Humanity’s better angels

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Have you ever wondered, in those moments when the world seems especially hateful, how humanity as a race keeps going, not just on, but forward? We often seem to inhabit a world full of people whose empathy comes with an off switch when it comes to anyone outside their ‘tribe’ (race, ethnicity, nation etc), who actively cause harm and suffering and oppression on such a scale that it frankly boggles the mind.

How can it be, then, that we have done so many amazing things? If the world was truly a Hobbesian war of all against all, suppressed only superficially by state power, how have we made such titanic leaps?

If you’re a conspiracy theorist (a euphemism I recently learned for ‘paranoid crazy person’), this isn’t about the more famous illuminati, who have as much relevance to the real world as that other incredibly well known ‘secret’ organisation, The Order of the Phoenix. The Lumminati is a word I just made up, because it’s a word I needed.

It describes a set of people who have no specific politics, nation, ethnicity or even era. Certainly they do not identify as a single group. They are the better angels of humanity. Their motivations differ and are by no means always noble. I call them angels because they are the tools of a greater good, not necessarily good or bad in of themselves. Let us call that greater good ‘progress’.

They are the ones who drag us forward, even as we kick and scream and call on them to let us go back to the caves and the darkness that we know and have come, misguidedly, to love. And yet they push us on and on, because it is in their nature; they could no more stop themselves than a spider could stop spinning its endless webs.

For all that we seem to spend our lives scrabbling in the dirt for weapons with which to hurt each other…that is not, cannot be the whole story.

We, who gazed at the beauty of a bird in flight in helpless envy for tens of thousands of years. We, who looked up at night sky and stared at our moon, that faithful companion that we could never know because it was far, so terribly far away. We, who looked to the horizon and wished that we could one day see what lay beyond.

We can fly higher now than in the dreams of any bird, and hundreds of time faster. We ignored the Luddite warnings of Icarus and took for ourselves the power of the Greek Gods, and we kept soaring until we stood upon that ivory light in the sky, and looked back at Earth – where every human being for the entire history of our race had spent all their lives…until Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. And the world has no more horizons.

We doubled the amount of food a stretch of land could produce, again and again and again, a series of human miracles that created a cornucopia on Earth. There are seven billion people on the planet and a smaller fraction of them go hungry than a hundred years ago, when there were only a billion and a half.

Polio and the bubonic plague. Spanish flu. Smallpox. Horrific diseases that crippled and killed unthinkable swaths of humanity until men and women sitting in labs, hardly people you would recognise in a crowd, shattered them with medical science and buried their remains, before turning their eyes to the second-stringers like polio, malaria and yellow fever. Just like that, these apex predators of humanity were brought low, and their successors’ days were numbered.

Even in the poorest countries on Earth, in the last hundred years, life expectancy rose from 25 to 61. Scientists the world over are now looking with calculating envy at animals like tortoises and lobsters, that do not age – at all – to unlock their secrets.

There will be a time when human beings will live, youthfully, for a thousand years. There is nothing inevitable about dying at age 80, just as there was nothing inevitable about half your children dying, hundreds of years ago, at infancy.

It may not be in this generation or the next but eventually, aging, the degradation of the cellular process, that greatest of all humanity’s predators, will too be broken across our will and our science.

We realised, somewhere along the way, that while secret knowledge empowers an individual, shared knowledge empowers us all, creates from the many what may never have been possible from the one. Millennia ago, when so few could read and far fewer write, the great ancient libraries were considered wondrous centres of learning because they could transmit so much so knowledge so quickly.

There is a USB memory stick out there today, the size of my thumb, that can hold in it more books than the Library of Alexandria. And as for the knowledge contained and shared on that unfathomably great worldwide web every day, why, it cannot be estimated any more than the grains of sand on all the beaches of all the world. The things this critical mass will produce are literally unimaginable.

Progress has no race, no nation and no culture. The Line of the Lumminati Unbroken passes through ancient Greek philosophers, literally named the ‘lovers of knowledge’. It passes through the Subcontinental geniuses who gave the world the number zero and thus all of modern mathematics.

Through Christian monks who kept the ancient knowledge alive in the dark ages. Through the Islamic world, that established the oldest surviving university in history (established by a woman, in AD 859), the first teaching hospital, the first crank, and all of algebra. Through the European Renaissance, where men of science observed the stars and the earth in greater detail than ever possible before, and learnt the mysterious rules that governed them. And it runs now, in this age of impossible things.

Certainly, progress has been used to evil ends. And one would fear that The Line would falter and fizzle out, in a time where all such learned men and women were either ill-intentioned or exploited. But it hasn’t. The Line goes on and on, outwards and upwards – Unbroken.

And because it is a Line Unbroken, and runs through all of us, no culture or people can be excluded from the triumphs of modern progress for without their contributions, no such triumph would be possible. The victories of progress, wherever they occur, are the victories of humanity.

How can we be part of the Line? We can choose to quell hatred where it begins, whether in our hearts or around us, for hatred pushes back against the Line by miring terrifying amounts of manpower, wealth and intelligence into a pit both bottomless and pointless. We can choose to support progress anywhere, everywhere, rather than spitefully squat in our mistrust and loathing. We can choose to ally ourselves with good people everywhere, regardless of the colour of their skin or the shade of their beliefs.

And if enough of us choose well, a day will come when we will burst from the Earth like pollen and colonise the planets and moons of our solar system, until that too can no longer hold us and then at last, at long last, we will take our place among the stars.

We will stretch to eternity and hold infinity in our hands.

And our descendents, who will not age, will look back at Ancient Earth. They and their society will be imperfect – for that is human nature – but they will weep, at least, to hear that such a thing as Old Age once crippled every human alive.

And they will wonder, from their far off seats in the endless ocean of stars, how humans that lived so briefly and so close together, on that one lonely planet, could ever have committed such massive crimes over such infinitesimal differences.

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