Civility

The world “civil” (civilis) came into being during the Roman empire as a descriptor of the citizen in public life. Civilization, although quite popular in many locations around the world at the time, can be dated back at least to 3200 B.C.E., and was not the sole provenance of the Romans.

The world “civil” (civilis) came into being during the Roman empire as a descriptor of the citizen in public life. Civilization, although quite popular in many locations around the world at the time, can be dated back at least to 3200 B.C.E. and was not the sole provenance of the Romans. The Sumerians started documenting at least eight Mesopotamian languages in cuneiform script in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. The tablets so far translated are generally focused on history and religious matters, with some blending of those subjects, as in “Gilgamesh.” Huge numbers of tablets have been retrieved, but only a small percentage have been translated to date into contemporary languages. For there to have been a need for inter-tribal communication for the Mesopotamians suggests that citizens in public life required this innovation to progress. I would suggest that civil life and civilizations have been around for much longer that this; small groups or tribes of humans practiced civilization and civility with their rudimentary tools long before the Sumerians started documenting their thoughts. Had they not, the human race might have been little more than a blood spot and some bone meal in the Rift Valley.

Nonetheless, the word and the concept of civility, rooted in Latin and in Roman civilization as it is, serves well for a description of this tendency in human affairs. Generally, people within a social setting tend to act with civility towards other persons in the community and with their trading partners, but suspiciously (at best) or belligerently (in varying degrees) with people outside of their community who do not advance commercial prospects. There were probably good reasons to be suspicious about other peoples. If your community had a good fishing hole or a good place to hunt or gather and another community showed up, it may have raised concerns (fears), rational or not, that your community’s well-being was being threatened. If both communities were amenable to sharing, then civility – and civilization – oozed outwards a bit. If not, one community attempted dominance and other arrangements were made, either by driving off the interlopers, killing the most aggressive (or all) interlopers, or losing the community dominance of the resources by fleeing or death.

Since our species “succeeded,” it must be assumed that more civility and civilization happened than not. Perhaps it was simpler. Perhaps the number of successful births outnumbered the deaths and we succeeded in spite of civility, but I suspect not. Ants, bees, wasps, termites, some rodents, many vertebrates all display complex social behaviors and all succeed. Can they be considered civil and civilized? In some ways, I think yes. They are not irrationally predatory within their communities (although primate males have demonstrated an extended pattern of despicable violence towards females), they collaborate towards common goals, they share responsibilities, in some sense, with each other, with the community as a whole, they are greater than the sum of their individuals (parts).

Of course, we also have been murderers on a huge scale at various times in our history. It is difficult to know when war up-scaled. Some postulate that the first “wars” started around 8,000 B.C.E. Raymond C. Kelly has studied the matter further and notes several inflection points in human violence going back approximately 400,000 years (398,000 B.C.E.). This shouldn’t be too surprising as contemporary primatologists have noted inter-group violence among the great apes (our genetic ancestors). Lawrence H. Keeley goes further in his book “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage.” Keeley enumerates the primary reasons for inter-group violence, starting with (1) difficult times caused by scarcity of food due to climate fluctuations, (2) political centralization and control (a chief in one group decides another chief has to go so that their human resources can work for a new chief), along with several others. War, whenever it occurs, marks a time of extreme incivility, a time when culture and civilization is interrupted in favor of pillaging, destruction, siege, torture, maiming, deprivation, disease and death. Lots of death.

While I know it is not a primary resources, Wikipedia does consolidate data on “wars by death toll” in two jaw-dropping categories – wars with over 1,000,000 (1M) deaths and wars with fewer than 1,000,000 deaths. A pretty arbitrary sorting, given that each individual death probably influenced families of at least 2 and perhaps 20 people or more. There is a stunning implication in these tables – that we really don’t know how many people died in some of these conflicts. The wars with greater than 1M deaths seemed to start in about 475 B.C.E. in what is now China and continue right through to the present day. Between (!) 313,232,919 and 674,733,827 have died ONLY in wars that resulted in >1M deaths, a variance of over 215%! Another way of saying this is that perhaps 313,232,919 died or perhaps 674,733,827, we’re just not sure. If these deaths occurred in your family, it would mean that you might tell people “well, we either lost 1 child or 2 children or perhaps more than that, I just don’t know.”

