Posts Tagged ‘pessimism’

“The Sins of Civilization”

September 27, 2012

 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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