Longbottom, at the end of this lesson we will feed a few drops of this potion to your toad and see what happens. Perhaps that will encourage you to do it properly.
— Severus Snape

But wait a minute, you might be saying. [For the first two parts of the series, see here and here.] If our nature is dark and light, then we may as well throw in the towel. If this malfunctioning human system called civilization is simply an outgrowth of who we are, then any other system we create will also be fatally flawed, right? A valid concern; does either theory or history bear it out?

Our shadow side, our dappled human psyche explains much. It particularly explains the everyday evils stemming from our mistaken or malign intentions and misguided actions. But does it explain enough? Human nature did not abruptly change 6,000 years ago. Yet as history shows, there was a distinct cultural and behavioral break with what went before. Human existence — first in Mesopotamia, then elsewhere — suffered a profound, alarming, and sudden setback, as city-states and then empires rose, wars were institutionalized, human cruelty reached horrifying heights, economies turned to steady plunder, and stratification, slavery and perpetual indebtedness pushed large numbers of human beings into inhuman misery. This civilization, with its dark heart of conquest and domination, was born.

Our species is at least 200,000 years old. A mere 6,000 years ago, unprecedented, massively destructive social systems began to rise. How could this possibly be explained by recourse to human nature? Consider an alternative hypothesis. Let us begin by noting that there are two depths of social evil. There is the moderately greater poverty of some within a community. And then there is obscene destitution in the shadow of a palace. There are raiding parties of a couple dozen warriors clashing. And then there is war. There is the painful and often lethal gauntlet that war captives had to run among some Indian tribes. And then there is the destruction of a city where all men are tortured and slaughtered, all women and children sold into slavery and the fields are salted so nothing can ever grow there again (e.g. the Roman sack of Carthage). There is the petty despot of a chief. And then there is the king or modern dictator. There is the raid against a nearby settlement to steal their goods. And then there is the breach of a dam unleashed against another town to destroy all that live there, as the “civilized” people of Sumer liked to do to their neighbors. It is one thing to capture the children of one’s enemies. Quite another to see to it that “their children were beheaded, flayed alive or roasted over a slow fire,” courtesy of the Assyrians. It is one thing to have imperfect human societies where some levels of antisocial harm are expected. And yet quite another to build social systems that glory in violence, cruelty and plunder.

Suppose we agree that we are neither “basically good,” nor depraved and rotten to the core. Our mixed character challenges our evolving conscience, but each left to our own devices, the harm we do is mostly commonplace. Often, we blunder badly. Sometimes, our motives are frankly malevolent in small insidious ways. But the extreme evils listed above cannot be inflicted at personal or small group level. They require a socio-economic system that amplifies Hyde.

Societies that ignore Hyde and leave him at large suffer profound detrimental consequences. After all, the Hyde/Jekyll problem is not symmetrical: the damage done by antisocials wounds us all and is often impossible to right. The people killed in wars cannot be brought back, a ruined landbase may not be able to heal within a timeframe meaningful to mortals. And our Jekylls are always busy cleaning up after the Hydes. All in all, it adds up to Hyde coming out ahead. It can get worse, of course; a culture can amplify Hyde and disadvantage Jekyll to such an extent it ends up with a social system run by psychopaths off a cliff. But there is a third option: putting limits on Hyde, Jekyll can spend his energies in pro-social undertakings.

The unfortunate Dr. Jekyll is trapped in a paradigm that gives Hyde an advantage, mirroring the way this whole civilization is structured. But it’s not hard to imagine a possible happier ending to the Jekyll/Hyde tale. How about this? The good doctor does not work in secret, looking for fame as a lone genius, but is part of a team of colleagues. These people come to spot him as he drinks the potion, aware that the results might be — shall we say — iffy. When Hyde makes his appearance, they are ready. Safely constraining the dangerous shapeshifter, they contact other allies to issue a warning and urge the development of an effective antidote. When Jekyll reappears, they persuade him to remain under watch just in case a flashback occurs, and keep monitoring the drug’s residual effects over time. And the brew? Lock it up in a safe and leave room for a sequel?

In the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jekyll gets badly addicted to the heady rush of “being Hyde.” Let a chill pass down the spine as we contemplate our own horror of being strung out on seductive daily doses of vile molochov cocktails… In life, there are no guarantees; Hyde lives in us. He too deserves his due. Would Jekyll’s friends be up to considering Hyde’s needs along with Jekyll’s? Facing him with awareness, wisdom and kindness may tip the balance for society at large.

This alternative telling, it seems to me, illustrates the behavior of a levelheaded society as well. A sane culture bent on long-term survival embodies the understanding that we are all better off if we look out for one another, and that the fruits of human intelligence are just another part of the commons, developed and shared collaboratively. It remembers with particular urgency to acknowledge and set limits on Hyde in tandem with Jekyll’s growing powers. A commonsensical precaution, not requiring extra high levels of intelligence or advanced training, wouldn’t you say? And this is exactly what our Paleolithic forebears proceeded to do.

Advertisements