To a great extent Americans, and to a lesser extent the rest of humanity, need to make adjustments in its current path of social evolution as the current path seems destined for more pain and suffering for the majority.
Humans are monogamous social beings with the social structure based on the family with the parents committed to a life together, that could include children, surrounded by a local community. This simple structure existed many thousands of years ago. Our closest genetic relatives have different social structures: the chimpanzee has a social group based on a dominant male with order maintained by submission to a pecking order, sometimes involving violence, so the alpha male can have offspring by multiple females; the bonobo has a social group based on a dominant female where conflicts are not resolved by violence but by friendly physical contact and where offspring will have an unknown father.
The human social structure allows for labor specialization, so in hunting & gathering communities different roles can be assigned based on proficiency. As farming evolved with raising crops or managing domesticated animals, larger communities could be supported by the larger food supply.
As humans grew in population to cover the globe, two opposing tendencies in groupishness (a term from The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt) can be observed. As humans encountered other communities in migration some tolerance for others must have occurred, to allow integration of new members and furthering diversification of skills in those communities. Some violence must have also occurred, as some communities were concerned with their own well being so opposing groups would be repelled. Some people tend to emphasize loyalty and conformance to their own views or group while other people are more tolerant of other views and of new members. These two tendencies can be seen in many social situations - conformance vs tolerance - in the past and now. The book Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating story of how waves of different cultures swept over the globe in the past 10000+ years, with the competition between the oldest groups at first, but more recently the original indigenous peoples being either integrated or eliminated.
As humans became more intelligent, two opposing religious tendencies can also be observed. Some people are less able to handle natural chaos so they will assume unexpected events were influenced by the unseen hand of one or more supernatural gods. This tendency leads to the person attempting to persuade those gods to influence events to the benefit of this person. This persuasion uses verbal pleading (in some religions caused prayer) or even sacrifices of something, like food or people (see Mayans sacrifices, Cain and Abel ?, Abraham and Isaac). The opposing tendency is the acceptance of the natural cycles and their chaotic events; this tendency can lead to a person's recognition that the person is an integral part of nature (see Buddhist enlightenment).
The tendency toward supernatural gods has evolved over many generations with some of the oldest primitive cultures having multiple gods while the present Judeo-Christian religions settled on either a single god or a trinity of three gods, although some Christians suggest past important people became saints after their death and these saints might respond to prayers, essentially rising to the level of additional gods who can influence natural events.
As populations grew in size and extent, a larger social structure arose with a collection of communities. In the Far East, these larger networks initially remained rather autonomous (see many states in India and China). In the Middle East, these larger networks became integrated either voluntarily (Egypt, Persia) or through military conquest (Greece and Rome) to encompass a much larger area, the creation of the nation state. The history of the Roman Empire includes the invasion of other groups and cultures, with the group often trying to defend themselves only to fall to the Roman superior military might, and the reverse invasion of other large groups (like the Hunns, the Mongols, the Visigoths) as different large groups competed for dominance over the much larger area. Even through this process, more local cultures attempted to maintain their own traditions so as the larger empire withered for various reasons, the previously autonomous cultures could become independent again. The many native American tribes had a similar history (before the Europeans invaded the Western hemisphere) with certain tribes being more militant and violent toward other tribes while other collections of tribes were more cooperative. These interactions of cooperative communities vs competitive/militant communities persisted over many generations, even to this day.
With the invention of the printing press, human knowledge could take a leap with the management of previously learned events and processes enabling their distribution and new conclusions to be drawn independent of those who had previously held control. With the development of better urban practices such as the management of human waste and the provision of fresh water, communities could grow into much larger cities. With the recent development (only about 100 years ago) of public power utilities, human comfort and health improved substantially leading to a higher life expectancy and so even greater population growth. For the local populations, entrepreneurs would address the needs of the communities by starting a business that could either create the desired goods or provide the necessary services. As populations grew, some of these businesses came to employ many workers to produce more efficiently the larger quantities required. With transportation systems, a drought in one area affecting crops could be overcome by importing crops from another area, enabling humanity to become less afflicted by such events as long as the food supply is humanely managed.
With this tremendous growth in populations, serious problems arose to be solved by the social structure. Some of these problems persist to the present day.
As the Industrial Revolution evolved with further automation and larger businesses, those businesses came to abuse their workers with unsafe working conditions and very long working hours, and even included the use of very young workers. It took very large public demonstrations in the 19th Century, with many voicing their displeasure with these practices, for the 8-hour work day to be established and for child labor to be banned. To a great extent, the American Civil War was the result of many opposing the Southern use of slaves (people treated as objects to be bought/sold with the only attention to their well being just tied to managing that investment, rather than based appropriately in respect for another human being) with the conclusion of the Civil War including the banning of that practice of slavery.
