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Two Cheers For Optimism
One man measures his life-span against the length of recorded history and finds tidings of comfort and hope
December 1982 | Volume 34, Issue 1
At the risk of being sneered at as a NeoVictorian, I hereby admit to a nineteenth-century belief that, allowing for daily relapses Land hourly alarms, the world of man is improving. I am not by nature a Panglossian sort but, like the grandparent of a precocious child, I am overwhelmed by a sense of how far my still sprouting human species has come in so short a time.
Compared with the span of history, I am, at seventy-two, very young, but that proposition is hardly as startling as its reverse—that measured against my own age, man himself is young. Consider: If, at my birth, time had proceeded to run backward instead of in the usual fashion, I would at this moment be writing in the year 1837. The same brief span that has brought me to scarcely more than middle age would have carried me back to the year when Andrew Jackson left the White House to Martin Van Buren; when John Quincy Adams, our retired fifth President, was still scolding the House of Representatives about slavery; when young Abraham Lincoln, with only a few months at the bar behind him, moved hopefully to Springfield to open a law office.
Two such insignificant time spans as my life represents would, if carried backward from my birth, have landed me in 1765, before the country had fairly begun its struggle to be born; a year when James Watt was about to unleash the industrial revolution in England with a still unpatented steam engine. Scarcely five such periods would have been needed to bring me to the coronation of the first Queen Elizabeth, and only ten to that of King John, a decade and a half before his barons were to pull the crown over his royal ears at Runnymede.
The game gets really significant when we try just slightly larger multiples. Count back fifty of my lifetimes and you are at the very beginnings of Aegean civilization, the primitive Greece of Odysseus, Agamemnon, and company, not to be celebrated even by Homer for centuries to come.
There is no use trying to turn the book back much farther than that, because just twenty more of these little lifetimes of mine—seventy in all—and we are back to the invention of writing in Sumer and so to the first pages of recorded time. Not to dwell morbidly on my age, I am in fact only two hundred and fifty little life-spans away from the melting of the last Pleistocene glaciers, when my Paleolithic ancestors were busy skinning aurochs and mammoths with sharpened flakes of stone.
Viewed from this perspective, it seems pretty remarkable that the human animal of this morning’s newspaper, far from shaving chunks of stone into spear points, is reducing molecules of stone to their component atoms and electrons; he is shaving time itself from those stately movements of the sun, as noted by his ancestors, into the incomprehensible milliseconds that determine whether or not a spaceship will rise into the very domain of that same distant star.
True, says the misanthrope, but what good are these complex gadgets if their maker is still a brute at heart? And undeniably he is still a killer—on a personal scale in Manhattan’s subways, on an appalling scale in Uganda, El Salvador, and points east and west, and on a truly awesome scale in the kind of world wars made possible by his own talents.
Nevertheless, if we make some reasonable allowance for the adolescence of his species, man is pound for pound one of the most promising creatures in the jungle. This notion will be violently rejected by those who are admirers of all species but their own; indeed the more regard some humans have had for those other species, the less they have shown for their own. Hitler was devoted to his dogs, and Caligula made his horse a senator.
All the same my own modest contact with the animal world persuades me that, compared with the rest of that world, man has done rather well in suppressing the savage self-assertion built into much of animal society and even the group assertion that characterizes the rest of it.
Brute force is still the commonplace, everyday rule of some of the seemingly gentlest creatures. Few people think of the hummingbird, for example, as a practitioner of the fangand-claw way of life—or, in its case, beak-and-claw. Yet visitors to the Philadelphia Zoo’s Hummingbird House will learn, as I did, of that shimmering jewel’s ferocity. In six weeks’ time a population of twenty-four hummingbirds originally brought to that establishment had fought their way down to twelve in a raging battle for territory. Only then, when there was ample space for each, did the survivors settle down to peaceful coexistence. Add one more tiny beauty to the collection and, shimmering or not, it will kill or be killed.
Individual members of the human species will revert to type on occasion and then, because of greater ingenuity, outdo in mayhem anything ever perpetrated by the hummingbird or, for that matter, the shark. But the overwhelming mass of men and women prefer even lives of quiet desperation to murder and mayhem. They have resigned themselves to channeling their atavistic urges to kill and cripple into mere expressions of desire, sometimes confided to a psychiatrist, sometimes, in the case of writers, to a typewriter. In spite of the daily recitation of murder, arson, and hijacking on every evening news program, extremely few who read this—except for those connected with the law—will ever have met with a murderer, an arsonist, a hijacker, or even a lowly mugger. And statistically there is not a chance in ten thousand that they ever will. What this gets down to is that a creature that started off by killing to live has evolved—in a breathlessly brief time—into one that may still kill on orders from his rulers but, exceptional assassins notwithstanding, is otherwise prepared to grumble, curse, pray, and let live.
Indeed, man is the only animal that has actively tried to change his own nature; that has consciously worked at evolving. Tigers are the same tiger-natured creatures now as they were in their early saber-toothed days, while man has come along at a rate, considering the speed of the centuries and their inconsequential number, that gives the lie to the prophets of despair. Monsters we may have with us, but in even moderately advanced societies these are, like Manson, drug-produced dregs; or the demented, accorded a moment of glory by the media; or ghastly atavists like Hitler, brought to power by a concatenation of terrible events and revealing in a flash what the human animal was as a rule in the not distant past.
In what are called underdeveloped areas, the Idi Amins and Bokhassas come readily to power, but the societies they impose upon are often three or four centuries behind the rest of humanity. It was only that long ago—five of my lifetimes ago—that an English Queen could have the head of a man like Raleigh lopped off with as much ease as a Third World tyrant can dispatch him with a bullet today—or as Stalin could finish off a critic only two decades ago. It is only yesterday that slavery and lynching were the rule in this headquarters of the free world. And in the eminently civilized circles of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, it might be remembered, there was the lively fear that the price of revolutionary failure might be the same penalty that was even then being imposed on His Majesty’s traitors in Ireland: to wit, incompleted hanging followed by disemboweling and beheading. As far as I know, they don’t do that sort of thing today even in Uganda.
It has been said that optimists are those who haven’t heard the news. Nonetheless, as one who has not only heard it but witnessed a bit of it—and without embracing blindly the onward-and-upward faith of the Victorians—I do think there may be some support for their attitude. Just as most individual infants manage, in spite of insistent flirtations with danger, to survive the follies of their years, so the brash human species may well manage to keep from blowing off its collective head long enough to outgrow the danger and reach a rewarding maturity. In short, I’ll take Pangloss over Cassandra at odds of, say, five to four.