Then there are all of the wars that resulted in fewer than 1M deaths. Wikipedia didn’t roll these up, so I did it myself (same page as above); between 12,002,112 and 25,778,205 – another estimate with a two-fold range. So, in total, in paroxysms of extreme incivility, we have managed to kill between 325M and 702M of our fellow creatures (we’re working hard on killing our fellow animals as well, but perhaps I’ll leave that to another post). We’re not sure where in that range the truth lies, but if it is the larger number, we’ve killed almost 10% of all human beings currently alive on earth (I’m assuming 7.4 billion at the time of this writing).

There are a few important corollaries that can be drawn from these data:

  1. If the war was a long time ago, we are less certain of the death toll
  2. If the war was in a non-Western country a long time ago, we are less certain of the death toll
  3. If the war involved poor people, we are less certain of the death toll
  4. We are not sure how many of the deaths enumerated were willing combatants (or combatants that knew they were going to fight, whether willing or not) or whether the deaths also included “collateral damage” among the terrified civilian population (some of whom may have been involved on a willing, but unofficial basis)
  5. If the combatants returned home and died from physical or mental injuries related to combat, we do not know whether they were included in these numbers

In addition to waging wars against each other under various notions, there are also a lot of deaths due to anthropogenic reasons: famine, prisons and prison camps, mass starvation, mass hunger illnesses, floods and landslides, human sacrifice and ritual suicide (!), political purges and war crimes, forced labor, slavery and slave trade, and another 60M to 150M deaths due to “other deadly events.” You can do your own math and add these to the war dead, if you wish.

But somehow – SOMEHOW – we continue to thrive while we come up with new and carefully rationalized reasons for killing each other.

I blame this tendency to thrive on civility. Somehow, in spite of all the craziness, we create families, communities, villages, towns, farms, businesses, cities, states, nations, regions and continents in which a majority of the population treats each other with at least some respect. If we do not actively smile and exchange pleasantries, inquire about each others’ families or mutual friends, we do not start frothing at the mouth when we see each other, do not attack and kill each other (usually) without significant provocation. Even when provoked, many of us would rather try to protect ourselves by running or curling up to avoid significant injury. But crime of one sort or another adds to the annual death toll in virtually every country, by which I mean I do not even want to start looking at annual murder statistics on a global scale. Civility, the simple notion that we should treat each other as we would like to be treated (the “golden rule“) has a long history in human affairs. As I have suggested above, it is probably central to how all successful animals have prospered. A species that decides fellow members of its species looks irresistibly delicious or unforgivably guilty does not last very long.

Unfortunately, we do not all behave with civility all of the time. There are the scowling relatives – rudeness, anger, contempt, bluntness, boorishness, coarseness, crudeness, cheek, harshness, impertinence, insolence, chauvinism (in all its many forms) – of civil behavior available on too regular a basis from people we know and people we don’t. In my life, I have noticed that there are people who seem to greet virtually everyone they see (I do this) and people who avoid or neglect interacting, even with people they know (some of this is just introversion or self-absorption).

Recently, there has been much said and written about “political correctness.” For me, much of what is criticized as being “politically correct” behavior is quite often simply civil behavior. It does no one on our planet any good to be demeaned or trivialized simply because of traits related to their gender, culture, ethnicity, genetics, intelligence, physical ability, national origin, belief system, or political affiliation, yet you will hear people on television or read people on the internet or in publications lamenting their perception that it has become “politically incorrect” to say something. Very often, they are lamenting their perception that they themselves, or people they feel are associated with them, can no longer use those words or phrases or characterizations. They are complaining, basically, that they can no longer behave in an incivil way. If they are Caucasians, they may be feigning sorrow over not being able to call members of various minority groups by demeaning names. If they are Caucasian male, they may be whining about it not being appropriate to denigrate women. If they are heterosexual, their preferred speech might have been laced with language that suggests homosexual or transgendered individuals are not fully human. If they are Democrats/Republicans, they may criticize Republicans/Democrats as some sort of fool.

In each of these cases, the people that are being demeaned are not a group. They are individuals with individual characteristics, individual life stories, that transcend any label that can be placed on them, either within that group or from outside. There are 7.4 billion individuals on this planet. The ethnic diversity within that number is truly mind-boggling. The individual diversity within each of those groups is as large as the entire population and grows by 4 births every second, while it diminishes by 2 deaths every second.

