William Wordsworth was among the first. In 1802, as the Industrial Revolution began to transform England, he sensed that: ‘…we are out of tune [because] the world is too much with us – little we see in nature that is ours; we have given our hearts away.’ By 1888 similar psychic unrest had spread to Ireland. That year William Butler Yeats wistfully mused: ‘…I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, [but] always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; I hear it in the deep heart’s core.’
Wordsworth and Yeats lamented growing detachment, not only from Nature itself, but from some vital though ineffable aspect of our being. In his 2013 Inferno, Dan Brown more concretely, if less poetically, defined some of the factors underlying their discontent: ‘The … World Health Organisation [predicts] there will be some 9 billion people on earth before the midpoint of this century. Animal species are going extinct at a precipitously accelerating rate. The demand for dwindling natural resources is skyrocketing. Clean water is harder and harder to come by. By any biological gauge, our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers… it is a bit like staring at the headlight of an oncoming train… We are facing a battle for the very soul of man… [but we’re] hovering now in a purgatory of procrastination and indecision and greed…’
Wordsworth and Yeats were ‘merely’ poets and Brown writes fiction, but the concerns they express are real. Furthermore, none of them mentions climate change, terrorism nor the widening economic gap between rich and poor. Not only poets and authors, but every thoughtful person realises that we need to address these issues more effectively than we have, yet Brown’s indictment of our political, corporate, and societal inaction rings all too true.
Humanity needs a visionary paradigm aimed at transcending our current ‘head-in-the sand’ strategic paralysis, at forcing us to appraise the dangers threatening us, and at spurring us to confront the hard choices which must soon be made. It asks, ‘What kind of world are we meant to live in and how can we achieve it?’ Yeats yearned for Innisfree; for him it represented Eden. In the 21st century we all yearn, consciously or not, for what Yeats envisioned – a reclaimed Eden.
In 1962 a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published. Its author was physicist and science historian Thomas Kuhn. Most general readers have never heard of Structure, nor of Kuhn, but the New York Times (July 25, 2001) observed that ‘…Kuhn did for conceptions of science what Copernicus and Einstein did for astronomy and physics.’ In 2012 the Guardian (August 18) called Structure ‘one of the most influential books of the 20th century.’ Most people do recognise a term Kuhn coined: ‘paradigm shift’. He argued that sciences progress in a series of phases, each dominated by a community of workers who share a common intellectual orientation, a paradigm. A science normally advances steadily for a length of time, but eventually ‘anomalies’ – unresolvable problems – accumulate, progressing ultimately to an impasse or crisis. Finally, the deadlock is resolved by a revolutionary change in worldview that replaces the older, now dysfunctional mindset with a new one – a paradigm shift.
Kuhn’s insight about science can be generalised. Our societal ‘anomalies’ – environmental degradation, terrorism, economic inequality and the like – are analogous to Kuhn’s unresolvable scientific problems. During the 16th and 17th centuries, understanding of the solar system changed dramatically. The older Ptolemaic Earth-centred conception was supplanted by the sun-centred Copernican model. That paradigm shift provoked intense religious resistance and general cognitive turmoil, but it led to vital intellectual and practical advances. Today’s world needs a transformation of comparable magnitude.
An emerging paradigm, applicable to our pressing mega-problems, is based on the discordance, or mismatch, hypothesis: contemporary humans have genes best adapted to Stone Age living conditions, not those that exist in contemporary society. Recognising that we and the way we live are out of sync puts our ‘anomalies’ in new, more coherent perspective. The same understanding suggests ‘out-of-the-box’, yet logically-grounded ways to make progress. The new approaches represent attempts to approximate the conditions of ancestral existence, those for which our mind-genes are designed to function best. Further, the same unorthodox, discordance-informed proposals promise a better world for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants. We, for ourselves and them, must attempt to reclaim Eden.
Scholars speculate that the Bible’s Eden reflects a folk memory of earlier times when humans flourished in harmony with Nature. Very likely they’re right. Before agriculture, Stone Agers were hunter-gatherers, and anthropologists studying such societies during the 20th century frequently judged their lives happier, easier and more fulfilling than those of contemporary Westerners. The folk memory notion also has legs. Evolutionary psychologists postulate that our minds contain reference standards, neuronal aggregates that embody representations of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – automatic, ‘go/no-go’ input that influences our response when we’re faced with choices. Is nearby movement threat or opportunity? Is a possible campsite safe or not? Who’s a potential mate? These ‘categorical expectations’ are based on genes selected during the Stone Age, and they form the basis of folk memory. Because of them people in Biblical times dreamt wistfully of a remote past when existence was somehow ‘better’.
