I’m breaking one of my own rules here, dating the piece by getting topical, but it was time to write this the day Donald Trump was elected — on a foaming backwash of tribal disaffection — to the august seat of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, as things go, I never did it. It’s really hard to actually sit down and write something (boy let me tell you, it’s hard) but recently I did two seemingly unrelated things in back to back succession:
I read the correspondence of John and Abigail Adams, written during the miraculous birth of this republic, and I watched Trump’s inaugural speech.
So, alright, fine. Let’s dance.
This is a story of three things: Evolution, Language, and Technology. Three things, and a premise: Humans are monkeys. This isn’t a bad thing, or a good thing, it’s just a thing. We are monkeys. And this is important because as monkeys, all that we are is a product of the evolutionary forces that allowed Homo sapiens sapiens to annihilate the rest of our genus and assert dominion over the Earth. We are king monkeys. And as monkeys, we are prone to doing monkey shit.
Evolution shaped us by rewarding those physical and behavioral mutations and adaptations that allowed individuals to reproduce and raise their young to maturity. Period. Anything that promoted the reproduction of our genes was reinforced, anything that didn’t was met with a shrug and a cold wind.
As a result, our ancestors, by and large, were murderous rapists. This isn’t judgment; there’s nothing to judge. In a pre-moral state of nature there is no good or bad, things simply are. Murder and rape got the job done. You murdered your competitors, you took the most fertile women, you sired children, and you murdered any threats to them.
Those who were good at this successfully reproduced and passed on the genes that allowed them to do so. To us. If you were to try your hand at murderous raping, you’d find you have quite the aptitude for it. Honestly, the genes in your body are constantly exasperated by all the various things you do that aren’t murdering and raping.
As you sit there hopeful, vying passively for someone’s attention, your genes are all screaming silently: Why hasn’t it murdered and raped yet? Well, genes, the answer is that our species’ great strength, what gave us dominion over the Earth, wasn’t just our viciousness — lots of animals are vicious. It was our capacity for collective action. More than simple families, we formed tribes.
Your in-group, your tribe, were the people with whom you survived the winter — killing them indiscriminately held no utility. The tribe’s survival was your survival. You hunted together, you slept together, you shared labor and protection, and you raised children together. Still lots of violent struggles for primacy and position, certainly still lots of rape, but on the whole, less murder than in the state of nature. This wasn’t a matter of morality, or growth of the human spirit, or anything like that. It was just simple game theory: Murdering these monkeys held less utility.
Anyone outside the tribe? Fuck ’em. Human, monkey, whatever, they’ll be murdered and raped if there’s any utility in it for survival and procreation. They’re not us, and whatever it takes, we will survive. The tribe is the exception, not the rule, it’s just a matter of self interest. We’re still murderous rapists, make no mistake.
Starving members of another tribe steal our supplies and threaten our stocks for the winter? A tribe of humans will torture and destroy them, to the last, salting the earth over their graves, if that example will keep other tribes from fucking with us. We will survive. We are the king monkeys, the users of tools, the most adaptable and successful group-hunters on the planet, and we will protect what is ours. Do not fuck with us.
Survival of the fittest, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, forged and sharpened us to a fine point. Survival was everything, and only the strong survived. Then, gradually, there came a change. Over time, as we lived together and worked together, we made the great leap that would come to define our tribal species: We developed language.
This was a rather big deal.
Not only did languages enormously increase the efficiency of our in-groups, cementing our burgeoning position as the dominant species, but abstract language by its very nature was about construction. We began, almost accidentally, through daily household communication, to build something incredible: We raised an edifice of knowledge.
And the amazing thing about this growing collection of shared human knowledge was that with the advent of language, for the first time, we could preserve it. First orally, and then in writing, we began to pass it down. Children no longer started from scratch with each new generation. As each discovery was made, painfully, slowly, through trial and error, it was added to the pile, and that pile was now durable and transferable. Incredible!
In a manner unique among all the life that has ever lived on this planet, we now had something besides evolutionary instinct to inform and drive our decisions: Abstract Thought. As new monkeys were born, they now learned language, and with language came the key to the ever-growing temple of collective human knowledge. Abstract Thought! Collective Knowledge! Now we were really cooking with gas.
And so we grew and thrived, using our languages, our abstract thoughts, growing our knowledge. Slowly but surely, the development of humanity began shaping itself to a new time-scale. Whereas before, the forces of evolution that drove our development, that rewarded and refined our murderous raping and our in-group/out-group activities, had worked over the course of millions of years of randomness and mutation and gross numbers, now suddenly things were changing — not in us, importantly, but around us — on timescales of thousands, even hundreds of years, because of language.
Each new generation rose and took its first steps on the shoulders of its ancestors, born now lifted up in the abstract ether, up out of the raw muck of nature, with all the hard-won discoveries of antiquity brought to us and laid at our feet as children, in words. And we added to it, oh boy did we add to it. We took this hereditary edifice of knowledge, and like gods, we gave birth. Through abstract thought we invented scholastic science, and out of science, we created technology.
And the world went nuts.
Now the capacity of this species of king monkeys took off in a truly exponential fashion. The world we had wrought in our image began changing, rapidly and drastically, not over millions or thousands or hundreds of years, but over the course of individual lifetimes. Monkeys born to horse-drawn carriages and candle-lit cabins witnessed the unveiling of nuclear power. Overnight, language and technology changed everything.
