While Popper’s book was still Brand New and Important, Saloth Sar, a Cambodian, was studying electronics in Paris, but also soaking up French Marxism. Harmless as mere talk in European cafes, it mutated into virulence in Cambodia, where it became known as the Khmer Rouge. Motivated in some way that could hardly be called humanist, Saloth Sar, with the new name of Pol Pot, devised a program of social change via genocide that would cause the deaths of about a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Genocide in Cambodia for the purpose of social change is no longer on the world’s plate of problems. The fanatics of ISIS genocide may think their purpose has nothing in common with Cambodian communists, but it does. Both exalt species immortality of a human species in the context of a particular organization. The individual, who is mortal and not very long-lived in the best of circumstances, is sacrificed to this greater good, creation of an immortal, ideal society. That the Khmer Rouge were atheists, and ISIS followers religious fanatics, is window dressing for the central, hidden idea of human perfection.
The idea is most clear when expressed in the crudest possible terms: to perfect the race at the cost of the individual. In Soviet Russia, the new man was to be created, with the fallback method of extermination. In Nazi Germany, the primary tool was extermination. That Stalin’s numbers rival those of Hitler show that the distinction lacks importance.
But the idea that the human race could or should be improved lives on, in both modern and atavistic forms. History suggests it is dangerous, but facing the future as-is may be more dangerous still. So it lurks in the backs of our minds, as an inchoate, unformed notion of “what if?” The most important consequence of its existence is a question: What is the meaning of a “better world”?
When Pol Pot condemned the Cambodian population to a meager pastoral existence, with no more promise than the possibility of reproduction and death at forty, he may have subconsciously confused the evolved optimization of the human organism to environmental conditions that promised no more than this, with what the individual of free will actually wants.
Piecemeal change protects us from horrors, but most mistakes remain possible. It is still all too easy, even within Popper’s framework, to set the wrong goals.
Under primitive conditions, in most area of the world, under the pressure of natural selection, man was biologically and mentally optimized to survive in an environment that so challenged survival till age thirty, there was no time for fancy thought or the urban degeneracy identified by some moralists and theologians. The myth of pastoral bliss or purity is the response. In gentle form, the myth is given body by Henry David Thoreau, in the book Walden.
The reality is hardly gentle. A few years ago, one of the few surviving hunter-gatherer tribes of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest emerged, took residence on the edge of a town, signed up for welfare, and told their stories. One woman related that life had been hard, and her feet had hurt constantly. This particular tribe was happy to abandon their primitive way of life for an indolent, dependent one. And who can say they were wrong? Evolutionary and/or cultural adaptation to an environment is not identical with individual comfort or purpose.
There is a charming story from the animal world that avoids some of the stings of political correctness. An orca whale, a “killer whale”, was left over from the 1993 filming of the movie Free Willie. After the movie was filmed, Keiko the real-life orca was consigned to a very small pool in a Mexico City marine mammal park, where he developed sores on his back and other ailments. From Keiko’s physical condition, we might assume a severe case of animal abuse, as has been documented by the perverse and deadly behavior of orcas in other parks, notably Sea World. But Keiko had compensations. The park offered “swim with Willy events” for children. Keiko appeared to love his tiny companions, and would help them out of the pool. It is said that between Willy, the children, and his trainers, young women, there was a strong emotional bond. One trainer called him the best friend she had ever had. In his spare time, which was most of the time, Keiko apparently enjoyed watching cartoons on a TV. His physical condition was poor.
Keiko’s life resembled that of a couch potato who you wish would get up and walk, but is actually more contented than you are. His physical condition motivated the most widely publicized effort to rehabilitate an orca and return it to the wild, to a life for which his bodily form was optimized by evolution. No expense was spared by the Free Willy Foundation. He was transferred by airplane to a pen in Iceland, where the most sophisticated efforts were made to make a wild animal out of a brain whose plasticity had wrapped itself around a completely artificial existence.
Upon final release, Keiko swam all the way to a Norway fjord, where he was discovered by children playing on the docks. He was recognized by a little girl, who whistled the Free Willy theme song, greatly exciting him. He languished at the docks, rolled on his back begging for food, and allowed the children to climb all over him. When it became clear that Keiko would die if not fed, the locals instituted a program to sustain the whale, while limiting social interaction. Several years later, he died of a disease shared by both species, the flu.
Having partaken in human existence, which is mentally richer than orca existence, Keiko could not adjust. His mind had become partly human. Transfixed by the evolutionary perfection of the orca’s morphological adaptation to environment, Keiko advocates may not have noticed that the lives of the mind and the body, even of orcas, are separate. Popper’s piecemeal change did not prevent seriously messing up the happiness of one whale.
There is a human analogy of didactic value. Consider a primitive Amazon tribe of hunter-gatherers, who move ceaselessly on bare feet to acquire minimal sustenance. Their lives are so hard as not to permit indulgences, which cannot be found or bought. And if found or bought, there is no time for them, for they must keep moving ceaselessly, and with luck, reproduce, until death at 35.
One day, they come out of the forest, sign up for welfare, acquire TVs, and discover that modern recreational drugs are even better than the Amazon pharmacopoeia. They watch TV, cartoons and reality shows, and get stoned. They die at age 40, from drug abuse and general decompensation.
Which is better? Take note of every ethical assumption you make, for this is the value of the question.
To be continued shortly.