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  • Writer's pictureDavid Williams

The 2024 States of Disunion Address, by David Williams

From the cosmos, our little planet, a blue dot, shining like an extraordinary organism alive in the black immensity of space, is miraculous.  Compared to the sea of asteroids, and all the boiling, churning, sulfurous planets and moons continually erupting with noxious gasses, we are the single paradise.  The enchanting motion of white clouds over blue oceans, with patches of brown sprouting, and then the infinite shades of green (which signal life) are sublime. We know of no other spot in the universe like this, no other place from which living things emerged from liquid water, where life erupted into an unimaginable explosion of species.  Truly, a strange and wondrous place.  It appears to be the one peaceful place in the universe.  Edenic.  But zoom in a little closer, and you will see that nature is not some pastoral Mecca after all, but rather a host of environments where plants and animals continually struggle to live and pass on their genes.  Not that nature is perpetually “red in tooth and in claw,” as it was once seen by the Western world, but certainly it is a place where small and large dramas are continually played out between the eaten and the fed.  Darwin saw that some of the greatest contests for survival occur within a species in the quest for dominance, which for males means greater access to fertile females, while for females it is the power to choose (for females are the deciding force when it comes to which males win or lose at the dating game, which Darwin termed Sexual Selection). Infighting is the norm.  


Our species, arising from a long and tangled line of hominins and hominids--ape-like ancestors (and actual apes and monkeys) in our primate lineage, is fairly in line with others of our ilk.  Males are driven by quests for dominance, as are a very few females. We tangle with one another on a daily basis but also form alliances, make friends, sometimes work together (as in hunting and gathering and tool making), and we share food. And in the quest for dominance we often see those outside our troop as enemies and engage in brutal and deadly warfare.  In these respects, we and chimpanzees are nearly identical.  On top of these traits, of course, we humans developed language, stories, writing, amazing robust cultures, mathematics, astronomy, religions, and a sophisticated tool set that is staggering, from jet airplanes to AI.  But our greater accomplishments hardly make it to the front page of the NY Times, where we see our world portrayed as the constant battle of one group attempting to have power over another.  One ideological cult desires to crush the Other, one country wants to devour another, one group of people wants to wipe “the damned infidels” off the face of the earth.  Tribalism.   As humans, we naturally divide ourselves into categories, groups, in-crowds and out-crowds, even though our genetic makeup is nearly identical.  The first task of all brains for animals is to map the environment, to figure out where the body is and keep it safe, to know the terrain, to be aware of the good direction or the bad.  Which way will keep you from being eaten and which way will make you full.  Categorization and stereotypes are part of this process of mapping the world.  We rank and file, grade, evaluate, and put other people in their place.  Visitors from other worlds, coming to the “peaceful blue planet,” would be horrified once they got close enough to witness how this thinking leads to every imaginable inequity, and the carnage that ensues from such a flawed process of judgement.  No doubt, they’d also be appalled at how the top animal (homo sapiens) treats the environment (they depend upon to survive) as nothing more than a waste disposal system, even though nothing can truly be thrown away on the blue globe, which becomes acutely apparent from space. 


Yeah, we humans have made a mess of things, having taken over the world, robbing it from all the other species, putting most of them on the critically endangered list with only 10 or 20 years left before they go extinct.  And after hundreds of thousands of years on this planet, we still can’t get over our disposition to hate someone else, so that even if we blow up ourselves in the process, that seems preferable to allowing the Other to exist.  Politics.  Nationalism.  Patriotism.  Flag waving.  Our allegiances are not to the human race, or to the earth, but to our tiny tribes.  Only an enemy threat from outer space would seem a strong enough force to make us band together, some inevitable global catastrophe that would require us working harmoniously to protect ourselves, our home, our precious planet, from invasion.  Right?  Hmmmm.  Doesn’t Climate Change fit that scenario?  Glacial ice melting worldwide.  Whole chunks of Antarctica, the size of cities and counties, sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels.  Islands being eaten up by sea water.  Coastlines flooded.  Super hurricanes and tornadoes.  Wildfires that threaten whole continents.  Rainforests, the lungs of the earth eliminated.  The impeding extinction of most of the living world, both plants and animals, what National Geographic calls the 6th Great Extinction.


Well, we didn’t really evolve to take on things like Climate Change, did we?  Fighting off a saber-toothed tiger with our little band of brothers is one thing, but galvanizing whole countries of people to tackle a threat that creeps in, that doesn’t walk on two legs or four, seems exotic, questionable, unimaginable to us.  We need something we can throw rocks at, or spears.  Something we can chase and kill so that we can roast it over a fire.  And when our enemies are other human beings, we have a pretty good idea what the enemy is like and how to lick ‘em.  We just inundate them with bombs.  But we can’t drop bombs on Climate Change and do a body count to put on the evening news.  Climate is just too abstract and bothersome.  So best deny it.  Besides, it’s not mentioned in any of our bibles. Not prophesized about.  And it’s way too scientific.  And what does science know, after all?  Einstein won’t get you into heaven. 


We pride ourselves on our ingenuity, our ability to “think through things logically,” but the evidence from neuroscience shows how seldom we rely on the executive part of the brain that makes rational decisions based on evidence.  Science is still strange to us, odd and unnatural. For hundreds of thousands of years we humans accepted stories/myths that people in the tribe made up out of whole cloth to tell us the truth about the world.  Science showed up only about 400 years ago and threw everything off its rocker.  But stories feel a lot better than facts.  Facts just clutter things up.  Best go with your gut. 


And so we have gone with our guts.  And by doing so we have invited Chaos into our world, invited it to sit at our table, indoctrinate our children, break bread with us, creating an environment where nothing has to be verified, where anything can be true, where laws don’t matter, and where it’s every man or woman for themself.  And so, the daily headlines spin out the stories we create--the horrific war in Ukraine started by a modern day Hitler; an ever-widening vortex of violence in the Middle East; a madman tv celebrity con-artist running for another term in office where he can create sheer havoc once again; millions of QAnon and Election Deniers running loose like chickens with their heads cut off telling us the sky is falling, while in Florida they burn books, and in Texas they lace barbed-wire through the Rio Grande river so that desperate migrants might be sliced to shreds.  Throughout the land people shake in fear that the boogeymen are coming to get them.  They have dark skin, and they’re “vermin,”  as Trump calls them; and so the faithful pray to Jesus on one hand and pray to their earthly savior, on the other, Mr. Trump, who would likely tell Jesus Christ (as he did to John McCain— about being a captured soldier in Vietnam) “Hey man, I like the guys who don’t get crucified!” 


We human beings have it within our nature to be Nazis or Saints.  But to get to the latter will require tapping down our worst impulses, our knee-jerk hatreds, our stereotypes, our tribalism, our viscousness, and elevating (as Abraham Lincoln said) “the better angels of our nature.”  Instead of eliminating emotion (which would mean getting rid of most of our brain), we need to channel our emotions and feelings toward less selfish ends, to really see ourselves from outer space, to see how we are all interconnected, that we are all part of this place that we belong to, the one from which we and everything else was born.   


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