December 14, 2016


Martin Luther King, Jr. is often misquoted as saying that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Dr. King was himself quoting 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker and actually said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The concept of a moral universe is fuzzy, so I’m going to discuss the arc of history here. I’ll float some ideas on morality in a later post.

History is the sum of trillions of individual choices and actions and thus cannot really be said to have any coherent unified arc. However, we can retrospectively look for past patterns and project the trends we find into the future. Indeed, Dr. King’s statement was of course meant to provide his country with an optimistic guideline for future actions.

I disagree with Dr. King and Mr.  Parker (and President Obama) that the arc of history bends toward justice. I just don’t think the historical record supports that. I believe, if it bends toward any social, economic, or political abstraction, it probably bends more toward power (often, but not always, concentrated in a small subset of society), consumption (especially over-­consumption) of resources, or conflict (often, but not always, over scarce resources). Compelling arguments could be made for more hopeful constructs like liberty or science (remember, we’re talking big picture, here, not this particular moment).

In a broader sense, though, I think history bends toward failure. I know this sounds hopeless, as if I’ve already slid into the pit of despair. But I assure you that’s not the case. Here’s why: I look around me at everything I value. I value my life and healthy bodily systems. I value my relationships. I value my material possessions, including the amazing technology I’m using as I write. I value the biosphere, the ecosystems I’m a part of, and the living things that surround me. I value the United States Constitution and the American institutions that have provided me freedom and security to this point in my life.

What do all of these amazing things have in common? They are all the products of countless failures. My life and body are the result of evolution, which (as I’ll explain in more detail momentarily) is predicated on failure. My relationships are strong and fulfilling now largely because of the many mistakes I’ve made in the past. The inventions I use (as the famous story of Thomas Edison’s light bulb failures demonstrates) are the products of repeated failure. The biosphere and its organisms are the latest delicately balanced version of a system that showcases an infinite variety of failure. The Constitution and our system of government are the product of many failures that came both before and during our existence as a country. In short, my happiness rides on rampant failure.

Evolution by natural selection is one of the fundamental processes underlying all natural systems, including human society, on earth. Natural selection runs on failure. Failures happen when life tries out new possibilities, which come about because of mutations. Mutation produces variation, and nothing can change—for better or worse—without variation, without a range of options. Nothing gets more adaptive, nothing gets better suited for conditions—nothing gets better period—without the failure of most of those options. An incredibly high percent of organic mutations fail. This is a good thing, because most mutations hurt the organisms in which they have arisen. We don’t want things that hurt us to be propagated into the next generation. But the mechanism that produces the options—including the failures—is essential.

I think history works largely the same way. Human societies are diverse—through time and geography, and in their social-cultural-political-economic structures. One society (say, the United States) might try out various ways of organizing or governing itself over its lifetime. This is a good thing. It means we’re open to new mutations that might make things better, that might help us be better adapted to future challenges.

The downside, of course, is that many mutations are deleterious—they damage the organism. Nationalistic, demagogic, xenophobic populism is, most people would agree, a deleterious mutation. Like many common chromosomal mutations, it keeps cropping up every so often throughout history. It always fails and often causes massive death and suffering. But, sadly, history has demonstrated repeatedly that such monstrous mutations—and their ultimate failure—are frequently the price of progress.

So, the arc of history, like evolution, bends toward failure … but also better-adapted organisms. In societal terms (though not in biological terms), we call better adaptations progress. Our national organism, the United States, has not been adapting well over the last thirty or forty years to changing circumstances. The developments of this period have made us more susceptible to a mutation that could do serious damage. However, I believe we are composed of enough healthy cells and organs and systems to fight it off. It may take a while, but this current mutation will suffer the fate of all deleterious mutations: ultimate failure.

Don’t be scared of failure per se; history is full of it. But do be scared of some of the mutations history throws into the mix. Our job is to counteract and defeat this current mutation before it hurts too many people. And when we defeat it, we better have our own mutations to propose—including some non-deleterious ones—and be willing to risk our own failure. You never find history’s few successes unless you can persist through and learn from the many heartbreaking failures it takes to get there. Failure in the near future—failure, that is, of the current deleterious mutation, not our national organism—will be our greatest ally.

One last thing: evolution by natural selection was Darwin’s great and true idea. That idea, unfortunately, has frequently been distorted to justify social Darwinism, the tautological belief that society should mirror the natural world as a “survival of the fittest,” in which the most successful people are self-evidently “the best adapted.” Let me be clear that I am using the mechanisms of natural selection merely as a metaphor for re-thinking the “arc of history” concept, not as an actual blueprint for the way society should work. Ayn Rand and her social Darwinistic rational egoism (aka, objectivism), so in vogue among the political right and today’s top 1%, are categorically not my inspiration. Ms. Rand’s continued influence derives from her marriage of fabulous storytelling, accessible philosophy, celebration of selfishness, and absolution of guilt. The power of smart storytellers to change the world is another topic for another day.…