Nation state or Homo technicus universalis?

Abstract:

The “Clash of Cultures” due to irreconcilable religions and ideologies belongs to the past. In contrast, the “Clash of Civilizations”, i.e. the worldwide struggle for an equally high and, if possible, ever higher material standard of living, is darkening our common future, since the last resources are being plundered and nature increasingly poisoned in the name of progress. Mankind will only escape this struggle against itself and against nature by submitting to a global authority that demands the same restrictions from all of us.

We are used to lamenting entries on the red list of extinct or endangered species; these include dinosaurs, Bengal tigers, black grouse or river pearl mussels. But do not think that nature is unimaginative. She continuously replaces the worn out with lots of new creations: instead of the dinosaurs she now gives us Corona and even adds many new mutants.

As in the animal kingdom, so in human cultures. To the Germans, as they once existed, we must undoubtedly say goodbye, but this is no less true of the French, the English, the Indians, the Chinese, and so on. In this case too, however, the decline of entire cultures is accompanied by a new and surprising phenomenon. It has been noticed for some time that there are more and more global professions, e.g. the mathematician, the programmer, the engineer, the chemist, the truck driver, the mechanic, the internist, the ENT doctor and thousands of similar functions, but these new professions are free from all national roots. Something has died – while at the same time something surprisingly new has taken its place. As it were, nature has triumphed over culture. Since nature is the same everywhere, the laws found by the natural sciences must be the same in Berlin, Tokyo, Dubai or in Timbuktu, i.e. independent of respective national cultures. Obviously, most of the life and functioning of modern civilization is based on these laws. All over the world, a chemical factory, a car company, a corporate office are like undistinguishable peas in a pod all over the world. Identical function determines identical structure. The differences are only technical, namely due to more or less technical progress.

The time when everything was still different,

because people in France, India, China thought differently, ate differently, loved differently and lived differently – this time dates back just a century and a half, and it still looms with its stone witnesses – cathedrals, temples and palaces – here and there into our present, but it already belongs to a distant history (mercilessly parodied by Disneyland). Our omnipotent present not only produced a new international species, homo technicus, who – whether in Cape Town, Berlin, Houston or Madras – spends more and more of his time in front of the computer and with the cell phone, but at the same time it has made the urban landscapes of all countries more and more similar to each other. Meanwhile, Austrian, Chinese, South African or Indian architecture merely exists in remnants: megacities employ the same architects and engineers from all over the world. A worldwide uniformity due to uniform functions is inevitable. Banks, millennium and television towers, museums, train stations, airports and dormitory towns all over the world are stitched according to the same pattern. Everything national is in unmistakable retreat.

But is it right to call the new man,

this prototype of the 21st century, who is about to create a global unified civilization, “Homo technicus”? Do not games, music, painting and leisure time form an opposite pole that seems at least as important to many people?

That may certainly be so. The love of mathematics and the natural sciences was nowhere so widespread that it alone was able to bring forth the new prototype. In fact, Homo technicus owes his triumph to a much more elementary drive: the addiction, spread over the entire globe, to all the achievements of civilization to which only technology provides access. Much-maligned capitalism did not have to cajole them into it. No one in our present world wants to do without a flush toilet, a washing machine, a personal bank account, a computer or a cell phone, and very few people want to do without a car or the prospect of someday hovering above the clouds in a modern airplane. However, each of the aforementioned achievements presupposes a modern infrastructure, i.e., a radical transformation and reorganization of nature such as no single country on the globe knew two hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, many of these modern achievements

have come to be traded as human rights, without which life is considered incomplete and miserable. Nowadays, no Chinese person is looked at askance if he or she has not read Confucius; hardly any German still takes a look at Goethe’s Faust (“Fuck you Goethe” has even become a slogan meant to discourage such action). Seen by the millennial generation, i.e. those under forty, this is mere history, completely written off by most of them. As cultural knowledge is of no use with regard to the preservation of our all-devouring techno-economic civilization, it is considered superfluous. This liberation of the new generation from all historical burdens undoubtedly holds its own opportunities. Young people – Chinese, Japanese, U.S. Americans, Germans, French, etc. – can look each other in the eye without feeling any different. What counts is the knowledge and handling of the gadgets of modern civilization – and they are all equally good at that. What could divide them – their national culture and national history – they have already shaken off. Seen in this light, the fact that modern Homo technicus has shed all the trappings of his tribal affiliation – regardless of religion, race or ideology – can also be seen as a progress.

Global fraternization

seems to be within reach for the first time in human history. The unifying basis of techno-scientific thinking as well as of common external living conditions could become the springboard to a future in which irreconcilable antagonisms and the resulting struggles are replaced by mutual understanding and thus by harmony and peace. Nor should greater global uniformity worry us, because it is uniformity in constant change. Diversity and development do not disappear, they only manifest themselves in fundamentally different ways. Until two hundred years ago, history consisted in the formation of human beings – that is why the natives of Papua New Guinea so much differed in appearance, religion, and customs from native New Yorkers or Hindu Brahmins that all three could be considered different species within the same genus. In contrast, history today no longer consists in the shaping of man – an Indian, a U.S. American, or a New Guinea physicist can be distinguished at most by the hue of their skin. It consists in the shaping and formation of nature. Homo technicus recognizes and shapes nature according to his own purposes. In this case too variety is created, even potentially infinite variety. But it comes about in a different way, namely by the fact that our knowledge of nature constantly grows and with it the products it creates.

As homo technicus leaves history behind him

like a bad memory, he does not want to know anything about privileges – for him these too belong to the burden of history. It is, therefore, not surprising that the overwhelming majority of Millennials are committed to a fair distribution of material goods – regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation (as the ritual mantra would have it). Whether Europeans, Africans or Chinese, all people have the same inherent right to a decent life, i.e. to those material blessings that the people of the West have long enjoyed. At the same time, the new generation also wants to grant nature its rights, which is why a green mindset is widespread among Millennials. They take to the streets not only to protest against white supremacy but also to demand action against climate change. The new generation doesn’t want to know anything about past history, but they take history very seriously when seen as their own future: they want to make it themselves. That’s why their demonstrations are causing so much headache for governments around the world.

Millennials are cosmopolitans

For the first time, an entire generation of humanity represents what was previously the privilege of only a handful of great minds. In Germany, Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller and Kant were cosmopolitans in the best sense of the word.  All national narrow-mindedness was not only alien to them but considered repugnant. How could these early pioneers have guessed that, since the end of the 20th century at the latest, Millennials would turn their intellectual cosmopolitanism into a technical one that would encompass the entire globe? More and more young people enthusiastically experience the Internet as a tool for making as many friends on other continents as in their own country. Millennials are aware that kindred spirits in Chengdu, Vancouver or Bangalore may be far closer to them than reactionary morons in their own homeland. And this is much more than a mere abstract insight. More and more marriages are taking place internationally, and ever greater sums are being donated to people in need somewhere in the world. Not a few idealists would even like to build a bridge over the Mediterranean so that in the future no refugee will have to perish on the way to the north.*1*

The problem

In the face of this general tendency toward global fraternization, there is a danger that we will all too credulously and naively overlook the forces working against it. The technical generation has grown up believing that all conflicts can be solved by technical means. The breathtaking successes of scientific civilization even turned this belief into a kind of quasi-religious salvation promise. Digitization, automation and artificial intelligence are celebrating triumphs the likes of which humanity has never experienced. No wonder that the optimism nurtured by all these triumphs makes people blind to all dangers. These are, however, omnipresent. Even a sudden and unforeseen event such as a global pandemic may dissolve the beautiful belief in the interconnectedness of all people. How unpleasant was and is even within the European Union the scramble for vaccination doses! The current Austrian chancellor, who at the beginning urged frugality (maximum 200,000 euros), unabashedly put out the fairy tale that the Commission had treated his own and other European countries unfairly.

This occasion demonstrated that we may well find friends everywhere in the world, but in times of need it is only our own neighbors and our own government that can help us. Only they are able to provide their citizens with the desired level of security and standard of living. Cosmopolitanism that so gloriously flourishes in the realm of the mind proves impotent when it comes to providing those very services that local people are looking for in emergency situations. As, in such cases, spatial proximity counts more than anything else, everyone is next to himself in need. Even the United Europe must constantly fight against national egoisms.

This problem becomes truly massive and frightening,

once we take a closer look at modern technical civilization itself. For technology has a double face that optimists do not want to acknowledge. On the one hand it is responsible for our greatest triumphs, on the other hand for an apocalypse that nobody can rule out any longer. The pan-happiness philosophy of the millennials, who would like to grant and allocate the same material blessing to all people of the globe, is contradicted by the laws of physics. From a scientific point of view, the realization of this program is simply impossible. To exist sustainably on our globe with renewable energy requires either that three quarters of humanity mysteriously disappear, or that humanity at its current population level of about eight billion reduce its energy consumption to one quarter (and that’s just talking about energy, not yet about all other non-renewable resources).*2*

It is absolutely correct when Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling insist in their books that mankind is materially better off than ever before in terms of almost all relevant indicators, but this amazing feat could only be achieved because we consume far more renewable energy than a single globe can provide. We do so by using dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, whose residues furthermore contribute to the poisoning of nature on an ever increasing scale.

This is the existential problem of our time,

and it is not a technical task that can be solved in a technical way, but a challenge for political and ethical man. In the extreme, only two solutions come into question. Either a scramble for the last remaining resources leading to wars, which the strongest powers of the globe incite against the weaker ones and of course against nature. Or a global agreement that all are committed to the preservation of the globe and thus to a way of life that requires a total departure from that which still prevails today.

How do Millennials respond

to this shattering of the technocratic ideology with which they themselves have grown up and been indoctrinated? They use to respond in three different ways. Either they simply deny the facts (thus siding with Donald Trump); or, second, they are optimists on principle and believe in future technological miracles; or, third, they call for demonstrations, usually blaming some evil forces.

Denial is the prevailing attitude – against all evidence from scientific expertise. Homo technicus is prone to let himself be guided by wishful thinking when evidence threatens to shake his optimism. Optimists have always found it particularly difficult to admit that the world is perhaps not quite as well set up as they would like.

If, however, the evidence of an irresponsible consumption of resources and an increasing poisoning of the globe can no longer be denied, there still remains a messianic belief in miracles. Then nuclear power is supposed to achieve what renewable energies alone will never be able to do, namely to maintain the current standard of living and at the same time to reduce CO2 emissions to a tolerable level. Apart from the fact that this is impossible in purely quantitative terms due to dwindling uranium deposits, the dangers associated with this technology tend to be blissfully ignored. However, they are just as great, if not greater, than those of global warming. And it tends to be completely overlooked that energy is used for the conversion of non-energy resources – and these are dwindling as well. The belief in future miracles, which homo technicus has nurtured over two centuries and which today is just as much at home in China and India as in Europe and the US, arguably constitutes mankind’s greatest delusion. It makes us run blindly to our doom because until shortly before the catastrophe we hope for a deus ex machina who will avert all disaster .*3*

Seen, from this perspective, political activism,

expressed worldwide in demonstrations, seems to be hardly more than a diversionary maneuver. The “Fridays for Future” movement fully recognized the urgency of the environmental situation, but it was mistaken in its assessment of the true causes. It is not “them up there” who are responsible for the destruction of the globe, but “us down here,” that is, all of us together, because “them up there” usually only enforce a majority will – at least when it comes to an accepted standard of living. This applies to democratic states of the West as well as to autocratic regimes in China and Russia. A majority of the world’s population – especially, of course, the developing countries – would not accept radical sacrifice, certainly not when a truly sustainable economy requires a reduction of the global ecological footprint to the fourth part of today’s level.

Not renunciation but a global scramble

over dwindling resources and mutual accusations of excessive nature poisoning are therefore in store for us in the near future. Just as in a pandemic, where every nation first thinks of itself, it first enhances and protects the standard of living for its own citizens. That is, why in times of need and struggle all those national provisos that the Millennials fought against and wanted to abolish forever creep up again. The U.S. is home to about twenty million Asian-born citizens, most of them of Chinese origin. Now that China has become a serious rival for the U.S. and threatens to become number one in terms of power and standard of living, tensions between the two superpowers are rising sharply. Prejudices against the Chinese are reviving in America just as they are reviving in China against the West. Nationalistically motivated “hate crimes” have become the order of the day.

On a smaller and, fortunately, far more benign scale, we find this tussle also within the EU, where Hungary and Poland, but also the Czech Republic and Slovakia, insist on their national autonomy and elect autocracy-prone governments that endanger European unity. If it is true that the struggle for dwindling resources in a world that abhors sacrifice will become the portent of the 21st century, then we are heading for a time that will bring about the opposite of cosmopolitanism, namely increasing national egoism. Even if the EU succeeds in welding Europe together into a stable entity, it will be faced as a whole with the prospect of having to fight with the rest of the world over its interests.

It is therefore too early for a requiem of the nation states

Germany (but also Austria, France, etc.) will continue to exist, even if they eventually merge with other states in the EU. Homo technicus universalis therefore remains an illusion, albeit one that arouses some sympathy because it conjures up the common ground connecting modern people. It remains an illusion not only because cosmopolitanism does not provide help in emergencies – only the political community in which we are rooted can do this. But homo technicus is incomplete for still another reason. We may indeed completely dispose of all narratives related to the past and in this way create ahistorical man, but this procedure does not eliminate the basic need of man for a narrative that gives meaning and purpose to his life. Neither technology nor science can provide such meaning (even if both can at times completely satisfy individual life, because common tasks and shared work represent precisely this overriding meaning beyond technology itself).

In perverted form, history has

never lost its dominance. A Chinese technician may be confusingly similar to his counterpart in the US as regards thinking and habits of life; this will not prevent the one from using his skills and knowledge for the power and wealth of China, while the other does so for the power and wealth of the United States of America. Thus, one of them may be developing the weapons with which to wipe out the US in the case of a nuclear war, while his counterpart fulfills exactly the same task for his own country. Which means that our demand for the equality of all people proves to be impotent in the face of history dominating us in the shape of elementary material interests.

And this modern day history, which we see re-entering through the back door, is much more primitive than that which the Millennials disposed of through the front door. It expresses itself in the form of such populist prejudices as promulgated by Donald Trump on a daily basis, when, to mention just one example, he spoke of the “Chinese virus.” Homo technicus is easily seduced by the fake news of modern history when it comes to defending his interests.

This brings to light the fundamental conflict

that will accompany us through the 21st century. On the one hand, the uniform technical civilization that prevails worldwide has given rise to homo technicus, thereby creating an awareness, especially in young people, of the equality of all human beings. But, on the other hand, this civilization has nurtured the claim to a standard of living that can no longer be met in a world of eight billion people faced with dwindling resources and a rampant poisoning of nature.*4* The scramble for this claim inevitably leads to a struggle against all rivals who threaten a nation’s position. 

