Kia ora: I was interested to hear a news item that Billy Graham in his farewell address said that the task of transforming human nature is the most important endeavour for humanity. I think that this hope is at the root of all religious and humanist thinking. However, in our Humanist thinking we do not put a God above us to give credence to this hope. We rely on the personal integrity of each person to consider how we may achieve this in our lives. There are many tangents to this hope. Research is showing that some people are born with a gene which predisposes them to violence. However an early loving environment can negate this gene’s effect. How do we determine human? The Dominion Post 27 July 2005 had an article Cyborgs might one day demand their human rights. A Professor Hughes has published a book Citizen Cyborg about his thoughts on a world of trans-humanism where flesh fuses with mechanics and brains with circuitry. It made me think when the article said “Walking sticks and spectacles are a basic form of trans-humanism”. I am reading Frank Herbert”s Dune series at present and think Herbert is grappling with this new world hope. I think this quote from God Emperor of Dune is perceptive. “…motives from our darkest past can well up out of an unconscious reservoir and become events with which we not only must live but contend.”
Last Meeting: An interesting look at religion and money including the twisted trail of Vatican finances.
July Monthly Meeting: Monday 4 July 7.30 to 9pm Turnbull House, Wellington. All welcome. Topic: Politics and Humanism. This will be introduced by Kent Stevens. Come and discuss any aspect you wish. Our deadline to finish at these meetings is 9.00 pm.
Radio Access: 11 am 783 kHz Sunday 3 July. Last month Jeff and Kent spoke with a member of the gay community who is concerned with action by schools to block sites from their computing systems. This month Jeff will speak with Carrick Lewis, a past president of our Society. Two CD’s have been compiled of past programmes and are now available. This is an endeavor to make available the excellent material that Jeff and Joan produce in this monthly programme. If you are interested, please e-mail Jeff or write to the NZ Humanist Society.
Winter Solstice 2005: Sunday 19 June. A few of us gathered for lunch on a rather cold day.
AGM 2005 Sunday 4 September. AGM 10.00 am Turnbull House, Wellington. Lunch at Wellington Cafe ( to be advised ) followed by guest speakers, 1.00 pm until 4.00 pm at Senior Citizen’s Lounge, Mezzanine Floor, Wellington Public Library. We have asked Lloyd Geering and Marilyn Maddox of Victoria University and are waiting for confirmation. More details in next newsletter.
Nominations: are called for Council positions. All nominations are to be in writing and signed by the proposer and seconder and shall bear the written consent of the nominee. Nominations are to be sent to the Secretary, Humanist Society of New Zealand, P. O. Box 3372 Wellington. All members of the council are expected to attend regular council meetings in Wellington at their own expense and to perform such duties as their position on council may require. The president is expected to organise and attend all regular monthly evening meetings in Wellington.
Committee-Council meeting: Sunday 3 July 10.45 at 17 Allen Tce, Tawa
Email discussion group:. Is operating now on Yahoo at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nzhumanism
Have you registered to meet with other members via the web world of communication.
Snippet from Aphorisms Free Inquiry April/May 2005 ( the complete list will appear in the next magazine )
Express an affirmative attitude toward others and ourselves.
Compliment people if they do well; be polite, honest, and considerate.
Focus on the best in individuals, not their faults or shortcomings.
Applaud people’s achievements, appreciate their creativity, respect their uniqueness.
Learn to forgive and forget, to heal and respect, to modify and improve.
Do not return evil act for evil act; do not be vengeful, vindictive, or spiteful.
Learn to make exceptions, be flexible.
Be willing to change your mind and admit when you are wrong.
Try to help others if you can; be pleased if they succeed.
Abandon jealousy, hatred, cynicism, revenge, or greed.
Enjoy life, lessen your complaints, point out life’s beauty or value, not its imperfections.
Instead of bemoaning your fate or blaming others, pitch in and try to improve the situation.
The Architecture of Ethics
Picture a small, one-room cottage in the forest. Then watch as successive generations build onto it, gradually adding rooms. Eventually somebody adds a second story. The building design becomes more complex but the structure’s functionality and versatility increases. Later a third story is added. This brings new structural problems but also new possibilities for added functionality. While these possibilities are being exploited, some visionaries are already dreaming of adding a fourth floor.
We can use this as an analogy to illustrate a central feature of the moral standards and ethical principles that we humans follow in our dealings with each other and with society as a whole. These principles constitute a structure of interlocking behavioral guidelines that have been growing organically since our ancestors first became human, if not earlier. These standards and principles didn’t descend to us from on high as some revealed truth from an intelligent being greater than ourselves. We worked them out through a long and arduous evolutionary process marked by many wrong turns and much social discord. Indeed, the structure is still imperfect and we continue trying to make improvements.