The 19th Century had other large public demonstrations, to support labor unions. As businesses took advantage of their workers by paying them inadequate wages for their labor, unions formed to force the business managers to pay their workers a fair wage. The relative number of workers in unions grew to the middle of the 20th Century but have been declining since.
The late 19th Century included the recognition of women as social equals of men, rather than as under their domination in the family unit, so these public demonstrations in the late 1900's lead to women being allowed to vote in 1920 (check?).
The 1920's brought the intrusion of morality into government with the prohibition of alcohol. While of course an overindulgence in alcohol can lead to misbehavior in some, others like social consumption such as before dinner. The inappropriate prohibition lead to criminal elements seeking to meet the demand. Eventually the prohibition was repealed because people's behaviors cannot be practically controlled by legislation, especially in what is truly a victimless crime in most cases; reasonable social consumption in the privacy of one's home has no consequences to the rest of society.
With the Great Depression in the 1930's, many recognized the elderly were being neglected so the widespread popularity of such addressing the situation resulted in the creation of such programs as Social Security (a program where wage earners contribute a percentage of their wages to a fund that is drawn upon to make payments to retirees having insufficient other funds to draw on themselves) and Medicare (a program where wage earners contribute a percentage of their wages, matched by their employer, to a fund that is drawn upon to provide lower cost medical care for retirees, who would have no alternative of an employer funded health insurance).
With the notoriety of various environmental catastrophes like the dense unhealthy smog of Los Angeles, the burning river in Cleveland, Ohio, and unhealthy levels of various various toxic chemicals in the environment (lead in house paint and gasoline, acid rain in upper New England, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, etc.) environmental protection programs were instituted, especially in the 1970s with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. These initiatives have resulted in better air quality in most major American cities and better water quality in most major American rivers and lakes.
Many of these changes in our social conventions (like how to treat employees or the environment) are apparently being reversed recently. Those changes have arisen to some extent due to changes in the political climate, regarding what the government should be or should not be doing for its citizens.
As populations and governments grew in size, the accountability of those in government and in corporations correspondingly dwindled. Funding by the rich and/or large corporations influences government actions to help those rather than the majority of citizens. As the rich can pay for their access to health care and to private education, they seek tax reductions for themselves so they pay less toward the civic infrastructure (health care, education, police and fire protection, water and power, roads, etc.) than the rest. This policy of 'starving the beast' is causing governments to becoming financially insecure and becoming unable to meet the needs of those not wealthy enough to be completely independent from society.
Unions arose to prevent companies from requiring excessive work hours in unsafe conditions and to influence pay scales to be more equitable (so those at the bottom were not paid substantially less than those at the top). Corporations have government backing (like Reagan and the air traffic controllers) to continue preventing new unions to form and making it difficult for current unions to grow. As union membership has dropped, average wages have been declining and average hours worked for a full time worker have increased, while the numbers of part time workers (who have fewer benefits) have grown.
Political campaigns are based on the trickle down economics, where the rich managing large corporations will increase their wages in benefits to their employees, but instead the rich are moving their wealth to offshore accounts effectively draining the American economy. The wealthy top of our society now controls the government and so the government is no longer acting for the benefit of society. There are annual attempts to reduce or eliminate social security and medicare, to return to the time when many elderly had insufficient income and minimal access to health care.
The intrusion of religion into politics also has consequences. Religious leaders have attempted to keep birth control out of the hands of third world poor, preventing those from managing their own lives. Pro-life groups continue to seek ways to prevent expectant mothers from deciding whether or not they will carry a fetus to term, a decision that should be made by the mother and her family not by religious groups or their allies in government. There is a small percentage of people who are not heterosexual and a fair percentage of those wish to be legally married but again religious leaders (and political leaders seeking their favor) continue preach intolerance for the minority orientation by preventing same sex marriage.
The war on drugs, an attempt to supposedly prevent the misuse of various drugs, has consequences just like the prohibition of alcohol where the criminal elements get rich while casual users or the bottom of the supply chain end up in the overcrowded jails; casual drug use is just like casual alcohol use and there should be no intrusion of government into the home. However the war on drugs is part of the American foreign policy since the drug cartels can be willing to follow American initiatives (as in the support of the drug cartels in Latin America or in Afghanistan) to the detriment of the people in those countries so its integration within foreign policy makes it difficult to change domestic drug laws, including their strong support by the prison industry.
Our society must evolve where economic and political leaders are accountable for their actions affecting the majority of citizens. The controlling grasp of the upper class must be broken or the rest will only see further degradation on their daily lives. Workers are entitled to a fair wage for their labors, rather than just getting a minimum to ensure maximum corporate profits. People are entitled to health care and education; it is not fair that only those born into wealth have easy access to both basic human needs.
