“When you meet opposition, even if it comes from your husband or your children, try to overcome it by reason and not by authority, because a victory that depends on authority is unreal and illusory.” Bertrand Russell
Text by the philosopher, mathematician and Nobel Prize winner for literature, Bertrand Russell, published in his book “Has Man a Future?
Little by little, this advantage was increased, and the man ceased to be a fugitive hunter to become the Lord of the Earth. The first stages of this process belong to prehistory, and its sequence can only be conjectured. He learned to control fire, which had posed similar dangers—although on a much smaller scale—to those offered in our time by the release of nuclear energy. The fire not only served to improve his food, but also, lit at the entrance to his cave, allowed him to sleep without the risk of being attacked. He invented spears, bows and arrows. He dug traps where furious mammoths struggled uselessly. He domesticated animals and, at the dawn of history, discovered the advantages of agriculture.
However, the most important of all his conquests, his greatest acquisition, was language. We must assume that spoken language developed very slowly from purely animal cries. Written language, which was not at first a representation of the word, was invented through the gradual stylization of images of reality. The immense merit of language consisted in enabling the transmission of experience and, with it, everything that one generation had learned could be passed on to the next. Education was able to largely replace personal experience. The writing, even more than the word, allowed to store the knowledge and supply the memory through registers. Human progress was due above all to this possibility of preserving the discoveries of individuals. During a certain time there were biological improvements in cranial capacity, accompanied by a development of genetic capacity.
But that stage ended about 500,000 years ago, and since then, innate intelligence has increased little or not at all, and man’s progress has been based on skills passed down through tradition and education. These foundations were laid in prehistoric times, probably without deliberate purpose, but once established they made possible ever-faster progress in knowledge and skill. The progress made during the last five centuries has been greater than that of all other periods of recorded history. One of the difficulties of our time is that habits of mind cannot change as fast as techniques; therefore, as skill increases, wisdom weakens.
The long millennia during which human survival was far from assured, endowed man with a series of very useful techniques and instincts and habits shaped by the struggles he had to undertake. The dangers he had to face were not yet human: famine, floods, volcanic eruptions. The book of Genesis recounts what could initially be done against widespread famine. Two methods were tried against floods: the Chinese, from the dawn of their history, built dams along the Yellow River, while in Western Asia, as seen in the story of Noah, men thought that the best protection it was a virtuous life. They thought the same about the eruptions, and the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is the literary expression of such ideas. The disturbing antagonism between the two types of theory—the Chinese and the West Asian—has endured to the present day, but with a gradual predominance of the Chinese point of view. However, fairly recent discoveries have shown that a virtuous life (if not in the traditional sense) is as necessary to survival as dikes.
When man overcame the dangers of the non-human environment, he arrived in his new world endowed with the instinctive and emotional structure that had enabled him to survive during the preceding ages. He had needed a high degree of tenacity and a passionate resolve to survive as long as possible. He had needed to be extremely cautious, vigilant, fearful, and, at critical moments, fearless in the face of danger. What would he do with all this complex of habits and passions, once the risks of the past had been overcome? Unfortunately, the solution he found was not a very happy one. He directed the hostility and mistrust, which he had hitherto directed against lions and tigers, toward members of his own species, but not toward all, because many of the techniques that had allowed him to survive required social cooperation, but only against those who were not part of their cooperative unit. Thus, for many centuries, through tribal cohesion and systematic warfare, he was able to reconcile the need for social cooperation with the instinctive ferocity and mistrust that past struggles had engendered in him. From the dawn of history to the present day, the capacity developed by intelligence has not ceased to transform the environment, while, in general, instinct and emotion have preserved the form they received in times when man had to face with a wilder and more primitive world.
As a consequence of the new orientation imposed on fear and mistrust—directed no longer against the non-human world but against rival human groups—gregariousness reached a new stage of development. Man is not as social an animal as the ant or the bee, who seem never to feel compelled to act antisocially. Not infrequently men have killed their kings; instead, bees do not kill their queens. If a strange ant accidentally enters an anthill that is not its own, it is immediately killed, with no ‘peaceful’ protests ever taking place. There are no dissident minorities, and social cohesion invariably determines the behavior of each of the individuals.
In the case of human beings this does not happen. It is probable that the social group of primitive man was not larger than the family. Presumably the threat of other human beings caused the family to expand into the tribe, whose members had, or were supposed to have, a common ancestor. As a result of the wars, unions of tribes were created and, later, nations, empires and alliances. Often the necessary social cohesion was broken, but this brought defeat. Thus, partly through natural selection and partly through understanding what was good for them, men developed the ability to cooperate in larger and larger groups and demonstrated a gregariousness that their ancestors had lacked.
