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Science And Morality

by Charles MacFarland
Chapter 1


SCITECH I: THE THREE ECOTYPES.

Science changes human morality. It changes the ways we ought to behave if we are to lead happy and fulfilled lives.

Science itself is constantly changing and has been changing rapidly over the last two centuries or so. These changes have required people to adapt their morality, that is, their patterns of proper behaviour, but people have often been slow to make the correct adaptations.

When people fail to adapt their morality to the demands of science, the result is generally disaster. Most of the history of the last two centuries can be explained in terms of people's failure to adapt to the moral demands of science.

The second essay in this series will give three detailed examples of incidents in history can be explained in terms of people's failure to adapt to science. But first, in order really to understand the changes that science has required, we need to understand the history of humanity and its moral systems.

This essay deals with the three ecotypes which have dominated human history and determined human morality. Ecotype is a new word which for some reason has never been coined before, even though the three ecotypes themselves are quite familiar. We can understand the word ecotype best by detailing these three examples.

The first ecotype, or system by which humanity lived and gained its needs, was hunting and gathering. People hunted in the woods and grasslands for animals which provided meat, hides, and bone, or gathered plants which provided food, housing, and medications. They lived, in the charming old phrase, "off the fat of the land."

This ecotype goes back for thousands and even millions of years, right back to the origins of human existance. This is the way our primate relatives live, and indeed virtually all animals, the carnivores being hunters and the herbivores gatherers.

The Australian aborigines still lived in this ecotype when Captain Cook arrived, as did many American Indian tribes when Europeans first arrived in their lands. People in this ecotypes generally lived in small groups called tribes, and so we shall call this the Tribal ecotype, since the phrase "hunter/gatherer" is awkward to keep repeating.

The important thing is to realize that the Tribal ecotype determined their morality -- that is, the way they lived and the way they needed to live in order to be successful and happy. The same is true of the other two ecotypes. To jump ahead, the other two ecotypes are agricultural society, which we shall call Agsoc for short, and science and technology, which we shall call Scitech.

The main purpose of this set of essays is to show that what we call traditional morality is actually Agsoc morality, and that we have to change over to a new Scitech morality. If we don't, the result will be continual disasters. The best way to understand this is to consider the three ecotypes in order, and so we return to Tribal morality.

The Tribe had to be a fairly small group, because hunting and gathering is not a very efficient way to satisfy human needs. As a rule of thumb, a square mile could only support about one person, so a tribe on its patch of land perhaps thirty miles square had to number less than a thousand. These figures, of course, are subject to considerable variation, but tribes were rarely bigger than this.

This meant that everybody knew everybody in a tribe, which meant that tribes were basically communistic. The hunters' catch was divided among everyone in the tribe, as was the gathered plant food. It just wasn't possible for some to eat while others starved. That would have caused tensions which would have been destructive to the whole tribe.

Tribes were also broadly democratic. Decisions affected everyone personally, so everyone had to be consulted. It isn't possible to exploit people politically when you have to live with them on a day-to-day basis and when your own welfare depends in many ways on their actions.

Of course, there were priorities. There were tribal chiefs who had more weight in decision-making, just as there were certain people who had greater rights in food sharing -- pregnant women, for example. The good of the tribe was foremost -- but that generally meant being fair to everybody.

The small size of tribes also meant that crime was not generally a problem. You can't steal possessions when everyone around you sees exactly what you have and knows who made it. Rape and swindling were also not very practicable.

Tribal peoples did not have many of the concepts that we take for granted. Ownership was not very important, for example. Everything they had came from nature, and you couldn't own nature. Tribes had their own "hunting grounds," but these were owned communally by the whole tribe.

Another concept that wasn't very important was family. Children were not raised solely by their own parents but by the whole tribe. This was a very happy arrangement for the kids, incidently, because it avoided our modern problem of what happens when a child and its parent or parents don't suit each other. If a father was the warrior chief of a tribe, for example, and his son happened to be thoughtful and spiritual, the son didn't have live unhappily with his father. He could toddle off after the shaman, while the father coached the sort of boys who would become football players in our society. It was all one, since they were all members of the one tribe.

Tribes also generally didn't have the concept of competition. It was bad form to excell and make others feel bad. Equality was more important. You could show off a little bit, in foot racing or making an ornament, but if you were too talented it was more polite to hide it.

These few examples show some ways that the Tribal ecotype determined tribal morality. Many more will appear in the course of these essays, but for now let's turn to the Agsoc ecotype. This ecotype is important, for it's the one from which modern people have to escape if we are to adapt to Scitech.

