by Barry Edelson


The Oasis



"If you put all your eggs in one basket, you had better cling to that basket for dear life."
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death


A woman once described her ex-husband as a black hole. Not content to have a mere relationship with another person, he had to subsume her existence entirely into his own. None who came within his sphere could easily dislodge themselves from his emotional orbit. Unlike an actual singularity in the center of a galaxy, he was not merely a passive vacuum of friends and relations, but actively sought to ensure that those near him remained under his sway forever. For example, when first married, he bought a house next to his brother's, so that his wife, even after their divorce, had to navigate a long driveway every day directly beneath her estranged in-law's windows. Since she had become financially dependent on her husband, she had to endure this excruciating situation for many years until she could afford to move elsewhere. In this and numerous other ways, through various traps and manipulations he set in her path, she found it nearly impossible to escape her former husband's insatiable and destructive appetite.

If we are compelled to ask why a person enters into such an unhealthy relationship in the first place, and why so many years must elapse before she decides to extricate herself from it, we fall back upon a familiar explanation: a prison is also a refuge. The human animal is both a seeker and a homebody, both adventurous and fearful. We find shelter wherever it is available, and give it up only reluctantly. The will to control one's own destiny is in continuous conflict with a craving for safety.

If this example sounds extreme, it differs from the experience of others less in kind than in degree. Ever since humankind drew its first breath, it has sought dominion over the Earth. It is not mere restlessness, ambition or discontent that drives us to every corner of the planet and beyond. We are intent, as a species and as individual representatives of our kind, to control everything that falls within our grasp and our view. There is no part of the land, sea or sky that we would not exploit if we had the means. Even the moon and the other planets are fair game for our dreams of mastery, once we can figure out how to reap their bounty. And we will get there, no doubt. Given enough time, if we survive our own excesses (a big if), our insistence upon bringing everything under the sun under our command will eventually propel us to the edge of the known universe. The only limits on our domination of the world are those imposed by our own conscience, if we have one, and by nature itself.

It is not clear whether this relentless pursuit of everything — knowledge, things, one another — is unique to human beings or if it is shared by other creatures. Is every living thing impelled to dominate its environment, to feed itself at the expense of other living things? If the lion does not hunt the antelope to extinction, it is not because it is not trying, or is intentionally leaving something to eat tomorrow. The beautiful, built-in balance that we suppose exists in nature is illusory, and only appears so from a distant vantage point. We imagine that our species has upended the ecological equilibrium, and to some extent this is undeniably true. We have wreaked more havoc on the environment, and in a shorter period of time, than any other creature. But most of the species that have ever come into existence on Earth were annihilated long before we ever came upon the scene, and by forces that were entirely natural and had nothing to do with us. Over billions of years, biology has passed through many stages on the path to its current configuration. There is no equilibrium in the natural world; at any given moment, some species are thriving while others are disappearing. If any one of them had developed the peculiar combination of cunning, dexterity and consciousness that we have, what would have stopped the members of that breed from becoming the lords of the Earth instead of us mere humans? The imperative of survival carries with it the need to consume and the readiness to destroy, sometimes including one another. Cannibalism is widespread in the animal kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom
Not exactly the true state of nature

It is clear that the distinguishing feature that separates inanimate matter from living creatures is willfulness. A rock may collide and react chemically with the cosmos of objects that surrounds it, but it does not matter to the rock whether or not it collides or reacts. Animals and plants cannot help but try to live. Since the Cambrian explosion some 540 million years ago, when simple and passive life forms floating in the placid Ediacaran seas rapidly gave way to the complex, predatory, voracious brutes that eventually led to vertebrates and all other contemporary species, the trajectory of life on Earth has tended toward violent competition. Our desire to own, collect, order, and govern everyone and everything has been honed by hundreds of millions of years of evolved compulsion towards dominion. Every species may have this compulsion; humans just happen to possess a more advanced ability to act upon it, for better or worse.

One of the consequences of living in a biosphere where the aggressive survive best is that it drives us to find oases of safety among the ceaseless clash of all against all. The constant threat of death compels us to gather in numbers, organize into tribes and armies, throw up walls against predators. Within those walls, which may extend from the city's ramparts to the edges of our imaginations, we build a civilization in which we can sleep soundly at night and raise our young in relative peace. Or so we hope.



"There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else."
— James Thurber


A numberless herd of four-legged mammals fills the landscape to the horizon. They move with a steady thrum of hooves — buffalo, antelope, wildebeest — across the vast terrain of the North American plains, African savannah, or Central Asian steppe. Perhaps there are a hundred thousand in the herd, perhaps a million. From a distant prospect they seem more like a single living mass than a collection of individuals.

The pack of predators that stalks them on the periphery of the swarm knows better. They follow closely — jackals, lions, wolves — looking for the one that is slightly slower, slightly weaker. By day's end they will succeed in bringing an animal down and feasting on its flesh. Tomorrow another will be taken, and the day after, and the day after that. But the herd is so immense that the loss is scarcely noticed. Inexorably the survivors continue as though nothing happened at all, walking, trotting or running as the circumstances dictate. To a beast positioned in the middle of the herd, the killing could easily be missed altogether. Moreover, the individual that is a bit faster and a bit luckier, the one who endures many seasons of pilgrimage and lives long enough to turn gray, could reasonably be thought to possess a superior nature. Randomness is an ingredient in longevity, but strength and skill play their part too.

Not being afflicted with vanity, the animal is incapable of imagining that he is deserving of his favorable position within the population. It is simply something that is. In truth, the beneficial traits with which he has been endowed — greater stamina, indifference to suffering — are scarcely distinguishable from those of his fellow creatures. The difference is decisive but marginal. Those that live and those that die share almost everything in common, except a tiny gradation on the scale of good fortune. Even the bestowal of physical gifts is no more than a minor random variation in cellular reproduction.