History falsely declared to be dead

thus returns. The fratricidal struggle, fed by hostile narratives, which once divided the peoples of Europe in centuries-long battles, has only been shifted to a higher plane. Tribal claims and identities remain, but not in the harmless form of patriotism, i.e. love for one’s homeland and a shared history, but as ideological delusions of uniqueness of Europeans, Yankees, Chinese etc. These delusions tend to be much cruder and primitive, because they consist less in the loving reminiscence of one’s own past (so far as it deserves such treatment) than in the denunciation of rivals. The race of nations currently taking place between the great powers of the US, China, Russia and Europe is laden with populist denunciation – in view of the unending progress of weapons this constitutes an imminent danger.

The problem is further aggravated by the fact

that it is of no use if only one part of the world, say Germany, pulls the emergency brake. Germany is only responsible for a minimal two percent of total CO2 emissions. Of course, it could boast of being a role model if it also reduced the remaining two to a mere zero percent. But what is the point if others don’t follow suit, but end up just being happy that the Germans are no longer a rival because they are abandoning their previous industrial power and sinking into a state of poverty? Therein lies the real challenge of the 21st century, which can only be overcome if humanity submits to a common authority that imposes the same sacrifice on everyone at the same time – in the most favorable but rather unlikely case, this would be the UN. Then – but only then – the consciousness of the equality of mankind could bring about that eternal peace, which Immanuel Kant had conjured up more than two hundred years ago.

*1* An impressive testimony to this idealism is provided by the Indian-born author Parag Khanna with his book: “The Age of Migration”. On almost five hundred pages, the author deals with God and the world from A to Z. Khanna seems to take climate crisis for granted – even in its most catastrophic form with an increase in average temperatures of up to four degrees. This serves him well because he preaches the gospel of unrestricted migration which, according to him, will provide for mankind’s ultimate salvation. Here, fraternization is not a politically thought-out program, but is administered to the reader like a drug.

*2* In its latest issue, “Der Spiegel” calls for optimism in the title essay (Spg 14.21: “Hope dies last”). But like any other citizen, the Spiegel author too must rely on what leading experts say. And these – starting from Herman Daly, the intellectual guide of the ecological movement, up to William Rees, the inventor of the ecological footprint – say something completely different.

*3* In the article mentioned above, Der Spiegel shows how wishful thinking works. On the one hand, we find the following passage: “It is certainly an imperative of responsibility to make decisions on the basis of currently available knowledge.” But shortly thereafter, this sober statement is invalidated: “An English saying is: Expect the unexpected. Men, especially Germans, are not very good at this.” So: Dear Germans, please believe in the Deus ex Machina!

*4* Here, too, Der Spiegel preaches wishful thinking. It is correct that the world population “will /grow/ by about two billion to then almost ten billion people by 2050, yes, and that will lead to severe crises in some regions. However, in terms of world population as a whole, growth will slow down after that and will only be problematic in a few areas.” Really? Is it no longer problematic if all these ten billion people together then consume four and more globes? And what to make of the following statement: “The goal of a maximum warming of two degrees by the year 2100 is within reach. If countries stick to their pledges… global average temperatures will rise 2.1 degrees by 2100.” Yes, but what if they don’t stick to their pledges? So far, there is no indication that Western countries, let alone developing countries, will be able to meet these pledges and impose the above mentioned sacrifices on their populations.

The United States in a debt binge – role model for the rest of the world?

Dear Mr. Lingens /Austrian Author and economist/, I don’t know if you are doing well to sing the praises of the beauty of debt while comparing little Austria with the big US. Remember, since about the 1990s, not only the whole world, but also many Americans are beginning to talk about the decline of their country (and the most clear-sighted observers of the U.S. are still to be found in the US themselves). Continue reading The United States in a debt binge – role model for the rest of the world?

Future – God’s eighth Day of Creation?

When studying and trying to understand the past, we always do so in order to cope with the present and be better equipped for the future – that’s a truism. But our endeavors become difficult when the past provides us with contradictory signals so that the future turns into mystery. Then it can happen that our certainties waver and we look for completely new orientations and even concepts. Continue reading Future – God’s eighth Day of Creation?

Adolf Hitler in private – a jolly good Fellow?

Experts are surrounded by their own aura. They know everything about a certain subject, which they have usually studied all their lives – this seems to make them unassailable. But why, then, does a popular German saying deny them a truly profound knowledge? There is often but a single step from specialism to professional blindness! Continue reading Adolf Hitler in private – a jolly good Fellow?

Silly question: Are humans free?

No, the question is only stupid because it is thought to be so. Not long ago leading German neurologists like Roth and Singer considered their fellow men expressis verbis naive, if not downright stupid, if they did not want to recognize that from a scientific point of view – man does not possess freedom of will.*1* Their conviction is nothing new. The Babylonians thought that human destiny was completely determined by the stars. Church fathers like Augustin, Luther and Calvin justified their rejection of human freedom with the omniscience of God. To God, the entire future including the thoughts and intentions of men are known since the beginning of creation. Ergo, freedom cannot exist. Philosophers like Democritus, Spinoza, Voltaire, Schopenhauer up to Bertrand Russell also belong to the vocal deniers of freedom. They are opposed by thinkers such as Gottlieb Fichte and Martin Heidegger, who conversely pathetically proclaim freedom. In the middle between these two oppsing camps usually stands the unbiased layman, who has always known to be at the same time free and exposed to multiple constraints. Among the great philosophers who convincingly argued this point of view we find William James, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Popper.*2*

The opposition between these two positions

not only manifests itself in the history of religion and philosophy, it is inherent, as it were, in each of us. When observing other people, we intuitively ask about the motives of their behavior, i.e., about the limits of their freedom and arbitrariness, in order to respond to them in an appropriate way. This is the case with feared adversaries anyway, but even with people we love. The better we know their respective likes and dislikes, the more likely we are to anticipate their reactions, and the less danger there is that there will be friction in dealing with them. In the same way, this object perspective is assumed by a writer of novels who tries to make us understand why his protagonists act just the way they do (he describes the conscious or unconscious compulsions to which their actions obey).

In contrast, we adopt the subject perspective with equal naturalness as soon as we analyze our own personal actions. When spontaneously deciding to make a trip to the Kulm, a nearby mountain, on a beautiful autumn morning – and not, say, two weeks from now – I naturally evaluate this decision as free. It is not forced on me by anyone – not even by my own cherished habits, because I am aware that I can revoke them at any time. Yes, this awareness of one’s own freedom of thought and action goes so far that some people deliberately do the opposite of what others expect of them or even what they expect of themselves. 

This twofold perspective

has its reason in two opposing needs, which are fundamental for every single human being as well as for every society. We only gain security in dealing with nature and with other people if we explore their rules and laws ever deeper and further. With regard to nature, we have succeeded so well that we are now able to retrodict the history of the cosmos back to the Big Bang and to predict it until the sun will have burned its hydrogen fuel. But security has never been the only human need. For the child and every human being who has retained his natural curiosity into old age, the unexpected, the surprise, the mystery of existence constitute a constant challenge giving life its charm and its color in the first place. Complete security, i.e. predictability, would enclose us within a straitjacket that suffocates all spontaneity. As long as we live, we constantly look for the attraction of the not yet known, the emergence of things new.*3* A world, in which we would know everything, would be a mere machine, devoid of freedom. It would be dead and frozen.

I venture to say that the need for security on the one hand and for mystery on the other, i.e. for the challenge by the unknown and the new, dominated man from the very beginning of history. They are no more and no less than the two constituent features of the human condition.

The paradox of man’s condition is,

that we alternately strive – with a kind of inner necessity – for security (resulting from the discovery of order) and for freedom. So, these two elementary needs are closely connected with either the two alternatives of the object or the subject perspective. This contrast attains its extreme expression as soon as man appears as a researcher, i.e. when he questions nature and himself not only intuitively like any layman but systematically. Psychology as a science would be of no avail if all our emotional or intellectual reactions were the result of mere chance, so that the researcher would only come across chaos instead of recognizable regularities. The same observation applies to sociology. And, of course, it is only worthwhile for neurological science to investigate the biological foundations of human nature because an abundance of such regularities (partly of a law-like nature) do actually exist.

Just at this point the paradox

reveals itself with particular evidence. The same neurologist who regards man as an object revealing to him an abundance of regularities or even laws, holds the second role of a subject at the same time as he is their active observer and discoverer. In this role, however, he not only feels free – he even has to be so, because otherwise his approach would be subject to an insurmountable contradiction. If the human beings he studies as objects would be determined for him by laws throughout, if, in other words, they would be completely predictable – in popular diction bereft of free will -, then the same must, of course, be true for the observing researcher himself. In other words, he himself would condemn himself to be no more than an automaton controlled by impersonal laws. His own results and scientific statements, even the false ones, would be equally conditioned by impersonal laws. In this case, the distinction of scientifically true in contrast to false statements would, of course, make no sense.

As long as science assumes

that basically all human thinking and acting can be interpreted in a law-like way (provided we would only carry on our research for a long enough period), this paradox is unsolvable, because we are faced with an insurmountable logical contradiction. In our time it is fashionable to deny any credit to purely logical considerations. Scientists prefer to carry out physiological experiments according to Benjamin Libet or turn to quantum physics to clarify the problem in a very elaborate and costly way.  But the elementary rules of logic and scientific truth are at the base of all research, so the logical paradox remains crucial, even if its recognition costs us no more than a little more than average thinking ability

We therefore come to a clear conclusion: However numerous the rules or even laws we may still discover in the thinking and acting of human beings, it is nevertheless evident that these rules or laws will never determine them completely. Besides being to a certain degree governed by rules or laws, we act and think out of freedom – that is in an unpredictable way. If most laymen were not intuitively aware of this basic fact, they could derive it from the opposition between subject and object perspectives, both of which are inherent in each of us.

Significant, however, are the contrasts of temperament

and inclination that arise between researchers, especially when it comes to the interpretation of human behavior in history (historiography), politics (political science), society (sociology), and interpersonal relationships (psychology). Since the 19th century up to our days an opposition unfolds here, which manifests itself above all in the readiness (or else the reluctance) to transfer the methods of the exact natural sciences to the sphere of man. Even if the freedom of man or contrary view that he is subject to regularites and laws just like the rest of nature, is not explicitly mentioned, this opposition always remains perceptible in the background. It even leads to heated arguments about what should be considered serious science. I consider these argument as misleading as most of the cockfights between the representatives of freedom versus necessity.

Let us turn to a concrete example:

namely, the controversy about Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor with much influence among present-day anthropologists. Like no other before him, Henrich tried to explain man and his history in terms of a few characteristics, especially in terms of the density of biological relationships. According to him, Europe owes its unique historical evolution above all to the fact that biological clans, which dominated social life everywhere else in the world, had been suppressed since the fourth century by the marriage and family policy of the catholic church.*4*

The reaction to the theses of the Harvard anthropologist consists in an “aha” experience among those who consider them correct; on the other hand, his opponents consider them all but simplistic – the complex historical reality does not allow to explain the evolution of society and the resulting psychological traits in such a simple way.

In my opinion, this objection misses the purpose of science

All science seeks to explain reality – whether that of external nature or that of man – with as few principles and factors as possible. In his famous “world formula”, Albert Einstein only used three basic entities, namely energy, mass and the speed of light to explain matter. Jared Diamond has attributed to a single factor, namely the germ resistance of Europeans acquired through close cohabitation with domestic animals, a decisive influence on the victory of Europeans over the great empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Michael Mitterauer attributed to a single factor, namely the spread of rye (and oats for horses) in northwestern Europe, a major role in its emergence after the collapse of the Roman Empire.*5*

The fact that Joseph Henrichs regards the elimination of close kinship relations as a decisive factor explaining the uniqueness of European development must also be considered legitimate. It is not the question whether complex historical developments are explained by a multitude of factors, or by only one (monocausal explanation), that vouches for scientific respectability, but whether the explanation is right or wrong (also with regard to the scope attributed to it).

One-dimensional explanations of complex relations are often quite wrong – this makes them suspicious from the outset, but if they turn out to be right, then they meet the ideal of scientific explanation (the demand for greatest possible simplicity) to a special degree. For example, Henrich claims to have come across the following statistical correlation: “The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.” This finding is rather challenging because it relates two apparently completely different cultural dimensions: the density of biological relationships on the one hand, crime on the other. After reviewing the figures in different parts of the world, anthropology will have to either accept Henrich’s thesis as accurate or reject it as false (or partially valid only). Even if it turns out to be correct, it does, of course, not tell us anything about the cause of this correlation. One of the two variables could be the cause of the other or a factor that lies outside of both. For Henrich himself, the cause lies in the special clan mentality that results from such close kinship relationships.

The freedom of man,

his complexity and multidimensionality, remains, even if the limits of freedom are sometimes determined by very simple factors. From a scientific point of view, the crucial question always remains one and the same: do the statements in question stand up to scrutiny, are they right or wrong? For example, throughout his history, man has put forward the most ludicrous theories about epidemics. Witchcraft and magic, the wrath of the gods or personal enemies have been blamed, and a myriad of innocent people have been persecuted for such imaginary causes. It was not until the 19th century that the existence of bacteria and even later that of viruses was discovered. This correct monocausal explanation immediately swept away all those wrong and highly complex multicausal explanations of earlier times. As a matter of fact, human freedom may sometimes be limited by a single cause such as bacteria or viruses.

*1* His colleague Lüder Deecke (2012, pos. 1458): “Gerhard Roth, who worked predominantly on salamanders, is trying to persuade us to give up responsibility…. Another neuroscientist, Wolf Singer, an expert of the visual system…. is of the opinion that the principle of responsibility of man is untenable, for in the brain there is no leadership… Wolf Singer draws extensive conclusions for our legal system from his dubious premises, he pleads for the abolition of responsibility.”

*2* In my book “Creative Reason” I tried to extend these arguments in several directions.

*3* The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski expresses this very beautifully:

The unknown world can be a source of fear, but so can the overly familiar world with its well-known course planned by ourselves… In things we subdued thanks to centuries of dramatic effort, we are no longer able to discover a mythical organization, nor to believe in it seriously. Precisely because they are subdued, harnessed, as it were, before the cart which we know how to steer, the physical energies appear to our gaze a hundredfold more “dehumanized,” more indifferent, in the fullness of futility, although we have just meaningfully integrated them into our projects. We long again for the abandoned unpredictability of things…, we have been longing for it since the 18th century, from the moment that mechanized industry began to transform the surface of the earth”.

And “… complete predictability /is/ a quality fundamentally different from what is familiar to us from relationships with other people…. In encounters with other people, in which we succeed in relaxing the rules of factual exchange and in allowing the spontaneity pulsating on both sides to have its say, the inability to predict, as well as its superfluity, constitutes a specifically human value for us; the predictability of the other person is a quality of the reified relations between us: all spontaneity is creative… ” (my translation of the German edition Kolakowsky1973; p. 97).