Somewhere along about six or eight thousand years ago people discovered that you could change Nature. Tribal peoples simply lived on what Nature provided naturally. But somehow some of them discovered that you could improve on Nature.

People took seeds of certain useful plants and planted them so they would provide food when and where the people wanted. Other people caught animals and herded them so they would be there to kill whenever the people wanted. No more wandering through the woods looking when you wanted plants or animals. No more "living off the fat of the land."

Thus was born agricultural society, the Agsoc ecotype.

At first, this seemed like a great idea. People could grow a lot more food than they could get by hunting and gathering, and the food supply was a lot more reliable too. No more famines when the game got scarce.

People no longer had to move around. The same area of land could support crops or herds year after year -- at least it could in the Nile valley and other river valleys, where the soil was replenished by floods -- so people could begin to build permanent houses. They also could begin to create and enjoy permanent possessions, things like furniture and pottery and works of art. Tribal peoples were very limited in such things because they had to be able to carry everything as they moved around in search of game.

Living in one place also meant that food could be stored. Huge graneries meant that people had another defense against famine.

For a brief while, humanity must have gone through a golden age. But there are many problems inherent in Agsoc, and these soon turned the golden age to leaden misery.

One main problem was that the population soared. Agsoc peoples apparently had no effective means of birth control. The population rapidly rose to take advantage of and then swamp the increased food supply. Before long, land was at a premium, and the threat of starvation returned.

Increased population brought many problems. Cities began, where no longer was it the case that everyone knew everyone else. Crimes like stealing and rape and swindling became possible. It's the same today. There isn't much crime in tiny towns, where everybody knows everybody and strangers stand out, but crime is rampant in the anonymity of the big city.

Crime led to the need for a strong central authority. Kings began. Presumably the old tribal chiefs became rulers of a city and then of many cities. Soon these rulers did not know everyone, and so they didn't have to consult everyone. They became more autocratic.

The rise of the ruler was also caused by the new concept of ownership. When people starting clearing land and plowing and planting and doing all the other work of farming, it became very important to them to receive the fruits of their labours themselves. The same was true of herding. So people began to think of themselves as owning land and herds privately.

The community was no longer paramount. It wasn't right for somebody else in the city to come and harvest your crops or kill your cattle and keep the food for himself, nor did you have any obligation to share with others. You'd done the work; they hadn't. You owned the results.

The concept of ownership caused great difficulties when white men dealt with American Indian tribes. The Indian tribes, when they signed treaties, probably just thought they were giving the whites the right to hunt and gather in their forests, as they themselves did. But the whites assumed that buying the land meant they could cut down the trees and farm the land and keep all the crops for themselves, thus destroying the Indians' lifestyle. The Indians must have felt betrayed, and probably they were betrayed, but to some extent it could have been a misunderstanding caused by differing notions of ownership.

Ownership led to problems in Agsoc as well. Unfortunately, it's in the nature of ownership that one person,or a few people, soon own everything. The reason is simple. If I own a couple of fields, and you only own one, I receive more wealth than you do, and my ownership increases faster than yours.

In Agsoc the King, along with a bunch of nobles, soon wind up owning most everything. This increases their distance from the people and their autocratic power.

With the rise of kings came war. Of course, Tribal peoples had war of a sort, raids on other tribes to steal horses or women. But the increased wealth of Agsoc made war much more attractive, and the increased population made it much more formidable. The King could gain huge wealth if he could attack other Kings' cities and steal their graneries and houses and wealth, and he could gain power and prestige as well. The common man suddenly found himself drafted.

Meanwhile, Agsoc had other serious problems. The number of diseases among Agsoc peoples increased rapidly. This was partly because of crowding due to increased population and the development of cities. Diseases spread easily when people are numerous and close together.

Living close to animals meant that people started to catch diseases from them, such as tuberculosis, originally a disease of cows. Rats, attracted by the graneries, brought plague. Animal wastes, as well as the wastes of crowded humans, got into the water, and diseases of polluted water, like dysentery, typhoid, and cholera, became a scourge.

Another problem with Agsoc was environment damage, especially the destruction of forests. People needed wood for fuel and building houses, and once they were settled permanently in the same place, they cut all the trees around and had to go farther and farther to find new ones.

Cutting down forests, as everyone knows today but they probably didn't realize then, can have serious consequences. You affect your water supply, and you can have floods and then droughts. You may even affect the local climate.

