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Somewhere inbetween
Ancient and modern man

By Hamed Vahidi
May 16, 2001
The Iranian

I read Majid Tehranian's "Irreverence for life" with interest. I am currently working on a similar article. In the meantime, I would like to shed more light on Tehranian's views concerning modernity.

"Are we humans violent species?" is the first and most important question that we need to ask ourselves. Evolutionary biologists believe that about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, what we call modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) simply massacred the entire Neanderthal (Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis) population. Neanderthals were totally wiped out by our ancestors. So, IN A SENSE, we humans ARE violent species. The collective history of humanity, from the formation of the first city-states to the appearance of today's grand civilizations, is filled with the episodes of violence and cruelty.

However, it is easy to get carried away when discussing human biology and its relation to the environment. "Are we humans violent by NATURE?" is the second question that we need to ask. The interesting thing about this question is that it is not even properly framed because you cannot talk about "human nature" without talking about "human nurture". The two are interrelated and play an important part in forming the human behavior the same way that natural selection and mutations play an integrated part in the evolution of life, I mean organic life.

Howard Bloom's The Lucifer Principle is one of the most talked about books of the recent years. Bloom writes about the human biology, evil, superorganisms and cultures. However, in my opinion, he sometimes goes too far in his analysis of human biology, puts too much emphasis on the "implicitness" of evil in humans and how evil has been both the cause of progress and one of the most important forces in the social history of civilization. He even makes the bold claim, in one of his chapters, that some cultures are intrinsically violent. Now, that's one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin bears the names of all those who take "modernity" as the scapegoat for all ills. They totally ignore human biology, the predisposition of the brain and the role of genes and simply blame "modern culture" for all ills in society.

Tehranian writes: "As Max Weber and Emile Durkheim had recognized, accelerating modernity is disenchanting the world at an accelerated pace. In place of a timeless and invisible world of meaning that traditional religions offered, the new secular religions have subjected us to tyranny of time and this-worldly progress."

Corruption, tyranny, loss of identity, alienation, existential anxiety and depression are not the products of the twentieth century modern culture. They are not the products of the ancient culture, either. They have been with us from the time immemorial. Long before Albert Camus wrote The Stranger and Sartre devised his trashy philosophy (space constraints do not allow me to fully analyze Sartre's existential philosophy for the readers), we had Greek tragedies and also our beloved Goethe who wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther.

In ancient Greece, women and slaves had virtually no rights. Ancient Rome was so corrupt, its rulers (well, not all rulers) were so immoral and human life was so unimportant that Misters Assadollah Lajevardi, Mohammadi Gillani and Sadeq Khalkhali would have been regarded as "softies" if they happened to live at that time. Ancient Rome was a HORRIBLE place to live in. Genghis Khan and his followers shed the blood of millions and they did not belong to the twentieth century. Of course, the apologists portray Genghis Khan as a great statesman and politician that gave so much to the world through his "conquests". I don't know. Maybe, there are always two separate sides to great historical figures.

I agree with Tehranian that the twentieth century has been an extraordinarily violent century, but it has also been a century of unparalleled intellectual, medical, scientific, agricultural, artistic and social achievements. Twentieth century is also the century of science. Without the great impacts of science and technology, God knows how many more people would have died in this century. I am basically a religious person and rely on my religious faith as source of consolation and hope, but I cannot deny the positive impacts of the modern, secular world either.

Tehranian writes: "the modern world increasingly measures us in terms of what we have rather than what we are." The modern world might not be the most perfect of all worlds, but believe me, we are living in better times. The correct view of human behavior lies somewhere between the theories of "modern world bashers" and those of the strict social biologists. Humans are very prone to violence, especially when they act under great pressure or in large groups. Howard Bloom masterfully analyses this assertion in his book, but to blame the "modern world" for humanity's great pain and distress or to label some cultures as intrinsically evil is not a proper approach.

If the ancient people had our tools and sophistication, they would have killed as many, and maybe more, as we did in this past century. The renowned skeptic and historian, Michael Shermer, writes: "History is not just one damn thing after another, it is also the same damn thing over and over -- time's arrow and time's cycle." If you are not too familiar with history, you somehow believe that human misery, alienation and suffering are the artifacts of the modern world.

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Irreverence for life
Whither the world?
By Majid Tehranian

Reason & revelation
Reason defines truth, justice, public interest, and humanity
By Abdolkarim Soroush


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