The war of the food chain is won. We have broken or eradicated all of our predators and competitors. We have laid flat the mountains, cracked the sonic barrier on wings of steel, crafted and deployed the most monstrous gears of war. We have split the atom and looked inside, and we have walked on the moon — just to say that we did. Our achievements as a species are breathtaking, not the least for their astounding swiftness. We are truly an incredible race of monkeys; our explosion has shaken the very foundations of life on this planet.
But for all that, we are still monkeys. And as monkeys, we are still the product of millions of years of amoral, only-the-strong-survive evolution. That shit is just in us, hard-wired, genetically fused with everything that we are. Evolution hasn’t stopped, of course, it always has and always will work to mold us, regardless of fluctuations in the factors of selection, but, and this is crucial, it works on a timescale of glaciers and ice ages. Evolution is a great statistics game that takes millions of years to make itself known, and it has fallen way, way behind the world of plastic and skyscrapers and computers that sprang up, whole-cloth, in less than a century.
And so we sit, hairless monkeys in our sleek metal rocket ships, pressing buttons and pulling levers that individually we do not understand. Evolution may catch up, eventually, but that’s eons away, and who knows how much more we’ll invent in the meantime? Right now we have way, way outstripped its pace. Our evolution knows nothing of the modern world. Which brings us to today, to this page on this incredible internet — to you.
You are the product of an endless line of biological ancestors, stretching unbroken back to the first life. If you looked down this line of grim-faced men, all standing with their arms crossed, looking back at you, their descendant and heir, you’d discover that for all their differences, they all shared one specific evolutionary trait: They were excellent murderous rapists. Whether they exercised that capacity, or enjoyed it, or even wanted it, is irrelevant. They were good at it. The genes for tribalism and murderous raping were baked into your very essence.
The philosophical exercise of empathy, leading to kindness, in pursuit of fairness, was not a priority in your evolution. These are the fruits of knowledge. If you don’t put knowledge in the monkey, it’s just a monkey, and monkeys are animals, driven by instinct. Survive the winter. Protect the group to protect yourself. Do what needs to be done to outsiders, they’re not us, they’re not of the group. If it’s necessary, torture and destroy them, all of them, and salt the earth above their graves. Even within the tribe, don’t be weak, don’t be sick, don’t be a burden come winter. The state of nature isn’t moral, and it isn’t pretty — it’s a world of brutal warlords, ruled by the strong, for the strong, and enforced by violence. From the womb, without adjustment, it’s fundamentally what we are.
So when we refuse the golden gift of education, when we sneer at academics and scoff at the institutions of science, what we get are not the sons of Plato and the daughters of Socrates, but a tribe of hooting monkeys, driven only by the evolutionary imperatives of survival and reproduction. And I get it, anti-intellectualism, truly I do. I too am a monkey, all of this is in me too. For all my erudite pretension, when I talk to someone with a master’s degree on a subject I care about, I’m immediately priced out of the conversation. My opinion is rendered invalid before we even begin, and that’s threatening as all hell. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to that, because I am a monkey, and I have that reaction.
But instinct doesn’t have to rule us anymore. We can examine our thoughts with skepticism, identify which instincts are to be distrusted, and take a critical eye to those knee-jerk reactions. We can put the knowledge in ourselves. We can study morality, and what it means to be good, and we can try to make decisions a level above the evolutionary imperative, about how we want to live on this planet. It is a choice to exercise the incredible capacity, unique among all the animals, for abstract thought. What a pair of words: Abstract Thought. Can you believe the million million lotteries we have won just to have the opportunity to spurn such a gift?
In all our terrifying glory we are capable of the brightest lights and the darkest darks: Hitler and Einstein, the Enlightenment and the Inquisition — As the only species with morality, we are also the only ones capable of evil. The combination of our evolution and our capacity for linguistics, growth, and collective action has made us great, amorally great, without regard for the abstract concepts of right and wrong. The only way to ensure that beauty and justice and goodness are what drive us, that the dark specter of survival ethics doesn’t power the machine of humanity — that we aren’t a space-faring tribe of murderous rapists — is to put the knowledge in the monkey. You have to put the knowledge in the monkey.
If you don’t put the knowledge in the monkey, it’s just a monkey. And when threatened and operating on instinct, we talking monkeys with opposable thumbs and nuclear weapons are a truly terrifying species. We are the king monkeys. Not only do we destroy our predators, we break them psychologically and breed them as house pets. Do not fuck with us. But that strength is the strength of cruelty, and with the war won and only ourselves left to fight, the onus is now on us to exercise our capacities, to see the seeds of darkness in ourselves and to choose, to CHOOSE, to operate instead in the lofty spires of empathy, and knowledge, and kindness. We were at war for too long; compassion is not our default. Good and bad are human concepts that don’t come standard. They must be learned. It’s a choice.
But, in all our impossible fortune, humans today are born with a key. No longer slaves to survival, our primary duty and responsibility, what gives us light and luster and nobility as a species, is that each individual monkey must choose for themselves to seek out the temple of collected human knowledge. It will live for as long as we keep it, and the cost of entry is the key in your hand and a refusal to accept the violence and fear that formed you. A refusal to be what you are: a thoughtless tribal animal; a murderous rapist.
Nature doesn’t care one way or the other. It is on us, and us alone, to be more than our evolution. Without knowledge we are nothing, just another vicious animal, rutting blindly in the dark. Use the key. Find the doors to the temple. It’s your birthright, it’s waiting, and all the lights are lit for you.
Please, I beg you, come take what is yours.
Put the knowledge in the monkey.