*4* In the preceding essay, I examined Henrich’s theses in more detail.

*5* The conversion to new cereal varieties then led to more integrated agriculture with large livestock, deeper plowing of the soil, the use of water mills, and many other consequences.

This is my cover letter to Prof. Mitterauer:

Dear Mr. Mitterauer,

I read your two essays – one on the special path of Europe, the other on endogamous kinship relations – not merely with intellectual profit but with emotional pleasure as well, because they embody that kind of historiography which combines meticulous care in dealing with concrete events with the endeavor to recognize more general connections existing between them. It struck me, of course, that your research on the influence of the catholic church on the development of kinship relations, provides much of the empirical foundation on which Henrich could then pile his lofty edifice (after all, he quotes you 35 times). However, little is left in his work of the numerous reservations and restrictions found in your pages.

 I understand your criticism of Joseph Henrich and can imagine your surprise that I respond to it with an essay that first speaks very generally of freedom and necessity. Let me justify this approach in this cover letter.

In our time, I see two tendencies at work which fundamentally change the way history has been understood up to now. While the classical way consisted in taking great, wise, venerable people as models (above all men) and regarding them as the actual demiurges of historical transformations, an altogether different tendency has established itself at the latest with Marx. Now impersonal mechanisms of a social, psychological, political kind were held responsible for historic change. This substitution of the personal by the impersonal was accompanied by what we may call democratic pathos that finds the idea unacceptable that men or women of the past should be considered more credible than the normal man of our time (since we are all basically the same). Such democratic pathos logically culminates in Henrich’s proceedings: People living today are questioned about every imaginable item and their answers then statistically evaluated in order to interpret even past history. 

I deal with what I believe to be a second modern tendency in dealing with history when – via the detour of freedom and necessity – I respond to your objection that you cannot accept Henrich’s approach as scientifically serious. Here I do not quite agree. Certainly, his approach would not be scientifically serious if his peers can prove that his generalizations are not empirically justified – that is, false. But there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se – even the most daring ones – from a scientific point of view. More precisely, nothing except that little remains of previous historiography. For what Henrich presents to us is a most alarming assimilation of the human sciences to the natural sciences. The latter may allow themselves to summarize the whole order of nature in one single formula like E = m*c2, because the regularities of nature are laws which from the human perspective are eternally. But this obviously does not apply to the sphere of man and human institutions.

Now, the endeavor to transfer the methods of the natural sciences to those of the mind as well exists since the 17th century – German Romanticism merely repelled it for some time. It is precisely this endeavor which manifests itself in full strength in Henrich’s work. So, it is no surprise that his work too (difficult to read due to constant repetitions) may be summarized in a single formula: Progress = destruction of close relations + psychic factors A, B, C….

As I said before, this endeavor in itself should not be called unscientific. It only becomes so, if one believes to be able to apply such formulas just like those of the natural sciences. What these are meant to achieve, is obvious. Einstein’s world formula gives us immense power. With its help we have tamed the nuclear forces of nature.

But let’s assume that Henrich’s formula is empirically correct. Would it then be possible to use it in the same way in order to exercise power over people and society? For instance, could we provide government with a recipe of the kind: Be careful not to allow marriages between cousins. If you do so, you can be sure that society will develop in the direction of democracy, innovation, etc.?

Just like you, dear Mr. Mitterauer, I harbor the strongest reservations against this new way of using history (which in fact amounts to its abolition). Until recently, people used to look up to great role models for guidance. With immense pleasure I followed Will Durant, a master of this empathetic way of presenting history. But I know a professorial philistine who, to speak with Nietzsche, never discovered more than one or two philological earthworms, but nevertheless allows himself to disparage this encyclopedically educated man as a mere popularizer. He is doubly wrong since Durant is no longer popular at all, nobody reads him anymore, although his time is separated from ours by only one generation.

Now, let me express my real reservation against Henrich, which I omitted in my first essay. Even if his generalizations are not invalidated as empirically wrong, the formulas based on them can never be used for practical purposes like those of the natural sciences. For it is here once more that human freedom comes powerfully into play. If man suffocates under too much order, he longs for chaos (see my quotation from Kolakowski), if around him the world disintegrates in chaos, he longs for nothing so much as for order. To put it in the words of Paul Valéry, two things constantly threaten the world: order and disorder. In this way, he lives with and in opposites – and both condition each other.

A formula of the kind “progress = destruction of close relations” therefore leads us completely astray. At the beginning of the 21st century we are aware that America is no longer a melting pot but threatens to disintegrate into independent ethnic groups. But not only in the US, everywhere in the world ethnic nationalism seems to be on the rise. Moreover, the consequences of progressively loosening all close interpersonal ties become more and more visible as it now even threatens to disintegrate the oldest institution of mankind, namely marriage. Couldn’t we even argue that the dissolution of endogamous ties posed no problem for the very reason that the closest of all, namely marriage, still provided the individual with a sufficient emotional anchorage?

Henrich knows nothing about the dialectics of interdependent opposites, Henrich does not know anything about the conditionality of opposites, and neither do those of his successors who destroy humanities by wanting to transform them into a natural science (because it only partially overlaps with them).

Kind regards

Gero Jenner

Max Weber – Jared Diamond – Joseph Henrich

There are fundamental questions that every human being and probably every people and epoch ask themselves. Who or what am I? Why and how am I different from others? What is it that makes me singular? Max Weber, Jared Diamond, and Joseph Henrich have each asked this question in their own yet very similar ways. Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), and Henrich in The WEIRDest People in the World(2019).

Max Weber wanted to explore why capitalism, that economic system so astonishingly successful in his time, had arisen in Europe, and especially in its Protestant parts. Jared Diamond asks his readers why Cortez and Pizarro, with a mere handful of soldiers, so easily defeated the two most powerful empires of the New world, namely Aztecs and Incas at the beginning of the 16th century. Why did these two peoples of the New World not invade and subjugate Europe? Joseph Henrich formulates the question in a similar vein. How did Europe come to follow a path different from all previous history, namely a weird one (“WEIRD = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”)? The three questions resemble each other, but the answers of the three scholars differ in significant ways.

Max Weber is rooted in the German tradition

of a conception of history and sociology deeply influenced by Romanticism that makes him locate the peculiarities of human development primarily in cultural causes. For Weber, it was the Protestant ethic that had created the spirit of capitalism – albeit in a tortuous, indirect way. And conversely, it was its opposite, the religiously conditioned magical variety of traditional constraints, which had prevented its emergence in pre-capitalist times. Culturally conditioned human attitudes can thus become the causes of profound social transformations – a view with which Weber distinguished himself from Karl Marx.

In contrast, Jared Diamond rather follows a tradition,

one of whose most outstanding 18th-century representatives was Montesquieu, who held that the decisive factor for the divergent developmental paths of different peoples was not their subjective attitudes, but rather externally given conditions such as climate. This theory is now passé, but Diamond, in a work of immense erudition, has convincingly demonstrated that “Eurasia got the wild ancestors of wheat, barley, millet, oats, and rice, along with cows, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, water buffaloes, and camels. Meanwhile, the Americas ended up with few wild plants or animals that were both easy to domesticate and productive. Corn, the major staple in the New World, required numerous genetic changes from its wild version to yield a productive crop – so it was a long road. For domesticated animals, the Americas ended up with llamas, guinea pigs, and turkeys – which gave them no general-purpose work animals like oxen, horses, water buffaloes, or donkeys to pull plows, carry heavy burdens, and crank mills. In Australia, the candidate crops and domesticated animals were even fewer than in the Americas. Accentuating these inequalities in fauna and flora, Eurasia’s complex societies also developed more rapidly due to an east-west geographic orientation. This fostered the rapid development and diffusion of new crops, agricultural knowledge, domesticated animals, and technological know-how” (this is how Henrich summarizes Diamond’s theses). To which a further insight of Diamond should be added. The inhabitants of Eurasia had acquired immunity against a broad range of diseases due to their close coexistence with domestic animals – in contrast to the inhabitants of Australia and the New World, who died en masse from the germs introduced by Europeans.

Jared Diamond thus harkens back to the initial scientific tradition of deriving cultural attitudes and behaviors from externally imposed conditions. Since this approach is far more in line with the strict standards established by the natural sciences since the 17th century, modern historical science and sociology have in recent decades followed Diamond far more than Max Weber. It is surely no exaggeration to state that this orientation has brought about nothing less than an explosion of research activity. All the methods and findings of the natural sciences are now being used to retrace man’s past over the millennia in unimagined material detail.

It is all the more surprising, then,

that Harvard professor Joseph Henrich, a man who began his studies in aerospace engineering, i.e. in the natural sciences, is directing his own research back to cultural causes. After what has just been said, this may well be considered a scientific sensation. He answers the question of the causes of Europe’s special path, which led to a capitalist economy, democratic constitutions and a historically unique development of individualism, in an astonishing way. “The much-heralded ideals of Western civilization, like human rights, liberty, representative democracy, and science, aren’t monuments to pure reason or logic, as so many assume. People didn’t suddenly become rational during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and then invent the modern world. Instead, these institutions represent cumulative cultural products – born from a particular cultural psychology – that trace their origins back over centuries, through a cascade of causal chains involving wars, markets, and monks, to a peculiar package of incest taboos, marriage prohibitions, and family prescriptions (the MFP) that developed in a radical religious sect – Western Christianity.”

And Henrich goes significantly further. From the very beginning, the Catholic Church had pursued a marriage and family policy in Europe that as early as 1000 AD had almost completely dissolved the close kinship relationships that prevailed everywhere else (except among hunter-gatherers). This policy was particularly evident in the strict prohibition of marriage between cousins and other close relatives, which had formed the basic pattern of biologically defined units. Thus, the individual was torn away from all kinship-defined ties of clans and tribes. The place previously occupied by obligations and constraints to the extended family and clans was now taken by common interests and motives that extended to and united biological strangers. In other words, it was the work of the Church that the individual defined himself less and less by his origin and more and more by his very personal aspirations and skills. The free association of biological strangers in markets, guilds, etc. – so characteristic of Western development – was triggered by the cultural policy of the Church.*1*

Max Weber always asked (though not with the exclusivity of Karl Marx) about the material interests behind political actions. So does Henrich, if only in one place of his book. “The Church had potent incentives to promote individual ownership and testamentary inheritance. Working with secular rulers, the Church pushed for laws supporting individual ownership, default inheritance rules favoring strictly lineal inheritance (cutting out brothers, uncles, and cousins), and greater autonomy in making bequests by testament. This drive for individual ownership and personal testaments would have weakened kin-based organizations, because these corporate groups would have continually lost their land and wealth to the Church. Lying on their deathbeds, Christians gave what they could to the Church to improve their prospects for the afterlife… By 900 CE, the Church owned about a third of the cultivated land in western Europe, including in Germany (35 percent) and France (44 percent). By the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the Church owned half of Germany, and between one-quarter and one-third of England.”

On the one hand, Henrich continues Max Weber’s arguments,

on the other hand, he goes much beyond it. Protestantism, he argues, only furthered a trend that the Church had already set in motion for one and a half thousand years with its marriage and family policies. Protestantism can therefore only be seen as the culminating conclusion of a development that had begun with the very takeover of power by the Church. This is a definite step beyond the thesis of Max Weber.

The widening of arguments and evidence also applies to the analysis of the causes which so greatly hindered the emergence of free markets, representative rule and individualism in other parts of the world. In the predominance of castes in India and clans in China, Weber had seen an insurmountable obstacle to the emergence of capitalism. Likewise, he explained the resistance of traditional societies to the emergence of capitalist forms of economy by the opposition of internal and external morality (which in turn is based on the distinction between biological kin and biological strangers). And Weber had intuitively summarized this resistance in the concept of magic – magic as a cultural force inimical to all forms of innovation. Henrich, however, provides much more concrete evidence. He tries to demonstrate that an elementary fact of social organization, namely the close biological ties of people in traditional kinship relationships – primarily marriage between cousins – was the most effective obstacle to that special development which Europe was only able to embark on because the Church had systematically removed this obstacle through its marriage and family policy.

Here Henrich therefore also differs from Jared Diamond

The latter makes us understand why the conquest of the New World and Australia took place from Eurasia and not in the opposite direction. Diamond enumerates the many external advantages that this continent had over the other two. One might ask, however, why within the Eurasian continent it happened to be tiny Europe and not mighty China – still far more prosperous until the 17th century – that subjugated large parts of the world since the beginning of the 16th century – and this despite the fact that at the very beginning of the 15th century China had managed to send the then most powerful fleet as far as the borders of Africa? And why was this enterprise not planned as an instrument of conquest in the first place? Jared Diamond’s insights do not explain this curious fact and probably cannot explain it, because the external causes listed by him would rather suggest that rich China and not Europe would have conquered the world. Diamond notes: “competition between different political entities spurred innovation in geographically fragmented Europe, and.. the lack of such competition held innovation back in unified China.” But this takes us back to the question why competition played such a significant role in Europe and not in China?

Henrich himself does not pose the question of why Europe and not China conquered the new world, but it seems to me that his theory may very well provide an answer. On the one hand, classical China, dominated throughout by clans, never knew competition between equals. Moreover, it always closed itself to the barbarians of the outside world, that is, against biological foreigners and their constant invasions (the Great Wall representing up to the present day mankind’s most monumental testimony to this aversion). The Roman Church, on the other hand, not only challenged biological otherness with its policies, but largely abolished it. All people were equal before God and could therefore be equal under one religion and political rule. For this reason, it was considered a legitimate goal to subjugate the rest of the world. In this way, Europe – not China – had prepared itself psychologically for a globalized world and subsequently initiated those very conquests that eventually brought about globalization. 

Psychology – it too plays a prominent role in Joseph Henrich’s work

The politics of the Church not only intervened in the social organization of people preparing them for democratic constitutions, where the personal value of each individual would count infinitely more than his biological origin. These politics also had profound psychological effects because they fostered characteristics that would have been difficult to develop under traditional conditions, namely individualism, analytical thinking, rejection of authority, intellectual independence, willingness to innovate.

“Concretely, think of the UN diplomats, corporate managers, or high-level executives… All are materially comfortable, yet their propensity for (1) impersonal honesty (parking illegally… ), (2) universal morality (lying in court to protect their reckless buddies… ), and (3) nepotism (hiring relatives into executive positions) varies immensely and can be explained by our measures of kinship intensity and Church exposure… /But/ national populations that collectively experienced longer durations under the Western Church tend to be (A) less tightly bound by norms, (B) less conformist, (C) less enamored with tradition, (D) more individualistic, (E) less distrustful of strangers, (F) stronger on universalistic morality, (G) more cooperative in new groups with strangers, (H) more responsive to third-party punishment… , (I) more inclined to voluntarily donate blood, (J) more impersonally honest (toward faceless institutions), (K) less inclined to accumulate parking tickets under diplomatic immunity, and (L) more analytically minded.”