Today the same mental mechanisms that influenced the ancients still operate, and they continue to suggest that things aren’t what they should be. They produce a vague, overarching unease superimposed on and intensifying specific concerns that dominate television, newspapers and political debates. Income inequality, women’s rights, poverty, terrorism, environmental degradation and climate change – these issues are familiar to, and affect, each of us. Superficially they seem separate and disconnected, with different underlying causes, different victims and different suggested remedies. However, there is a fundamental linkage. Each represents a departure from the primal circumstances during which the genes underlying our minds were selected. The neural assemblies that make up our mental reference modules are ancient – conserved over the ages. They still recognise situations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to criteria established throughout humanity’s remote Stone Age past, in our genetic Eden.
Appreciating this relationship, that our current mega-problems all arise from discordance between what was and what is, clarifies and simplifies their analysis. It also points to corrective measures bolder, but more soundly based and with more promise of ultimate success than the insipid, uninspiring proposals put forth to date.
God commanded mankind to ‘Multiply. Fill the Earth and subdue it,’ and we’ve done so to the extent that our species now exceeds sustainable numbers. When behaviourally modern humans appeared about 100,000 years ago we numbered perhaps 10 million in total. Now there are 7 billion of us, and what’s more, we each have a far larger ecological footprint than did our Stone Age counterparts. The resulting mismatch, between us and the world at large, has produced impending calamity:
- Our use of fossil fuel-based energy has generated climate change, which apparently escalates the frequency of natural disasters.
- Our need for water and other natural resources is unsustainable.
- There is an ongoing mass extinction event for other life forms.
- The environment’s natural beauty has been increasingly despoiled.
Technological breakthroughs and more sustainable behaviours notwithstanding, it’s clear that population growth must cease, and ideally, decline. This has already begun to happen: in 2014 childbearing rates in two-thirds of the world’s countries were at or below replacement level. Given this trend, what should be our target population? A logical objective might be the lowest number consistent with global economic sufficiency. A civilisation small compared to today’s, but nonetheless capable of affording lifestyle for all Earth’s people comparable to that now enjoyed by middle class Westerners. A total of 100 million might be optimal.
Suppose the population increases to 9 billion by 2050, but by then a worldwide one-child-per-family has become the rule. In this scenario, the population would fall to 2 billion by 2150 and reach the 100 million mark shortly before 2275, between the eighth and ninth generations.
A world populated by only 100 million people would free up immense areas to be set aside as nature preserves. Simply abandoning these territories – consolidating humanity into salubrious locations while emptying the other previously populated regions – would better preserve biodiversity than would the anaemic measures now being proposed. Reduced energy consumption would alleviate and ultimately end anthropomorphic climate change.
For a while, world economy would have to function amid decreasing fertility. Rising demands on welfare and health care due to population ageing would have to be met despite declining tax contributions from a diminishing work force. Brown University economist Oded Galor believes economic equilibrium could be maintained under these circumstances. His solution: greater investment in human capital – people’s health, knowledge, skills and competencies. Even with fewer workers, the same level of social services and retiree support could be maintained if per capita productivity were to rise. Improved productive capacity for people in the traditional worker age category, 15 to 65, would be essential, but comparable per capita productivity gains for older individuals would be of significant benefit as well. Extending retirement age to 70 would attenuate ‘elderquake’– more workers, fewer retirees.
After an optimal population is attained, a ‘post-growth’, steady state economy should ensue. Its essence:
- A stable population with constant total size and age structure. That is, a population column instead of a pyramid.
- A constant inventory of durable goods with equal production and depreciation rates. Relatively long-lasting items – buildings, vehicles, furniture, appliances, machinery and the like – would be replaced as needed and improved technically and qualitatively, but the total stock of such assets should not increase quantitatively.
- A constant throughput. The flow of natural capital (resources from mines, wells, forests, fisheries, fields, grasslands, etc.), through acquisition, production and consumption and then back as waste to natural sinks (rivers, oceans, the atmosphere, landfills, etc.) should vary as minimally as possible. Where practicable, nonrenewable raw material waste should be reworked back to a form amenable to reuse.
Substantially contracting population while upgrading human capital: that’s the rational demographic agenda. Its ultimate goal is a smaller-scale, steady state economy capable of sustaining global economic self-sufficiency and biome health, while promoting happiness and meaning for humanity.
Qur’an: Suras 4:8 and 93:8
Allah commanded: ‘When needy are present, provide for them… He found you poor and made you self-sufficient.’
