If they say why, why,
Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why, why does he do me that way?
If they say why, why,
Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why, why, does he do me that way?
— Michael Jackson, “Human Nature” (1982)
Indeed, why do we all do what we do the way we do it? Do we emerge from our mother’s womb as a tabula rasa (blank slate), or are we all “pre-cooked” with certain ingredients that we season with our own secret sauce? As anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, “Remember that you are unique — just like everyone else.”
From a biological perspective, “human nature is the epigenetic rules, the inherited regularities of mental development. These rules are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which our brains represent the world, the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make….” (E.O. Wilson, 1998)
In other words, Human Nature is our birthright as Homo sapiens,regardless when, where, or two whom we’re born. Anthropologist Donald Brown compiled a long list of “universals” — behavioral traits common to all human societies (reprinted below).
The Game of Humanity would not do justice to the “history and herstory of us” if it didn’t address Human Nature in some way. It includes 24 “Human Nature Challenges,” most of which involve interactions with other players (or, in single-player mode, interactions with AI avatars) that draw on players’ notions of generosity, selfishness, gratitude, guile, etc. — any of which may change as the game progresses and history with other players accrues.
These challenges are adaptations of so-called “social games” that sociologists use to study human cooperation and conflict in competitive situations — that is, “game theory.” (Examples include “The Prisoner’s Dilemma,” “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and “The Dictator,” all of which will be discussed in a future post.) Game theory can be a powerful tool for understanding history, political interactions, and environmental science. And they’re interesting and fun, too!
I encourage you to explore your “triangular awareness” and other aspects of your Human Nature (see below) by trying The Game of Humanity. It’s free, and you can play it alone or with others in an hour or two on any computer or on most mobile devices at https://gameofhumanity.com.
Language and Cognition
Myth, Ritual and Aesthetics
(Donald Brown, Human Universals, 1991)
When did human history — the history of Humanity — begin? Was it 200,000 years ago when the first Homo sapiens emerged in the jungles of Eastern Africa? Or should we trace it back to the emergence of our forebears Homo erectus (500,000 years ago) or Homo habilis (four million years ago)? Or to the first animals (800 million years ago) or the first signs of life on Earth (four billion years ago)?
I would argue that we need to back up to the Beginning of Time — the Big Bang or the biblical “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. As far as we know, this unfathomably vast explosion marked the formation of the Universe, the creation of all Matter, and the source of all Energy — the place we inhabit, the stuff we’re made of, and the life force that continues to propel us through history.
Fast-forward 13.7 billion years. For most of us, today looks a lot like yesterday and the day before, and we have little reason to think that tomorrow or the day after will look much different. It’s easy to take for granted that this very moment was all those billions of years in the making, that we humans are the products of hundreds of thousands of years of biological and cultural evolution, and that 100 billion other humans lived and died before us.
What does the path that brought us from the Beginning of Time to today look like? If you had to divide that path into 150 steps, what would those steps be?
The Game of Humanity spans the full arc of human history, from the pre-human majesty of the Big Bang to the daily routines of the Here Now. In the space of an hour or two, the game will take you — alone or with a few friends — down a path that revisits many of the most important events in our collective past. In addition to having fun, you’re very likely to get a better understanding of a question that is (or arguably should be) central to the life of every human:
The game presupposes absolutely no knowledge of history; instead, it assumes you learned and remember as much (little?) about the history of our species as I did when I started developing the game two years ago.
You’ll lead a tribe of “Peeps” through the key events in human history, using your Human Nature to cooperate and compete with other tribes. Your ostensible objective is to develop a diverse and large tribe for the good of our species, but there’s also a chance you’ll be swept up in The Rapture and leave your worldly concerns behind.
As you experience our history unfolding, you may find yourself looking at the events through a few different lenses:
You’re welcome to play the game free of charge. (I want to be sure you feel you got your money’s worth.) There’s a feedback form at the very end, so please let me know what you thought of the game, whether you learned anything of value, how I can make it better, etc. Like our species, The Game of Humanity is a labor of love in progress.
The human population has increased from one billion in 1800 to almost eight billion today. It took 127 years for the population to rise from one billion to two billion, but it took only 12 years to rise from six billion to seven billion. With estimates that the total human population will reach 10 billion by 2050, it almost goes without saying that if resource depletion doesn’t finish us off, then human-caused pollution will.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), author Steven Pinker paints a surprisingly optimistic picture of the Anthropocene Epoch, Earth’s current geologic time period. This Epoch marks the fact that humans are the first species to exert a planet-scale influence on the Earth’s atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric, and other system processes. Pinker argues that there is a constructive alternative to the fatalism that many environmentalists espouse — namely, the idea that “environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge.”
In laying out an approach he calls “Ecomodernism” or “Humanistic Environmentalism,” Pinker starts with the principle that humans have never lived in complete harmony with our environment. “A dirty secret of the conservation movement,” he says, “is that wilderness preserves are set up only after indigenous peoples have been decimated or forcibly removed from them.”
