Much historical writing focusses on our differences: The Greeks and the Persians; The Romans and the Gauls; the Arabs and the Israelis. History has often been the tale of different people getting in each others’ faces. The questions, therefore, have been: Why did the Greeks get in the Persians’ faces? Why did the Romans mess with the Gauls, etc. etc.
Many of the answers revolve around cultural differences. But the materialist view of history allows us to see humans as essentially one race, doing the same things in different costumes.
In this and following posts I will look at how, while human societies appear to be separated by their differences, they all adhere to similar rules, operate along the same principles, and are, in other words, far more similar than dissimilar.
The reason for this is that we are one species. As such, our DNA dictates that much of our behavior follows a similar playbook. Since evolving in Africa over the last several million years, the human race dispersed across the globe. The many different ecological niches that humans inhabited generated multiple different ways of living, but in many ways these differences were surface. As members of the same race we admitted to core similarities.
Lets look at some of the most prominent.
In religion: all societies have one. Yet whether you have one or a hundred gods, or no gods at all–as in Buddhism–religion serves the same function: It explains the origin of life, creates a community of believers, gives us some idea what will happen to us after death, and lays out some kind of moral framework for living.
In economics: all societies trade. Living in these different ecological niches we all had some things but not others. People of the North African oases had dates. They could be packed up and taken to other places to trade for stone tools. Or firewood. Etc. Etc. The process of trade drove many historical processes, enriching some people, blending populations as merchants travelled and reproduced, spreading religion, etc. etc.
In environmental matters: all societies are at the mercy of the environment. You get a sense of how we are animals within ecosystems when you look at ancient art, whether cave art from the Paleolithic period or early stonework from Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, etc. Animals are pivotal in all cases, often fierce and deadly. We forget this now that our only interactions with dangerous animals happen in zoos, but we were once part of a food chain in which we were not necessarily at the top. The environment also dictates how we live via the weather. Storm, flood, earthquake, all have their places in various civilizational cosmologies.
In warfare, societies find a very human inheritance. Most anthropologists think this is a very old adaptation: being able to kick ass played a role both in survival of the fittest, and in sexual selection–physical strength and aggression being positive traits for a mate.
In gender relations: all societies are patriarchal. As we discussed briefly in Was Agriculture a Mistake, patriarchy showed up with “civilization” that is to say with large-scale, sedentary agricultural life. It is an outgrowth of farming. To this extent it is universal–but only within sedentary societies–which make up the majority of humanity at this point.
In Technology—all societies are technological to varying degrees. The extent of their technology depends upon their needs, with larger, denser populations generally in need of more complex technologies to feed, house and protect.
In Politics—a cursory glance at world history may give you the false impression that it is a story of progression from oppressive government to freedom. However, deeper research on the political practices of the ancient world shows numerous examples of the core principles of what became known as “democracy” in place from very early on. While western historians routinely give Athens all the credit for inventing democracy, this notion has finally begun to be credibly challenged. Human politics, though diverse in form, shows remarkable parallels in the struggle for self-representation, whether amongst African tribes or Indian villagers.
In coming posts I will flesh out some of these ideas, looking more deeply at these categories.
The big question, then, is so what? What does all this similarity mean? The answer lies in the notion of global governance, an idea which goes back to enlightenment philosophers and pops up in many eras, most notably after the world wars.
But now there are two major issues which make us a de-facto single global community: environmental crisis, and globalization. The former means that there is a greater need than ever before for global policies on the environment and beyond. The latter means that we are all more connected, economically and culturally than ever before. What this means for humanity, however, is not certain. It is very possible that human unity will only resonate in the upper echelons of society, where elites connect, and have less effect lower down the food chain. And talk of commonalities may continue to have little impact on sworn enemies with intractable political problems such as the Israelis and Palestinians, or the Indians and Pakistanis.
Good fodder for class debate…
For more on this, here are a few bibliographical refs:
The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences, David Cannadine.
Mind the Gap: The Origins of Human Universals, Joan B. Silk
The Planetary Mind: http://www.onbeing.org/program/teilhard-de-chardins-planetary-mind-and-our-spiritual-evolution/4965