Homo sapiens is the only mammalian species that tolerates, and even promotes, economic inequity, where species members are divided into haves and have-nots. However, it hasn’t always been so. Even though disparity has been a hallmark of society for millennia, authorities from multiple disciplines concur that, except in a few atypical locations, substantial socioeconomic inequality began only as hunting and gathering gave way to horticulture and animal husbandry. Throughout most of the Paleolithic era, our Stone Age ancestors generally had equivalent possessions. Essential inter-personal equality was thus the psychological model that influenced selection of those genes that pertain to our sense of self-worth. That these genes persist is evident in the resentment the weak and poor still feel toward the wealthy.
Given the way we live now, how can we shift our society towards the Stone Age standard of economic parity? One of our primary goals should be the elimination of true indigence –everyone should have the basics: a home, clothing, health care, transportation, enough to eat, and access to decent education. Our pre-agricultural ancestors considered the corresponding prerogatives their birthright; necessary for themselves and for all their fellows.
Still, most of us in the contemporary world are ambivalent about providing basics for all. We instinctively recoil at the thought of giving anyone something for nothing and have long been suspicious of ‘hand out’ programs offering benefits of unlimited duration to potentially employable recipients. ‘Workfare’ and similar work plans have been proposed to address the ‘taker’ problem. Economists studying such schemes suggest they can increase employment, raise the earnings of low-skilled workers, and produce genuinely valuable output. A mandatory work project might thus minimise objections to establishing a safety net that would, to some degree, recreate ancestral conditions.
While we want to reduce the existing gap between rich and poor, how can we, at the same time, encourage and reward the hard work, ingenuity, self-sacrifice, persistence, initiative and the other desirable personal qualities that maintain society’s fabric? Capping net worth at a level ten times that of society’s least well off would be a move toward the socioeconomic conditions to which our minds’ categorical expectations were originally attuned. But would a reward system thus limited sufficiently motivate average individuals to exhibit initiative and to exert whole-hearted effort, while discouraging laziness, indifference and sloth? Economist Thomas Piketty thinks so as does his colleague, Richard Easterlin, who’s found that beyond a threshold, greater wealth doesn’t increase happiness. Although counterintuitive, this belief has been widely accepted by scientists in several fields. What’s the threshold? Research suggests that happiness increases with income up to an adjusted annual household figure of $75,000. Should this amount become the guaranteed minimum, those earning ten times the base would bring in the equivalent of $750,000 – a gracious plenty.
Piketty proposes a progressive global wealth tax as well as a higher tax rate on top incomes. The wealth tax would resemble an annual property tax, but would apply to all forms of wealth. Individuals and/or families worldwide would be obliged to declare their net worth and would be taxed upon it. The top rate might be 5% for assets exceeding $1.4 billion (~ one billion euros).
A well-developed sense of fair play is in our genes and has probably been a part of primate psyches for 50 million years. Decreasing the gap between the more and less fortunate should be non-negotiable. What is negotiable – and where creativity, innovation, and flexibility are essential – is the kind of economic structure we devise. While its details remain for the future to determine, its cardinal principles are based on the past. Whatever ensues must maintain individual ambition and effort while keeping material rewards within acceptable, human-scale limits
Throughout the Paleolithic, the half-million Edenic years during which our mind genes were selected and refined, women and men were economically and politically equal. This contention is based on investigations of recent hunter-gatherers, the best, if imperfect, Stone Ager analogues. Dartmouth’s Karen Endicott has studied gender relations among Congo Mbuti, Philippine Agta, Canadian Chippewa and Botswana !Kung. Her considered generalisation: foragers recognise that men’s and women’s roles are comparably important. Men make the decisions about their work and areas of expertise; women are ‘the deciders’ about theirs. Consequently, the genders were equal, but separate, a condition that worked well then, but which is now ‘incorrect’.
Agriculture changed the equation. The societal effects of farming, animal husbandry and organised warfare together undermined women’s importance and upped that of men. For the subsequent 10,000 years women have been second-class citizens, and sometimes mere property. Nevertheless, despite many centuries of socioeconomic inferiority women have retained their innate sense of equality.
Over the millennia our ancestors lived as Stone Age foragers, women’s economic and maternal functions were complementary, not in conflict. Life then allowed women to be available and effective mothers, while making vital economic contributions. Now there is inherent conflict between the demands of work and the responsibilities of motherhood, and it’s the culture of work, not the nature of mothering, that must change.
