“The Sins of Civilization”

 I had to go hear Peter Heinegg on this topic. He’s a Union College Professor whom I previously heard speak about his book, The Case for Pessimism, a catalog of everything bad in life; I asked him, why not just kill yourself? His answer (quoted in my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism): “Squeeze the damn fruit till it’s dry – why would I throw it out before I’m finished?” So this nattering nabob of negativism found life worth living after all.

Heinegg’s latest opus is an indictment of civilization. His foundational premise: that human beings are just machines programmed only to advance selfish interests, with civilization the unfortunate result.

True, people try to get the most they can for themselves, all else equal. But all else is never equal, and human life is vastly more complicated than that. I keep pointing out that we evolved in groups in harsh environments, where social cooperation and even some altruism was vital for survival, and this also provides a key for understanding human behavior. We are engineered by evolution to care not just for ourselves, but for others too.

Heinegg proceeded to his numbered list of civilization’s crimes – what I call The Litany – a drearily familiar rehash, presented as if it’s some insightful new revelation. And while Heinegg did inject some flashes of humor, his hit parade of well-worn whines quickly palled.

One point, I’ll admit, resonated: meat eating = animal cruelty. I am frankly conflicted here. As Homer Simpson said, “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?” However, that doesn’t justify inflicting needless suffering on feeling creatures, which the meat industry does. But, as are most problems, it’s a complicated one.

Heinegg’s facile pot-shots at popular culture (TV a “vast wasteland” and so forth) reeked arrogant elitism, looking down his nose at proletarian pleasures. I may not share those tastes, but try to avoid such condescension. A preference for porn over Proust is at least understandable. And I’m mindful that through most of history, ordinary people led squalid lives unrelieved by entertainment of any sort.

Such lack of historical perspective pervaded Heinegg’s talk. While many points had some truth, missing was any recognition of improvement. Civilization is a work in progress, actually a relatively new phenomenon, and we’re still getting the kinks out. We are changing, a lot, and mostly for the better. (Read my book.)

Take population. Heinegg regurgitated the tired old trope of an overcrowded world with population out of control, even positing a basic human desire to have as many children as possible. What utter nonsense. In fact, as people become more prosperous, they prefer smaller families, and hence fertility rates have been plunging all over the world, with some countries now facing a population loss problem.

One questioner asked Heinegg whether, after all his talk of problems, he had any solutions. He answered that people should “wake up” and repent their sinful ways. How lame.

Life is complex and always about trade-offs. Rarely is anything purely good or bad. Civilization was an evolutionary development that certainly has entailed problems, but it began, and has flourished, for the very good reason that it has been spectacularly beneficial in improving quality of life for ever greater numbers of people.

Hence my own question: Please describe what life would be like for your listeners if civilization had never happened (on the unlikely assumption that they’d even have survived to their present mostly graying ages).

Heinegg conceded that, on balance, civilization is not a bad thing for human beings.

Thank you; the witness may step down.

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3 Responses to ““The Sins of Civilization””

  1. Joe Krausman Says:

    Good response to Heinegg’s book. Yes, it does smack of elitism. Both you and Peter are very smart guys and I admire you both. However, I fear that you may be a bit too rationally optimistic , and that Peter is a bit too rationally pessimistic.
    Joseph K. is a moderate, a follower of Aristotle”s Golden Mean. The future probably won’t be as grim as Heinegg predicts, and as wonderful as the Better Angels of Our Nature will make it.
    Our view of the future and the present is generally based on what kind of life we have, and one’s circumstances in a given time. If you are old with terminal illness, the world looks pretty bad, If you got out of bed the beautiful woman, who you dreamed of all your life, the world would perhaps would look like a beautiful place. The Golden Mean depends on what the extremes are: So if you have the choice of stealing a million, or nothing, take $500,000. If you have the opportunity to have ten lovely women or none, take five. Is this what Aristotle meant?
    Heinegg has had a pretty good life, a professor for forty years, children and grandchildren that he admires. I guess he doesn’t walk around all the time moping about the sorrows of the world. You are both secular humanists and good guys. The thing that may put a pall of sorrow on some us old timers, who are non-believers is that we know that we will die, and we don’t expect a heavenly after life in a place that doesn’t exist. Be that as it may, you will be forgiven for your sins. As the poet Heine said, ‘God will forgive me because that’s his job.” As long as God is doing his job, you have nothing to worry about. By the way, did you fast yesterday? Remember, it was Yom Kippur.
    Joseph K MFA [Meddler in Fine Arts]

    [FSR reply: Thanks for your comments. Of course I did not fast for Yom Kippur. That’s for atonement of sins. I don’t believe in the concept of sin, which is an offense against god. I only concern myself with offenses against earthly beings.]

  2. Gregory Kipp Says:

    One might surmise that the baser instincts of the human race (greed, prejudice, lust for power, etc.) are the result of our evolutionary hertige. Such traits improve one’s chance of survival in a dog-eat-dog world. Civilization is, in part, an attempt to rise above these primitive beginnings.

    It’s my personal belief that the true spiritual quest of the human race involves leaving our barbaric tendencies behind and becoming more rational overall. I’d like to think the human species is capable of this maturation. But the behavior of our political parties over the last four years makes me think many of us are losing our way, especially amongst certain members of the right wing.

  3. Humanity: The Fall? « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] Eve were expelled from Eden because of their “sin;” recently I reported on a talk about the “Sins of Civilization.” And now I’ve read a book titled The Fall, by Steve […]

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