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

For some reason, I’ve always been interested in origins and endings, how something got started, why it stopped. Some years ago, I came across a magnificent book by UCLA's chair of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology, William R. Clark: Sex and the Origins of Death. [1] As a kid, I asked why people die. The answer, “Because they get old,” didn’t suffice. My parents seemed old, still alive, and doing well. But Clark’s book provided an answer that knocked me off my feet. “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 ensure 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 organelles 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? Does each of us possess an inner program that commands contribution to a kind of social disorder once a psychological threshold is crossed? Do societies 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. All the while, as we go about our busy lives, unaware of doom and the part we play in a different kind of PCD: Programmed Civilization Death.

There seems a similar kind of unintended 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: 1968, civil rights riots, Vietnam, campus burnings. And maybe it is. Roman philosophers repeatedly claimed the end of Rome was near. Eventually, they were right. They engaged in that expansive topic of the rise and fall of civilization, which belongs to those origins and endings that fascinate me.

So, where is America in that rotation? There have been a great many advances in our time. Who can argue with the extension of what can be done through technology? Seated in the comfort of my library with two dogs on their couch and two cats on 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 crowns 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 so unstable and self-destructive, the same cannot be said of societies that house these achievers—we don’t do civilization very well. Why is that?

There are several hypotheses, not mutually exclusive. Spengler’s ominous work, The Decline and Fall of the West, likens the life of civilization to that of a person. [2] Born with curiosity, enthusiasm, and growing strength, new societies forge ahead, refining themselves to become higher cultures with little concern for consequences. Cultures mature, lose strength, and begin to have regrets about their climb, a first step toward disintegration. Spirit that once animated society in the beginning can no longer be recalled as it becomes elderly and dies. Spengler’s hypothesis is the trajectory of aging.

President John Adams’ great-grandson, Brooks Adams, wrote a remarkable book titled The Law of Civilization and Decay; in it he reinforces the notion that all great ideas are killed by excess. [3] Adams’ volume led Theodore Roosevelt to a 15-page review in which he wrote, “Few more powerful and more melancholy books have been written.” [4] For Adams, a civilization’s cycle begins in a superstitious, spiritual phase dominated by fear. There’s also a strong artistic element as an outlet for spiritual impulse. This life of anxiety is tamed by incremental innovations that lead to economic advances with greater control over nature, people, and organizations. Eventually, life becomes confined to work in service to that organization with laws and massive economic demands dominated by competition and greed. Complexities of society sap humans of their humanity, and art dies as a nonessential. People become desperate for salvation. Descent begins with growing fear and a deep sense they have lost control as the inevitable revolution rolls over them. Adams’ hypothesis is a cycle of yearning, consumption, and evisceration.

Will and Ariel Durant emphasize the incompatibility of intellect and soul. [5] “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.” Durant’s hypothesis is a nosedive in belief.

If we in America 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 provides 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’Neill’s legislative acts were hard-fought works of compromise when compromise was not yet seen as treason. “The core idea of the Constitution was to restrain ambition and excess by forcing competing powers and factions to bargain and compromise,” writes Jonathan Rauch. During Reagan’s tenure, he held a dinner to raise $1 million for Boston College and its O’Neill Library. And one day, Reagan found Tip O’Neill at his bedside, praying for Reagan’s recovery after an assassination attempt. Politics is adversarial by nature, but adversarial did not mean bellicose. In those days, opposing party members dined at each other’s homes 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 a violation of talk radio orthodoxy. In those days, the results of presidential elections were accepted by the loser, and no one dared speak on national television of a civil war if their candidate lost. Such vulgarity reveals abject ignorance of our own history when the last one we had mauled 750,000 men into their graves.

How could so much unravel so quickly if we didn’t mean to unravel it? Turns out, we did. Jonathan Rauch lays out the process. [6] He notes our political machine’s decline in capacity for self-organization by removal of intermediate systems of informal interaction. “For decades, well-meaning political reformers 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, and secretive. But they had one great virtue: They brought order from chaos.”

As an example of unintended consequences from intended actions, the primaries were not always an election process with direct input from the people. Candidates were once decided by legislative conventions, caucus, and insider haggling. Our current system of primary elections is decided by a tiny fraction of the electorate most passionate, ideological, and consequently less reasonable for whom cranks running for office have the highest appeal. Our Founders tried to distance people from the process by implementing a representative republic to defang those passions, not a more direct democracy that exacerbates it. 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 these reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics.”

Open dialogues behind closed-door sessions with 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 of the deepest concern in Congress, thanks to an incumbent’s gerrymandered district—something the UK, Canada, and New Zealand made illegal. Gerrymandering and primaries exacerbate the problem because same-party competition produces a more radical challenger pandering to fanatics, not to the country, not even to their own state, driving incumbents further left or right. 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.” [7] That gerrymandering is a bad idea has been known for a while.

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 signal, what is? Could there be some fundamental source common to the causes noted above and woven into the psyche of humans that commands us to do our part in terminating civilization?

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] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Oxford University Press, 1991
(originally 1926)
[3] Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay, Macmillan, 1916 (1st Ed. 1895)
[4] Theodore Roosevelt, Review: The Law of Civilization and Decay, The Forum, January 1897
[5] Will & Ariel Durrant, The Lessons of History, Simon & Shuster, 1968
[6] Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane, The Atlantic, September 2016
A PBS Newshour interview is
The Atlantic article is here.
[7] Will & Ariel Durant, The Story of History: Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Shuster, 1963
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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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