A new business model that addresses this issue is achieving recognition. Its aim is to promote easier and better integration of family and work, an improved balance of job with life. Firms pioneering this approach are usually managed by women, and they emphasise flexibility, especially schedule-setting. As political consultant Mary Matalin has said, ‘Having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.’ Operationally, this concept is aided by technology that allows and encourages working from home so that the office is a base of operations, not the mandatory work focus. The key element is a family-friendly, empathetic mindset, reflecting its female management. The attitude gives workers ability to juggle the requirements of their personal lives and their job responsibilities to an extent that is otherwise uncommon at present, but which was the rule for ancestral women. Our mind genes were selected when women made the decisions about their areas of work and expertise. Woman-managed ventures, oriented toward appropriate work-life balance, don’t exactly replicate the Stone Age pattern, but they may be as close as we can come in the present
Earth’s mega-problematic ills have elicited various corrective proposals, but none of these has generated a response even close to that required. However, no one has advocated what George Bernard Shaw termed the most powerful force in human history: a new expression of our innate spirituality. Reorienting this inherent human attribute toward a science-informed synthesis of philosophy, science and religion is worth exploring because a new conviction uniting these potent motivators could provide impetus for the unprecedented actions we must take to reclaim Eden.
A need for spirituality seems hardwired in our genome. We’re not genetically constituted to accept a world lit only by science, and ‘religion’ is piggybacked on the pre-existing condition of ‘spirituality’. Expression of this predisposition has been evident in the archaeological record at least since the emergence of behavioural modernity. However, the manifestations resulting from our drive toward the metaphysical have varied over the millennia.
For the longest segment of humanity’s existence, our fore-parents were nature worshippers. Their lives were spent in a natural setting and their immersion in nature was near total. The result: reverence for and a sense of unity with Nature. The other determining influence on our earliest true human ancestors’ belief system was the small group psychodynamic that informed Stone Age interpersonal relationships. As they interact with and influence each other, contemporary small groups develop a number of relational norms that differentiate them from a random collection of individuals. These include certain behaviours considered desirable and appropriate and others odious and unacceptable. By and large, the pattern of positively and negatively viewed behaviours observed in contemporary small groups is roughly similar worldwide. The forager moral community promotes cooperation, generosity, individual autonomy, reciprocity, humility, and non-violent conflict resolution. It acts to oppose bullying, cheating, selfishness, despotic behaviour, theft, intra-group homicide, and incest. These behavioural norms have been fundamental components of all subsequent religious systems.
Agriculture altered the dynamic. Farmers see themselves as apart from nature, not as an integral component within the natural world. Their view of humans against nature was unprecedented in the prior experience of living creatures on earth. This profound shift in orientation was a key factor underlying the demise of religion as nature worship and its replacement by religion as fertility worship.
Religious historian Karen Armstrong contends that, ‘Whenever they enter a new era of history, people change their ideas of both humanity and divinity.’ The transition from one phase of spiritual expression to its successor is not a total makeover; each succeeding religious genre maintains the core essentials that emerged from our small group psychological background as well as the spirit of mystery and awe that is an outgrowth of our innate need to know. Still, the central thrust of our spirituality accommodates over time to match existing circumstances. Thus, as nature gave way to fertility, so fertility in turn morphed into what may be thought of as allegiance-oriented religion.
Population growth and sedentary living frequently led to inter-group hostility. As the scale and sophistication of violence escalated, more men, weapons, and supplies necessitated an increasingly large and productive base for logistical support. This meant that war leaders needed to enlarge their sovereign holdings in order to improve chances of success. However, welding diverse villages, towns, and rural areas – often with varying cultural, linguistic, and faith traditions (and sometimes of differing ethnicities) – into a cohesive entity required some form of overriding bond. Religion was the answer: common rituals and deities strengthened inter-group bonds, fostered compliance and minimised dissent. Accordingly, the primarily local fertility Goddesses of the Neolithic were gradually replaced by more broadly accepted war Gods.
In the beginning, YHWH was principally a divine warrior fighting Israel’s enemies. However in 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar’s forces sacked Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and deported selected Jews to Babylon. The Captivity marked a transition in Judaism, an altered religious emphasis from allegiance to salvation. Such change was a common phenomenon during the axial age – from 800 to 200 BCE. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Taoism, as well as the flowering of Greek philosophy, all came into being or were substantially modified within this period. For the common people of the world’s nation states, life during the axial age had become nearly unbearable. Crushing taxation, grinding monotonous poverty, political oppression, brutal workloads, epidemic disease, and abominable living conditions were all utterly at odds with their innate mental reference standards of what human existence should be like. For the proletariat, hope of a better life, even after death if necessary, became psychologically indispensable. The need for such a morale booster was the major factor leading to a general shift from allegiance religions to salvation religions, even if the salvation promised required faith in an objectively implausible future, one that by ordinary criteria for decision-making was just too good to be true.
