“Has human behavior evolved?” The asker leaned toward me, as though I might hold the answer to the most important question in the world. Not the type of query I normally get at a presentation on my novel, Noah’s Wife, but perhaps because I wrote and researched the ancient past, she thought I might have an clue.
“Are we getting better?” she asked again, hopeful.
With profound sadness, I gave my opinion—“No.”
Can I prove this? Not really, since I don’t have a handy example of early man to compare. Were we worse? He-llo? Worse than giving Indians blankets loaded with smallpox virus? Worse than forcing children onto the front lines of battle? Worse than the Holocaust? Maybe we have our assumptions backwards. Maybe we were kinder and gentler in the far ancient past.
Perhaps we are more “civilized.” After all, it’s not polite nowadays to drag women off the street to your cave. But how stable is that civilization? If a disaster suddenly removed access to grocery stores, our veneer of civilization would dissolve very quickly. Look at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina. On the other hand, disaster can bring out the best in us. Look what happened in New Orleans after Katrina.
The two great forces that shape us are self-centeredness and altruism. A baby’s first awareness is of its own needs—relief from hunger, cold, discomfort. Probably our distant ancestors were the same, but not for long. Even ants evolved to work in groups. Social-ness is also survival. A pack of hunters do better than one. Wolves know that much. A group of women picking berries are safer than one alone. Why do you think women go to the bathroom in packs?
A delicate balance exists between loving ourselves and loving others. Swing too far either way and you are in trouble, and society is in trouble. A total narcissist will soon be isolated but, give away the farm, and you don’t eat. We can’t choose between individual freedom and protection. On one end, lies anarchy and at the other, a police state.
So, are we ever going to get better? Do we learn from our mistakes? Can we change?
Oh, I hope so, because it might be the most important question in the world.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.
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