Thus, the Church’s policies continue to have a massive impact right into the present time. “Our analyses show that if a region was inside the Carolingian Empire during the Early Middle Ages, its rate of first cousin marriage in the 20th century was minuscule, and probably zero. If the region was outside the Carolingian Empire, as were southern Italy, southern Spain, and Brittany (France’s northwestern peninsula), the rate was higher. In Sicily, there were so many requests for dispensations to marry cousins in the 20th century that the pope delegated special power to the bishop of Sicily to allow marriages between second cousins without the Vatican’s permission.”

And those numbers reveal an even more amazing correlation: “The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.”

Individualism, rejection of authority, intellectual independence, willingness to innovate

are, in our time, qualities with positive connotations that almost no one seriously questions. This gives rise to another contrast between Henrich and his two great predecessors, Max Weber and Jared Diamond. Insignificant reservations aside, Joseph Henrich sees a great progress in the social and psychological evolution that has made possible this weird and unique Western path (remember weird = Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic”). His book reads like a paean to this extraordinary historic achievement in which, by the way, the US occupies the top position with regard to most criteria.

In contrast, Max Weber had spoken of the “steel casing of capitalism,” of the impersonality and “loneliness of man” in modern society, and he did not try to conceal the negative aspects of an overwhelming bureaucracy to which it has to submit. To be sure, Henrich mentions the higher suicide rates in Protestant as opposed to Catholic regions, a fact that already attracted Emile Durkheim’s attention, but in his book these limitations only figure as minor blemishes in what on the whole represents a magnificent development of humankind.

As for Jared Diamond, he is far too much of a historian with a deep love of everything concrete that catches his eye to embark on such generalizations. The question is, are they justified? With this question I would like to turn to Henrich’s method.

Henrich treats culture

with the instruments of the natural sciences. He does this in so systematical a way that, in my estimation, more than half of his book of no less than 680 pages is – directly or indirectly – devoted to methodological considerations. Readability suffers from such preoccupation – these considerations together with the accompanying statistics would probably be better off in an appendix – but as a rigorous researcher, Henrich seems to fear nothing so much as to be convicted of lack of seriousness in dealing with causal explanations and statistical evidence. This caution has brought him success. Renowned peers like Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, Daron Acemoglu have praised the book: it has definitely earned its place in the wake of Weber and Diamond.

Nevertheless, some reservations intrude on my mind with regard to method. The impression that must arise in the unbiased reader is just too deceptively optimistic. With the methods of rigorous analysis originating from the natural sciences, the proof now seems conclusive that mankind, having overcome disruptive obstacles (such as the marriage of cousins and the traditional clan mentality that accompanies it), had to follow a path of infinite ascent – all numbers collected by Henrich (and they are many) seem to confirm this conclusion. We get the impression that cultural developments are just as predictable as those of inanimate nature (where, for example, we can predict for coming millennia the positions of the celestial bodies surrounding us).

At this point I would like to express some reservations

Henrich has overlooked an important historical fact. Presumably, the Church succeeded in destroying close kinship ties to a certain extent, but it did not remove them in order to create new human beings freed from all ties but in order to create believing Christians ready to offer donations. It has simply put wider ideological ties in the place of more restrictive biological ones. As we know, one’s brethren were now fellow Christians while one’s enemies were the heretics at home and the unconverted pagans (Muslims, etc.) abroad. For a long time, these followers of the devil could be murdered with tacit consent and or even open approval by the Church. The latter certainly substantially extended existing ties when defining these ideologically, but it has by no means abolished them.

We know that this opposition between us and them continues unabated in today’s secularized society. Those who oppose political correctness at home are muzzled in Western countries, while they may be persecuted or even murdered in states like Russia or China. Nations that cling to their own ideology (nowadays, Western, Russian or Chinese capitalism) point thousands of nuclear warheads on their respective enemies. Seen in this light, nothing essential has changed.

A second criticism concerns the great ruptures of history

These just cannot be grasped by means of the methods used in Henrich’s book. This observation applies to the great revolutions which we call Neolithic,  Industrial and Digital. As is well known today, the sedentary way of life initially only brought disadvantages to people: a shorter, less healthy life deprived of many freedoms. Only later did it become apparent that agriculture and animal husbandry could feed many times more people; this superiority then led to hunter-gatherers being more and more displaced by sedentary societies. But of course, no one could have foreseen this at the time when this transition was just beginning.

In the same way, no one at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution could have had the slightest idea that the exploitation of fossil deposits, on which the new economic model relied from its very beginning, would less than two hundred years later exhaust fossil resources and poison nature through its toxic residues (CO2) – an unforeseen turn of events that could very well herald the end of the industrial age with its soon to be ten billion people. Henrich rightly sees the Industrial Revolution as a logical continuation of the increasing liberation of markets and individuals from all the fetters that had hitherto constrained them, but he all but ignores that this development may result in the total exploitation and poisoning of nature. Since many and quite serious thinkers meanwhile warn of these dangers, any analysis of cultural evolution must be deemed one-sided, that overlooks these obvious facts.

Max Weber was thoroughly aware of future dangers (not of course of the environmental crisis). This is also true of Jared Diamond, who in his book Collapse explicitly evokes the possibility of the total collapse of societies. In this context, our reservations become are even more relevant when we consider the importance that Henrich justly ascribes to competition.

The competition of individuals and populations

has become an accepted idea since Charles Darwin at the latest. Starting from biology, it conquered the social sciences. In its coarse form, it turned into Social Darwinism, which infamously wreaked immense havoc during the twentieth century. But in the refined form, as accepted by research and by Henrich, competition between clans, tribes and nations means that the most successful models of different human lifestyles are imitated and adopted by other clans, tribes and nations. Of course, this often includes the very opposite of competition, namely cooperation. The big companies in Silicon Valley developed their amazing ideas in constant competition with each other, but within each company cooperation must be the rule – the great companies owe their global success to this coincidentia oppositorum. Like Max Weber before him, Henrich explains the spread of democracy, open markets and innovation throughout today’s world with the fascination of a model that convinces through its greater performance.

However, Henrich is blind to a crucial flaw

of his development model. We already noted that the marriage and family policy of the Church was not at all aimed at freeing man from all ties. The Church wanted to produce Christians. Until the beginning of modern secularized Europe, Christian were instructed to see in pagans and heretics their enemies that had to be fought relentlessly. Instead of ties to a specific clan, ties to a specific religion became the hallmark of one’s identity.

At the beginning of our modern era (roughly from the 17the century onwards), secularization broke the power of the Church and with it the image of its ideological enemies that is pagans and heretics, but this process did not liberate man from ideological foes. Instead, it merely replaced the old enemies with new ones. Anyone who follows the talk shows in China or Russia and the broadcasts of CNN or Fox News in the United States or the sanctions policy of the EU is well aware of the deep socio-political front lines separating mankind today. Inside the major ideological blocs, heresy has been replaced by political incorrectness while between nations pagan beliefs have been replaced by rival ideologies.

This state of affairs confronts us with the paramount problem

of our time. So successful have the great nations become by the process described by Henrich that each of them, with its economy grown to incredible strength by the industrial civilization, consumes for itself several globes, in this way not only destroying their own sustainable livelihood but at the same time that of the rest of mankind. And the three largest of them – the U.S., Russia and China – can each make the entire globe uninhabitable for millennia to come through nuclear destruction. This is the catastrophic effect of that social, psychological, and scientific-innovative increase in efficiency that Henrich so convincingly describes.

Silicon Valley became the symbol of a recipe for success that spread to the entire world: competition towards the outside, cooperation within – therein lies the magic formula of this recipe. But while the miniature happening in the state of  California signals a high point in economic development, its expansion to the entire globe is leading us down the fastest path to disaster. The ceaseless increase in economic and military efficiency of competing nations both cannibalizes the globe and brings humanity ever closer to nuclear self-destruction.

The dilemma, insurmountable at first sight, is that each nation, in the race with all others, weakens itself as soon as it refrains from increasing its own economic or military power for the sake of mankind. That is why we look in vain for even one single rich state pursuing a policy of negative growth and a single poor state voluntarily foregoing positive growth. The situation becomes even more dramatic when we turn to military competition. More and more small states of the kind of North Korea consider it their right (a basic human right?) to acquire the ultimate bomb.

Conclusion

Henrich convincingly demonstrates how the elimination of archaic clan ties has decisively broadened people’s horizons. Nor is it perhaps mere coincidence that he completely overlooks the emergence of new ideologically determined friend-foe stereotypes that replace the old biological ones. If I suggest that this oversight may correspond to an unacknowledged intention on his part, it is because the future of mankind in the 21st century depends on our ability to abolish ideological separation as well. The race of nations for greater economic and military power can only be ended if they mutually recognize each other as representing equal human beings with equal rights, where ideological as well as earlier biological barriers must lose all importance. Only when mankind finally submits to a common authority that replaces the nuclear missiles constantly directed at all of us by a world police, and only when the exploitation and destruction of the earth’s habitat gives way to a sustainable management of the common spaceship earth, can there can be an escape from this race towards the abyss. I know, this idea still seems like utopia to most people today, because, fortunately, the globe is not yet completely poisoned and exploited and because, by mere chance, the ever more complex, ever more destructive arsenals of annihilation constantly enlarged by the great powers have turned our globe into a nuclear waste.In Prof. Henrich’s paean to human development, this rather gloomy perspective is not mentioned. But it arises as an immediate, I would almost say logical consequence. For the sake of intellectual honesty, therefore, it should not be omitted.

*1* It may, of course, be objected that ninety percent of the population, namely the peasantry, were still tied to the land until the 18th century and had to marry locally. The nobility largely resisted the church’s regulations anyway. By and large, only the inhabitants of the cities will have followed them. The British ancient historian Charles Freeman is correspondingly skeptical of Henrich’s thesis. But the historical criticism does not invalidate the astonishing findings that result from Henrich’s statistical material.

Commentary by Prof. Michael Mitterauer,

Dear Mr. Jenner,

with great interest I follow your mailings, which I have been receiving for quite some time. I was particularly interested in your latest contribution “Max Weber – Jared Diamond – Joseph Henrich”. You treat the three authors with regard to how they explain the fact “that Europe followed a path different from all previous history”. This question has also occupied me for many years. In 2003, I published in the Munich Beck-Verlag “Why Europe? Medieval Foundations of a Special Path”. The book received the German Historian’s Prize in 2004 and is now available in Spanish and English translation. As a social historian I started from Max Weber, as an agricultural historian I worked intensively with my classmate Jared Diamond, from whom I received very important suggestions for my Sonderweg research. Since this research is now available in English in several translations, Joseph Henrich and his colleague Jonathan Schulz have repeatedly contacted me. You will find my publications often in their literature citations, unfortunately not my critical remarks. On this background of experience, I would like to allow myself some comments on your article.

Max Weber has put his specific approach to the explanation of the European Sonderweg in the preface to his “Collected Essays on the Sociology of Religion” under the keyword “concatenation of circumstances”. And at such circumstances “concatenated with each other” he cites a long series of factors. If he is quoted again and again only with his “Protestant ethics”, this is an abridgement of his argumentation. One need only look at his work on Italian trading societies or on urbanism in Upper Italy in the High Middle Ages to realize the breadth of his approach. He by no means explains in a one-line, monocausal fashion. Personally, I have tried to take up his approach of the “concatenation of circumstances” and carry it further. And I am convinced, it needs such multifactorial explanations to understand the European special path. I would be happy to send you summary texts on this, if you are interested.

Jared Diamond has chosen the rapid victories of the Spanish in the Americas as vivid examples of how their military superiority was caused by deep-seated cultural differences. But his approach is also much broader and anything but unilinear or monocausal. Inspired by Jared Diamond, I have placed the first chapter on the European Sonderweg in my book under the title “Rye and Oats.” This was done deliberately as a provocation to cultural and intellectual historians who unilaterally seek the origins of the European Sonderweg in the lofty heights of idealistic developments.

Max Weber and Jared Diamond are undoubtedly researchers whose reading should not be specifically recommended to those interested in the conditions of the European Sonderweg. With Joseph Henrich the situation is quite different. His “WEIRD people” are in the truest sense of the word “peculiar people”, whose designation at first arouses interest. However, the explanatory model behind it is very simple and above all scientifically totally outdated. With decades of delay, it once again takes up the thesis of anthropologist Jack Goody, namely that the popes’ early medieval prohibitions on marrying close relatives were the decisive cause for the development of marriage and family in Europe. As recently as 2009, a leading German family historian today, Bernhard Jussen, full professor of medieval studies in Frankfurt a. M., wrote a summary article entitled “Perspectives on Kinship Research Twenty-Five Years after Jack Goody’s ‘Development of Marriage and Family in Europe'” (The Family in Medieval Society, Lectures and Research 71, pp.275-324). After the extensive discussions in medieval studies during this period, Goody’s thesis about the impact of early medieval ecclesiastical endogamy prohibitions on the development of marriage and the family simply cannot be sustained. And now Joseph Henrich and his team try to derive not only the European family development, but the whole European special development, from it with great propaganda effort! The new labeling with “WEIRDpeople” or WEIRDest people” should help this attempt terminologically. In your text you clearly refer to what cannot be explained with the world formula of Henrich&Co. We must indeed speak of Henrich & Co, since Henrich has a large number of collaborators in his scientific production. In your paragraph “At this point I would like to express reservations”, you speak of new bonds which “the church” has brought about that cannot be explaned by the endogamy prohibition. And you are absolutely right when saying “A second criticism concerns the great breaking points of history. Definitely, these cannot be grasped with the methods used in Henrich’s book”.

As an example, you mention the Industrial Revolution. One could add many such “great breaking points of history”. This is also due to the methodology used. The correlations established by Henrich and his team with such mighty effort can ultimately only help to formulate hypotheses. They do not prove anything. For example, they quote: “The higher the marriage rate of cousins in a province, the higher the corruption rate and mafia activity. Henrich &Co fail to provide proof of this supposed regularity. The fact that Francis Fukuyama and other “authorities” recommend the book in no way guarantees methodological reliability.  It only shows that powerful citation and praise cartels are behind it. One could also point to prominent critics. Their number among American anthropologists is currently increasing.

I am firmly convinced that it is worthwhile to analyze historical conditions of the European Sonderweg – especially if one wants to draw conclusions for political action in the present. Reading Max Weber and Jared Diamond with such intentions can still be recommended with a clear conscience. Joseph Henrich does not fit into this line.

Please understand the severity of my criticism. It is not primarily directed at you, but at the busybody Harvard professor.

Yours sincerelyMichael Mitterauer

My response.
This comment is so interesting that I will answer it in my following essay.

Freedom perished in Rome. What about freedom in the United States?

