Rescuing civilization: Does the conservative/progressive rift pose an existential threat to humanity?

October 27, 2020

Yes.  A threat to civilization seems quite likely at this point and human extinction could even be in the cards.  Renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan once suggested that our galaxy was teeming with planets, like Earth, capable of evolving advanced technological civilizations.  To date, none have been detected.  Reasons posited for this failure, from least to most likely, included:  1) no such other civilizations developed in the first place, or 2) we aren’t as good at detecting them as we once  imagined, or 3) once those civilizations developed to the point they had the means to destroy themselves, they quickly and invariably did.

For 50 years I have tried to make adaptive sense of the rancorous bipolarity in the human species between conservatives and progressives.  As an evolutionary human ecologist, conservatism makes little adaptive sense, certainly not in a fast-changing world.  I regard it as regressivism.  Yet, in virtually every large population free to openly express their political preferences, about half choose a conservative orientation and half favor a more progressive one.

From an evolutionary perspective, the inclination to be conservative or progressive appears randomly distributed, even within a family where one sibling will be progressive and the next conservative.  Equally confounding, within each person both tendencies exist.  Everybody has individualistic instincts serving the interests of me and mine, as well as communitarian instincts serving us and ours.  Nature apparently hasn’t seen fit to separate the two tendencies despite obvious potential for rancor and/or conflicting personal choices.  Some political genius, however, decided it was a good idea to set us at each other’s throats.  The two major political parties have separated us into opposing camps, demonizing the other, and uncompromisingly opposing any political position the other side takes, not the most enlightened social arrangement in human history.  Extending this pastime from mere annoyance to open warfare, the most regressive U.S. administration in living memory is now spitefully dismantling the most important progressive advances of the past 120 years.

Since nature didn’t distance us, we do it ourselves.  We don’t try to understand each other’s thinking, we watch different television channels, we  socially isolate when possible, we dress in ways proudly identifiable as “red neck” or “tree hugger,” “academic” or “suit,” and we respond very differently to science, expert public health recommendations, conspiracy theories, and news from social media.  We are even becoming reproductively isolated, somewhat akin to when Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived in contact with one another for thousands of years, but rarely interbred.  Eventually the Neanderthals, clinging to their old ways, died out on their own or were eliminated by their neighbors.

I have finally sorted this all out in a way that makes evolutionary sense.  Social behaviors are not so much genetically instinctive as driven by learned cultural values ostensibly benefitting those important to us.  Progressive values make perfect adaptive sense for the advancement of the human species and for civilization as a whole.  Conservatism focuses its benefits primarily on self and a limited, select group of like-minded, religious, racial, or socio-economic cohorts.  Given its innate distaste for innovation and its preference for ungoverned freedom, conservatism is counter-productive from the perspective of a social civilization, a regressive artifact of an earlier, billions-of-years-longer, more individualistic evolutionary stage.

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From an evolutionary perspective, humans are a social species, a species that lives and functions most effectively, obligately, in communities, each individual with special interests and abilities, but coordinated by leadership and shared values in cooperative endeavors that benefit the community while still accommodating enough self-interest to make it personally satisfying.  Our first responsibility is to our communities.  Those communities, in turn, provide for our needs, individually and collectively.

But social species are the new kids on the evolutionary block, and we’re still struggling to get the social thing right.  Individualistic, selfish instincts dominated life for most of its first four billion years.  They remain deeply ingrained still.  Communitarian values only began to creep into the human repertoire sometime after sexual reproduction evolved.  They were well established by the time both parents were required to cooperate as a family to rear their young to independence.  Over time, extending that cooperation, groups of families took advantage of living together in small social bands where they could share, care, and cooperate in food gathering and preparation, childcare, and mutual defense.

Progressive social values and behaviors have proven particularly adaptive in allowing us to experiment with new ways of progressing as a species.  Cooperating as a group afforded people the comfort and protection to feel safe experimenting, for example, with new hunting areas, new prey, new technologies, and new ways to resolve the inevitable challenges of living amicably as a community.  As we became more socially evolved, and as genetic and cultural predispositions toward communitarian values increased relative to primitive individualistic instincts, the willingness to experiment became more entrenched.  Progressives are dependably more comfortable with experimentation, novelty, uncertainty, and risk-taking than are conservatives.  Experimentation is the primary engine of social progress and adaptation to change, absolutely essential in today’s world.

