The recent flood of laws regulating our behaviour flowing out of the COVID-19 dilemma have only deepened my conviction that we are an obedient species. Wear a facemask, don’t stand closer than 1.6 metres to someone, stay in your home after 8 p.m., stay out of Queensland, close your café, hold a Zoom funeral for your much-loved mother, no singing in a choir. I’m dumbfounded about how we obey these commands so meekly. How did we come to be this way?
I think that the key to understanding this obedience to authority requires a Darwinian look at human development. According to these ideas, humans and chimpanzees began their split into two species about 7 million years ago. Both species today are social animals, both still carrying the strong trait of domination of the alpha.
It’s this dominant alpha aspect that lies behind both our tendency to obey orders from the alpha and to give orders when one’s fulfilling an alpha role. Seven million years is a long time to build a characteristic.
But isn’t the defining characteristic that makes a human being different from our chimp cousin intelligence, the capacity to think? This emerging mutation became more and more a gene that gave its owner a better chance at survival, a better chance at passing on that gene to the next generation.
But whatever gene keeps the alpha domination going didn’t disappear. Over the millennia, the regressive alpha merges with the evolving intelligence. The capacity to grab a banana or sex from a clan member lives side by side with the capacity to figure out the seasons, plant seeds and harvest crops. We find brute force begins to integrate with reasoned thought.
As we move forward in time, at no point does this might-is-right aspect of humanity cease. The trait is powerful and is passed from generation to generation. But the other trait, our evolving intelligence, is also being passed along. This intelligence leads to everything that we are and have today, so slowly in its changes as to be imperceptible. Our growls and grunts evolve into sophisticated languages. The twigs that we use to pull ants from their nests evolve into complex technologies. Hundreds, thousands, millions of years in the unfolding, invisible changes to each of us in our day to day existence, unnoticed, unexamined, taken for granted as just the way things are.
It’s the might-is-right side of our genetic inheritance that we want brought under control. None of us like to be aggressed against, to be bullied. We didn’t like being bullied at school; we don’t like being bullied at work. We’ve developed a language for the various kinds of bullying. Sexual harassment, armed robbery, blackmail, rape, murder, assault, battery, molesting, teasing. Most of these categories we declare to be illegal and call on our governments to protect us from these abuses. We prefer to work and play together free from violence or the threat of violence. The protection from violence and the retaliation against violence is entrusted to our police. They enforce the laws of the land. Ultimately they hold the power to use force to arrest and detain citizens accused of a crime. Put simply, our police are the ones charged with standing up to the bully. We are taught not to take the law into our own hands but rather call a cop. That’s their role. Few of us would disagree with this. If my government limited its scope to this peace-keeping role in our society, I wouldn’t be speaking up, voicing my concerns about my loss of liberty. It’s my observation that government has always been acting far beyond this role and into that of a meddling busybody, sticking its nose into our affairs and issuing orders. “Don’t do this!” “Don’t do that!” That troubles me. I wasn’t born to be bossed around by some bully. I don’t care either if the bully is some king who inherited his throne from his mommy or some prime minister who received his position through a democratic election. I’m not here to be pushed around.
I can see how it evolved though. Over the long, long passing of time, the alpha who pushed my ancestor around and grabbed his banana whenever he wanted it evolved into some variation of ruler who grabbed his bananas through some variation of a tax collection system. We have many layers of rules and structures that hide the banana-grab that’s happening so that all I see is a line on my pay slip that tells me that some of my wages went to the government as an automatic deduction as my income tax. But it was my money and it was grabbed just as my great-great etc. grandfather had his banana grabbed.
And yet the history of our species as we become more and more a species of reasoned thought rather than brutish bullying is a history of challenging authority. I think the best example of this is still the words spoken in the American Declaration of Independence that each of us has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Suddenly and explicitly we had the possibility of human rights overruling the divine right of kings.
Perhaps we think that since we live in a democracy, our human rights are secure. But this would be flawed thinking. Living in a democracy means that we are entitled to vote for and thus decide who makes up our government. It tells us nothing about what that government might or might not do.
For the alpha it’s always about power and power also evolves, ever growing. Power always demands obedience. Human rights must be suspended permanently if obedience is to rule. This is what I fear has happened in Australia and most of the free world. Our liberty is gone. Check out this recent Melbourne story of police shooting at a curfew breacher.
Ah yes, the thin blue line, all that stands between us and bank robbers, terrorists and elderly men who go out for a drive after 8 p.m. Give me a break!
We have been conditioned from earliest childhood to obey authority. Later in life, we never question any authority figure. The game works only because we are understandably afraid to question the policeman who enforces the orders because deep inside we know that disobedience can lead to our death right then and there.
It’s too much of a stretch to even suggest that we end government. It’s like proposing that we end breathing or eating. But in the spirit of evolution, I am proposing that we end this bullying that has been evolving in government. How can this come about? Ah, that’s a story for another day. Stay tuned.