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by William H. Benson

July 26, 2012

     I happened to read a quote in The Week‘s July 20th edition. Edward Wilson, the Harvard biologist and twice the Pulitzer Prize winner for his books, once said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” Now, that is a perceptive observation, but I am not sure that I agree that there is a “real problem.”

     “God-like technology” is a stretch, even though humanity’s technological advances are quite impressive. From Clovis spear points to the bow and arrow during the Paleolithic era; from the crossbow to the catapult during the medieval era; and from the automobile to airplanes, jets, computers, and cell-phones during the modern age, human beings have demonstrated repeatedly their astounding ability to devise tools.

     As for medieval institutions, I think that Wilson was referring to four institutions—the state, the church, the university, and the guild—and that he thinks those evolved during the Middle Ages and have not progressed much since then. If so, I disagree. Where once there was only a monarch, a king or a queen, we also now have a republican form of democracy, and this summer our country, the United States of America, will witness that form of self-government in action at the Republican and Democratic Presidential conventions.

     The medieval church was once a single church, a uni-verse, but today we enjoy a multiple number of churches, a multi-verse. Voltaire said, “Where there is one religion, there is tyranny. Where there are two, they cut each others’ throats, but where there are a multiple number of faiths, there is peace.” The university, as it did during the Middle Ages, still has a teacher, students, a classroom, desks, grades, and a school year broken into semesters, but that too is giving way to new educational developments, such as on-line classes.

     The guild, such as those for vinters or physicians or lawyers or barrel-makers, permitted only master craftsman into its membership, but only after those masters had completed training first as apprentices and then as journeymen. Today we have similar requirements for entry into most businesses: required hours of education, hands-on training, a license, and an overseeing board. Competency is the goal.

     The state, the church, the university, and the guild may have had medieval origins, but they each have advanced well beyond their starting points, all for the betterment of humankind. People now can discover their careers in either the church, the state, the university, or the guild, and they can move freely from one to another.

     As for Wilson’s reference to Paleolithic emotions, I think that he meant that human beings still feel that same set of emotions that the stone-age people felt: anger, rage, jealousy, greed, sensuality, fear, sorrow, bewilderment, kindness, generosity, surprise, delight, love, and hate. I would agree. Human nature has not changed in several millennium.

     That slate of emotions that assaults you and me every single morning upon our awakening has done the same to all living Homo Sapiens since the first human beings stood upright on the African savanna. Before those emotions’ onslaught we are rendered helpless. It is only with civilization, plus those medieval institutions, and our own internal self-control mechanisms that we have learned to manage.

     It is not a negative thing to feel and experience emotions, both the pleasing kind—love, kindness, gentility, hospitality, compassion, and generosity—as well as the detestable kind—hatred, guilt, fear, hostility, sadness, and regrets. It is both kinds that make us truly human. Some people display more of the good than the bad kind, but for others, the reverse is true. Not all of us can be as saintly as Mother Teresa, nor as awful as Joseph Stalin.

     Without our Paleolithic emotions, our lives would resemble those of ants or bees, social insects who act according to their instincts, who work for the colony’s betterment, rather than for their own.

     Yes, we all feel those Paleolithic emotions, and yet human beings have learned to blunt and thwart their ill-effects, to work around and with them. In our modern-day caves, most of us want the same things: a comfortable dwelling, a steady supply of food and clothing, the fire that brings us light and heat in the winter, the breezes that cool us in the summer, security from predators and enemies, agreeable and loving companions, and a hope for a better future.

     Surrounded by the modern versions of the medieval institutions—the state, the church, the university, and the guild—and blessed by the amazing tools that technology has provided for our use, we can work to fulfill our deepest wishes and overcome that supposed “real problem of humanity.”