This understanding of the source of moral systems is expressed succinctly in Humanist Manifesto III, where it says: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”
So let”s look again at that one-room cottage. Long before our remote ancestors became sapient- while they were still at the Homo erectus stage or even further back on the evolutionary tree- they were social animals, not solitary predators like the great cats. The social unit at first consisted of little more than an extended family. Small bands scattered widely across the savannah subsisted on a mixture of hunting and gathering. To survive at all, the individuals in these wandering bands had to trust each other. Rules evolved that governed each individual”s behavior toward other members of the group. An embryonic Golden Rule began to take shape: share the food and other good things, and share the hardships with other members of the group: “One for all and all for one” We are a team and we stick together.
For several million years the ancestors of these hunter-gatherers had evolved physically, mostly in response to changes in the physical environment. Bipedalism and increased brain size had led to an increase in the number of years during which the child required parental supervision, which in turn encouraged the practice of monogamy and some limited expansion in the use of verbal symbols. Eventually our ancestral primates evolved into physically modern humans as a new species we call Homo sapiensemerged. That threshold was crossed about 150,000 years ago.
The evolutionary pace accelerated during the next 100,000 years. People learned that multi-family tribes could hunt bigger game and survive environmental stress better than the old family-based units. The Golden Rule developed a few bylaws. Our cottage developed a few more rooms. But the rules that governed the behavior of these archaic humans were mostly instinctive, not learned. In technical terms, our social instincts continued for the most part to co-evolve with our physical evolution. Nobody saw fit to build a second story on our structure.
Why? Because instinctive application of the Golden Rule only works when everybody in the social unit knows everybody else, as is still the case in small, isolated villages. This makes it difficult for a cheater to violate the accepted behavioral guidelines without getting caught. Minor violations will be noticed and controlled by group disapproval, while in extreme cases the cheater can be expelled. In archaic times the population was spread so thinly that people had very little occasion to meet and interact with outsiders, so cheaters normally had no place else to go. Ergo, very few cheaters, and the system worked without police or other formal instruments of coercion.
About fifty thousand years ago everything changed. Language burst its former bounds and enabled people to think in abstractions, even to imagine things that didn”t exist in the physical world around them. After a gestation period of a hundred thousand years our human ancestors began to think like we do. It was a truly Promethean transition. We have been special ever since.
This critically important milestone in our evolution had all sorts of consequences that intersected with each other in profoundly important ways. People asked questions for the first time and, in an attempt to answer them, imagined divinity. Enter religion. People developed much more efficient ways of gleaning a living from the environment and radiated out to quickly populate the habitable world. They also began to cooperate in larger groups and formed confederations of tribes.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, some of them switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture and animal husbandry, and their numbers multiplied explosively. Now the need for cooperation on a much grander scale became acute. Many of the older in-groups, the village-sized units, coalesced and came under one ruler. New sets of behavioral guidelines were needed”to govern relations between governors and the governed, for example, or to manage trade and commerce.
The ancient sense of in-group versus out-group, of “us versus them” was still part of the human heritage, part of human nature. The trick was to build on it and expand its coverage. People needed the ability to tell whether that stranger on the other side of the mountain was really an alien them” or just another member of “us” that lived too far away to be known personally. Cultural markers evolved to meet this need, such as dialects, religious affiliations, and conventions in dress and manners. Culturally identified in-groups became the norm, the basic template for human social organization.
Kingdoms and empires followed. The ground floor of our building was still intact but a second floor, a new superstructure of ethical principles, had been built on it that governed relations between outlying members of the enlarged in-group.
During the last three centuries or so a third story has been added. The nation-state has become the dominant template for social organization, taking over from the often feudal and hierarchical system of societies based either on a single culture or a confederation of them (such as an empire). Here again, the new sense of the in-group hasn”t replaced the older ones, it has simply displaced them, leaving them diminished but essentially intact. An American citizen now gives his or her prime loyalty to the nation but may retain a secondary sense of belonging to a region or a religious community or any of many other alternatives. And beyond that there is a primary, visceral loyalty to kin, particularly the close family.
Now a fourth story is being constructed, rather rapidly in the context of the time frames we”ve been considering but agonizingly slowly as we sit here at the dawn of a new millennium and try to figure out what”s going on. We are building a sense of humanity-as-a-whole as the ultimate in-group, which exists over and above our sense of national consciousness and whatever residual loyalties we retain from the earlier, culture-based periods. The need is increasingly urgent, for galloping technological change is forcing new global problems on us that demand global solutions.
The ethical principles needed to facilitate cooperation on a global scale need to be more fully explored and defined. And therein lies the need for Humanism. We can”t return to value systems appropriate for lower floors in our ethical architecture. We need to develop global values for global times, drawing on our archive of past experience, our developed capacity to reason, and our forethinking imagination. Only then can our fourth story be completed.
Originally published by “The Humanist” January/February 2005 pp 43-44.
Carl Coon is a former ambassador to Nepal and author of “One Planet, One People,” & “Beyond Us versus Them” published by Prometheus Books in 2004.