The world we live in is the result of some 6,000 years of systematic warfare. In general, defeated peoples were exterminated or almost completely destroyed. Success in war depended on several factors; the most important were numerical superiority, the highest degree of technical development and social cohesion, and warlike ardor. From a purely biological point of view, we can consider positive any factor capable of increasing the number of human beings that can live in a certain region, and from this rather limited point of view, many wars must be considered successful. There is no doubt that the Romans greatly increased the population of much of the Western Empire. Columbus and his successors managed to support the western hemisphere with a number of settlers many times greater than that of the pre-Columbian Indians. In China and India, the vast populations were only made possible by the existence of central governments, established after long periods of war. But this has by no means been the constant result of wars.
The Mongols caused irreparable damage in Persia, and the Turks did the same in the empire of the caliphs. The ruins of North Africa, in regions that are now deserts, are an eloquent testimony to the damage caused by the fall of Rome. It is estimated that the Tai-ping Rebellion caused more deaths than the First World War. In all these cases, the victory went to the less civilized party; however, despite these examples to the contrary, it is likely that, on average, past wars have done more to increase than reduce the number of human beings on our planet.
However, the biological point of view is not the only possible one. From a purely numerical point of view, ants have been many hundreds of times luckier than men. In Australia I have known vast regions where not a single man lives, but which are populated by innumerable hordes of termites, although we are not to consider the termites superior to ourselves. The merits of man are not limited to those that have allowed him to become the most numerous of the large mammals. These other merits, which are distinctively human, can be described, in a generic way, as cultural. They are not characteristic of individuals but of societies, and are related to aspects that have nothing to do with social cohesion and the ability to succeed in war.
The division of mankind into warring and often hostile nations has had a disastrously distorting influence on what each nation deems worthy of honor. In Britain, prominent public monuments celebrate the memory of Nelson and Wellington, whom we Britons honor for their ability to kill foreigners.
Oddly enough, foreigners do not feel the same admiration as we do for these Britons who showed such ingenuity. If you ask any educated non-British what he considers to be Britain’s greatest glories, he is much more likely to cite Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin than Nelson and Wellington. Perhaps the killing of foreigners has sometimes been necessary in the interest of the human race in general, but when it has been justified it has been a kind of police work, and often only the expression of national arrogance and rapacity. It is not because of their talent for murder that the human race is worthy of respect. When, as the Egyptian Book of the Dead says, perhaps the last man stands before the Judge of the Otherworld and claims that the extinction of his species is a regrettable fact, what kind of arguments will he be able to adduce? I wish he could say that human life has been, on the whole, happy. However, until now, or at any rate since the invention of agriculture, social inequality, and systematic warfare, the human race has, for the most part, lived a life of hardship, overwork, and occasionally of tragic disasters. Perhaps in the future it will no longer be so, because now a pinch of wisdom would suffice to make all human life joyful, but who can say when that pinch will come? Meanwhile, what our last man will be able to plead for the blessing of Osiris bears little resemblance to a story of general happiness.
Were I the one who pleaded with Osiris for the survival of the human race, I would say the following: “O fair and inexorable judge! The accusation against my kind is more than deserved, especially today. But we are not all guilty, and there are few of us whose potentialities are not better than those that our circumstances have allowed us to develop.
Do not forget that we have emerged very recently from the muddy soil fertilized by the old ignorance and the continuous struggle for existence. Most of what we know we have discovered in the last twelve generations. Intoxicated by our newfound power over nature, many of us have mistakenly set out for power over other human beings. It is about a will-o’-the-wisp that tries to seduce us so that we return to the swamp from which we have partly come out. But this senseless deviation has not absorbed all our energies. What we have come to know about the world we live in, about nebulae and atoms, about the big and the small, is far more than would have seemed possible before our time. No doubt you will reply that such knowledge is only good in the hands of those who have enough wisdom to put it to good use. But that wisdom also exists, although still in a sporadic form and devoid of the necessary power to control events. The sages and prophets have warned of the folly of war; if we listened to what they tell us, we would reach a new state of happiness.
“Those great men haven’t just shown us what to avoid. They have also shown us that man has the potential to create a world of resplendent beauty and everlasting glory. There are the poets, the composers, the painters, the men who have known how to reveal their inner vision in buildings of majestic splendor. That imaginary country can be ours.