Rome, the greatest ancient world power, owed its rise to a frugal, self-sacrificing peasantry that sent its sons into military service – except the eldest one, who remained on the farm. Indeed, at the beginning of its surprising ascendency, Rome could boast of a great abundance of children – the demographic sine-qua-non for its expansion. But the imperial successes, especially the victory over Carthage, which opened up northern Africa to the Romans as an almost limitless granary, undermined the strength of the Italic peasantry. Imported grain was so cheap that the Roman peasantry was soon no longer able to hold its own against foreign competition. In contrast, the two hundred or so superrich Roman families owed their staggering wealth precisely to the fact that they had outsourced the supply base at the expense of their compatriots. At the same time, they had built a military-industrial complex to permanently fortify their rule not only in the conquered territories but also against the increasingly disenfranchised masses at home, whom they had  deprived of their economic subsistence. The outward sign of this historic betrayal by the ruling elite became manifest in a most conspicuous way. “Proles” or children – the most cherished wealth of peasants and the nation, who had provided the demographic basis for Rome’s rise to a world power – had degenerated into dispossessed “proletarians” – in other words, into superfluous human material.

In the face of ist painful social division

Rome had to suffer much more than just a popular movement like Occupy Wallstreet. Civil wars now pitted the elite against the disenfranchised masses. The problem was the immense concentration of wealth and power in a few hands together with the powerlessness and impoverishment of the broad population. During the civil wars ravaging Rome before the final abdication of the Republic, wealth was temporarily suppressed in an extremely drastic manner. In the course of so-called “proscriptions” not only material wealth was confiscated, but the heads of its owners were cut off as well. However, even this drastic action was not able to save the Republic from capitalist economics and the destruction of civil liberties. In hindsight the reasons seem evident: The outsourcing of production and the slave economy were objectively cheaper, and the military-industrial complex proved to be the most effective means of holding the giant empire together.

We know how the Civil War ended,

it led from the Republic to the Roman Empire. The masses helped a dictatorship to power, which acquired divine attributes in order to be able to destroy civil liberties in the name of God. But a price had to be paid for the loss of liberty and the further duration of the capitalist system. It consisted in an (almost) unconditional basic income and tittytainment for the masses – both carried out at state expense. Citizens  had no longer a say in public matters, but they were now fed by the government and bloodily entertained and intimidated in the infamous Roman way.

In the second century, this arrangement worked so well that Edward Gibbon could even call this period one of the happier times in human history. It was, however, a happiness that proved fragile from the very start. In their relentless pursuit of individual wealth and personal power, the elite first abandoned solidarity with their countrymen, then abolished most remaining values and morals. In particular, the mores of Rome’s greatest families appeared so scandalous that religious communities such as those of the Christians saw in them the prime cause of all corruption. This departure from all previously held values affected procreation as well. Especially in the richest families, the absence of children became the rule, as inheritance seemed better secured in the hands of slaves, to be replaced at any moment, than in the hands of one’s own, usually rather rebellious offspring. But that was by no means all. When values get sacrificed to mammon, even truth loses its value. Towards the end of the Republic, fake news emerged – a great statesman and thinker like Cicero, who still stubbornly defended truth, was murdered by the henchmen of Marc Antonius.

The parallel with the events in the United States of America

seems evident. As the present-day electorate can only decide between candidates sponsored by capital for the extraordinarily costly election campaigns, it is in fact the one-percent money and power elite that operates the preliminary choice of presidential candidates. In this way, democracy, has largely turned into a facade even in the United States. I use the word “largely” on purpose, because democracy has, of course, always been a rather fluid concept. Apart from very small communities or religious sects, it has never been realized in a pure form anywhere on our globe, but this should not prevent us from recognizing great differences between the states that call themselves “democratic. There is no doubt that today’s United States of America still allow its citizens a far greater say in public matters and much more freedom of expression than either the People’s Republic of China or Putin`s Russia.

Nevertheless, I see the present-day U.S.

as having reached a point that is oppressively analogous to Rome’s departure from the Republic. Donald Trump has made as little secret of his contempt for democracy and for truth as he has of his admiration for dictators of the kind of Kim Jong Un or for autocrats like Vladimir Putin. This unfortunate president certainly had the will to stage a coup d’état – he merely lacked the intellectual means and the stamina to do so. If after inciting his followers to break the law, he had brought into play the necessary organizational talent and perseverance (which he lacks both), January 6 could have well turned out a success for him. Anyway, once forty percent of a nation’s voters no longer believes in the prevailing system, then its collapse is possible at any time.

For we should have no illusions:

The masses of the United States are revolting against current conditions for the same reason as the masses of Rome at the end of the Republic. Their labor and livelihood was outsourced because it can be produced more cheaply abroad – in this way more and more Americans see their living standard reduced to Third World level. For the prosperity of its own population – that is for education, health and jobs – the “elite” of the top one percent is no longer willing to undergo any sacrifices nor does it make any investments in the rotting infrastructure. The rich no longer invest money in their own country when they can get higher returns in China. The American elite betrays its own country just as did its Roman counterpart 2000 years ago. It is the glaring contrast between public poverty and concentrated private wealth that destabilizes modern America and brought Donald Trump to power (notwithstanding the fact that he himself figures as an embodiment of that evil).

Would it be theoretically conceivable that Joe Biden

or his subsequent successors turn the tide by taking decisive action against rising social inequality and mass discontent? The prescriptions for doing so abound on the left as well as on the right and, of course, in academia. The fact that a man like Trump was able to become president is, after all, primarily due to the rising discontent of the masses. Both camps even agree on some of the measures that should be taken. First of all, outsourced production (to China and other countries) would have to be brought back home; second, the rich would have to invest in the U.S. instead of China; third, the many wars the U.S. is waging abroad would have to be ended and money-guzzling military bases reduced. Not only Donald Trump voiced this intention, but that is what Bernie Sanders wants and all those who would prefer to lock the country up to the outside world in order to put an end to America’s costly global involvement. No wonder the impoverished masses and the stumbling middle class were perfectly happy with Trump’s slogan “America First.” Those who see their previous standard of living dwindling look for a savior, regardless of whether or not he achieves that goal democratically.

We know that in ancient Rome

none of these projects was realized, although the alternatives were as clear to the intellectuals of that time as they are to their successors today. The empire eventually perished from irreconcilable social antagonisms. Demographically bled dry, it was overrun and conquered in the fifth century by the child-rich hordes of the so-called barbarians.

Can a similar development be expected for the United States,

when their world empire begins to dissolve? This is a question that preoccupies the world. I think, however, that no example, not even the Roman one, can force the answer on us. History rhymes, but it need not repeat itself.

On the other hand, the course of history does not depend solely on the good intentions of the people shaping it. There are external conditions that restrict the human freedom of action. It is these barriers that make it highly likely that Joe Biden will not really stop the dismantling of American democracy. Even if a Bernie Sanders came to power, I don’t think he would be capable of doing so.

These external limits to good intentions

are due to the existence of competing nations – especially their military presence – combined with an accelerating depletion of those raw materials that no state can do without if it wants to guarantee its population the accustomed material standard of living. The development of modern technology in the military as well as in the civilian sphere cannot do without raw materials from other regions of the world – that is true even for Vladimir Putin’s giant empire, which is so richly blessed with natural resources. Competition for the exploitation of the remaining resources therefore enjoys the same high priority among the superpowers as it does among all economically emerging nations. The race for dwindling raw materials is decided by economic means (those paying more will get more) and by military power – often by both ways at the same time. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the struggle for resources has become increasingly intense, as entire continents (Africa and large parts of Asia), which previously enjoyed a largely self-sufficient, albeit poor, style of life, now demand for themselves the same civilizational prosperity as the states of the West. In this global race, isolation is no longer an option, since it is only possible at the price of freezing one’s own development while being technologically overtaken. This is precisely why the U.S. is so much afraid of China.

But if seclusion is out of the question for the U.S.,

and if, furthermore, the military-industrial complex is indispensable to maintain its status as superpower; if, moreover, large-scale capitalist enterprises continue to prove as economically efficient as they were in ancient Rome, and the technical devices of daily use can be produced much more cheaply in other regions (such as China), so that a large-scale revival of the U.S.’s own industries is out of the question, then it becomes most likely that the United States will follow Rome in sacrificing more and more freedom and democracy to economic efficiency. The material prerequisites and ideological justifications for this procedure are already in place. Instead of providing the masses now rendered economically superfluous with work and self-esteem, they will be satisfied – as they were two thousand years ago – with a (more or less) unconditional basic survival income and a hefty dose of tittytainment. Autocrats of the kind of Donald Trump will then establish a kind of modern emperorship, as it already exists under Xi Jinping in China and under Putin in Russia.

So, TINA remains our last word –

there is no alternative? Yes and no. As long as the world is consumed in the race for riches and power, where the great superstates impose the laws of action on each other and the rest of the world, things cannot be expected to change. A farewell to capitalism, the prevention of climate change and a better society are out of the question, because anyone trying to realize these goals will pay for his courage with dependence and, finally with vassalage or even destruction. Europe only needs to look back into its long history of colonization. None of the many militarily inferior states could hope that its Christian foes would reward them for having presented to them their left cheek after being beaten on the right. They were simply subdued, exploited and even annihilated. Therefore, the Race of Nations itself must come to an end before we can hope for a better world.

Meritocracy – should Technology rule?

In 1958, a young British author achieved overnight fame with his satirical writing “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. He had correctly identified a trend of the times. Basically, this trend was not particularly new; it had begun in the 18th century, when using their knowledge and skills commoners conquered more and more of those prestigious places that had until then fallen to the nobility due to the privileges of birth. But after 1945, at the end of the fratricidal Thirty Years’ War, the world lay in ruins and knowledge and skill were in particularly high demand. Overnight, as it were, outstanding talent was able to achieve the greatest impact and wealth – most visibly in the United States, where world-dominating companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, etc. were launched by individual pioneers and quickly attained the status of global corporations. Elon Musk, a technical all-round genius who has been just as imaginative and successful in the field of communications technology as he has been in car manufacturing, the space industry and brain research, became a symbol of such superior personal ability. People like him are universally admired, because no one can deny that they owe their fame, rank and wealth primarily to their own above-average skills.

Why did Michael Young write his book “The Rise of the Meritocracy”

as a satire rather than a paean to the most capable men of his time? Will anyone seriously take offense at the fact that the privileges of birth have finally been replaced by individual ability?

Perhaps they will, the argument referring to justice being indeed much more complex. For, are we not, after all, again dealing with a privilege of birth when a Mozart, Beethoven or Bach is born with extraordinary talent for music or an Elon Musk with a special talent for technology? Admittedly, this privilege was not bestowed upon them by society, as is the case with princely or royal titles. In this case, it is nature itself that is responsible – depending on one’s inclination, one may imagine nature to be represented by evolution or God.

Is it acceptable from a point of justice – we may well ask ourselves – that people are born with different talents? Even those who do not want to ask this question are still confronted with the problem whether to give society the right to grant additional awards and rewards to those who are already at an advantage over their fellow human beings due to innate talent? Society thereby only exacerbates existing natural differences.

Obviously, such questions are difficult to answer,

especially since social differences additionally contribute to offering natural talents very different development opportunities. As Pisa studies have shown, even in Germany children from the middle class have a much better chance of finding well-paid jobs than those from lower social strata. The financial situation of ones parents – once again the fortuitous result of birth – thus plays a decisive role in the prospects and happiness of a person’s life. Michael Young had his reasons for being skeptical about the rise of the most capable.

In a departure from Young, I would, however, like to examine meritocracy

from a different perspective. I assume that an overwhelming majority of contemporaries think it is perfectly good and right that people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk have global influence and power because they made a name for themselves through spectacular inventions. In contrast, they have for about three centuries fundamentally rejected being ruled by princes, barons, rajahs, sultans, kings and dictators whose only merit is their descent from high-born parents. If we take this acceptance of meritocracy for granted, we are, nevertheless, left with an extremely interesting and, as we shall see, very troubling question: what will be the future social order emerging on such a basis?

A look at the billions all over the world,

who devote a substantial share of their life time to the cell phones in their hands, makes it easier to get to grips with our problem. Ninety-nine percent know how to use the device. Less than one percent know why and how it works, and an infinitesimally small fraction of the latter would be able to redevelop the device if it suddenly disappeared due to some catastrophe.

This contrast between an overwhelming majority of ignorant users and a vanishing minority of experts deepens with each passing day – and it does so in an inescapable way, because technological progress means nothing else but growing complexity – knowledge and skill being increasingly and infinitely widened and deepened. The consequences for society will be radical and can easily be foreseen.

In the future, a decreasing number of people

will still be capable of understanding complex technologies. This is unavoidable as the demands on the technical intelligence of researchers and engineers are increasing as knowledge deepens. It is true that subjects are becoming more and more divided, but each subject is getting a broader base and at the same time the knowledge pyramid is reaching higher. This process of increasing complexity of knowledge is in the nature of things and therefore inevitable. Accordingly, the demands on human intelligence become higher and higher, while the Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence within the population is a constant, changing at most slightly in the course of centuries.

The inevitable consequence is worldwide headhunting,

where those countries are at an advantage that either have the greatest potential of a well-trained population (e.g. Japan, South Korea, China) or the greatest financial means to lure talent from all over the world with high salaries (e.g. USA and other Western countries). At the present day, there is a general competition for the funds of investors and for the technologically trained intelligentsia all over the world. The pool of talent that can be drawn from is now expanding to include all of Asia and soon Africa as well.

But globalization only temporarily alleviates the pressure to tap ever greater intelligence potential. The Gaussian normal distribution of intelligence and the demands due to rising technological complexity contradict each other. And this will have a consequence that will change the structure of future society in a profound way. What we already observe at present will deepen dramatically in the future: the gap between a majority that passively enjoys the fruits of technological complexity on the one hand, and on the other, technical geniuses like Elon Musk and his ilk, who invent, plan and understand what they are dealing with. Headhunting for above-average intelligence will inevitably be accompanied by growing inequality of social recognition and reward.

The loss of a common language

The masters and geniuses of technology and science have less and less in common with their fellow human beings. An astrophysicist, a neurological expert or a drosophila researcher each live in their own bubbles of highly specialized knowledge. The astrophysicist can really communicate only with other astrophysicists, be it in China or in the USA, it is merely the coincidence of birth that still connects him with his compatriots. The natural sciences have created a type of human being for whom national and cultural affiliation plays no more than a subordinate role, because the laws of nature, to whose knowledge he devotes his life, exist independently of national and cultural borders.

This is tantamount to a loss of meaning

The modern natural sciences that emerged in the 17th century created, for the first time in history, a social class that is allowed to act in a socially meaningless way. Until then, this freedom had nowhere existed in any human society. Among hunter-gatherers, the meaning of daily actions was as directly prescribed to the few members of the horde as is the role of each animal in a pack of lions while they are hunting. In later agrarian societies after the Neolithic Revolution, the actions of each social class were visibly related to the good of the whole. The farmer had to feed everyone, the nobility had to provide defense, the clergy had to explain the world, and the artisans were responsible for keeping the material framework of society in repair.

