November 7, 2016: Is PCD an acronym for Programmed Civilization Death?

For some reason unknown to me I’ve always been interested in origins and endings. How something got started, why it stopped. Like all children I incessantly asked, “Why?” As there seemed no end to it, my mother repeatedly invited me to go play in the creek, climb trees, find your friends. Discovery of protozoans in that creek water, or that stars in the sky were like our own sun, only intensified the question. Why did those things exists, how did they get started?

It was years later I came across a magnificent book by William R. Clark, Sex and the Origins of Death. [1] I once asked why people die. The answer, “Because they get old,” didn’t suffice. My parents seemed old, still alive, doing well. But Clark’s book provided an answer, and knocked me off my feet. I was delighted to get up and have it knock me down again, chapter after chapter. “Death is not an obligatory attribute of life,” writes Clark, and did not appear with the advent of living creatures. As he explains, cellular aging which results in death may not have occurred for more than a billion years after life’s first entry on earth. Programmed cell death, PCD, displayed through wrinkles and forgetfulness, seems to have arisen about the time cells experimented with sex. As nature would have it, we die because of the many mechanisms built into us to make sure we do. Death does not just happen, it is worked toward with safeguards to assure our cells don’t backslide into immortality as cancer cells do. Once our DNA realizes our reproductive years are over, the code executes, and one by one our cells receive their command to commit suicide. All the while, as the cell decapitates itself, innocent organelle roam about its cytoplasm, performing their tasks, unaware of doom.

So I began to wonder, by analogy are humans in a society like cells in the body of civilization? Do each of us possess an inner program that commands contribution to a kind of social disorder once a psychological threshold is crossed?

As I made Morgan ask Ne Shoul, “Do civilizations fail, not by chance or circumstance, but because decline is intended, without knowing it? Like William Clark said of our aging bodies, death is worked toward, without wanting to.” [2] All the while as we go about our busy lives, unaware of doom and the part we play in a different kind of PCD.

There seems a similar ignorance of intent to America’s current trajectory, but only if we pause from our busy lives of work to contemplate our status. Otherwise, whatever’s going on might seem like just another of the many oscillations we’ve experienced time and again. And maybe it is. Roman philosophers repeatedly claimed the end of Rome was soon to come. Eventually they were right.

This rise and fall of civilization belongs to those origins, and endings that fascinate me. There have been a great many social advances in our own. And who can argue with the extension to what humans can do through technology? Seated in the comfort of my library with two dogs on their couch and two cats on their (not my) desk, I poke keys destined for a worldwide distribution platform, pretty much for free. Starting with the creation of East African tools 2.5 million years ago, Australopithecus garhi showed that innovation is something humans naturally do (assuming they’re on our lineage), and do well. Science and art are the crown of our innovative achievements, with Newton and Einstein, Michelangelo and Frederic Church as idols in their field. But given all societies eventually fail, that we’ve not been able to hit on a recipe that survives in perpetuity, and that humans are self-destructive, these are evidence that the same cannot be said of civilization. And it makes me wonder, why?

There are a number of hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. Spengler’s ominous work likens the life of civilization to that of a person. [3] Born with curiosity, enthusiasm, and growing strength, new societies forge ahead to become high culture with little concern for consequences. Culture matures, loses strength, begins to regret, and takes its first step toward disintegration. Spirit that once animated society can no longer be recalled as it ages and dies. Spengler’s hypothesis is a trajectory.

President John Adams’ great-grandson, and John Quincy Adams' grandson Brooks Adams, in his astonishing contribution submits the idea of cycles, reinforcing the notion that all great ideas are killed by excess. [4] Adams’ volume led Theodore Roosevelt to a 15 page review in which he wrote, “Few more powerful and more melancholy books have been written.” [5] For Adams, the cycle begins as a superstitious, spiritual phase, where fear and war dominate. There’s also a strong artistic element as an outlet for spiritual impulse. This life of fear is tamed by incremental innovations that lead to advances in economy with greater control and organization. Eventually life becomes confined by work, laws, and demands of economics dominated by greed. Complexities of society sap humans of their humanity. Art dies as a nonessential. People become desperate for salvation. Descent begins with growing fear and a deep sense of lost control. (Sound familiar? 1/17/19)

The Durant’s emphasize the incompatibility of intellect and soul. [6] “As education spreads, theologies lose credence,” they write. “The moral code loses aura and force as its human origin is revealed and as divine surveillance and sanctions are removed… An age of weary skepticism and epicureanism followed the triumph of rationalism over mythology in the last century before Christianity, and follows a similar victory today… An unmoored generation surrenders itself to luxury, corruption, and the restless disorder of family and morals in all but a remnant clinging desperately to old restraints and ways.”

Where does America reside in this course of function and dysfunction? If we could discover where we are and why, might we prescribe correctives? Comparison is complicated because ancient history suffers a paucity of information, while modern history has too much. As we say in engineering, what is signal and what is noise?