One of the mysteries of archeology is what happened to the Anasazi, the American Indian peoples who built quite elaborate cities in the shelter of cliffs in the American southwest. They were the only peoples to live a true Agsoc style of life in what is now the United States, but they abandoned their cities and disappeared in about 1150 AD.

What happened? We know that they destroyed the forests of the area, and tree-ring evidence suggests that they suffered two twenty-year droughts that made their lives impossible. Did they somehow bring on these droughts themselves by their lifestyle? When we moderns understand climate better, perhaps we'll be able to tell.

But it's certainly true for Agsoc in general that life tended to get harder and harder. Farming, once you depended on it, became a miserable existence. It's no fun, plowing in a hot field all day, following a horse's ass over the dusty ground -- and a lot of people didn't even have horses. Human labor was the only source of food, and the need for food became more and more desperate.

Farming was OK when you just had to toss a bunch of seeds on a fertile riverbank and watch them grow, but as the population soared, land became more and more expensive, and you had to use less and less attractive land, and you had to use irrigation, and haul fertilizers, and fight weeds, and the whole thing became more and more critical, because if you didn't get a full and rich crop the many hungry mouths made famine a real threat.

Life became miserable for most people. In fact, the conviction gradually grew that life for humans was inherently miserable. This was the source of religion, a subject which we will explore in detail in Essay V.

For now, it's only important to notice that the idea that human life is inherently miserable is an Agsoc idea. Tribal peoples never thought so. Life had its difficulties, but life was inherently wonderful for them. This is one of the aspects of Tribal life that is awakening the admiration and respect of modern people today.

Archeologists sometimes note with surprise how slowly agriculture spread after it was invented in the Middle East. It took thousands of years for the ecotype to spread through Europe. If you think of Agsoc as a big improvement, this is puzzling.

But in fact, Agsoc only spread when its population increase forced farmers to seek new land. They would then conquer neighbouring communities, and steal their land for farming. This business of farmers taking tribal lands continued right up through the nineteenth century, especially in America. The Indians constantly fought the whites, a clash of ecotypes, and always lost because the farmers were so much more numerous.

The same must have happened in Europe. The Tribal peoples, used to ranging the woods freely in search of game, would have felt nothing but scorn for the dirty cramped life of farmers. But when the farmers needed their land, the result was always the same. The farmers may not have been as healthy as the hunters, nor as trained in war, but they overwhelmed them with their more prolific genitals.

It was progress, of a sort. For we must not forget that Agsoc, for all its misery, was the source of many successes.

The cities brought buildings, for example, sometimes of great beauty, like temples and palaces, and sometimes of stupendous size, like the pyrimids.

Mathematics was developed, to keep track of crops and herds, and to measure the fields, and to design the buildings. Writing came with it. At first writing was used just to keep track of wealth, but before long people were using it for history and poetry and recording all sorts of useful ideas.

Art in many forms thrived in Agsoc -- sculpture, painting, plays, songs, and all the things that began to make humanity seem in its own small way a bit glorious. Though people were often miserable, and often very cruel, occasionally they managed to be noble and splendid.

But Agsoc had too many inherent miseries to last forever. Science and technology began, sometimes in an effort to cure the miseries of Agsoc. The Scitech way of life evolved.

People embraced Scitech as soon as it began. We can see that happening in the third world even today. People marched off their farms and into the factories as soon as those factories developed, first in England, then in the rest of Europe and the United States, and so on across the world today.

We know all about the ecotype of Scitech, for we live in it. Unfortunately, though we and peoples all over the world are embracing the technology of Scitech, we are much slower to adapt its morality.

We tend to think of the morality of Agsoc as being the only morality that ever is or was, because Agsoc existed for most of recorded history -- indeed writing, and hence recorded history, was a creation of Agsoc. But this is false. So-called "traditional morality" is merely an adaptation to the Agsoc ecotype.

We have to make new adaptations to the Scitech ecotype. But people find it hard to change their morality, partly because they don't see their morality as an adaptation. They see their morality as the only morality that ever is or was, brought down from the mountain, carved in tablets of stone. The result is that most people would rather die than change their outmoded ideas.

And many people have done just that. The next essay discusses three of the disasters of recent history that have been caused because people would not give up their outmoded Agsoc ideas. The disasters are not a pleasant topic, but we need to face them if we are fully to realize the importance of adapting to a new morality of Scitech. The disasters are what I call the Adaptive Agonies.

Only after them can we begin to discuss all the wonderful properties of our new Scitech morality.

 


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