Ecomodernists also point out that industrialization has been good for humanity in many ways — for example, by feeding billions of people, increasing lifespans, reducing extreme poverty, and helping end slavery, emancipate women and educate children. “Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts,” Pinker argues.
In addition, Ecomodernists assert that the harmful impacts to human wellbeing from environmental damage can be “renegotiated” by technology. “How to enjoy more calories, lumens, BTUs, bits, and miles with less pollution and land is itself a technological problem,” Pinker says, “and one that the world is increasingly solving.”
The growth in human population and the concomitant drain on resources to support that growth are only problematic, Pinker asserts, if we assume “that knowledge will be frozen in its current state and people will robotically persist in their current behavior regardless of circumstances.” In fact, the “population bomb” predicted in the 1960s never dropped. Instead, the world’s population growth rate peaked at 2.1% per year in 1962 and has been falling since then; it is expected to be close to zero around 2070.
Likewise, resources that are supposedly “scarce” refuse to run out. Famines predicted for the 1980s never materialized, nor did scarcities of metals and minerals used in manufacturing, nor did shortages of fossil fuels. As Pinker points out, people don’t need resources per se — we need ways of growing food, getting around, powering our homes, and facilitating other sources of wellbeing. We satisfy these needs with ideas— techniques, algorithms, formulas, etc. — not limited by the quantity of any particular stuff in the ground.
“[W]e may have reached Peak Children, Peak Farmland, Peak Timber, Peak Paper, and Peak Car,” Pinker says. “Indeed, we may be reaching Peak Stuff.” Of 100 commodities whose usage was studied in the U.S., 36 have peaked in absolute use, and 53 more are about to drop, leaving only 11 that are still increasing.
At the same time, Pinker admits that “[t]he fact that many measures of environmental quality are improving does not mean that everything is OK, that the environment got better by itself, or that we can just sit back and relax.” The human-caused problems that led scientists to declare this the Anthropocene Epoch flash before us like a sign at a crowded gift shop: “You broke it; you bought it.”
Are you interested in understanding the Anthropocene Epoch and human population growth in their historical context? Play The Game of Humanity!
The Game of Humanity grew out of my search for meaning in my life and, by extension, the meaning of human existence generally. That search began in earnest the way most modern searches do: I googled “the meaning of human existence.”
What came back (not surprisingly) was a link to The Meaning of Human Existence, a 2014 book by Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, biologist, and naturalist. As Wilson summed it up:
Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life. Demons and gods do not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.
Wow — that blew my mind. Not only have we humans adapted well enough to survive in our biological world (in which it’s estimated that 150 to 200 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals become extinct every day), we have thrived like no other species. “Exalted we are,” as Wilson put it, “risen to be the mind of the biosphere without a doubt, our spirits uniquely capable of awe and ever more breathtaking leaps of imagination.”
The story of how our species advanced from being solidly in the middle of the food chain to being at the very top involves two plot lines: biological evolution and cultural evolution. From the reading I’ve done, no one explains our biological evolution as clearly and simply as Wilson in this and other of his books. Likewise, no one puts the pieces of our cultural evolution together the way Yuval Harari does in his 2015 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
Harari traces our cultural evolution back 70,000 years to the beginning of what he calls the “Cognitive Revolution,” when humans (most likely by virtue of an accidental genetic mutation) started developing new ways of thinking and communicating. Our power of expansive thought and language enabled us to imagine things that we had never seen, touched, or smelled — not just individually but collectively.
This Cognitive Revolution led humans to evolve culturally at lightning speed compared to the rate at which we evolve biologically. For example, while our forebear Homo erectus used stone tools in roughly the same way for two million years, we Homo sapiens use our unique cognitive skills to transform our social structures, interpersonal relations, and economic activities in the matter of a decade or two without any biological changes.
At the same time, our rapid ascent to the top of the food chain created (and has steadily widened) a gap between us and the ecosystem. As Harari said:
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have…been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.
This interplay between biological and cultural evolution was entirely new to me, and it explained a lot about why we are who, what, where, and how we are today. These two books provided a history lesson that was much broader and more pragmatic than anything I’d learned in school, where history classes were mostly about memorizing and regurgitating the dates of key battles in either American or World History.
I wanted to share my newfound insights with others who were searching (knowingly or not) for some context to how they live their lives, but I recognized that reading books like Wilson’s and Hariri’s is not for everyone. (While Sapiens is a bestseller, my informal survey has shown that many who bought the book have not gotten around to reading it yet, and may never.)
Thus, The Game of Humanity is a first effort to “gamify” a difficult but very worthwhile topic for broader consumption. More than just a fun romp through history, the game explores our Human Nature in relation to each other and our environment while illuminating the Human Condition of our here and now.
I hope you’ll give it a try — it’s free, and you can play it alone or with others in an hour or two on any computer or mobile devices at www.gameofhumanity.com.