Over the last 200,000 years, our communities and social alliances have grown progressively larger and more complex.  That trend has accelerated dramatically this past century, increasing the need to become even more socially adept under more challenging circumstances.  These recent challenges include one never before encountered, an entirely novel evolutionary bottleneck.  Reprising Carl Sagan’s concern, this one has the potential to end human history.

We managed to stumble and fumble our way until 50 years ago when the world was about as crowded with humans as it was reasonable to be.  At that point, the global climate, its farmland and soils, its water resources, its minerals, its wildlife, its forests, its oceans, were fully subscribed and starting to be seriously compromised and depleted.  The unprecedented size of our population had turned those individually essential natural resources into global common resources which had to be managed for equitable long-term sharing by all, lest those myriad people stuck with the short end of the stick, with little to lose, resort to violence to get their share.  The COVID pandemic is an unsubtle reminder that we don’t know if we have surpassed a survivable global population density, but that’s another problem for another discussion.

If we don’t quickly learn to simultaneously share and husband the world’s common resources while, just as challenging, learning to cooperate in ending world human population growth, we will end up competing to the death for resources that are essentially exhausted.  Nobody will survive.  We will embody Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Simultaneously husbanding and equitably sharing multiple global common resources is the ultimate social challenge to humanity’s survival.  Today specifically, that means navigating the impending perfect storm of simultaneous climate change, soil destruction, and fossil fuel depletion.  Given the recent rancorous contention between conservatives and progressives over climate change alone, our social skills are apparently not up to managing multiple global commons.  We could easily end up destroying any one of them in our social ineptitude – or our stubborn selfishness – and one is all it will take to end us.

If ever there were a time for more progressive, more experimental public policy it is now.  We don’t have time to wait for the gradual genetic dilution of regressive conservative instincts.  We must make rapid, difficult, counter-instinctual behavioral changes now.

Progressives must lead through open-handed co-option.  If progressives don’t build bridges of trust and mutual respect to the conservative grass-roots of the world, relying on our many still-shared values to convince them of the need for dramatically greater social cooperation, any joint public policy effort will fail.  This dilemma calls for the most creative diplomatic effort in human history, a concerted campaign to negotiate our mutual survival, progressive and conservative grass-roots alike working in harmony, forcing our leaders to follow our lead, the only rational approach to this novel evolutionary bottleneck.

What that negotiation or its resolution will look like is anybody’s guess, but if we don’t make the effort, and soon, we surely will fail.  We already are failing.  As things stand, the toxic progressive-conservative schism is the most glaring, counter-productive failure in human social evolutionary history.  Given our unprecedented numbers, it is destroying both our environment and our democratic institutions, rendering our species increasingly ungovernable and, in due course, potentially extinct.   We must learn a new way of living together.

It’s time for a radically new, currently unimagined level of caring, sharing, and cooperating – a global, colorblind just and equitable caring, sharing, and cooperating.  Only progressivism’s unequivocal commitment to a radically equitable, peaceful, and just sharing of the world’s common resources will convince the world’s conservatives to be part of any such negotiation.  I think it’s fair to say that, on the whole, women have more of the needed social skills than men.  I suggest that progressive women should take the lead in a civilization-rescuing global social revolution, starting with building an essential bridge of trust and mutual respect between progressive and conservative grass-roots everywhere in the world, in hopes of surviving this evolutionary bottleneck.  With luck, America’s congressional elections of 2018 and the upcoming presidential election of 2020 will prove harbingers of a more progressive, more social, perhaps even more matriarchal, future for civilization.  Given the misogyny of the current administration, that would be a delicious irony.  Delightfully encouraging, to my mind.


Teaser photo credit: By Alborzagros – File:Nations Gate palace (kakh-e-darvaz-e-keshvarha) in Persepolis.tif (edited version), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45347465

Donovan C. Wilkin

Donavan C. Wilkin is Associate Professor Emeritus, Natural Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson. He is now retired in Illinois.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization, human evolution, the commons