Konrad Lorenz was Doctor of Medicine and Philosophy, biologist, ethologist and psychologist, founder of the modern study of animal behavior and theorist.
In 1973, the year he was awarded the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, he published a different book entitled “Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins”. In this, he names the eight causes that, in his view, lead inevitably to the end of mankind.
It is not about a book about catastrophes, with 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 try to write concisely these “eight plagues”, being completely aware that I commit an act of hubris since it is a book that is far beyond my abilities, especially when I have to condense its meaning in a few pages. You’d better read the book.
Lorenz doesn’t focus on the overpopulation problem of some countries (China, India, etc.), but rather deals with it as a world-wide phenomenon that has distorted human behaviour as a whole.
The most catastrophic aspect of this situation is excessive urbanization.
Overcrowding in the cities and the urban anonymity that comes with it “results not only in inhuman deeds caused by weariness and the progressive extinction of human contact, but it is also the direct cause of total aggressive behaviour”.
Daily, we meet so many people in the cities, we see so many faces and we end up paying attention to none. Most of the times they are just an obstacle that stands right there in front of us in the bank, the super market or the bus.
In the block where your house is, could live a thousand people. Give it some thought, just how many of them do you know and to how many of them do you 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. Plus, you are much more likely to get help from your fellow-villager than someone who lives just in the next apartment building.
If some people maintain that there is nothing better than living in the city, they have to make plain to us why those who “go up” the social ladder move to less crowded areas.
If you confine a hundred mice in a cage, they will exterminate each other, even if the food suffices.
2) The desertification of the environment
Lorenz here makes a quick reference to ecology and man’s dependence on the earthly sphere. But he is much more concerned with the desertification of the human soul, the outcome of man’s estrangement from nature. He compares the cities with malignant tumours that grow uncontrollably.
“Man”, he writes, “by phylogeny is not designed, like termites or ants, to tolerate his mutation into an anonymous and totally interchangeable element, among millions of perfectly uniformed individuals.”
City dwellers are alienated because they live in an environment detached from nature.
“Nature’s beauty is necessary for the spiritual and moral health of the human being.”
It is no coincidence that when the chance crops up we go on an outing into nature, where we take as many deep breaths as we can, rejoicing in the scenery before we go back to the misery of the modern human farms, the apartments, and the ugliness of our lives that we have taken for granted.
3) The fever of competition
Lorenz begins this chapter by writing that “the most stupid product of this special inner choice, is the rate at which modern people work”.
The vast majority of our contemporaries pay no attention to anything else but success and every means suitable seems, wrongly, to be a self-contained moral.
We are stressed not to be outdone by others, stressed to obtain everything we “can” obtain, stressed in case we fail, all these stresses contribute to man’s deprivation from his deeper attributes. One of them is thought (I would say meditation).
Men suffer from neurological and mental stress that competition imposes upon them and their peers. Daily life is so scary, so competitive, that there is hardly any time left for musing.
“Even if we assume” wrote Lorenz prophetically in 1973, “with unjustifiable optimism that the population of the Earth will not keep increasing at today’s rate, we must be certain that humanity’s economic competition with its own self will suffice to lead it to its extermination.”
4) Sensory entropia
The consuming lifestyle, as it is the prevalent phrase to describe homo consumer’s attitude, propels for the immediate satisfaction of the needs, with emphasis on the fake needs.
Man’s need to communicate has been transmuted into “need” for the state-of-the-art mobile phone and the obligatory tariff plan which gives you the opportunity to talk “non-stop”.
Man must have (they are convinced so) right here and now what they want (what they are convinced they want to have). 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 lead to stupefaction. The deluge of information from TV and the internet is nothing compared to the reading of a book. The chance you have to save in your hard disk the entire discography of your favourite artist, does not also buy you the time to listen to it.
Man themselves produces nothing with their own hands (not even their own food most of the times), except the money to buy what they “need”. The sentimental attachment to these objects is non-existent since at the first chance they will throw it away to buy something new. “Planned obsolesence” is the motto of the corporations.
You can see for yourselves what pleasure someone gets when they put on their handmade scarf (even though it is not as stylish as the factory-made one) or when they eat their tomato from their own garden. The labour it takes to produce something is directly proportional to the pleasure the maker gets.
At the same time we try to eliminate every negative feeling not by fighting its cause, but by ducking out of it. It is not just that the antidepressants are more common than painkillers; an entire industry of wellness has been set up on this concept of quick and painless riddance of troublesome thoughts.
