Sunday, October 25, 2009

From Whence Do We Come?

If it's true that Americans suffer from an advanced case of evolutionary "mismatch," responsible for many of the ills of our egocentric and essentially selfish society (at least by comparison with many other developed countries), then something must differentiate us from the citizens of some other countries, who seem to understand better than we do the value of cooperative, caring behavior on an organized basis. Why would we cling to no-longer-adaptive behavior patterns established thousands of years ago if people in selected other countries don't (or at least do so to a lesser degree)?

What separates Americans from, say, Scandinavians, I suspected, was at least partially the result of our frontier heritage. Some confirmation of this hypothesis comes from the book "Wilderness at Dawn -- The Settling of the North American Continent" (complete reference upon request).

In 500 pages or so, Ted Morgan recounts an overabundance of detail about his topic, starting about 15,000 years ago and moving inexorably, sometimes laboriously, through the 18th century. Generally he is content to describe events, rarely lapsing into analysis. On page 483, however, we find this stunning conclusion: "Mix well these ingredients: three expansionist European powers, a native people refusing subjugation, and a population of slaves brought agains their will from West Africa. The result? A recipe for strife."

Indeed, the preceding pages tell the story of people with often vicious and aggressive tendencies, creating government on the fly, often violating their own laws almost as quickly as they make them, seeking fortunes and the freedom to practice religions not favored in their native countries while simultaneously denying tolerance to others.

"Whatever their destination, as they occupied hundreds of different habitats and climates, the various groups [of settlers] had one thing in common: the quest for food was their organizing principle" (p. 24). Fast forward a few hundred years -- and find some people scrounging for food in garbage bins, the slightly more fortunate accepting baskets at non-profit pantries and hoping the provisions will last out the month, and the very fortunate never satisfied even with huge fortunes, allegedly demanding multi-million dollar bonuses for moving money and securities around the world in ways inscrutable to the average person, stockpiling hundreds of millions of dollars in banks around the world to evade legally imposes taxes, and complaining all the while about over-regulation and large government deficits.

"Around A.D. 1100, at the peak of their power, the leaders of Cahokia [a settlement apparently near what is now Wisconsin] ordered the building of a stockade around the inner city. They cut down an estimated 80,000 trees...and didn't replant. Losing its cover, the game fled at a time when the human population was increasing...By A.D. 1300, Cahokia was abandoned, and its splendid mounds were covered with weeds and underbrush, monuments to man's overreaching" (p. 41). Fast forward a few hundred years, with industry still resisting efforts to mitigate the ravages of environmental destruction. We are the children of our forefathers.

"Like Columbus, the settlers of all of North America -- of Quebec, Jamestown, and Plymouth -- would believe that the white men didn't have to treat the Indians the way they treated one another" (p. 50). "In each village he visited, De Soto repaid the hospitality of the chief by taking him hostage, along with other captives who were used as porters" (p. 73). Fast forward to today. Every oppressed minority -- ironically, with the possible exception of some Native American tribes -- is still struggling with vestiges of past injustice, current-day bigotry, or both.

"On February 12, 1599, [Juan de] Onate pronounced the sentence [to Indians who had lost a battle]: All the men over the age of twenty-five would have one foot cut off and would have to serve twenty years of serfdom. Those between twelve and twenty-five would simply have one foot cut off" (p. 83). Fast forward to Texas, 2009, where commissions are disbanded just in time to prevent official findings that a convicted arsonist, since executed, was actually innocent. (I presume you saw the articles in the paper about this recently.) Don't see the connection? It's a mentality that basically says "we will have law and order here, at any cost, and if we make a few mistakes along the way, so be it."

Welcome to American, then and now.

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