Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Superiority Illusion

One consequence of total honesty with ourselves and with others is the discovery that none of us is superior to anyone else when the entirety of our lives and long-term experience is taken into account. The only sense in which we are ever “better” is in our adaptation to a specific set of circumstances; but if those circumstances change, as they inevitably will, then someone else may be better adapted than we are. It is the reality of changing conditions which makes our cooperation with each other critical, since the presently stronger can help the presently weaker to survive and eventually return the favor when their positions are reversed.

If we value our holding a privileged position over other people, then we will seek conditions where we have an advantage, and try to maintain them for as long as possible. If by chance we have also spent most of our lives in such conditions, we may be deluded into thinking we are intrinsically superior to those who haven’t; and when conditions change we may vilify the better adapted as enemies trying to cheat us of our “rightful” place in the world.

Technology, psychology, and education are excellent tools for controlling the environment and enabling more people to survive and thrive over time. They have been so successful that the natural challenges to the superiority illusion have been attenuated enough for it to grow, manifesting most strongly in the groups of people who can marshal those tools most effectively. When we should be using these tools to improve our entire population’s chances of survival, we are enabling the delusional among us to reduce those chances.

As we reach the limits of technology due to our inescapable depletion of critical resources, whether now or years from now, reality will be forced on all of us, and it is imperative that we have enough diversity left in our population to have a chance that some of us will be able to adapt to the new circumstances. The best way to do this is to adopt a cultural imperative to constantly find and test our core assumptions about ourselves and our environment, adopt a set of values that incorporates the reality that emerges, and honestly share the results of this effort with everyone we interact with.

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