The Most Important Question

“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 Silhouette-question-markat 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.

Balance.

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.

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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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I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please leave a comment and thanks for sharing this post!

About T.K. Thorne

I live on a beautiful mountain and write about whatever moves me while two dogs and a cat vie for my lap. I’m a retired police captain and eclectic writer. I'd love to hear from you!
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8 Responses to The Most Important Question

  1. Hank says:

    I’m sorry to say I agree with your assessment. I’m reading a history of WWII right now and the way “normal” people treated each other in that war was just shocking. Rape of innocent civilians and cold blooded murder, torture and worse were commonplace in German, Poland, Russia, China and other places during that war. That part of our nature is kept in check most of the time, but it’s there, just beneath the surface.

    • T.K. Thorne says:

      Hank,
      I think we were insulated from all the horrors in WWII by the overarching issues we were fighting for. I believe stopping the Holocaust, not to mention the survival of democracy, were worth it, but we should not forget the cost. We have to acknowledge it and take responsibility for it when we decide to enter a conflict or not enter a conflict. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Jimsey says:

    I love your thoughts, and the topic. We can start small, a little something daily on an individual level. “Thank You”‘s, “Please” and other terms of consideration can get us thinking in the right direction. We provide a picture of who we are with our words. (That photo is in our heads too.) My theory is that once we get the consideration for others going, we follow it with some gratitude for all the people we came across that day who made a positive impression on us. Then, we try to pay it forward. It’s a theory that I strive to make a plan. It can’t happen globally unless it happens individually. Thank you for a great post, TK.

  3. Laura Parenteau says:

    Great post and good comments. Unfortunately I don’t see mankind getting better. 😦

  4. 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.

    Beautifully put. I process things slowly or I might say more than this, but for now, “beautifully put” says what I can. Now, to commence pondering . . .

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