Can Mankind Learn?

There is a particular genre of edifying literature that talks all the time about Humanity with a capital H as the subject of all sorts of verbs – doing, mastering, advancing, learning and so forth. Some SF does the same. As C. S. Lewis pointed out generations ago, however, it is not a matter of “Man” as such mastering Nature, but of individual men mastering technologies, and then using these to master other men.

Moreover, the notion that Humanity as a whole “learns” is patently ridiculous. First of all, strictly speaking only individuals can learn. The child of a person who has learnt something in his life is not born knowing that thing, any more than he is born with his father’s tattoos. That is the bad science of Lamarckism. Long-term learning on the part of a human group is only possible when learning is transmitted between the generations, and this transmission in turn requires respect for the “wisdom of the ancestors”. Now, such a culture cannot be taken for granted, it needs to be forcibly imposed on young people. For this there is a price to be paid, if we regard innovation as a good thing – as of course our culture generally does, otherwise we would not describe stability and balance as “stagnation”. That is what we get with too much coercion; but what we get with too little is no learning at all.

Second, while it is possible for the majority of a group to believe something in such a way that we may say that the group has “learned”, there will always be dissidents. For example, we may say that the Germans have “learned” that trying to conquer the world is a Bad Idea, but there are surely individual Germans who think otherwise. In any case few of them have learned this from personal experience; the change in their political culture depends on an understanding of their history, which can be revised, neglected or falsified. The culture may, therefore, one day “forget” what it has “learned”. Comte was quite wrong to posit some sort of political species improvement. Beneficial institutions may develop, but can at any time be perverted by the individuals who run them; for these have started as tabula rasa

Third, such lessons are never learned by all of “Humanity”. The history from which the Germans have so satisfactorily learned was, as always, written by the victors, and we may ask what, if anything, the latter “learned” from the experience. It appears that the lesson the Anglo-Saxon powers extracted was that they are intrinsically the Good Guys and always will be, whatever they actually do. Perhaps it will take defeat, destruction, occupation and re-education to convince them otherwise. After all, the Germans mostly thought themselves the Good Guys too. No man is a villain to himself, and no country either.

Fourth, “learning” is in the eye of the beholder. If Humanity can be said to have learnt things since we came down from the trees, we may have learned all the wrong things.

Posted on March 27, 2009 at 17:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Evolution Is Not Marching Anywhere

Leave a Reply