Fundamental social change was the underlying factor that led to the emergence of new (or much revised) religious beliefs during the axial age. This assertion might be generalised: when conditions which had previously fostered and supported one form of spiritual expression become fundamentally altered, a new type of religious belief is likely to emerge. The basal, genetically-programmed psychological imperatives remain in force, but their societal manifestation adapts to a new focus. This brings up a pivotal question. Is life in the 21st century so different from that during the axial age that we would be open to a radical shift in spiritual expression? Anthony Giddens, former Director of the London School of Economics, believes so, ‘Over a period of … no more than three hundred years, the rapidity, drama and reach of change have been incomparably greater than any previous historical transition.’
Scientific advances, unprecedented communications and effective birth control are revolutionary innovations. They make it rational to suggest that a fundamentally new approach –based on spiritual reorientation – be considered. To generate its motivational drive, a new spiritual makeover must centre on equality, environmentalism, societal reintegration and upgrading human potential – not on personal salvation. More rational than metaphysical, the new creed, which might be called Edenism, must be ‘a science-informed synthesis of philosophy and religion.’
‘Informed’ in this sense means ‘consistent with’ or ‘in accord with’. The proposed new conviction must conform to existing scientific understanding.
It must be deeply religious as well, drawing on those psychologically potent features that have made religions so individually relevant and societally consequential throughout human experience. Sacred music, art and architecture, ritual and sacrament, tradition, myth and precept: for acceptance a new conviction must embrace these symbolic elements. They are, and have always been, integral to human fervour and devotion. Somehow they establish connection between the finite and the infinite, creating emotions and dispositions appropriate to appreciating the transcendent.
Finally, it must be rational. Rationality is at the heart of philosophy and Edenism, as a relative of Deism, must establish rational thought as its intellectual, foundation.
Edenic, principles reflect concerns that were of less or no importance in the remote past, but that we now face as megaproblems. Family planning (the single child family), gender equity (women’s rights), cultural amalgamation (linguistic, educational, social), socioeconomic near equality (reduced discrepancy between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’), and environmentalism (especially ecological restoration and species preservation) would become expected behaviours –essentially the moral equivalent of new commandments.
These goals merely represent extension of trends that are currently in progress. What Edenism adds is the psychic catalyst that can unify and energise these processes. It holds up the ultimate promise of a world with breathing space for all life forms, where women and men can equally enjoy the best of contemporary material culture without the insufferable gap that now exists between penthouse and poorhouse, and while promoting ecologic restoration. Edenism is grounded in its resonance with our innate human nature, those genetic constructs dating to the remote past that provide neural reference points, subconscious standards for what life should be now. Unlike faith as construed by contemporary religions, this appreciation of human nature will be increasingly supported, rather than undermined, by ongoing scientific insights. Like earlier religions, it has immense emotional appeal. A sense of kinship with the earliest true humans, a chromosomal link across two thousand generations, excites the spirit and forms an elemental connection. Reverence for ancestors is a human cultural universal. Edenism entails similar respect for and understanding of our duty to posterity. We now have the technological capacity to form a true world community. Edenism may become the spiritual driver, capable of fusing us together, of creating a sense of common purpose, camaraderie, and brotherhood among all the world’s people.
Psalm 96 commands ‘Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the lord, all the earth.’ Edenism’s new/old doctrine can be that song.
Many of us recall John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’:
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Sharing all the world
A brotherhood of man
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
All of us, like John Lennon, hope for a world of peace and brotherhood in the far future, and almost everyone appreciates that reaching a distant tomorrow will involve altering how we think and behave. However, it’s not enough to merely ‘imagine’ an Earth manifesting idealistic goals. Our duty, to ourselves and to far-distant generations, is to tease out an enlightened scenario for progress, not only for Earth’s humans, but also for our uncountable planetary co-inhabitants.
In his New Yorker (September 12, 2011) article concerning theories of history, Adam Gopnik contended that, ‘The long look back is part of the long ride home.’ His conclusion: ‘We all believe in yesterday.’ Edenism’s intent is to build on that inherent belief, embedded in the genetic matrix of our minds. Fully appreciating that ancient yesterday can help us create a mind-set that will ultimately make possible the future imagined by John Lennon and all of us: a reclaimed Eden.
Images from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Would you rather have rivers, or rivers of cars?’
Stanley Boyd Eaton was educated at Duke University and Harvard Medical School, was professor in Emory University’s radiology and anthropology departments, and was medical director of Atlanta’s Olympic Village Polyclinic in 1996. Widely regarded as the father of evolutionary health promotion (e.g. the Paleo Diet), he’s now focused on an evolutionary approach to Earth’s megaproblems – from climate change to socioeconomic inequality.
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