Heat wave has temperature in lingering humid nineties; with many others I sit on the local bay beach, dipping in every few minutes as I overheat while enjoying the scenery. Children and grandparents and couples, and teenagers, and parents, and solitary old people mill around, splash, or sleep. If a few of them were digging clams, I could almost believe myself back in the social environment of the late Pleistocene, on summer shores before bathing suits were necessary or invented.
This is a social scene. An unarmed lifeguard provides security enough. Everyone is enjoying themselves, their group, nature. Nobody is staking out private property, everyone is pretty happy. A few loud screams and laughs from young kids, perhaps a voice too loud here and there. But all is calm and seems to show people well-adjusted and content just to be alive, not at all the ferocious beasts of Darwinian struggle, nor the mobs of dystopian fantasies.
One of the inherent problems of “social science” is on full display. None of these individuals is a “typical person.” The two year old is different than the 8 year old. That old woman has different outlooks than the braying fat young man. Some are smiling at children’s antics, others merely annoyed. Even those exactly in the same age group _ like the various toddlers in their puddle jumpers _ are doing very different things _ some scream, some splash, some cry, some just build sand castles. To say they are all “equal” is a stretch, to claim each can be defined in the manner of a chemical element is insane. The full complexity of human existence and its meaning is out in the open, on sunny sand.
Oh, you exclaim, but this is not typical. These people are on vacation from “real life,” the true daily grind. They are sated with food, content with existence, mindlessly escaping (temporarily) from worries. When they leave, they will be totally different. They will never have enough food, they will never be content, they will always worry. They will struggle endlessly against each other for their never-achieved place in the world. Why, even as you watch them now, some get bored, some leave, some even begin to annoy others. This shows our basic restlessness. We quickly revert to prowling predators.
Hot overhead sun symbolizes stability, ceaseless waves breaking on shells signal ongoing patterns, and just maybe the way these individuals and groups interact in this setting is more appropriate for science and social engineering studies than what crazed teenagers do on the battlefield. Humans are a social species, and they conquered the world not as individuals, but as tribes. The most successful tribes took over others not as single warriors, however fierce, but as organized bureaucrats with an elite skimming production from complacent masses.
Imagine, then, that we have not a glimpse of utopia, but rather of our ancestral heritage, when the world gave us all we needed to live without too much work. Like those ancient South Sea Islanders of whom we read, before they were corrupted by the modern world. Work? No, almost everything, even the daily fishing routine, becomes a kind of non-hassled play. Can’t machines somehow make our world like that all the time?
My utopian fantasies fade as a cloud covers the sun. Letting thoughts wander far from the daily grind has always been useful. We remember Archimedes running naked down the street shouting “Eureka!” or Darwin slowly cogitating on strolls through the woods. People lately have wanted politicians to “do more” and keep their noses to the grindstone. Others scream everybody should get back to work. Just maybe that is exactly the wrong methodology to figure out a better way to control and appreciate this world.