Our Species’ Perilous Infancy


“I’ll meet you further on up the road.” 

socotra-dragon-tree-yemen-660x440

Dragon’s blood tree on the island of Socotra, Yemen. Source.

 

I sometimes wish we could fast-forward through this messy period of human history. I imagine that our descendants will be embarrassed by how sectarian and insular we were. It will probably take generations, but it seems almost inevitable that the world will keep shrinking until it becomes the prevailing wisdom that all people share a common ancestry and that our commonalities outweigh our differences.  

Yet, here we are. Ethno-nationalism is on the rise in Europe, with many people increasingly angered by the influx of Muslim refugees. In the United States, I.C.E. is rounding up and deporting people who have lived here for decades and who pose a threat to no one, including military veterans, a doctor, a mother of four children, and a college professor. President Trump infamously referred to several countries — including El Salvador, Haiti, and all of Africa —  as “shitholes, and implied that people from those places should not be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. Left unspoken, this presumes that a country’s political or economic struggles are a reflection of the character of all of the people who live there.

A common refrain in these stories is the perception that outsiders are a threat, either in the form of direct violence or indirectly to “our way of life.” Again, in 2016 when Trump was still a candidate, he visited my home state of Rhode Island for a fund raiser and suggested that thousands of Syrian refugees were being resettled there without any screening and that they were akin to a Trojan horse:

“We can’t let this happen. But you have a lot of them resettling in Rhode Island. Just enjoy your — lock your doors, folks.”

At the time, there was one resettled family from Syria — a young couple and their three beautiful young children. The calculated wielding of fear as a weapon against five harmless human beings struck many people, including me, as cynical and reprehensible.

As for the threat to “our way of life,” a state senator from New Jersey named Mike Doherty epitomized this sentiment when he said that the U.S. should limit immigration from “non-European” nations that are not part of a “Judeo-Christian culture” because: 

“People want to feel comfortable with their culture… You can only change a community so much before people start feeling uncomfortable.”

It seems that while our world may be getting smaller, so are the hearts and minds of many people. I wonder exactly to what degree someone would have to be European and Judeo-Christian for Doherty to be comfortable with them and for him to consider that person an acceptable immigrant. After all, there must be tens of millions of Europeans he’d have to find disagreeable on a personal level, and there are European atheists, and non-European Jews and Christians. Not everyone can be our soul-mate. So, where is the line? I don’t think he really gave this all that much thought, however.

If there’s any consolation, I think futuristic daydreaming helps, that this is all a stage of humanity that we’ll hopefully grow out of. Maybe. Maybe not. As I’ve written before, I don’t think such “us and them” thinking is inevitable. So much of our relationships with others is a matter of perception of who we include and exclude, as we can switch between seeing others from allies to adversaries and back again.

Carl Sagan imagined a distant future where our descendants would have overcome such sectarianism, living in distant other worlds and reflecting on their common heritage on Earth. 

“It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent. For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders, undreamed of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation? And another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered by the end of the next century? And the next millennium? Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that whatever other life there may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth. They will gaze up, and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of raw potential once was. How perilous, our infancy. How humble, our beginnings. How many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.”

Perhaps we’ll get there one day, but we’ll have to do quite a bit of maturing. I wish we could get there faster. 

 

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