Some of this incivility is demonstrated by virtue of our relatively recent technological wonder – the internet. While this has made sharing, and thus civility and civilization, a better process, it has also given individuals who want to misbehave a readily available and often anonymous tool. They can behave as incorrectly, politically speaking, as they wish, all behind the relative safety of an internet protocol (ip) address, all while bemoaning the imposition of political correctness on their “free speech.” Their speech,  of course, is not free. It has a negative impact on whomever they are characterizing in unfair ways. I don’t spend a lot of time reviewing comments on news websites, but it seems that many people avail themselves of time to fashion outrageous comments about various groups (ethnic, gender, national, religious, and so forth). It is not a helpful way for any of us to behave. If we’re not helping, we (individually, as the shoe fits) should take a moment and ask ourselves why. What is keeping us from behaving in a kind and appropriate manner towards our fellow creatures? I suspect the answer is usually “I am the one to blame, no one else.”

Are there examples where use of culturally or individually sensitive language goes too far? I’ve seen some examples. Perhaps you have too. The intent, though, is important. The intent is that we each individually think about our language choices and try to make the world a more civil place to live. If it is more civil, there might be less violence, less anger, less inappropriate and demeaning behavior, whether at a local restaurant or on a sidewalk, on an airplane or in traffic, whether between ethnic groups in the United States or in Asia or Africa or Western Europe or the Middle East. There might be fewer wars, fewer individuals damaged collaterally, fewer people denied food when some have a surplus of food, fewer preventable or treatable diseases. There might be more respect between all individuals, or at least more circumspection before a person is neglected a simple courtesy.

At one end of the spectrum, we have our innovative ability to destroy each other in huge numbers. At the other, kindness and civility. Is this all so difficult? I don’t think so. After all, we keep on succeeding, we keep on growing, we keep on making strides forward in the complexity of our civilization. While we’re doing all this, let’s remember civility. It could be the glue that holds us all together.

The Paradoxical We

Guilt. Shame. Two indispensable viruses lodged in our machine code. Partially or completely missing in some of us.

Guilt. Shame. Two indispensable viruses lodged in our machine code. Partially or completely missing in some of us.

Our operating system comes preloaded with a mind-boggling set of apps that are incredibly helpful at keeping us out of trouble and utterly miserable companions if we even consider doing something wrong.

We are lost in thought. A frown creases our brow. We look up and see someone from work or from school. They look back at us, a little perplexed, and walk on. Although we did nothing explicitly wrong, some of us will feel guilt about snubbing someone we knew, even though we were simply lost in a confusing moment about what we should do with our day.

Or we see a father or mother speak harshly to their child at the grocery or in a parking lot. We know what they’re doing is inappropriate and wrong, but we cannot find the courage to interrupt them, or we fear that their rage and misbehavior will turn on us, perhaps in a more terrifying way. And we feel shame about our moment of cowardice for the rest of the day. And for some days afterwards. And intermittently in the middle of completely normal days, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, a leaden bell ringing in the middle of a sunny day or during a dream at night.

But we also live on the bones of people our ancestors drove out of their homes, away from their villages and ways of life, into desolate ghettos. We live among people who our ancestors enslaved – purchased or kidnapped from the villages, their families, their homes, their ways of life. We find rationalizations to wage wars against each other or to conduct pogroms, ethnic cleansings, genocides, “eugenicides,” against people whom we lived with for generations or millennia and, when the wiser ones among us look back – or even contemplate what is being done or what is about to be occur – we cannot find a sufficient reason for all of the suffering that we have caused. Yet a vast majority of us go through our lives, year-to-year, without giving these matters a thought. We are aware of them, but we do not feel guilt or shame for these travesties.

The best of us are entirely capable of lying to our family members, our best friends, and certainly to people we know in passing or don’t really know at all. Human justice systems are based on whether we can ferret out the truth by listening to a series of competing lies. If our guilt and shame interrupt system was better, the guilty would be overcome by shame and would report to the nearest penal colony. But it doesn’t work like this. Some of us break our moral codes regularly and live with whatever guilt and shame our minds serve up. In the case of the sociopaths and psychopaths among us, it may be that these critically human tools are missing altogether (I’m not an expert in this matter, which is why I leave my statement as a speculation).

But these are our Punishments, whether they are automatically deployed before it’s too late, or whether they kick in once we’ve done something trivial or profoundly wrong. Find me someone angry or fearful or emotionally stunted and withdrawn or scarred with mysterious slashes on their wrists or thighs (or heart or brain) and you will find the wages of our own realm of secrets, where what we once did, or thought of doing, or thought we did but didn’t do, or do now, occupies a portion of our mind and reminds us what it is to be human.

