History as the Story of Humanity
Human beings are unique creatures: we have both material and non-material characteristics. Materially we have physical bodies, biological organisms that must be maintained with air, water, food and shelter, and that must respond to certain biological imperatives, notably the urge to physical procreation. Non-materially, we have self-reflective consciousness – an interactive process of thought and feeling that gives us a sense or an awareness of being something rather than nothing. Whether this self-consciousness in human beings stems from the electro-chemical processes of the body or whether it is the gift of some overarching Creator (ideas that need not be mutually exclusive) is beyond the scope of this textbook. In practical terms, the effects for human survival in the world are in any case much the same, for this two-fold nature of humanity means that people must respond to the needs and demands of both aspects in themselves, the material and the non-material, the biological and the psychological, the physical and the metaphysical.
In responding to these sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary and always interdependent demands, humanity has become the dominant life form on this planet, capable of transforming the planetary environment itself in significant ways – whether for good or ill. On this dual foundation rests the story of Human history. The following observations reflect that foundation.
1. Adaptation to the Environment is the primary prerequisite for sustaining human life. Both physically and psychologically, human beings can survive only by obtaining what they need from the world around them. Human existence, therefore, is essentially a matter of 'security' - 'securing' the necessities of life, whether physical or psychological, from the environment. At the same time, survival is not merely a matter of maintaining a secure status quo – Life, as opposed to mere existence, is defined not in terms of stasis but in terms of movement, change, growth; and growth depends upon environmental challenges that are sufficient to spur adaptive responses without being severe enough to be insurmountable.
- The environment has two main parts: the essentially impersonal 'natural' or ‘physical’ world, broadly conceived, in which human beings interact, both physically and psychologically, with all aspects of the un-self-conscious material world around them; and the essentially personal 'human' world, in which human beings interact with other self-conscious human beings, again both physically and psychologically.
2. An 'Insecurity Index' generally drives Human adaptations to the environment. In adapting to their environment, human beings are responding to what might be called the Insecurity Index – that is the level of insecurity, either real or perceived, that threatens the continued existence or well-being of an individual, whether physically or psychologically. The Insecurity Index is generally determined by the level of challenge or threat individuals believe they face from their environment in order to survive both physically and psychologically.
- At the core of the insecurity index is the individual’s primary sense of Self, or Identity, for it is precisely the preservation of that Identity, however an individual may define it, that is the object of ‘survival.’
3. Flexibility is the key to adaptability. As the environment is dynamic and constantly changes, so too must human beings respond dynamically – constantly adjusting and improving their methods of adaptation, both physical and psychological, in order to survive in ever-changing environmental circumstances. The more flexible, i.e. responsive to change, people can be the more likely they are to overcome the challenges and survive. The key to flexibility is versatility, or having a wide variety of skills and tools with which to respond to potentially threatening situations. Versatility is a function of peoples' capacity both to learn from their experiences, and to be innovative and creative - in other words, to use available knowledge, skills and tools in new ways, or to imagine and develop new ones.
- Human beings are creative and innovative in direct proportion to the Insecurity Index - the greater the sense of insecurity and threat to stability, the greater the level of innovation and creativity people will try in order to re-establish a sense of stability and security. Creativity may continue in times of relative security, but such creativity tends to be primarily a further development of current forms rather than experimentation with radically new forms.
4. Human beings usually seek to increase their chances of survival by coordinating their activities with other individuals in groups. Flexibility and versatility are greatest when people have not only their own skills and experiences to draw on but also those of others. For this reason people have always generally extended their sense of Self to include other human beings whom they perceive as non-threatening to their primary Identity. Through the formation of larger and larger groups, people have been able to extend dramatically their capacity for environmental adaptation and survival.
- Just as individuals respond to the Insecurity Index, so too do the groups they constitute, from the basic family unit all the way up to the level of a civilization.
- The level of creativity and innovation within groups depends upon the same factors that affect individuals: environmental challenges, whether natural or human, sufficient to spur adaptation without being severe enough to be insurmountable; and contact with other individuals or groups steady enough to allow the exchange and assimilation of adaptive techniques.
FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THEMES IN WORLD HISTORY
Human beings have a dual nature: they exist materially as physical bodies, and non-materially as consciousness. The history of Humanity is the story of Humanity's efforts to survive in both aspects. It is a story in which certain key elements have combined to push Humanity along a path of evolutionary development. For survival is not simply a matter of maintaining stasis, but rather a dynamic process of constant change and growth, as human beings respond to a dynamic environment that is also constantly changing and challenging their ability to survive. In this process the material and non-material elements of human nature have interacted to achieve the survival, and hence the growth, of both.
