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The Moral Arc of History

14 May

by Robert W. Fuller

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

One Tribe Becomes Many

Fifty to one hundred thousand years ago, a small group of homo sapiens made its way out of Africa and established settlements in what we now call the Middle East. Over the millennia, we multiplied and spread across the whole earth. In response to variations in climate, one race became many.

As earlier hominids had done, we gathered and we hunted, preying on whatever and whomever we could. We also sought power and used our language and model-building skills to turn nature’s power to our purposes.

Our forebears domesticated plants and animals, steadily improved their tools and weapons, and honed their fighting skills. By the time different tribes ran into one another, they no longer recognized they were all of one family. Other humans looked strange, sounded stranger, and made us afraid.

When facing enslavement or death, we used our martial skills to defend ourselves. Or, if we had the advantage, we could prey on others. All it takes is one predatory tribe to drag others into the fight.

Among the models we built, those pertaining to social organization and governance were especially important to the power we could mobilize. The nature of relationships within a group can either facilitate or undercut alignment around a common political purpose. Prosperity and solidarity, both so powerfully affected by institutions of governance, determine a group’s capability to defend itself against other groups or to dominate them.

Power Rules

The “olden days” often seem rosier in hindsight than they did to people at the time. So, it’s not hard to understand why, in the thick of the struggle for survival, the authors of Genesis conjured an Edenic paradise. We’ve been comforting ourselves with stories of bountiful origins ever since.

Archeologists tell a different story. In place of noble savages living in abundance and harmony, they give us a picture of “constant battles” driven by scarcity of food and resources.

Humans multiply quickly; our numbers can soon outstrip the food supply. But, the precise causes of conflict are not relevant here. Very likely they ranged from competition to survive in the face of dwindling resources to dreams of empire. Life presented an endless series of choices that turned on kinship. Friend or foe? To embrace or exploit?

One choice sees strangers as lost relatives, the other as potential aggressors, or as prey. In the struggle for survival, “we” have just what “they” need—food, water, tools, territory, animals, child-bearers, manpower—and vice versa. If resources are scarce, appropriating those of other humans may be the only chance for survival, or it may simply recommend itself as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Once the choice is made to regard others as prey, the aim, if not to kill, is to subordinate and enslave. Far from being an aberration, slavery has been commonplace in history. Only in the nineteenth century was its legitimacy seriously questioned. Slavery continues to this day in overt forms (child-slavery and human trafficking), and in the indirect form of subsistence wages. As Reverend Jim Wallis has put it, “Poverty is the new slavery.”

Of course, modern humans didn’t invent the predatory option. We absorbed it imitatively from our hominid ancestors, and before that, from apes whose internecine battles have been well documented.

To limit injury to self, we, like other predators, opportunistically targeted the weak. None of us would be here if our own ancestors had not been either relatively successful predators (or relatively good evaders of others’ predations).

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University in Jerusalem and a descendant of an aristocratic Palestinian family, quotes his father as telling him, “All family dynasties can trace their histories back to some act of brigandage.”

I have heard the same from the heirs of several American fortunes.

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