socially responsible individual.  That is, he was expected to fulfill certain obligations to his polis, or city-state, and also to develop himself as an individual in order to live a full and happy life.  Today it seems possible to build on that ideal by expanding it to include everyone — man or woman, elite or not elite — and adding to it an obligation to not only be socially responsible, but also environmentally responsible.  The tragedy is, as always, that governors, the uber-rich (who often own the governors), and other elites too often oppose the realization of such ideals for selfish reasons.  Hence, a perennial theme of human history has been — and perhaps always will be — the tension between the individual and society.