Today there are countless professions,

whose designation alone is exotic so that their purpose has to be circumstantially explained to the average citizen in order for him to grasp their meaning, e.g. drosophila researcher, ocularist, industrial climber, to name but a few from a steadily growing plethora of examples. But the most exotic professions come about as a result of the broader and broader research foci within the natural sciences. Only in the case of medical research, is their meaning immediately comprehensible to the layman. A doctor may be a specialist in researching a particular drug for the cure of an equally particular organ of the human body, but the meaning of what he does remains evident: he cures people.

On the other hand, the meaning of our knowledge

about the structure of atoms or galaxies is not obvious at all. Until recently, mankind knew nothing about black holes, red giants, protons and electrons, and yet it has existed on this planet for more than a million years. Whether we can count on a further period of this length, indeed, whether we can count on even the next hundred years, is by no means settled. The reason for this uncertainty lies exactly in the fact that we have abandoned the question of meaning. For quite some time meaning did not seem to matter at all, because the industrial revolution and ist main agent, technological meritocracy, produced an unbelievable upswing in living conditions and for many people they still do so today. That is why the research that made this process possible in the first place was generally credited as being “good” and highly “meaningful”.

The industrial revolution, recently also called Anthropocene,

has undoubtedly brought about the most profound of all upheavals in human history. As recently as the last century, a question about its meaning seemed simply superfluous. A growing number of people worldwide gained access to greater material well-being. In the states of the West, this goal was realized to such a high degree in the second half of the twentieth century that some could afford the luxury of rejecting the goal itself as “materialistic” and asking for higher goals. But wherever people still live in terrible poverty, that is, in large parts of Asia, in Africa or South America there is no room for such doubts. There, people follow the example of China. First, they want to achieve the Western standard of living, and later they may afford themselves the luxury of striving for something higher – for the time being, the striving for material prosperity exhausts the range of meaning.

But what, if meaning turns into nonsense?

The Industrial Revolution has made the Anthropocene possible, in other words, the unrestricted domination of the planet by human beings. The exploitation of all available resources, especially fossil energy, has so increased the food supply that Homo sapiens has increased its numbers more than sevenfold in a mere blink of history. The consequences are mega-metropolises that turn entire landscapes into deserts of concrete, with more and more space beyond those cities needed for the production of food so that it too must be used as a kind of agrarian desert where other species are reduced to a minimum. The best-known example is the Amazon rainforests transformed into fields for growing soy. However, the same process started much earlier in a prosperous country like Germany. Here, natural forests have predominantly given way to spruce plantations, where trees are planted in military order lined up like tin soldiers.

Obviously, acquiring wealth becomes meaningless when a manifold increase in population thwarts the increase in global per capita wealth and when, at the same time, the resources needed for local wealth increase are largely consumed by the generation currently living, so that future generations will have to be content with a devastated and exhausted globe.

Unfortunately, a word like “devastated” is anything but an exaggeration. We are poisoning the air with the climate poison CO2, we are poisoning the oceans with plastic and thousands of other industrial products, we are reducing the yield and usable area of the soil with garbage and the addition of artificial nutrients that destroy the humus. Recently, we are even littering the ionosphere as ubiquitous space debris becomes a threat to future space travel.

Technical knowledge and research are not “value-neutral”,

as often claimed, they are forces which, on the contrary, exert a direct influence on our values. It is our immensely increased knowledge, it is technological meritocracy that, in the past three hundred years, have transformed the world so comprehensively that the question of meaning has become the most urgent of all.

Meaning not only threatens to turn into nonsense but into madness,

once our knowledge not only deepens the social divide between technical laymen and experts, but its misuse finally becomes a threat to all mankind. Regardless of whether a researcher develops a drug that helps millions to survive, or whether he explores the physical prerequisites for a new, even more efficient bomb, or the chemical basis for an even more effective nerve poison – in all cases he is sure to win the Nobel Prize if his research represents a breakthrough in his respective field. Knowing nature and its laws better and better has generally been judged and appreciated as meaningful for three centuries, although it is precisely this knowledge that enables mankind to extinguish itself for the first time.

The question of meaning was put aside,

as if knowledge and research were always and essentially good, even if they equip us with more and more effective instruments of self-destruction.  Man has, so to speak, divided himself into two halves: to the knowing and researching spirit he ascribes innocence, the acting man alone is supposed to bear responsibility. Thus, it comes that all larger states employ thousands of researchers with the production of weapons of mass destruction, the researchers themselves, however, decline all responsibility. What others do with their knowledge is none of their business.

Not everyone thought that way. In a few cases, it is a great researcher himself who sees through the fatal irresponsibility. 

Albert Einstein contributed substantially to the development of the final bomb. At the end of his life, however, he wondered about the meaning of what he had been doing. He saw no other way out to cope with the new threat than putting a definite end to the global race for greater economic and military power. But this would require the final step toward a united world. Only a world government would have the possibility to really prevent this race towards the abyss. It may be added that only such a world-uniting power would be able to put a stop to the progressive desolation and destruction of the planet.

Any not well-disposed reader is likely to protest

at this point at the latest. Why, Mr. Jenner, do you end a not entirely uninteresting essay with such unrealistic proposals? Your readers have to fight against Corona and unemployment, the economy as a whole against decline and enormous debts, but you talk about the necessity of a world government, which is of no interest to any of us if only because nobody has the possibility to bring it about by his own actions!

That’s right! All I can say is that this is precisely the tragedy and danger of our current situation. A meritocracy of the technologically most powerful has been wreaking havoc on nature for three hundred years – and with increasing speed and efficiency. It works on behalf of superpowers whose end-time weapons it increases in scale and lethal perfection with every passing year. Actually, it should be obvious to everyone that the dangers involved are infinitely greater than Corona, unemployment and swelling debt. Nevertheless, the abyss towards which we are heading by the destruction of nature and the perfection of end-time weapons hardly seems to be of general interest – as if it were no more than the invention of malicious imagination. Should we really leave our fate to a meritocracy that to this day does not ask itself the question about the meaning, nonsense and madness of its actions?

Corona – but what about the role of humanness and China?

From the outset, two positions stood in sharp opposition to each other. Up to the present day, many physicians and epidemologists maintain, that in historical comparison Covid-19 is a harmless event – in other terms the measures taken against it must be considered excessive. This opinion is supported by the fact that, from a statistical point of view, only older people beyond their sixties show a significantly increased mortality, while the vast majority of younger people do not even notice the infection. The thesis is further confirmed by comparison with the Spanish flu of 1918 and even more so  the outbreaks of plague epidemics, which regularly afflicted the world until a century ago and caused mass casualties among entire populations.

Cynics may add to this comparison

the observation that, on statistical average, the increased mortality of the elderly probably does not reduce their lives by more than five years at the most (in individual cases the range of variation may, of course, vary from zero to twenty years).*1* Do we not constantly hear lamentations in all developed countries to the effect that the young generation is hardly able to bear the burden of pensions for a steadily aging population? From this point of view, a corona-related reduction of life expectancy by about half a decade would certainly represent a noticeable gain for the national economy, all the more so as about ninety percent of health care costs are eaten up during the final years of human life.

Cynical considerations of this kind may be suspected in those circles which protest loudly and often violently against the restrictions which, because of Corona, limit personal freedom, the accustomed way of life and economic activities. But up to now they are definitely confined to a minority.

All the more astonishing is the worldwide consensus

in the fight against corona. While the response to the epidemic varied during the first wave in the early 2020s – with Sweden, the Netherlands and Great Britain initially doing nothing about it -, at the present time there seems to exist no state that ignores the disease. Instead they all take more or less harsh measures including a far-reaching freeze of economic activity. In this respect, authoritarian-ruled states such as Russia and China behave just like the liberal states of the West (the only exception being the United States).

This global unity of attitude and behavior is an amazing, an almost unbelievable fact. If it is true that the effects of the disease on mortality are comparatively harmless, since – statistically speaking – they hardly affect the young, working part of the population, how come that all states worldwide are fighting such a minor calamity with utmost determination? Why do they risk the most serious damage to their economies comparable only to the onslaught produced by the Great Depression almost a hundred years ago? Obviously, the fight against the epidemic has turned into a fight against the economy. Unemployment has skyrocketed everywhere, livelihoods are being wiped out, and entire industries such as air traffic have been swept away. Besides, more and more countries are running up astronomical debts, thus placing an even greater burden on the younger generation. In short, the cure for Covid-19 appears to be at least as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than the disease itself.

The answer to this paradox

is not obvious at first glance, because a mere balancing between the disease and the consequences of the medicine used against it does not lead us any further. Indeed, it is not theory that enlightens us about this enigma, but facts – facts globally perceived as unbearable.

China has felt the hideous effects of several epidemics in previous years, while the rest of the world has seen on television screens what happened during the first wave in Lombardy, especially in Bergamo, and subsequently in Spain. It sounds harmless only in theory that old people live on average about five years less. In practice, this amounted to as many elderly people dying within a single month as would otherwise have died spread over the entire five years they would – on average – have lived without the epidemic that suddenly shortened their lives. In other words, mass deaths occur within a very short period of time with hospitals unable to cope with them. And in this context, there is also something to be said about those who put all the blame on an underdeveloped health care system. No country is so wealthy that it can afford a healthcare system that permanently provides all those extremely expensive intensive care beds needed only in emergencies that occur once or twice in a century.

The sight of horror produced by mass dying

awakened people and states. No government (with the exception of that of Donald Trump) wants to appear to the world public so barbaric as to let its elderly people die in the streets in front of overcrowded hospitals. Our age of omnipresent media has its serious weaknesses, but in this case it has also shown an unexpected strength. We witnessed a new humanness reaching from China to Russia and Europe. A common aversion to human suffering led states to accept serious damage to their economy just to avoid being pilloried in front of global public opinion. In this sense, the visitation by Corona has shown us, despite all the damage it has otherwise wrought and continues to bring upon us, a better world that gives cause for hope.

But there is no reason to exaggerate this point

The most incompetent (and dangerous) president the United States ever had to cope with could think of nothing better than to look for a culprit, which, of course, he spotted in China. But science has long since proven that Covid-19 already existed in Italy, Spain, and likewise in the United States towards the end of 2019. It is true that the first mass outbreak of the epidemy occurred in China, where initially it was deliberately covered up. But no sooner had the Chinese state recognized the real danger than it combated the invisible enemy with utmost efforts and efficiency within a very short time. From then on, the Chinese government succeeded in keeping no less than a fifth of mankind – a population of 1.4 billion – practically free of corona. At present and on a daily basis, there are seldom more than about twenty cases registered in the whole country, most of them imported from outside. The Chinese can live a normal life, the economy is booming and growing. Compared to the rest of the world and its futile efforts to cope with the crisis, this is nothing less than a miracle.

Are we allowed to say something good about China,

when its population is monitored by the state and entire minorities such as the Uyghurs disappear into concentration camps? Or put in a more general way, is it permissible to speak in positive terms about people, states or events when these must be judged as bad in many other respects?

In my opinion, there is only one correct answer to this question, namely an emphatic “yes.” Democracy only functions if one praises one’s political opponent for doing the right thing just as much as one rebukes him for everything one considers wrong. Nothing is more destructive than a division into friend and foe, where some are considered the incarnation of good while others are thought to inhabit the realm of evil. Just like a functioning democracy, the world community as a whole will only live in peaceful coexistence after we abandon painting the world in black-and-white.

When comparing how authoritarian China and freedom-loving US behave towards corona, it seems evident that in the first case we must speak of a miracle of scientifically targeted measures. China has suffered a minimum number of deaths, and even those only during the first three months of the epidemic. In contrast, the American approach under Donald Trump – if one can speak of any approach at all – is tantamount to total failure. Meanwhile, the U.S. has suffered more deaths due to Corona than during World War II (about 300,000).

The situation is even more paradoxical. The United States can still boast of being home to some of the world’s best scientists especially in the field of epidemiology; in this respect they are certainly superior to China. Yet China has followed their advice exactly, while Trump and his partisan politicians were not able or even willing to do so. On the contrary, the US administration was concerned with muzzling the scientists.

Command or freedom?

At this point, it should, of course, be noted that for many, the Chinese miracle is not a miracle at all. This explains why, in the West, neither politicians nor published opinion regard China as an astonishing example – let alone one they recommend for imitation. It rather seems to be a foregone conclusion how to depreciate China’s success and embellish our own failure. There, we are dealing with a centrally controlled command structure, whereas in Western countries, we are restrained by the demands of freedom. That is why we should not be surprised that Western countries, with their constitutionally guaranteed respect for the rights of their citizens, can and will never impose such drastic measures. This statement usually ends all discussion on China.

I consider this argumentation not only misleading but wrong, although it is beyond doubt that people in the West enjoy far greater freedom and far more rights than in China. But this statement though correct disregards a point of great importance. Every state, including the states of the West, sacrifices the liberties of its citizens when the welfare of all is at stake. For this is precisely the task of any goverment: to enforce the interests of all against special interests and, if necessary, to protect against them if they harm the common good.  When a new transport link like motor- or railway is to be established or mineral resources are found in private property, the state naturally claims a superior right to limit or even completely suspend the subordinate rights of individual citizens in view of the common good. It proceeds in a similar way when evacuating thousands of citizens – by force if necessary -, if somewhere a bomb left over from the last war must be defused. For the common good, governments also prevent us from putting private currencies into circulation or to enact special laws on parts of the national territory. In the case of an enemy attack with electronic, chemical, bacterial or other weapons, all states suspend most civil liberties anyway. And it is not only the government which encroaches on personal freedom, the same is even done by private corporations without any regard for the general welfare when they sacrifice for their own interests and against the will of concerned citizens untouched landscapes, intact biotopes etc.

In other words, the state – any state – sacrifices special interests and individual liberties not only when common welfare is at stake, but often enough it condones such encroachment even when powerful special interests enforce it against the general interest.

Along with wars, epidemics are among the most serious threats to general welfare. For this reason, they justify far-reaching encroachments on the civil liberties of citizens – provided that they are limited in time and that the resulting benefit far outweighs the temporary harm.

Corona provides a classic example of the benefits

of consistent rule enforcement, as demonstrated by China with resounding success. This success was by no means the result of arbitrary action, but of strict adherence to scientific findings. Science leaves no doubt about the effectiveness of decisive action with regard to pandemics. After completely isolating for three weeks all inhabitants of a pandemic stricken area (e.g., a large city like Wuhan with several million people), the disease will be averted for good. The symptomless infected will no longer be contagious, the symptomatic ones will have been delivered to normal or field hospitals under surveillance, and less than one percent of the infected will have died. If isolation did not succeed one hundred percent, then constant testing will assure that each new case will be tracked for all its contacts – a method made much easier by the fact that people are only allowed to move freely if their cell phone has an app that accurately records their movements and encounters during that time.