Drip…

Drip…. Drip…. Drip….

Two things happen with each drip: (1) the water falling from the roof of the limestone cavern, from the carbuncle-sized protrusion pointing towards the floor, leaves some of its soluble calcium carbonate behind; (2) the water hitting the tiny finger of wet stone on the floor of the cavern gets a brand new coating of fresh calcium carbonate added to all the previous layers that have landed there, a micron-thin slice of water with a few accreting granules of calcium carbonate each drop.

Drip…. Drip…. Drip….

Another drop, then another. Over the course of the year, perhaps 0.05 millimeters (mm) will be added to the ceiling pimple of wet stone, and another 0.05 mm to the floor finger. Or maybe there is a good bit of flowing water in this cave and the ceiling and floor protrusions will grow up to 3 mm a year. The average growth rate is estimated at about 0.13 mm/year. At that rate, the tiny finger will push skyward (although the only sky it may ever know is its mirror image growing down from above) slowly, ever so incrementally, until in in 164,123 years it has grown to the size of the tallest stalagmite currently known in the world, a stalagmite 70 feet in height located in Vietnam.

Cut a stalactite or stalagmite open and you see the additive process displayed – a portrait of how it came to be, much like the rings of a tree show its age, although in the case of these cavern formations, it shows patterns of fast and slow growth, changes in mineralization of the water, droughts and floods, a time-lapse photograph of what used to be and what is. In this phenomenal cross-section of a stalactite, the water was imbued with manganese carbonate (rhodochrosite), a mineral that often has a pink or red color. At some point in the distant past, this was a cluster of tiny white pimples pointing towards the cavern floor when, for some reason, the mixture of carbonates changed to favor manganese, the water continued to drop ever so slowly, and this family of stalactites was frozen in time.

The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_Rhodocrosite_stalactite

Of course, these are simplifications; stalactites and stalagmites sometimes grow briefly, then the water course diverts and they remain short for the rest of time, or they grow in sheets and curtains if the water spills like a slow waterfall seeping through the earth above. These fascinating growths take their time, though, growing drop-by-drop, fractional bit-by-bit, until they are magnificent in their dark realms, secret until found by lanterns and humans poking through a slot in a wall behind a curtain of shrubs.

Labeled_speleothems

Slowly

CARE – it’s free!

We live in the moment. We leave a trail of these behind us, some memorable, most just time, however we spend it. Is this moment, the one just – now (ah, it’s gone!) – serene? It depends on where you are and what you’re doing, even what you’re allowed to do and why you’re there instead of somewhere else. Our species ticks towards 7.4 billion and many of us must care every moment or we are washed over by a wave of of troubles that cannot be overcome passively.

Let’s talk about food, but ignore how delicious it is with a nice sauce or garnish. About 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to live in health. About 13 percent of people living in developing countries are undernourished. Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are have the highest percent of hunger in their populations. About 3 million children each year die before age 5 due to poor nutrition. Caring is one thing – that is free – but making a modest donation to an organization that provides relief to some portion of this population may a little bit of a healthy salary. Try the World Food Programme or choose one of your own from Charity Navigator.

While we are keen to talk about the importance of children, it is estimated that there are up to 150 million children worldwide who live on the streets, who have no home. This is approximately half the population of the United States. About 16,000 children die every day from preventable disease or treatable causes. About 2.4 billion people lack access to appropriate sanitation; the effect is felt particularly by children. Every 10 minutes, an adolescent girl dies from violence. It is an emergency of the first order; every child alive should have a chance at a life without fear, without hunger, without violence.

About one out of every three women – 35% of all women – will experience physical violence of some type during their lives. Surely, this must stop.

No one can ignore the huge number of forcibly displaced people in the world today – 65.3 million people, 21.3 million refugees, 10 million stateless people. It is hard to imagine the hardships endured by these people, yet millions of them are ignored by billions of us.

There are a few giant steps to be taken before we can be carefree. First, we must care. When we are all without troubles, I will be care-free.

