We are all simply people.
We are simply all people.
All people are we, simply.
George’s original work on the origins of war inspired me to take a close look at some anthropology and cultural history that followed the migration out of Africa of the invasive species of people that has now covered the earth.
Thousands and thousands of years ago, people learned to speak. Before our cultures developed the written word, we had the spoken word. And humans have been around talking with each other for a long, long time. The first people, as we think of people, showed up in Africa about 200,000 years ago. They walked upright. They made and used tools. They lived together in bands or tribes or family groups. They were descended from a long line of animals that were not strictly speaking “people.” Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists tell us that this line of ancestors went back perhaps six million years. And during that time, before we became, strictly speaking, “people,” we were adapting. We developed tools. We were adapted to eat almost anything. We weren’t good at eating cellulose like the herd animals were, but we made up for that by eating them.
Six million years ago our mammal family tree branched out and we—or our Australopithecus ancestors, the ancestors of homo sapiens, the folks I’m calling “people”—went a different direction from our cousins the gorillas and the chimpanzees.
Six million years.
It took us another four million years or so to become “makers.” And then, for most of the next two million years the “human” genus evolved into a number of different species… Australopithecus became homo habilis, homo neanderthalis, homo rhodesiensis… new discoveries of ancient hominid species turn up from time to time in the fossil record. The most recent, I think, is the Denisovan, a new species discovered in a Siberian cave. All of these species are different from modern people, creatures who in a fit of hubris we named homo sapiens… which is Latin for “wise person.”
How wise are we, if we are the only surviving species of our clade? When our species emerged on the scene there were at least four other kinds of hominins around. Genetic testing shows that there was some interbreeding among the species. But I suspect the reason that homo sapiens survived and the other hominins went extinct is because homo sapiens was just better at making things, including the tools of stone age warfare. Were some of our relatives naturally peaceful? There’s no reason to think they were not. Anthropologists’ perception of the Neanderthals suggests that they were artistic, and like homo sapiens, they adorned themselves and buried their dead.
So for tens of thousands of years we coexisted with others who were like us, but different. We developed languages, and finally, about six thousand years ago—an eye-blink compared to the millions of years of fossil record and the two hundred thousand years of human existence we’ve been talking about—we developed the written word. For a hundred thousand years or so people had been migrating out of Africa and settling into regions they found comfortable. An agricultural revolution occurred and the hunting and gathering cultures shifted to farming and staying pretty much in one place. Among the cultural ramifications that showed up early were religion and law. Both of these very human pursuits were arguably improved by a written language. When literacy appeared, stories and rules that had been handed down by word of mouth were locked into text. And it’s from these early texts that we can gather that homo sapiens has for a long time been interested in making peace as well as war.
Christianity and Judaism share the biblical old testament and the idea that a messiah will come and offer people salvation. In the second chapter of the book named for the prophet Isaiah is this verse:
“And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they study war.”
“Ain’t going to study war no more…”
There’s an old spiritual that many of us know, Pete Seeger sang it, the Weavers, Holly Near, Emma’s Revolution has a version. It’s probably in our song book…
And the Chorus goes:
Ain’t gonna study war no more,
Ain’t gonna study war no more
So the same bible that brought us plagues and floods and a Nile River full of blood, the bible that tells the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho also has that lighter, more peaceful moment.
I think it’s interesting that the Book of Isaiah has a lot about Cyrus the Great, King of Persia in it. Cyrus was Zoroastrian, and so there are cross references between the Hebrew Torah and the clay tablets that the Persians used for historical records.
On one of those tablets, describing his own achievements, Cyrus the Great says:
“Amid jubilation and rejoicing, I entered Babylon in peace to establish a just government and strive for peace. My troops wandered peacefully throughout Babylon. In all of Sumer and Akkad, I gave no cause for fear and no one was terrorized. I concerned myself with the needs and welfare of the citizens of Babylon, Sumer and Akkad, and with promoting their well-being. I freed them from their improper oppression & bondage. I healed their afflictions and put an end to their misfortune. I restored their dilapidated dwellings. I gathered and assisted the displaced held in bondage, to return to their homes.”
Of course the story is that Cyrus was sent there by Marduk, a deity, who suggested that it was time to put things right, to restore certain temples and so forth. So there was a little bit of conquest required in order to enter Babylon in Peace, but so it goes.
* * *
Over the centuries since we started writing things down, we’ve started to understand ourselves better by studying history. And history they say is written by the winners. Ironically enough the losers are often the more peaceful people. When we started to bring this humanist service together one topic we thought we’d focus on was “Peace,” and –can you believe it?—what came out of that was a closer look at the origins of war.
Many humanists are non-theists, and among us there are peacemakers, people who try to live with an eye on equality, community, integrity, and—often—simplicity.
Howard Zinn was a historian, a playwright, and an activist who was also a humanist. His life’s work focused on a wide range of issues including race, class, war, and history, and touched the lives of many people. He was aware of the crushing fact that the violent and warlike often dominate while the idealistic folks, the peacemakers, are subordinated among them. Here’s what he says about that:
You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and
adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in
comparison to those who have power?
First, don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No
matter how much power they have they cannot prevent you from living your
life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships
with people as you like.
Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments,
but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!
Third, understand that the major media will not tell you of all the acts of
resistance taking place every day in the society, the strikes, the protests, the
individual acts of courage in the face of authority. Look around for the evidence of
these unreported acts, and you will certainly find it. And for the little you find,
extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much as
what you’ve found.
Fourth: Note that throughout history people have felt powerless before
authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing, acting,
risking, persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them,
even if a little. That is the history of the labor movement, of the women’s
movement, of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the disable persons’ movement,
the gay and lesbian movement, the movement of Black people in the South.
Fifth: Remember, that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable are in
fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience of others, and
when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin defying authority,
that power at the top turns out to be very fragile. Generals become powerless
when their soldiers refuse to fight. Industrialists become powerless when their
workers leave their jobs or occupy the factories. Matadors cry when the bull
refuses to fight.
Sixth: When we forget the fragility of that power in the top we become
astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many
such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other
Seventh: Don’t look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an
ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the
consciousness of people growing. So you need patience, persistence, and
need to understand that even when you don’t “win,” there is fun and
fulfillment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good
people, in something worthwhile.
Thinking about those seven pieces of advice from Howard Zinn, I’m still left with the question of whether our warlike behavior is so burned into us genetically that it will always dominate our culture, or can we transcend those hundreds of thousands of years of historical conflict and find a peaceful path into the future?
As he said, a sense of humor is crucial! But in closing I still gotta ask, What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?
[Presented today, 2/7/2016 at the Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Humanist Service]