"The primary aim of human judgment is not accuracy but the avoidance of paralyzing uncertainty."
— Lewis Wolpert


The purpose of a species is its own perpetuation. The life of the individual is of no significance.

Truth is irrelevant to the descent of man. For millions of years homo sapiens and his immediate forebears knew absolutely nothing of the biological, chemical, physical or cosmological realities of the world around them, and yet here we are.

There is no reason whatsoever why we should exist. Believing that the world and its supposed glory — its warmth, colors, aromas and sensations — were created just for us is a function of our narcissism, which in turn arises from the inbred will to survive.

All other animals also share the impression that the world exists just for them. Whale, tiger, sparrow, minnow, crab, wasp, spider — and your dog — are equally incapable of supposing that anything matters but their next meal.

That we are able to frame the question does not make us right or superior; it just makes us able to frame the question. If any living creature is wrong about its own pre-eminence, ipso facto we must all be wrong.

Compassion is an anomaly in nature. It clearly exists and tints our view of life, but there is little room for human sentiment in the hostile wilderness.

To satisfy our cravings for fulfillment and comfort, the demagogue is as useful as the philosopher, the conspiracy theory as practical as empirical evidence. We employ our intellect only to the degree necessitated by survival.

An obsession that leads to our demise — tribe, cult, fad, addiction — is not a corruption of the natural order. It is irrelevant to nature how many die.

The demise of an entire species, or even of all species, is also irrelevant to nature. An asteroid hurled randomly in our direction through the void of space may have the same effect as the random turbulence of our own foolishness.

No living thing leaves the world untouched, whether traversing the cosmos or huddling in a cave. We cannot live for even a moment without disturbing the matter around us. But the world takes no notice.



"Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead."
— J.M. Coetzee


Unlike humans, lemmings do not actually commit mass suicide. That myth has been around for centuries, likely derived from an unusual breeding cycle that leads to surges in population, in turn prompting large sections of a lemming herd to swim en masse across treacherous Arctic waters in search of a new habitat. Because the original population dramatically shrinks, and some animals do not survive the crossing, observers came to the false conclusion that the lemmings were doing themselves in. The story was perpetuated in recent times by a Disney documentary in the 1950s in which lemmings (of the wrong species, no less) were reportedly pushed off a cliff from the back of a truck while the camera was rolling. Thus two illusions were shattered for the price of one: the family-friendly image of the Disney company and its cuddly animal ambassadors, and the human inclination towards veracity. The only aspects of nature positively demonstrated by this sorry episode is that people will readily commit acts of wanton cruelty to achieve a competitive advantage, and will believe any baseless story if it suits them.

We mostly prefer to draw a conclusion that mankind is naturally inclined towards goodness and probity, but that we veer from our better natures when weakened by circumstances and/or under the spell of evil manipulators. There is scant evidence to support this view. Indeed, many experiments by psychologists and social scientists provide disturbing proof that people need little prompting to exhibit selfish or even sadistic behavior. The experiments are hardly even necessary, as history is rife with savagery from beginning to end. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, humanity's unsurpassed riot of barbarism, books continue to be written and movies filmed depicting its innumerable horrors. The well of human depravity is bottomless. In the decades since the war, there have been so many more massacres, mass expulsions and genocides in so many places around the world that one despairs of ever being able to bear witness to all of this suffering.

Massed for Battle
An insult to lemmings

But, you will say, what about the many stories of decency and compassion, of ordinary people risking their lives to save others? There are indeed many such stories and many such laudable individuals, but they are notable mainly because they stand out against the garish backdrop of depravity that made their selflessness necessary. As Robertson Davies observed, "The truly historical view … was not a tale of man's progress from barbarism or superstition to modern enlightenment, but a recognition that enlightenment has shown itself in the long story of man in a variety of guises, and that barbarism and superstition were undying elements in the human story."

Then there is the argument for human progress: great discoveries, economic prosperity, democratic government. Do not countless millions live healthier and less fearful lives than in any past era? Even if this is true, an entrenched belief in progress, widespread in our society, is an anathema to seeing the world clearly. We are inclined to think that gains in political and human rights, once achieved, become a permanent part of the social fabric, and we react with commensurate disbelief when the forces of reaction move to take them away. In peaceful and prosperous times, no one pays any attention to jeremiads of pending doom. Isn't that just what demagogues do, stirring up fear and hatred to get us to follow them? Certainly, but cautious awareness is a far cry from blind submission. Where is the caution in rampant consumerism, ecological indifference and cultural decay? The current crisis did not arise from nowhere. In the decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, hardly anyone noticed the simmering authoritarianism that was sneaking up on democratic countries on several continents. Vigilance against fascism and totalitarianism seemed entirely pointless, even alarmist. New enemies posed a bigger threat, Islamic terrorism chief among them. We thought we had slain the beast of state tyranny; must we really fight this battle all over again?

Yes, again and again and again. There is no such thing as phylogeny in the social sphere, no equivalent of a genetic code for societies. Social progress does not become imprinted in anyone's DNA, and therefore can be undone with astonishing speed. We are the same species we were 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. Human nature may not be immutable, but over the negligible time span of our known history, it might as well be. Having faith in humanity's ultimate goodness is a both a misreading of that history and a colossal surrender of useful judgment. Shock and disappointment are worthless reactions to regression. Unless one is hopelessly naive, there should be nothing the least bit shocking about it.

The lemming fallacy endures because it is such a fitting metaphor for our own seemingly inexplicable misbehavior. From bad relationships to bad government, we are habitually inclined to shelter in an oasis, even if the sanctuary it provides is entirely imaginary. As for following a craven leader over a cliff, one species alone has that racket all sewn up.


August 8, 2018


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.