This is the scientifically sanctioned way adopted by China. For almost three months, the country froze the life of an entire city (launching huge provisional sickbay at the same time). During this time, it imposed great restrictions on its people, but what would have been the alternative? Given its population of almost one and a half billion, it would otherwise have suffered at least three times as many casualties as the United States States and would be involved in a permanent fight against Corona – as the rest of the world is to this day. Of course, the imposed surveillance by a cell phone app is a massive invasion of citizens’ privacy, but would anybody seriously argue that such a temporary interference constitutes a greater violation of human rights than the deaths of 300,000 citizens dying in agony in the United States alone?

Why did the West prove so shamefully inept

in its fight against Corona? Is the reason to be found in the love of freedom of Western citizens, who are so attached to it that they do not brook the slightest restriction? That is what propaganda wants us to believe, but I am afraid that this is nothing more than a rather hypocritical self-deception. As I just tried to show, even in Western democracies liberties are abrogated in many different ways – sometimes inevitably, if that is done for the common good, but often arbitrarily, e.g. for powerful special interests.

No, the real reason for the failure of Western states is unfortunately quite different: the fear of governments of their citizens. In theory, a democratically elected leadership could impose the same drastic measures as China for a limited period of time if this can be justified as necessary for the common good. But it does not dare to do so because its fear of an opposition vehemently protesting against them. And this fear is normally stronger than sound reason, which would lead it to follow the advice of scientific experts. On many issues, especially when it comes to social justice and shaping the future, science can tell us little because values play a decisive role. But in disease control science can provide rules whose effectiveness is beyond doubt. Anybody can see the proof in the great example of China and the glaring failure of the West.

*1* The figure of an average of five years of reduced life expectancy is a mere estimate. Based on the available data, the actual value could be calculated precisely. However, since a difference of two or three years is irrelevant for the argument, I have refrained from doing so.

Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World

When contemporaries talk about the dark years of Nazi rule, they want to make us believe, consciously or not, that they themselves would have been immune to the poison of inhuman propaganda. The fact is, however, that about 99 percent of Germans did not openly resist the regime, and a large part of them were eager to clap their hands at the big parades. Only a few took refuge in a kind of internal emigration offering invisible and silent resistance. Those, who today pretend to know precisely how they would have acted in those somber times, can muster hardly even one percent probability that they would have actually put their own lives at risk through open resistance.

When people have the bad luck

to live in a dictatorship which nips in the bud any open resistance, they have no choice but to close their mouths if they do not want to expose themselves and their relatives to immediate danger. Only uncritical later born ones imagine that they would have been the exceptions, that is the few opponents or even resistance fighters. They behave like people believing in former lives. When asked what they figure out to have represented in earlier times, they invariably assume the roles of the greats: Napoleons, Caesars, or Alexander, although the probability that they were merely part of the overwhelming majority of poor servants, slaves, or peasants is immensely greater.

Meanwhile, few people doubt

that we humans are social beings, who find it infinitely painful not to belong to some group of like-minded fellows. In the long run, we cannot stand to being looked down upon by others or being cut off as outsiders. It is not only external pressure that causes us to adapt to others, but the same pressure also comes from within each of us. Without a common language and common convictions, that is, some common identity, people find it hard to live. This is precisely why it is such a terrible misfortune when a criminal regime abuses this basic need for common language, convictions and identity for its own purposes.

To avoid being seen as eccentrics by their peers, many then adopt opinions and actions they would previously have vigorously rejected. The hatred that Hitler stirred up against the Jews had appeared offensive to many people, so they looked all the more for reasons to justify their silence. Did Germany not regain much prestige abroad? And had the regime not succeeded in ending the terrible unemployment within the country in a very short time? Very few understood that in order to pay off the resulting debts, the regime expropriated the Jews then robbed in merciless wars all of Europe.

Even regimes that, in comparison to Hitler’s thousand-year Reich

cause infinitely less suffering and harm, can count on our social needs as long as they are able to produce some undeniable achievements. Vladimir Putin successfully ended the chaos of the 1990s (partly promoted by the West); he has given his country’s economy a remarkable boost despite Western sanctions, and with a surprisingly effective armament has turned Russia into a superpower again – a power that has nothing to fear from anyone but terrifies the rest of the world with its latest nine-times supersonic nuclear missiles that no existing ballistic defense is able to intercept. For these achievements Russians are very grateful and willing to accept the crimes of their leadership: the occupation of Crimea in violation of international law and the unbroken chain of murders and assassinations of resistant opposition members.

It is no different with China

Anyone who believes that the one-party system there is built on shaky foundations is completely mistaken about this rapidly rising country. In reality, American democracy is currently much more at risk of imminent collapse than the regime in Beijing. While a civil war and final transition of the greatest Western democracy to an authoritarian system under presidents like Donald Trump now seems entirely possible, China is showing the world a model of stability. The Muslim minorities in Xin Jiang and the people of Tibet are ruthlessly oppressed, but this is accepted by the majority, because the government can justly claim that no other regime ever brought material prosperity in so short a time to a people bitterly poor still half a century ago. It now seems likely that the billion-strong nation will reach 75 percent of the American gross national product as early as next year.

Everything in China is new, monumental and nowhere else do people believe so unconditionally in the blessings of science. In the fight against Covid-19, the country strictly followed the recommendations of its expert epidemiologists and achieved a resounding success, while Western countries, above all the USA, are completely incapable of decisive action due to rampant internal dissent. Nothing is new in the US, far from it: the infrastructure is crumbling and is threatened by decay, much like in Third World countries. Only American science still remains a leader in many fields, but it must increasingly assert itself against a superiority of medieval creationists and fake news propagandists. Meanwhile, China’s government rides on a wave of success, it is silencing the opposition with an argument that is hard to contradict. We will make you rich and admired all over the world – what more do you want? What has the American one percent plutocracy to offer? It has made itself rich above all others while a majority got relatively poorer. No wonder, then, that democracy is losing more and more credibility in its oldest homeland.

Dictatorships remain in power for so long,

as a majority believes their promises. The later born ones should therefore be honest and not contradict probability. 99 percent will always shrink back from any statement or action that a resolute regime punishes with labor camps or death: they prefer to cooperate and will rather behave as opportunists. We may count those among the chosen few who at least do not take part in the general adulation and keep an inner distance – in dictatorships this is the only kind of resistance that does not endanger their lives.

Accordingly, there are situations in which people are almost powerless

This is an important lesson, because today you cannot talk about any topic without being confronted with an immediate objection: “But what can we do?” During most epochs of human history, 95% of all human beings could do little or nothing, if one understands by that the change of a given political and social order. At best, they could – even under the Nazis – preserve their inner freedom. During the thirteen years of the Third Reich, was there the slightest possibility for individuals to create another better world? Certainly not! There was only the possibility to keep a consciousness of decency and truth in one’s head and to preserve this ideal for future times.

What does this look into the past have to do with our present situation?

At first glance very little, but at second glance very much. Nobody has to fear for his life, even if he represents the most adventurous or even downright insane views, as for example the proselytes of the QAnon movement. In Western countries this freedom even extends to the president of a world power, who may openly disregard and discredit elementary truths of science. Not only ludicrous opinions, but obvious fakes have conquered the public life in the United States and elsewhere and are not only tolerated by disoriented masses but frenetically applauded when emanating from the very apex of political power.

This is the first thing in common with a dark past

In Germany we involuntarily think of the jeering crowds that cheered Goebbels or Hitler. But as a matter of fact, we gave a farewell to the freedom of thought just a decade ago. A striking break in Germany’s intellectual history was the way the country’s intelligentsia dealt with Thilo Sarrazin. Even those who did not agree with the opinions of the former social democratic senator, should have said with Voltaire that he not only had the right to express them, but that his fears should be taken seriously.

But there was no willingness to do so. It was considered unforgivable that he questioned the self-image of his compatriots, according to which they had thoroughly “overcome” their past and could not only boast of the greatest tolerance toward strangers, but even lived in the greatest harmony with them. Sarrazin denied this and insisted that cultural differences acquired in youth can be so persistent as to become a serious, insurmountable obstacle to a mutual beneficial coexistence. Self-righteous German intellectuals did not want to hear such admonitions. From the outset, a real intellectual confrontation with Sarrazin’s theses was therefore out of the question. What was to be heard instead was a goat’s song of indignation all over Germany and Austria, where the self-declared defenders of political correctness demonstrated their abysmal contempt for a man, who merely repeated what serious scientists had long before him said and proved with relevant numbers in lots of unheeded scientific articles. Sarrazin’s only scientifically untenable fault had been that at one point he confused culture with biology attributing a special gene to the Jews.

Only German Chancellor Merkel made a valid objection

The book was “not helpful,” she said. That’s right. In the scarcest conceivable formula, she touched upon the extremely difficult problem of uncomfortable, sometimes really destructive truth. As already mentioned, in his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab! (Germany abolishes itself) Sarrazin had only presented insights that were not at all controversial in professional circles. But it cannot be denied that his insights were in no way helpful if Germans wanted to successfully integrate strangers and win their confidence.

Does this constitute a valid argument to suppress all unhelpful truths? Certainly not. The great damage was not caused by the book but by the furious outcry of its enemies. Had it not been for the witch hunt that followed its publication, the book “Germany abolishes itself” would hardly have caused greater damage, but it would have saved the government from recklessly accepting more foreigners into the country than the population is ready to welcome with active help instead of being overpowered by distrust and finally xenophobia. I guess that the sober civil servant Sarrazin, so totally averse to fanaticism, never wanted to achieve more.

The nationwide outrage of the self-righteous,

which at that time included above all people who did not necessarily shine with more knowledge and argumentative intelligence, but who insisted all the more on their moral superiority, marks the beginning of an intellectual regression in Germany called “political correctness” elsewhere. The rapid progress of this new pressure for conformity is now everywhere to be seen. Especially in American politics under President Trump, who elevated lying and the whitewashing of problems to the rank of a working principle.

But we are hardly in a better position in view of those imminent challenges that currently worry us far more than immigration. As far as the latter is concerned, we did perhaps really manage – at least for the time being – to turn foreigners into good and equal citizens who enrich our societies. Provided, of course, that in the coming years there will not be millions of new asylum seekers who bring the specter of xenophobia back to life. But now there are other problems or rather crises that threaten us a lot more. “Yes, we can” has a much less convincing ring, though it is certainly true that “we must” overcome them.

Here, of course, I am thinking first and foremost of the great environmental and climate crisis,

which will remain with us even when there will be no more talk of Corona. But what does actually happen? In a grotesque way, discussions are dominated by taboos and bans on speaking and thinking. The freedom to openly speak ones mind is being deliberately destroyed by the outraged, the wishful thinkers, the populists, the hypocrites and the reptile conjurors of political correctness.

Bertrand Russell, at his time a globally respected mouthpiece of a left-wing world conscience, was still allowed to say what is anathema today, namely that humanity is destroying itself through uninhibited reproduction and that nature will take revenge if mankind were to prove unable to oppose this development with the means of intelligence, namely targeted family planning. In this case, nature, so Russell, would just mobilize its usual apocalyptic horsemen, namely wars, epidemics, etc. Nobody today is allowed to utter such an elementary truth. Such freedom has been destroyed, not least by a well-known Austrian writer who populistically distorted Russell’s warning by conjuring up the horror image of “superfluous human beings” – as if family planning meant that we wanted to eliminate our fellows.

Arnold Toynbee, one of the most renowned historians of modernity, could still maintain that the fossil-industrial revolution invented in Great Britain would probably be no more than an interlude in history, because in the future humanity must once again reduce its consumption of resources to an ecologically acceptable minimum while putting a definite end to the poisoning of nature produced by the remains of consumption.

But the most clear-sighted thinker, whose entire life’s work was to warn of and to avert the ecological catastrophe, is undoubtedly Herman Daly, who may therefore rightfully be considered the “pope” of ecological enlightenment. Daly never shied away from speaking the truth without any compromise. For example, he explained that none of the usual measures, such as taxes, help against the squandering of resources, but only definite upper limits on their consumption. But these could only be adhered to if states decoupled their economies from each other so that each of them was responsible for consumption and the poisons it produced. Daly also clearly recognized that Karl Marx’s definition of exploitation was too narrow. Exploitation also occurs when the wealthy classes encourage the proliferation of the poorer ones in order to secure a constant supply of cheap labor (it is no coincidence that the poor in ancient Rome were already called proletarians, that is child-makers). As a scientist of his time, he was still allowed to state such and similar unsavory truths. Today the hypocrites, trivializers, and beautifiers shiver with indignation when confronted with such insights.

But the resistance always gets really fierce when cherished illusions are frontally attacked. Under the prevailing political conditions, a green revolution is simply impossible. We are just as powerless as people were under the National Socialist regime. Admittedly, we can take all kinds of positive actions on a small scale – under National Socialism Germans were able to do so as well. Within their own families they could do a lot to ensure private peace. But it was, of course, an illusion to believe that in this way the crimes of the regime could be prevented.

With regard to the climate crisis, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation. We can certainly vote for the Greens, give up air travel, some may change the car for a bicycle and even deny themselves the pleasure of meat, but this will not avert the climate catastrophe. The reason is to be found in the dynamics of power.

The power spiral

The leading giants USA, Russia and China, but also some smaller states like India, Pakistan, Iran or North Korea, are so focused on each other that they constantly scan the strength of their rivals, i.e. their level of armament and economic power, in order either to catch up with them or at least not to lag behind them. It is completely unthinkable that any one of these states should voluntarily leave the arena of this race, unless a world power grants it protection or an economic collapse drags it down. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, but hardly ten years had passed when the new Russia re-entered the arena of the global arms race. True, Europe remained aloof as if it could change righteousness for armament. But it could do so only because until Obama it trusted that the US would never allow it to come under Russian rule.

The spiral of military and economic power makes it impossible for anyone to reduce the consumption of resources if that puts him at a disadvantage vis-a-vis his rivals. The American military alone, with its aircraft carriers and jets, is one of the main consumers of fossil fuels – not to mention all other resources. This should deliver us from the illusion that a serious reduction in the consumption of resources is possible as long as the global spiral of power continues to turn.

In the future – and under present political conditions -, it will only turn faster, since emerging giants like China are not at all willing to comply with the American demand to join the US and Russia on questions of disarmament. Not only does China first want to become as rich as the West, it also wants to become equally powerful by equipping its military with a nuclear arsenal at least as large as that of Russia and the US. The same rush for military strength is apparent in India and may in generally be observed in all states as soon as they get economically strong. Under these circumstances, a reduction in resource consumption and environmental poisoning is simply out of the question. Only Corona has brought about an involuntary break, but not in China, the country that causes the greatest environmental pollution.

