Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins

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A Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, a biologist, ethologist and psychologist, Konrad Lorenz was the founder of the modern study of animal behavior.

In 1973 – the same year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – he also published a book entitled “Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins”, in which he describes the eight factors that, in his view, would lead inevitably to the destruction of mankind.

It is not about a book about catastrophes, asteroids, plagues and zombies feeding on brains.

The major problem according to Lorenz is that “the human knowledge about the outer world, is more advanced than our natural ability to adapt to new circumstances”.

I will attempt to concisely convey these “eight plagues”, although this is far beyond my humble abilities, especially when condensing the text into just a few pages. I recommend reading the book.

1) Overpopulation

Rather than focusing on the problem of overpopulation in certain countries (China, India, etc.), Lorenz treats it as a worldwide phenomenon that has distorted human behaviour as a whole.

The most catastrophic aspect of this situation, in his view, is excessive urbanization.

Overcrowding in the cities and the urban anonymity that comes with it “leads not only indirectly through exhaustion of interhuman relationships but also directly to aggressive behaviour”.

In the cities, we meet so many people every day and we see so many faces that we end up paying attention to none of them. Most of the time, other people are viewed simply as an obstacle that is standing right in front of us at the bank, in the supermarket or on the bus.

A thousand different people may live in the area of the city where you live. Think for a moment about how many of them you know and to how many of them you would say “hello”. On the contrary, in a village of a thousand people, everybody knows each other – even if they don’t particularly like each other. Also, you are much more likely to be helped by another villager than by a city dweller who lives even in the next apartment building.

Those who argue that there is nothing better than living in the city need to explain to us why those who climb the social ladder end up moving to less crowded areas.

If you confine a hundred mice to one cage, they will end up killing each other, even if there is enough food for them all.

2) Devastation of the Environment

Here, Lorenz makes a brief reference to ecology and man’s dependence on the earthly sphere. However, he is much more concerned with the desertification of the human soul, the consequence of man’s estrangement from nature. He compares the cities to malignant tumours that grow uncontrollably.

He writes: “A man is not, like an ant or termite, constructed phylogenetically in such a way that he can bear being an anonymous and interchangeable element among millions of absolutely similar others.”

City dwellers are alienated because they live in an environment that is detached from nature.

“The beauty of nature is necessary to keep people mentally healthy”

It is no coincidence that, when given the opportunity, we take outings into the natural countryside, where we take as many deep breaths as we can, savouring the scenery for as long as possible before we must return to the misery of the modern , the confined apartments, and the ugliness of our lives to which we have acclimatised.

3) Man’s race against himself

Lorenz begins this chapter by writing that “the working pace of modern man is the stupidest product of intraspecific selection”.

The vast majority of our contemporaries pay no attention to anything but success and every easy means to achieving it seems to be erroneously considered a value in itself.

We feel a constant pressure not to be outdone by others, to obtain and achieve everything we can, and not to fail at any cost. All of these stresses contribute to our disconnection from our deeper attributes, such as reflection.

Men suffer from neurological and mental stresses that are placed upon them by competition with their fellow men. Daily life is so daunting and so competitive that there is hardly any time left for simply musing.

“Even on the unjustifiably” Lorenz wrote prophetically in 1973, “optimistic assumption that the earth’s population may not continue to increase at its present alarming rate, we must realize that the economic race of a man against himself is enough to destroy him completely.”

4) Sensory entropia

The consumer lifestyle, which is the most relevant phrase used to describe the modern consumer’s attitude, is geared towards the immediate satisfaction of the consumer’s needs, particularly those which are shallow and frivolous.

Man’s need to communicate has been transmuted into a “need” for the state-of-the-art mobile phone and the obligatory tariff plan, which provides the opportunity to talk “non-stop”.

Men have become convinced that they must have whatever they feel they want; right here, right now. If they are deprived of this privilege, they feel inferior.

“By this way, impatience is triggered for immediate satisfaction of every need. This craving is fueled by a society where the producers urge for consumption. The ascertainment that the consumers can’t notice up to what point they became slaves of easy payments, is astonishing.”

At the same time, the overabundance of stimuli and possible targets leads to stupefaction. The deluge of information offered by television and the internet provides much less satisfaction compared to reading a book. The ability to electronically procure and store the entire discography of your favourite artist does not also afford you the time to actually listen to it.

Contemporary man produces nothing with his own hands (not even his own food, usually), except for the money to buy what he “needs”. His sentimental attachment to these objects is non-existent since he will replace them with something newer at the first opportunity. Indeed, the motto of many modern corporations seems to be: “Make products that are already obsolete”.

It is easy to see the pleasure that is derived when someone puts on a handmade scarf (even though it may not be as stylish as a factory-made one) or when they eat a tomato from their own garden. The amount of labour it takes to produce something is directly related to the pleasure received by the maker.

At the same time, we try to eliminate every negative feeling by avoiding it rather than by addressing its cause. It is not simply that antidepressants have become more common than painkillers; an entire industry of wellness has been built upon this notion of the quick and painless eradication of troublesome thoughts.

