Here’s a fascinating thought experiment from one of America’s leading thinkers.
Aliens, seeing Humans kill over land, politics, religion, & skin color, would surely ask, “What the f*%k is wrong with you?”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) December 6, 2014
Boy, was Neil Tyson’s flock super thrilled about that succinct rebuke of mankind.
But if we accept that these imaginary extraterrestrial tourists aren’t themselves just a violent galactic horde eyeing humans as sustenance or preparing to drill deep into the Earth’s core – which seems to be the case quite often in our cultural imagination – I suspect they’d be quite impressed by how far we’ve come in a mere 250,000 years or so.
If, for example, Martians possess a similar ethical framework – and that’s a huge assumption – why wouldn’t they approve of how quickly humans have overcome their evolutionary instinct to kill, rape, and pillage neighbors for land, resources, and comfort? Why wouldn’t they be impressed by Western society’s collective emphasis on the welfare and freedom of all its people, even if we often have different ideas about how to accomplish those goals?
Let’s concede now that humans are a deeply imperfect species. I dislike many of them. And yes, we have an array of serious problems to deal with. You’ll get no argument from me. Yet, in the country Neil Tyson happens to reside in people almost never kill each other over politics, religion, or skin color. In the United States, a single questionable death can spark a national debate about process and justice.
What has happened is that violent crime rates have dropped precipitously since 1994, hitting 40-year lows. There has been a great decline in violence of every type in almost every area of life, including sexual assaults, cops shooting civilians, civilians shooting cops, and executions. Many countries in the world have experienced similar declines.
There is only one faction of one major religion left that regularly engages in large-scale violence aimed at civilians, and even including their horrifying actions, there has been a decline in acts of terrorism worldwide. Even if faith was as absurd and reactionary as Tyson might imagine, most denominations are more interested in proselytizing than killing.
And as Steven Pinker details in his masterful book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, we have seen amazing decreases in outbreaks of wars over the past decades, as well.
Not incidentally, paralleling the drop in bloodshed has been the eradication of extreme poverty across the world. Poverty has been cut in half in the past 20 years alone. A lot of this is driven by technological ingenuity and resulting productivity, and, of course, fossil fuels, which allowed many of the world’s poor to live more fulfilling, healthier, and comfortable lives. There’s a lot of work to do. But how long did it take the Vulcans to reach a post-scarcity society, I wonder?
For those who still remain deprived, not only have most Western nations erected giant well-meaning government safety nets – policies that have no restrictions based on color or political affiliation – but the total charitable contributions among Americans, for instance, are estimated to be at around $350 billion each year. It’d say E.T. would be taken aback by that kind of generosity.
Yes, it’s just a silly tweet. For some, asserting that we live in a society where violence is predominantly driven by racism and religious fanaticism is a comforting fantasy. It’s a way to lecture us about how the world has failed to the expectations of our intellectual betters, a skill Tyson excels at. But, who knows, maybe when the aliens show up and look at human progress in context they will ask the pessimists, “What the f*** is wrong with you?”