We humans rarely learn anything from history because we operate in a state of denial. I don’t simply mean, “I didn’t do that.” What I mean is deeper: we are in a state of denial about how little control we have over our own behaviors. We are in a state of denial about how poorly our brains function. We tell ourselves stories about how clever we are, how we’re the thinking ape, but in reality most go from birth to death without thinking a single thought. Repeating and shuffling sound-bites and memes we’ve been fed is not thinking. Our “opinions” and “beliefs” aren’t ours at all, but merely snippets we’ve accepted uncritically.
In the last 70 years or so we’ve learned a great deal about the cognitive limitations of the human brain and about how so much of our behavior is hardwired into us (for very good evolutionary reasons). But we’ve failed to use any of that knowledge. It’s as if we discovered that the way we engineered the brakes on automobiles was guaranteed to cause failure, but we carry on doing it that way while telling ourselves how smart we are as engineers.
It is very difficult, looking at the state of the world (we’ve entered another Age of Morons, alas) to imagine we aren’t about to perpetrate mass horror all over again. I believe the coming horrors are inevitable. But my slender hope is that those who survive will be so desperate to avoid doing it all over again that they will be willing to use what knowledge we’ve amassed to construct systems of governance that are intentionally designed to mitigate our most self-destructive predispositions.
We can’t get there from here because we’ve fetishized representative democracy just as in previous times people fetishized rule by “wise” Emperor or Queen. But after it has been shown without any doubt that representative democracy merely gives rein to our self-destructive follies, and once we’ve connected the dots between individual-scale behaviors and group-scale behaviors, we may undertake the intellectual work required to devise approaches that enable us to do better.
We’ve already done this unconsciously, in some areas. In civilized countries (this definition of course excludes the USA) we no longer expect groups of young men to roam the streets in gangs, staking out “their” territories with machetes and guns. Instead they join the ranks of those supporting soccer teams, they join amateur teams, they form dance groups, etc. We no longer expect our children to gain all their knowledge from Auntie Mabel; we send them to schools that attempt to follow a slightly more structured curriculum. We no longer expect close relatives to support our injured or unemployed; we have hospitals and social security.
On a purely technical level, automobile engineers have been consciously compensating for human inadequacy for decades with air bags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, radar-based collision avoidance systems, and so forth.
So it’s not impossible to imagine a similar but more wide-ranging approach taken to the problem of social engineering. But we are still in denial and it will take decades of horror to stand any chance of shaking us out of our complacency. I wish with all my heart, as a parent, that this were not the case.
Alas, we’re still precisely the creatures we have always been: blind, foolish, easily gulled, emotion-driven, and with scant to zero capacity for rational thought.