5) The genetic decline
This is one of the most difficult chapters of the book, but I will do my best to get its essence across in a few lines.
There is a defense mechanism in most animals (especially the primates). Males, for instance, will lay claim to their reproduction but they will never kill a rival neither will they rape a female.
A chimpanzee will resort to fraud to secure a bigger proportion of food but they will never keep all the food to themselves dooming the frail members to death by hunger.
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 should I say it is outflanked because of its inventiveness. Murders by strangling are a million times more seldom than the ones by gun; let alone economic hit men who annihilate not only without physical contact but also without even knowing their victims.
Some will say that man was always a wolf for their fellow-man, but accepting this criminal behavior as historical necessity poses no solution.
6) The clash with tradition
Some people, especially the younger ones, will be scratching their heads here. We think that tradition is another word for conservativeness and we think that anything that is innovative or revolutionary should be disposed from “obsolete ideas”.
This is wrong. 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 further, unless we stand on the shoulders of giants.
Despite the fact that Lorenz is a scientist, he holds the view that irrational cultural apothegms should be preserved and studied.
“Those who disparage on a regular basis the importance of the wisdom of our elders and betters and every sense of tradition, fall into the trap of believing that science can build from scratch, with reason alone, a fully-fledged civilization with everything it encompasses.”
As animals and humans, we are byproducts of the natural and cultural evolution. Part of this cultural continuity is every people’s language and idioms, customs and traditions, religion (regardless if you are irreligious), the history, the myths, the local food, the music, the prejudices and the traditional costumes.
By eliminating the past we lose the essence of the present, since a rootless man is nothing but prey of outside pressures and circumstances.
The leveling of globalization, where all people just mimic models of behaviour which have no reference and nothing to do with every people’s features, doesn’t nurture “citizens of the world” but identical – and easy to manipulate – beings.
This uniformity, the lack of diversity, suits phylogenetically the ants but not humans.
7) Submission to dogma
Man, unfortunately, has an innate inclination to dogmatism.
The reason is twofold:
First, it is much easier to accept unquestionably ready-to-use beliefs than evaluate them; cheering and booing demand less mental strain than thinking does.
Secondly, all humans – like animals – need to be a part of a team.
Man, as a result of thousands of years of religious indoctrination, believe that they alone, among all other animals, possess two features: a soul and freedom of choice.
Regarding the first one, is a matter of faith, therefore it cannot be disputed. Those who think that can prove God’s existence or inexistence have no clue whatsoever about man’s nature – let alone God’s.
The second one, the freedom of choice, is one of the toughest philosophical-theological-scientific matters: is it our decisions and beliefs that shape the circumstances or the circumstances that shape us?
As a rule, the acceptance of the dogma “lines” follows the acceptance of dogma itself, even though there is evidence that predisposes us to accept a particular dogma and not the opposite or a similar one.
A youth, for instance, will join a Nazi organization for reasons unrelated to Nazi ideology; they might like black clothes and violent-potboilers or maybe they just want to contradict their parents. Once they find themselves within the team, they will embrace the dogma and start thinking, talking and behaving like the authorities, the models of the team.
The same goes for every party, religious or scientific community; the communist will use the terms of dialectical materialism, the Jehovah’s Witness will give away leaflets and the psychiatrists will make fun of the psychologists.
Everyone labours under the delusion that they act freely but they cannot perceive that their “freedom” is dogmatic.
Yet the utmost dogma, unlike anything mankind has ever seen before, is the conviction that the only rational behavior is the one that is linked to the aforementioned competitive / consumptive model.
Anyone who tries to oppose or remain intact from the modern way of life, is considered as quirky or mental or dangerous.
What would you think of a man who grows their own food, makes their own furniture for their house (which they might have built for themselves), and live without TV, telephone or electricity?
More than likely you would think that they are deranged or a misfit, to say the least, since they run counter to modern life’s dogma.
8) Nuclear weapons
Lorenz dedicates just one page for this “sin”!
“This threat”, he writes, “is easier to be staved off. All we have to do is not to build or drop it. But if we take into consideration the incredible collective stupidity of mankind, then it is easy to understand that even that is too hard to accomplish.”
You will not find an optimistic epilogue in Lorenz’s book; he hasn’t written anything like: “But mankind always finds a way to overcome the difficulties.”
Later, he added a preface where he wrote: “A danger poses no more threat once we get to the bottom of it.”
Forty years later, mankind not only has failed to get to the bottom, but is unaware of the danger itself.
Merry Christmas, Mister Lorenz.
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Translated by Alexandros Mantas:
Edited by Jackie Pert