18 December 2015
Could a change in perspective, solidified by large works of science and engineering, creatively re-direct humanity toward a peaceful co-existence with our planet and ourselves, via creatively commandeering our evolutionarily-engrained psychological tendencies?
Today’s piece admittedly reflects a bit of the dreamer in me. I have taken a few ideas that have been floating around my head for a while and organized them into this essay that I would like to share, dear reader. I usually don’t try to condense this level of abstraction to words, but I figure there is no harm in trying. Today I ask the question: from a strictly non-utilitarian perspective (i.e. not making new things for the sake of making new things) could the large-scale cultural practice of science ignite the best angels of humanity’s nature?
I’d like to start off with the psychological concept of in-group vs. outgroup (wording from wikipedia):
In sociology and social psychology, an ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify. For example, people may find it psychologically meaningful to view themselves according to their race, culture, gender, age, or religion. It has been found that the psychological membership of social groups and categories is associated with a wide variety of phenomena.
It has been eloquently proposed elsewhere that this psychological phenomenon might be at the core of human cooperation. The evolution of the capacity for empathy has fostered cooperation in a way that few animals have, humans have cooperatively birthed civilization, becoming a dominant species on Earth. It was “us” against “nature” or “us” against megafauna or “us” against the rest of the world. Humans are very good at working as teams when the opposition is implicitly or explicitly defined. Unfortunately, this also expands into “us” against “other group of humans” as well, as recently expanded upon by Adam Piore in Nautilus Magazine:
This takes on real-world consequences when you consider the lasting legacy of competition and warfare between Serbs and Croats, for instance, or Sunni and Shia in the Middle East. Or Tutsi and Hutus in Rwanda. Solidarity with an ingroup and hatred of an outgroup, molded by history, culture, and perceptions rooted in subconscious forces, can explain the horrific actions of terrorists.
While terrorism is outside the scope of this essay, a topic of late that has firmly caught my attention is the perception and concept of a joint human identity. Short of contact with some extra-terrestrial competition to unite us against a common “other”, what sort of joint identity mantle could Earthlings assume to ignite the better angles of our in-group psychological tendencies for the betterment of all humans? If we were able to look beyond our cities, countries, and continents, collectively “zoom out” and adopt a more cosmic perspective, we might collectively be able to appreciate how small humanity, Earth, and out solar system neighborhood is compared to the scope of what is out there. We (humanity) might realize that there is a lot of “other” out there, and solidify a joint human identity by contrast.
While I propose that this perspective would be a very healthy mantle for humanity to adopt, most individual humans learn best not by pondering, but by doing. Is there some activity or challenge that we (humanity) can collectively take on as a vehicle to galvanize our psychological tendencies for cooperation?
On a smaller scale, I wrote briefly about the possibility of biotechnology as the auto shop of the 21st century, where I referenced a talk by Neil Degrasse Tyson:
Meanwhile, however, that entire era galvanized the nation. Forget the war driver, it galvanized us all to dream about tomorrow. To think about the homes of tomorrow. The cities of tomorrow. The food of tomorrow. Everything was future world – future land.
Throughout his talk, Dr. Tyson paints a portrait of a united humanity working toward a common goal. In this instance, it was the NASA Space Program of the 1960s. The scientific and engineering advances are an undeniable tangible benefit. However, Tyson argues that while significant, the greatest value is the cultural practice of progress, of building a better world for tomorrow. It is a tantalizing dream to galvanize our nation, if not humanity, under a common banner of progress: scientific, humanitarian, philosophical. I find this to be a curiously optimistic mindset, with a rough framework for action.
A question I am left to ponder is how the well-studied ingroup vs. outgroup psychological phenomena could be craftily re-directed for the betterment of humanity as a whole? Could we somehow ignite humanity under not a common flag, but a common goal? A mission to Mars? The building of a space elevator? The vision of harmonious co-existence of Earth and humans? If we (humanity) do need an “other” to define ourselves by contrast, could it be the cosmos as our wilderness? To get to that contrast, could we adjust our perspective? And to reinforce that contrast and perspective, could we use large works of science and engineering to do it?
Expanding every human’s ingroup to encompass all humans would be very powerful. Imagine if we did not identify as “Californians” or “Americans” or “Jews” or “Christians”, but instead as “Humans” or “Earthlings.” We would expand our spheres of empathy, be not merely tolerant, but accepting of our differences, in part because the differences seem trite by contrast. We might even strive to harmonious co-existence with our planet, and our collective human family, galvanized by the cultural practice of large-scale science and engineering to reach common goals that concurrently re-directs our psychological tendencies toward mass human identity.
…and with that, I’ll get off my soapbox and go crunch some organic granola. If you have made it this far, dear reader, I would like to thank you for dropping by!
p.s. recommended further reading by Neil Degrasse Tyson: http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2012/03/07/past-present-and-future-of-nasa-us-senate-testimony