For thirteen years, it would have been an illusion

if the Germans had believed that they could change the political or social situation in their country. They were de facto condemned to powerlessness. With the exception of Corona, our lives are infinitely easier today, but none of us can change the great environmental crisis now threatening the entire world. Again, it is a regime, this time the power spiral of global actors, that prevents effective resistance. Of course, a single state like Austria or even the whole of Europe could drop out of the race and ban all processes that demonstrably pollute nature. But the consequence would be that such an individual state or Europe as a whole would reduce its own competitiveness to such an extent that its exports collapse because its rivals displace its goods on the world market. That would be a solo run paid for with weakness. But weak states are – as we, the former colonial powers, do, of course, know very well – easy victims of the strong.

Is all that remains mere powerlessness and a sure the way

into catastrophe? No. Just as many Germans, after the thirteen dark years of their history, retained within themselves the image of another better world and translated this image – however imperfectly – into post-war reality, so the global community, which is more interwoven today than ever before, will have to take the final step towards global unity in order to become once again master of its destiny. Only after this terrible race, this final struggle of humanity against itself, is brought to an end, will men come to grips with the existential crisis of fossil-industrial civilization.

We know exactly what to do in order to make this happen. My book “Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World!” says as little really new about measures we have to take as do most of the books written after Herman Daly’s fundamental work. But one thing it does illuminate in a completely new way and in all its facets: The book shows in detail why we – i.e. every state on earth, no matter how green it pretends to be – are completely incapable of putting this program into practice under the prevailing political conditions.

Nobody likes to hear this bitter truth,

because, even when we are powerless, we like to placate our conscience with comforting illusions. But it is precisely this self-deception which makes us run blindly towards disaster. “Yes, we can – No, we must! Build a better, sustainable World!” is an illusion-free call for honesty and a sharpened conscience. That one of the most honest and illusion resistant of all warners, Herman Daly, gave it his special praise is certainly a recommendation: “Dear Dr Gero Jenner, Thanks for sending me your cogently reasoned, well informed, and clearly written book. I hope it is widely read. Best wishes, Herman Daly” (July 14, 2020). 

This may be an additional reason to overcome taboos, mental prohibitions and political correctness, for that is what the book is all about.

Are we still in control of our Brave New Artificial World? (Decomplexation I)

All countries that have the means to do so regard the digitization of information and its transmission as one of the most important technical tasks. In this way, growing volumes of data can be utilized in ever shorter time intervals. Nuclear power plants, ballistic missiles, drones, driverless cars, and surgical procedures can be controlled remotely. State surveillance of entire populations is just as possible as influencing the voting behavior of perfectly screened citizens.

It has, of course, been a trivial truth for thousands of years that knives can be used to cut open pumpkins or murder people. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Google may help us to gain an insight into thousands of facts on the one hand, while at the same time it subjects us to constant observation. SoIn other words, I do not want to criticize digitization for the mere fact that like all other technological breakthroughs, it may be used and misused at the same time. Instead, I would like to focus on a completely different aspect – one hardly ever taken into account: the increasing complexity of the new artificial world we have ourselves created.

Such complexity means first of all

that an overwhelming majority of contemporaries no longer understand the things they routinely use every day. While a car still belongs to the analog world, so that most of us can explain how and why it moves at all, more than ninety-nine out of a hundred people have no idea what happens in everyday gadgets like a cell phone. At first glance, this fact need not cause concern. Our body and brain provide us with the most amazing services every day, but even the greatest luminaries of medicine and neurology have only just unraveled some of the processes that take place within them at any given moment.

In other words, the natural world has always been a mystery to man, but this lack of understanding has not prevented even Stone Age people from subjecting it to their needs. Indeed, the complexity of the natural world stretching from atoms to cosmic galaxies never affected human survival. But what about the artificial world of computers, robots, nuclear-powered intercontinental rockets and the like, which we created ourselves? Is their growing complexity just as insignificant with regard to the individual and social existence of humans? Apparently not. The artificial world confronts us with existential problems that never existed in the past.

Here we come across a first Basic Law

The number of those who, due to their mental abilities and training, are able to develop, maintain and monitor the hardware and software of this artificial world is decreasing to the same extent as the latter’s complexity is increasing.

This is an inevitable consequence resulting from the fact that the Gaussian normal distribution of technical intelligence does not depend on our needs but is a constant (in every population there are only so and so many percent of people whose technical IQ exceeds a certain value). From the outset, therefore, only a fraction of the population can be considered as pioneers and waiting personnel for this need. Even if this potential is up to now far from being exhausted in countries with large populations such as India or China, the first Basic Law nevertheless indicates that it is bound to be constantly reduced in the future because increasing complexity will steeply raise the demands on technical intelligence. Not only today’s 99 percent of people will no longer understand the cell phones of the n-th generation, but the remaining one percent will also melt down to a residual value.

Complexity will be increased in two ways

In the analog age, no special technical skills were required to run a private institute like for instance a bank. This situation has changed fundamentally today. Every financial institution in our time must expect to become inoperative from one moment to the next unless highly paid specialists set up, maintain and update the programs that electronically manage and control the flow of money around the clock. Since national boundaries have long been crossed, international networking is further increasing complexity.

And this is only part of the story. Specialists – on the one hand brilliant amateurs, on the other hand equally highly paid experts from competing countries – do their utmost to gain unauthorized access to their systems. These ongoing attacks are another driving force behind the spiral of complexity in existing systems. Not only banks are affected by this compulsion, but also all manufacturing companies, which are becoming larger and larger for this very reason, because otherwise they would not be able to afford the required number of such specialists.

This results in a second Basic Law

The compulsion for size also results from the costs of increasing complexity. The consequences for society are already beginning to emerge. They are anything but harmless. I can still remember the fun I had as a child using the square beer coasters on the table of a pub to build a tower that could grow up to five stories high, but usually collapsed after the third. What will our future look like when the artificial world around us grows more complex with each passing year? The danger of a system collapse increases with every floor we add to the tower. To prevent this from happening, the demands on maintenance and monitoring must be increased at least to the same extent.

At this point a third Basic Law comes into effect

namely, the compulsion to massively expand technical education, especially in computer science, so that the potential of technical intelligence available in a given population is exploited to the greatest extent possible. From elementary school (perhaps even kindergarten) to universities, technical education will take up an ever greater share of the curriculum, pushing the traditional subjects, first and foremost, of course, the humanities, more and more into the background – a process that we are already witnessing all over the world. However, this tendency, forced by the growing complexity of systems, is in strange contrast to the intentions to which it owes its origins. We once believed that technology would simplify life, relieve people of the tiresome everyday material worries in order to free their minds for higher purposes.

These expectations came true in many respects. For a mother in Vienna, it is undoubtedly a tremendous relief to be able to call her son in New York at any time or transfer money electronically. At least in its initial phase, technical progress was really what it was meant to be: a breathtaking advance into a fantastic world previously imagined only by storytellers.

In the meantime, this fairytale time lies behind us. Not only revolutions, but complexity too devours its children. We know, for example, that fast breeders may significantly stretch the uranium reserves. That is the reason why China, in particular, is sticking with this technology. Other countries such as Germany have turned away from it because the extraordinarily high complexity of such plants extremely increases the risk of wholesale nuclear contamination.

Fourth Basic Law

Extreme risks lead to just as extreme measures of control and thus further the more or less apparent transition to the surveillance state – a trend to be noticed not only in China. Even among sociologists, it is common practice to interpret such surveillance by the state primarily in political terms, as if it were based primarily on evil intentions and lust for power. Undoubtedly, this is often enough the case, but an increasingly large part of central supervision is due to modern technology, that is to the growing complexity of our modern artificial world. As the consequences of sabotage become more and more devastating and costly, states strive to prevent them from happening in the first place by means of complete surveillance, which of course increasingly restricts human freedom. The fourth Basic Law says:

Not only sabotage but technical progress as such is to blame

For example, just consider the quantum computer, a product of outstanding technical intelligence. The moment it will be marketable, so that every private individual can buy it, it will be just as elementary a threat to society as the many nuclear arsenals that meanwhile even small countries can afford to develop and own. From one day to the next, banks will lose their protection against hackers because the new technology will be able to crack all existing codes in a matter of seconds. All money is then on the plate for all the world to take away, so to speak.

In the end, technicians will, of course, develop counter-strategies. As of now, the largest banks are already looking for these in the field of quantum encryption. But the necessary consequence will be a further increase in complexity and much higher costs. In other words, we are rapidly approaching the point where the tower collapses, because constant increases in complexity will no longer be either manageable or affordable.

In the arms industry this point has already been reached

Our “Brave New Artificial World” has now reached a point where with every passing day, there is a growing likelihood that something might “happen” because of mere chance or human failure. This is the inevitable result of nuclear missiles becoming faster and faster so that the advance warning time for their impact likewise becomes smaller and smaller. In the case of a first strike on the part of the opponent, both Russians and Americans will no longer dispose of about half an hour after its discovery as was still the case a couple of decades ago. Now that a few days ago Russia successfully demonstrated to the world the test flight of “Zircon”, a rocket of nine times supersonic speed, this already minimal period has shrunk to a few minutes (depending on where the nuclear missiles are fired from).

Fortunately, the danger of an arbitrary first strike by a superpower is so small that an optimist may completely neglect it. No president is so powerful that he would not have to consult with his military beforehand – and the military knows the consequences quite well. The situation is quite different with the second strike, which may be triggered by sheer misinformation. That is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union in 1983. At the very last moment the apocalyptic counter strike was prevented by the great Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov. As for the US after Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, an auxiliary (currently female) has to follow an American president wherever he goes with a special black suitcase, so that he is able to give the final order for a nuclear second strike in case an inimical first strike has been spotted. Since a first strike only makes sense if it destroys the enemy’s entire nuclear arsenal, the second strike must likewise be of maximum strength. Due to the minimal time window of meanwhile five minutes, a serious consultation with the military has, of course, become all but impossible. The president of a superpower must either rely on computers or on his guts to decide whether or not he will reduce the globe to rubble.

Whether we like it or not, we must acknowledge a fifth Basic Law

The growing complexity of the artificial world we have ourselves created has increased our freedom only in specific cases, but has radically restricted it as a whole, since the self-extinction of the human species – the maximum loss of freedom – hovers over our heads for the first time in history as a real danger and perspective. Even if – for reasons of mental health – we suppress this sinister possibility from our consciousness, we cannot overlook the prospect that growing complexity is pushing humanity towards a systemic collapse and therefore towards a total negation of freedom.

In the field of armament, where each superpower forces the other to respond to growing speed and deadliness with ever faster and more lethal systems, the state of unstable complexity has already been reached. The banking system will soon reach that point when all codes can be deciphered effortlessly. The technical progress in genetics is also heading in the direction of a complexity that threatens to elude the control even of experts, since we will probably never know for sure what long term effects selective interventions in the genetic material will have on the organism as a whole.

But the now classic example of potentially fatal effects

of growing complexity is the fossil-industrial revolution itself, whose main feature is the increasing hunger for resources on the one hand and their transformation into waste products largely consisting of non-biodegradable toxins, on the other. We know that the removal of CO2 from the air, of plastics from the seas and of electronic, industrial and radiating nuclear waste from the ground represent the great unresolved problems of our time.  While initially only raw materials such as coal were mined, thousands of other substances up to the rare earth elements have now been added. However, the waste materials and potential toxins are already in the hundreds of thousands. We thus exponentially increased the complexity of our interventions in nature – with consequences that can no longer be ignored. Climate change is only the most visible sign that the artificial tower could very well collapse.

Failure of ethical control

Technology is a subsystem within social realms while technical intelligence constitutes a subsystem within the mental abilities of human beings. As long as technology serves man, that is, human society as a whole, we have reason to call its achievements “progress”. But as soon as the technical subsystem becomes independent and – due to its growing complexity – turns into a danger for the social system as a whole (and that of nature), we are forced to speak of its achievements as “technical regression”. With the large-scale destruction of the natural foundations of life, the fossil-industrial epoch has reached a stage where this “technical regression” is visible to everyone and (at least in the field of armaments) even questions man’s very survival.

With regard to the human body, we speak of cancer when a subsystem gets out of control. Then we say that the immune system is failing, i.e. the body’s defenses. If, on the other hand, technology gets out of control, then the immune system of a society is damaged. Its ethical controls no longer work – those controls, which examine and evaluate all human activities according to whether they are beneficial or harmful to the common good.

The ethical control of the whole

over its parts – its diverse subsystems – should be a matter of course. In the case of technology, it has failed because a taboo stands in the way, which has by now been hardened into dogma. The dogma looks somewhat like this: Every new discovery in the field of natural sciences represents an expansion of our knowledge – which is undoubtedly correct – and is therefore a blessing for mankind – which is undoubtedly incorrect.

The historical roots of this dogma are rooted in the fact that the beneficial effects of technical progress were long felt to be so overwhelming that the doubt about it could be dismissed as mere backwardness and stupidity. This explains why every time a Nobel Prize is awarded to the luminaries of science, humanity falls into a kind of euphoria, even though it is precisely this newly acquired knowledge that tends to increase complexity in our artificial world and heightens its instability. We are on the way to hopelessly damaging the natural world with its artificial counterpart, but it is still considered the worst heresy to doubt technology itself, even though it has brought about this process in the first place.

Decomplexation – the new Basic Law

If we do not want to fail because of the self-created complexity of the new artificial world, only decomplexation, i.e. the conscious reduction of complexity, can save us. Of course, this does not mean a revolt against technology, as if we had to regress back to the early Stone Age, where only a few thousand people in small hordes passed through Europe. Technical intelligence has long been our destiny and the artificial world is a subsystem that we can no longer do without. But this system needs strict control in order not to become completely uncontrollable.

Once society regains control over its technical subsystem, it will not only prohibit further research on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons but will also ensure that no more money is made available for research that promotes the development of a surveillance state and thus the suppression of freedom. Knowledge in itself, for example knowledge about how we may kill people en masse, has no value at all, but only knowledge that promotes life and freedom. Society therefore has not only the right but an obligation to distinguish between ethically valuable and ethically dangerous knowledge – to promote the one and to bring research on the other under its control. Because knowledge and truth are by no means neutral seen from the ethical perspective. We owe to a philanthropic science that service of truth which, in the 17. and 18. centuries, the times of Enlightenment, had successfully eliminated so many dogmatic lies. But knowledge and truth, which serve the development of weapons of mass destruction or increase complexity to the point of uncontrollability, retrospectively call into question all previous achievements that science and technology conferred on man.

The Demise of American Democracy

When the highest representatives of a community are eager to throw mud at each other. When arguments merely serve as a façade to convey anger, mockery or contempt, then history has just turned a corner. One period has come to an end, a new one begins. Since September 29, 2020 we know that in the United States of America democracy is undergoing a process of rapid disintegration – it is being torn apart by diverging forces.

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