There’s a great deal of noise in America today. But from the hundreds of clattering factors, what better example of dysfunction than the state of our political system? A political system where not so long ago, conservative President Ronald Reagan and liberal Speaker of the House Tipp O’Neall’s legislative acts were hard fought works of compromise. There was frequent acrimony, but compromise was not yet seen as treason. During this time, Reagan held a dinner to raise $1 million for Boston College and its O’Neill Library. And one day Reagan found by his bedside Tip O’Neill praying for Reagan’s recovery after an assassination attempt. Politics is adversarial by nature, but adversarial does not mean bellicose. In those days, opposing party members dinned at each other’s home with their families. As one politician whose name now escapes me said, “It’s really hard to hate your opposition when you know his wife and kids.” Today, dinner with a political opponent is violation of talk radio orthodoxy. In those days the results of presidential elections were accepted by the loser, and no one dare speak on national television of a revolution if their candidate lost, or execution of their opponent. Such vulgarity reveals abject ignorance of our very own history, when the last revolution we had mauled 750,000 men into their graves.

How could so much of what was, unravel so quickly if we didn’t mean to unravel it? Turns out, we did. At least that part responsible for governance. Jonathan Rauch lays out the process. [7] He notes our political machine’s decline in capacity for self-organization by removal of intermediate systems of informal interaction. (I must highlight my refrain of lost community, despite unending abuse of the word.) “For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or all of the above,” writes Rauch. “Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties… The middlemen could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive. But they had one great virtue: They brought order from chaos...” While we should be alert to corruption, over correction has given us the mess we’re in.

For example, the primaries were not always an election process with direct input by the people. Candidates were once decided by legislative conventions, caucus, and insider haggling. Our current system of primary election is decided by a tiny fraction of the electorate most passionate, ideological, and consequently less reasonable. Our Founders tried to distance people from the process by implementing a representative republic to defang those passions, not a direct democracy that exacerbates it.

Open dialogues in closed door sessions, and anonymous votes where only final tallies are announced are now rare. We prefer transparency, sunlight as disinfectant, and gridlock because no one dare speak their mind when records show they said something to infuriate their most radical fringe. This fringe is Congress’s highest concern, thanks to an incumbent’s gerrymandered district—convoluted lines dawn on a map to encircle only the most extreme voters associated with their views—something the UK, Canada, and Australia have wisely made illegal. A single square district would force politicians toward the center as it would include a variety of voter viewpoints. Even King Solomon, “divided his kingdom into twelve districts which deliberately crossed tribal boundaries… to lessen clannish separation of the tribes.” [8]

Gerrymandering created its own problem because same-party competition is now a more radical challenger pandering to fanatics, not to the country, not even to their own state, driving incumbents further Left or Right. And with elimination of pork-barrel spending, what incentive do politicians have to cooperate? We Americans naively expected (as I did) an ideal execution of our politician’s angelic nature of ethical and moral judgment, with nothing to show voters back home for working with the other side.

As Rauch tells it, “Campaign-finance reform did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost.” The cost was creation of super PACs, 501(c)(4)s, and 527 groups where the money’s harder to track. Now we can’t know if Russia or some other foreign power has influence in our elections, because all a super PAC need do by law is incorporate with an innocuous sounding name and anonymous donors. By diverting money out of the Party, the Party no longer holds sway over candidates. The Party once required character, cooperation with others in the Party, and broad appeal. Instead, outsiders, non-career politicians, and candidates make their name as anti-establishment rebels who smear their own comrades, and shut down the government to gain points for zealotry. “The core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise,” writes Rauch. We’re now caught in a cycle where nothing gets done by virtue of recent sanitations, which lead people to want another outsider, making things worse, whereupon the people want yet another incompetent to break what’s already broken.

As Rauch puts it, “Political reform of the last 40 years [favors] amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism… over mediation and mutual restraint… All the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics…”

So I come back to the question of why civilizations fail. There is cause, and there is noise. But if failure of self-governance in a Republic isn’t a cause, what is? One thing is clear from all the hypotheses of demise: great civilizations destroy themselves. We can help delay that if we balance human nature through recognition of what it is. But can a nation now so dogmatic perform such magic?

Until next time, the first Monday in January, 2017, the 2nd.



[1] Williams R. Clark, Sex and the Origins of Death, Oxford University Press, 1996
[2] Brett Williams, The Father, Combustible Books, 2013
[3] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Oxford University Press, 1991
(originally 1926)
[4] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay,Macmillan, 1916 (1st Ed. 1895)
[5] Theodore Roosevelt, Review: The Law of Civilization and Decay, The Forum, January 1897
[6] Will & Ariel Durrant, The Lessons of History, Simon & Shuster, 1968
[7] Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane, The Atlantic, September, 2016
A PBS Newshour interview is here. The Atlantic article is here.
[8] Will & Ariel Durant, The Story of History: Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Shuster, 1963
Revised for clarity. 1/17/19
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Published on November 07, 2016 11:45
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message 1: by Pat (new)

Pat Rolston Brilliant analysis and well founded contextually in history, science, and philosophy. I wish it could get broader distribution, but via today's journalism this would be as an epic tome. Wonderful work!!!!


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