The other day I found myself reading this study about overpopulation. Well, the study was supposedly about overpopulation, at least. I’m talking about Calhoun’s study on rats in a cage, rats who were supplied with every possible resource and yet, supposedly, when the population went above a certain density, found themselves exhibiting various pathologies, some of which will sound eerily familiar: a period of oversexuality leads rapidly to a period where the rats can’t connect with each other for sex or anything else. There’s cannibalism, violence, apathy and a general falling apart of rat society. Population falls precipitously. Those rats that are left behind are too… socially inept to rebuild.
I can’t remember how I got to the study. I was sure it was through Instapundit, but a quick search doesn’t show me the link. Perhaps I’m missing it? At any rate, the link I followed and the article I landed on said that the author of the study was upset about how his study was used, to create the idea of finite resources and the horrors of overpopulation. I read the article first with that idea – the idea that the man somehow got clobbered by the anti-human-wave, those who think that any humans are too many.
But as I read it I became aware of something that seemed to have got lost in both the interpretations of the people who took this as the model for an overpopulated human society and even in the interpretation of the researcher himself (unless I missed something.) *
He talks about the point at which population outstrips the roles available to rats. When rats don’t have a role in society, they disconnect from it.
This made me pause and sit back, because – as you guys probably know – I’m convinced we’re nowhere close to overpopulated, even as we’re displaying many of the rats’ symptoms. Of course it could be a matter of our brain thinking we’re overpopulated (there is the perception we know more people than we know, due to TV and other media) or even of our being too densely packed together in some areas…
It could be a matter of that, except that another explanation is much, much more likely.
I’ve been talking about the falling apart – no, the tearing apart, the deconstruction – of Western Society since WWI. And what hit me was this – human society doesn’t depend on population or even on population density to create roles. Humans can create – or destroy – roles for themselves more or less at random.
The whole talk of the anomy and purposelessness of modern life has been with us since at least WWI and possibly before. It is in a way a risk of affluent societies – when you no longer have to fight for every meal, you, being human, have time to sit back and ask yourself stuff like “Why am I alive? What does it all mean?”
But the other part of it has nothing to do with affluence, but with the deliberate ripping down of roles.
No? Ask yourself: if you’d asked pretty much anyone on the street in the 1910s what it meant to be a mother, or to be married, or to be an employee, you were likely to meet with a set of beliefs that, in them, comprised those roles.
No, I’m not saying that everyone in those days lived according to those roles, or even that uniformity in roles is desirable. I’m just saying that there was a certain unanimity in the culture about what those roles were supposed to be. People would then define themselves within the role, within the role but with a twist, or against the role. (Perhaps the number was smaller, but I’m fairly sure there were any number of CONSCIOUSLY bad mothers, even back then.)
Now imagine going out on the street and asking anyone what those roles mean. You’re not likely to come up with even a coherent minority view of any significance on what those roles mean. The roles have, in fact, disintegrated. Fallen apart.
Which means, humans being social animals, that people simply don’t know who they’re SUPPOSED to be. They don’t even know what they’re rebelling against, because there’s nothing concrete there to push against.
This solved for me, at a glance, various things that had puzzled me for a long time: such as why people who consider themselves rebels are rebelling against a norm that hasn’t been a “norm” for almost a hundred years. They don’t seem to realize it’s not there, because they need a role, even if it’s the role of rebel against something. Finding themselves adrift is far more terrifying that trying to fit a model.
Or why the first thing I noticed about American was how much happier they were than Europeans, because, at least back in the early eighties, Americans were involved on a volunteer level with organizations in their communities, at a much higher level than Europeans. (I wonder to what extent the fact that we now all have to work way to much and that local volunteer communities are falling apart is responsible for the Europeanization of our society.)
Or why science fiction people – particularly those involved in the field as either small gods of fandom, con goers, participants in some science fiction book club, or “just” costumers – are in general less prone to the pathologies of the time. Yes, yes, we are weird, but we are not a “falling apart” kind of weird. It’s because, by gum, your role might be secretary of the local SF readers’ club, but you care passionately about it, discuss meetings, prepare food for parties, and are in fact someone fulfilling a role.
Yes, I know, several of you are going to prescribe religion as giving meaning to life – and that is true as far as it goes for those who believe. For those who don’t believe, unless all of you really want to create a club of passionate heretics and church-haters, it’s best if we don’t consider that route.
However, it also explained to me why people join cults and why educated Western women choose to convert to Islam. It gives them a role, you see, and a fairly clear role, which is important if you are a person of not particularly passionate beliefs.
Human life must always – yes, even for me – be balanced between wanting freedom and fitting into a role, because that part of us that is animal is a social animal and needs to know where they fit in a hierarchy. Any hierarchy.
The good news is that, without binding prescriptive rules for roles, we can give people guidelines that allow them to find their own roles. We can define “Adult human being” (the line between adult and child is now being blurred) as “someone who takes care of himself and those who depend on him.” We can define “good” as a person who lives up to his obligations. We can define “self-supporting” as a goal to aim for. We can even define well informed and well adjusted as a minimum of things people should know.
The bad news is that to do it we’ll have to fight against people for whom there is no sin except “judging” – people so emotionally confused they fight against the idea of defining even things like “A common language of trade.”
People who are, in fact, engaged in tearing down the very idea of social roles, and who, then, can’t understand why they can’t engage with anything or why everyone is so lost and without purpose.
They, of course, blame capitalism. This is handy as, taken to its extreme, it allows totalitarians to build a society in which roles – mostly master and serf – are once more tightly defined. Perhaps they sense this. Perhaps it is what drives them towards results they – objectively – claim to not want.
But we know better. If we want to preserve freedom, prosperity and hope for the future – in a word, civilization — we need to start redefining society in terms not so prescriptive that those of us who are odds or very odds are pushed out of the polity, (I’m a libertarian chick. I’m going to err on the side of freedom) but not so loose that no one knows what he’s supposed to be or where it matters.
Let’s start by affirming that humanity matters; that the future of humanity matters; that “overpopulation” (also known as “the danger of too many humans”) is a bogus fear. Each human born brings with him uniqueness and the possibility of innovation.
Let’s start by saying the most important role for any adult, free individual is to support himself, to look after those who depend on him, to keep his promise and honor his contracts.
And that humanity, such as it is, neither ape nor angel, is yet worthwhile. Let’s establish it is worth it to work so that the future is always better than the past – and to dream of new worlds, of new universes, and of wonders yet undiscovered.
We might not live to see it, but it is the duty of every human being to work so our descendants will.
Enough of this rat cage. It’s time to own infinity.
* Some of these ideas came from a discussion with my friend Bill Reader, and at this point I don’t know which of us came up with what. He has promised to write his own take on this as soon as work lets up a little.