The Western religions (like Christianity and Islam) seem to be part of the problem, rather a possible part of a solution. The book Guns, Germs and Steel describes how historically the experience and strengths in the tribes and migrating communities determined the fates of those involved (those groups moving and those being moved into). People are social creatures and the strength of any community lies in how well everyone works together. The Western religions attempt to break this cooperative bond by stressing an individual's soul, by making each person isolated and distinct from their world, as they are told to seek an individual salvation in an afterlife. While the religious practice of getting together for a service is a useful bonding experience, to confirm that because others believe as I do we are probably believing the right stuff, the practice is not necessarily helpful in strengthening the integration of a community. With the religion preaching that the path to an individual salvation is based on each person following God's plan, the religious group is easily subject to the direction of their religious leader, so the leader can bring the group together in various ways by interpreting what is in this unseen plan, sometimes in hating or shunning some outside group or in following the recommended politics (where the national religious leaders get to sit at the table with political leaders, basking in the spotlight of political power, if they can deliver their followers to that political party's wishes). By focusing on an individual soul, thereby eliminating our social nature from the context of life as a human being, the religion's teaching weakens those social bonds that have been part of our nature. Many individuals are so much easier to manage than a unified team, where the group accepts and works together with the diversity present among its members.
The ancient primitive religions were often based on a multitude of gods in nature as the community sought to understand the uncontrollable whims of nature. However the religion still kept the community together as everyone was obviously confronted with the same natural environment. Over the past few centuries, a few monotheistic religions have swept the globe teaching the believers they are subject to the autocratic whims of a single God. This worldview makes the believers susceptible to the corresponding autocratic political structures that have become prevalent across the world (religion follows politics), with one or a very small number of people at the top of any country (like a god) having control over the lives of so many more people subject to that political power.
In America at least, religion has had another recent effect, by being mixed with politics. In the 1980's the Religious Right gained influence by aligning with the Republican Party. Before religion came into politics, there were debates on policies that affected the wealthy (trying to keep jobs available), the poor (trying to help those disadvantaged), foreign policy (trying to get some countries to follow our advice while others would not), but the debates were conducted by attempting to weigh the merits of any alternatives. After religion got into politics, now debates are conducted based on good vs evil, right vs wrong, leading to a polarized situation where a compromise (with evil?) is not acceptable. The political system is now broken and that inefficiency comes the perversion of a democratic system with the wealthy buying their influence.
There are other attacks on our social nature. Religious teaching in conjunction with political power can inhibit a family's control over its own fate by hindering access to birth control, to manage when a family must care for a baby, a new member of the family. Economic policies have been oriented, for several decades, toward depressing the wage scales in America leading to more stress in many families dealing with their financial difficulties. Antigovernment policies have been oriented, for several decades, at weakening the public school system and the teacher unions involved in them, including the movement of taxpayer funds into private schools, a change that of course benefits the wealthy for their children while impacting the quality of education for everyone else. The new emphasis on testing in schools makes the system appear to be oriented toward an individual, another attempt to weaken the natural social bonds at the age of adolescents. Schools can serve as a way for the children to learn and experience their social nature, with the goal of working together better as teens and adults, but instead the policies appear determined to make each student focus on individual 'book' skills with minimal recognition of those social skills that are also critical to success as an adult. It is of course important to instill personal responsibility but one should also learn to work with others.
Human beings have been evolving as social beings, a process that began as our close relatives the chimpanzee and bonobo. Now that humanity spans the globe and the dominant social structures (both political, corporate, financial, religious) have grown into huge, undemocratic monsters, those at the top in control benefit from the degradation of our social nature, because it is so often true that the strategy of 'divide and conquer' works for a small minority to get something accepted by the larger majority.
My opinion (and I am not a sociologist) is our political system should be strengthening the foundation of our social structure, by working to improve the tools available for families (suitable income with access to health care (not to health insurance(!) whose quality is wholly based on income), and to birth control), for communities (providing a quality education based on developing both the social and academic skills in our youth), and for states (providing a quality infrastructure to their communities). Instead the system is strengthening the federal homeland security police state, maintaining the flow of wealth to the rich and large banks and corporations even as everyone else is given austerity measures to maintain that flow, and so these policies are degrading the social and economic infrastructure.
Humanity is based on a multiple tiered social structure, from families at the bottom, to communities, to counties/states, to a nation. As populations have increased, the power has shifted to be quite top down in orientation with many decisions based on supporting the large corporations and national government bureaucracies that, being so huge, have become very insensitive to the human beings at the bottom. As the bottom of this structure decays, there is little hope for the longevity of the rest.
created - December 2012 (before reading Guns, Germs and Steel)
last change - 04/28/2013 (after reading that book)
Here is the list of topics in this Culture Topic Group.
All Topic Groups are available by selecting More TG.
All topics in the site are in the Site Map, where each Topic Group has its topics indented below it.
Ctrl + for zoom in; Ctrl - for zoom out ; Ctrl 0 for no zoom;
triple-tap for zoom to fit; pinch for zoom change; pinched for no zoom