Carefree

Depth

Want to visit another planet? Go deep. The diversity – and strangeness – of life in the oceanic depths challenges the most fertile imaginations found in fantasy and science fiction. Bioluminescent jellies signal to their prey. Angler fish dangle a glowing morsel just above their enormous, needle-toothed jaws. Creatures both beautiful and, to our dry-land eyes, frightening. But life abounds.

When I was in middle school (quite a long time ago), I found a book in our small town library called “The Abyss.” I don’t know who authored it and cannot find it on the enormous number of websites that might reveal it to my own increasingly abyssal memory, but it was mesmerizing for a 12-year old. Full of fascinating, real-life monsters that glowed. It even had bioluminescence science fair experiments, although with reagents I could not readily obtain. While we have a huge universe spread before us in every upward direction, we understand so little of what we have on earth.

Depth

Bones

Before we started leaving our bones around to intrigue anthropologists a few billion years later, there were the cyanobacteria, which left stromatolites – precipitated calcium carbonate deposited in layers – as well as their distinct chemical footprints. Fast forward tens of hundreds of millions of years, breeze past a huge fossil record of living things large and tiny, plant and animal, bacterial and viral, and we start seeing remnants of creatures  eerily similar to ourselves.

Between 7 and 6 million years ago, the skeletons left behind were different from the great apes who also occupied east Africa. Somewhere around 2.4 million years ago (give or take a couple hundred thousand years), Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis became distinct from the remnants predominant before then. Around 2 million years ago, the bipedal Homo erectus was living and dying in the region. Around 850,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis distinguished themselves. Modern humans – Homo sapiens – crept into the picture around 200,000 years ago and have been improving on the original model every since, albeit slowly. What I’ve glossed over above is actually improperly abbreviated. Read the linked sites for more information. It is an astonishing story and one that deserves consideration by every one of us.

Given that humans started documenting themselves around 5,000 years ago and can only imagine our lives much before that, we must pay attention to the remains our truly ancient ancestors left us to ponder. The people who study this realm of human knowledge proceed cautiously, carefully, trying to make rational decisions about the remains they find. It is better to listen to their stories and read their research than it is to dismiss – or ignore – this fascinating, unimaginably long and incredibly complex process outright. While no single book, documentary, research study or perspective should be accepted without careful analysis, Dr. Donald Johanson has provided an estimable contribution through the website Becoming Human.
The Things We Leave Behind

Meal

As the forest collapsed into a bed of its own leaves and bark, xylem, cambium, phloem and heartwood, as each tree dissolved, outside-in, from a whole to a scattering of its parts, it spilled slowly down onto the earth, where so many of its predecessors had come to rest before this last forest fell as well.

As the forest collapsed into a bed of its own leaves and bark, xylem, cambium, phloem and heartwood, as each tree dissolved, outside-in, from a whole to a scattering of its parts, it spilled slowly down onto the earth, where so many of its predecessors had come to rest before this forest fell as well. The trees fell, but the undergrowth did as well, dissolving in much the same way its huge, swaying companions had disgorged themselves, onto and through the leaves into the soil beneath, which was, after all, nothing more than its parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, going back so many thousands of years. But today this forest fell apart, along with all the other forests falling into the grave in which their silent ancestors had slept, yet provided nutrition and comfort for their offspring as they grew.

But beneath it all, countless tendrils and capillaries of the ever-present, always-invisible fungus sprang into action, mycelia spreading quickly and creating new branches and regions of an already enormous network of life, a life that welcomed the inevitable death of its neighbors, the penthouse-dwellers up there in the top leaves that wiggled seductively in the sunlight, their offspring, who hoped to reach the sky someday, but for now were stunted, tiny parodies of their parents and ancestors, those who had towered so mightily for so long. The mycelium web grew and spread and found every crevice into which a particle of the forest fell and sopped up its delicacies, droplet by precious droplet, eking out every nutrient it could find, but somehow repeating its past feasts, course-by-course, appetizer, palate-cleanser, entrée, dessert, aperitif, repeated, a million times a second by the famished phantasmal fingers groping through the ground, poking towards yesterday’s leaves and bark and decay.

mycelia

But someday, after this meal was done and the forest was gone forever and all of the creatures that it had supported, right down to the creatures that skittered through the earth around the mycelia and budded and popped into more and more cells in a ratcheted-up carousel of living things that seemed impossibly busy some days, after all this was done, the mycelia would lie there, still, shrinking, evaporating into a shadow of what once was, coming to rest because there was no more life that died and fed it. And there would be no more life. Forever.


Feast