5) The genetic decline

Although this is one of the most complex chapters of the book, I will attempt to briefly convey its essence.

There is a defence mechanism in most animals (especially primates). Males, for instance, will lay claim to their reproductive rights but will never kill a rival nor rape a female.

Chimpanzees will resort to fraud in order to secure a bigger proportion of food but they will never keep all the food to themselves while the frailer members starve to death.

The primates know that their survival depends on the coherence of the team, so they never cross the line by killing a member of it.

In humans, this mechanism of survival and self-maintenance has atrophied or possibly it has been quashed by their own inventiveness. In spite of our intelligence, humans behave more foolishly compared to their less intelligent “relatives”.

It is much easier to kill somebody from a distance rather than with your own hands. Murder by strangling is a million times rarer than gun-related death.  Consider, then, how much easier it must be for paid hitmen to annihilate their victims, not only without physical contact, but without even knowing anything about them.

Some would argue that man has always acted as a wolf towards his fellow-man, but acceptance of this criminal behavior as an historical necessity brings no solution.

6) The clash with tradition

On the other hand, some people, especially younger ones, will be scratching their heads at this point. We think that tradition is another word for conservativeness and that anything that is innovative or revolutionary should be disposed from “obsolete ideas”.

This is false. The only way to “start from scratch” is to go back to the caves and try to make a fire by rubbing sticks together. We won’t be able to see any further unless we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Despite the fact that Lorenz was a scientist, he held the view that irrational cultural adages should be preserved and studied.

“Anyone who believes that all this enormous fund of knowledge and wisdom contained in the traditions of every old civilization this is null and void and should be thrown overboard is harboring another illusion, just as disastrous, namely, that science can create, from nothing and by reason alone, a whole culture with everything pertaining to it.”

As animals and humans, we are byproducts of the natural and cultural evolution. Part of this cultural continuity is contained in the language and idioms, customs and traditions, religion (whether religious or not), history, myths, food, music, prejudices and traditional costumes of every group of people.

By eliminating the past, we lose the essence of the present, since a rootless man is nothing but prey to his outside pressures and circumstances.

The leveling of globalization – whereby people simply mimic models of behaviour that have no reference or relevance to themselves – does not nurture “citizens of the world” but merely identical – and easy to manipulate – beings.

This uniformity and lack of diversity may be phylogenetically beneficial to the ants but it is not good for humans.

7) Submission to dogma

Man, unfortunately, has an innate inclination towards dogmatism.

The reason is twofold:

First, it is much easier to accept unquestioningly ready-to-use beliefs than to evaluate them; cheering and booing demands less mental strain than thinking.

Secondly, all humans – like animals – need to be a part of a team.

As a result of thousands of years of religious indoctrination, men believe that they alone, among all other animals, possess two features: a soul and freedom of choice.

In the case of the former, it is a matter of faith; therefore, it cannot be disputed. Those who think that they can prove God’s existence or inexistence are clueless about the nature of man – let alone God.

The second aspect, freedom of choice, relates to one of the most challenging philosophical-theological-scientific issues: do our decisions and beliefs shape our circumstances or do our circumstances shape us?

As a rule, taking the dogmatic stance follows on from embracing dogma itself, although there is something that leads us to accept a particular dogma and not the opposite or a similar one.

A youth, for instance, might join a Nazi organization for reasons unrelated to Nazi ideology; he might simply like black clothes and violent-potboilers or maybe he just wants to contradict his parents. Once he finds himself within the team, he will embrace the dogma and will start thinking, talking and behaving like the leaders of the team.

The same is true of every party, religious or scientific community: a communist will use the jargon of dialectical materialism; a Jehovah’s Witness will hand out leaflets and a psychiatrist will deride psychologists.

Everyone labours under the misapprehension that they are acting freely but they cannot comprehend that their “freedom” is dogmatic.

Yet the ultimate global dogma, unlike anything mankind has ever seen before, is the conviction that the only rational behavior is that which is linked to the aforementioned competitive / consumptive model.

Anyone who tries to oppose or abstain from the modern way of life is considered to be quirky, mentally unstable or even dangerous.

What would you think of a man who grows his own food, makes his own furniture for his house (which he might have built for himself), and lives without a television, telephone or electricity?

You would probably think that he was deranged, or at least a misfit, since his way of life goes against modern dogma.

8) Nuclear weapons

Lorenz dedicates just one page for this “sin”!
“This threat”, he writes, “is the easiest to avert. We need not drop it or even make it. Because of the incredible collective stupidity of mankind, this is difficult enough to achieve”.

In conclusion:

You will not find an optimistic epilogue in Lorenz’s book. He did not write that mankind always finds a way to overcome difficulties.

Later, he added a foreword, in which he wrote: “Every danger loses some of its terror once its causes are understood.”

Forty years later, mankind has not only failed to understand, but remains wholly unaware of the danger.

Merry Christmas, Mister Lorenz.

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Translated by Alexandros Mantas:
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