I. Adaptation to environment is critical to human survival, both physically and psychologically. The key to successful adaptation is flexibility, a function of the human capacity to learn and to innovate. Human beings develop flexibility in response to perceived challenges from the environment to their ability to obtain the necessities of life, whether physical or psychological. Growth depends upon environmental challenges that are severe enough to require adaptation, but not severe enough to destroy the individual.
II. Human beings respond to environmental challenges in two ways - physically and psychologically. Physically they develop new technologies; psychologically they develop new philosophies and religions, new 'worldviews'. The interaction between technological and psychological adaptive techniques, within a particular environment, gives rise to political, economic, social, and cultural systems.
III. Both individuals and civilizations achieve a greater level of flexibility, adaptability, and hence survivability, the more they are able to include and assimilate the experiences of others. Such inclusion constitutes an expansion of the self-identity of the individual or civilization, whether consciously or unconsciously, and may require both physical and psychological adjustments.
Given these basic rules of human growth and development the following themes emerge as fundamental to understanding both regional histories and world history:
Ecology and Environmental Adaptation:
All human beings must extract certain basic material elements from their environment in order to survive physically: air, water, food and (where necessary) shelter from the elements (extremes of heat and cold, wet and dry). Consequently, the nature and affect of the physical environment, or ecosphere, and the methods of adaptation human populations establish to extract the necessary resources of physical survival are the sine qua non (‘without which, nothing’) of human existence. At the same time, all human beings must also extract from their environment that which is necessary to sustain their self-reflective consciousness - in effect, their sense of self, their Identity. They accomplish this by establishing their sense of who and what they are in relationship to who and what they are not - in short, to their environment.
Identity and Hierarchies of Values:
The establishment of varying levels of Identity constitutes the primary non-material means by which human beings adapt to their environment. In order to establish and explain their senses of Identity, human beings inevitably develop ‘hierarchies of values’ or ‘worldviews’ that reflect and reinforce those identities. These identities and the hierarchies of values that support them are the basis on which human populations establish varying forms of government and political organization, social structure, religion and philosophy, and art.
- a. Physical adaptation to environment, in order to extract the energy necessary for the maintenance and procreation of the body, in the form of air, water, food and shelter, gives rise to material technology.
- b. Psychological adaptation, in order to define and maintain both primary and subordinate levels of Identity, gives rise to religion, philosophy, science and the arts.
- c. The interaction of physical and psychological adaptation gives rise to political, economic, and social organization.
The Insecurity Index:
As the environment changes, individuals – and by extension the groups and civilizations they constitute – evaluate such changes in terms of an ‘Insecurity Index’, i.e. their perceptions of the level of threat such environmental changes may pose to the security of their physical and/or psychological Identities. The Insecurity Index generally determines how, and to what levels of creativity and innovation, both individuals and the groups they form respond to environmental challenges psychologically, politically, socially, culturally, intellectually and technologically.
Migration and Cross-Cultural Interaction:
The physical movement of individuals and groups of people inevitably precipitates increased levels of interaction among human populations with different environmental backgrounds and different repertoires of adaptive techniques. Such movements constitute one of the principal sources of environmental challenge and changes in the Insecurity Index. Interaction among people with different world-views may take the form of communication and trade, of confrontation and war, or varying combinations of both. Such interactions usually lead to the exchange or transmission of ideas and technologies - in other words, environmental adaptive techniques - that also often lead to transformations in Identity and hierarchies of values. Such cross-cultural interactions therefore directly affect the level of creativity and innovation within civilizations, and hence their capacity to adapt rapidly to new challenges from the environment.
 Like other organisms, human beings also respond to the fundamental principles of conservation of energy and the laws of thermodynamics. Survival and growth for any organism depend upon its ability to obtain as much or more energy from its surroundings as it expends. Consequently, in all organisms there is a natural tendency to maintain what scientists call homeostasis, an equilibrium or balance within the organism and between the organism and its environment, which the organism defines as optimal to maintain itself as it is. So long as the environment remains the same, the organism will do nothing that challenges the equilibrium – in other words, it is safe. Only when some change occurs within the internal or external environment that threatens the equilibrium will the organism expend energy in order to restore it. For human beings, of course, the principle of homeostasis is complicated by the presence of self-reflective consciousness. Equilibrium must be maintained not simply for the body but even more importantly for the sense of Self, the primary Identity.