Yes, this chart is highly simplified (see this infographic for a more detailed story of the variability of life expectancy since the time of Neanderthals), but the general slopes and durations of these lines are essentially correct and they portray quite starkly a species that was locked into its role on Earth until it was suddenly liberated in the 1900's by the aggregation of knowledge about microbiology, sanitation, political organisation, economic models of production and distribution, medicine, and other advances in other sciences and technologies. The characterisation of this long stretch of stagnant life expectancy as "nasty, brutish, and short" was given to us by the next thinker in my examination of the survival of the fittest philosophers--Thomas Hobbes. Though his thought experiment of what life must have been like in the state of nature before societies were formed was essentially correct, he didn't have enough knowledge of history, archeology, and anthropology to know that he was still living in the (only slightly less) nasty, brutish, and short age himself. It's important to remember this as we enter the era of the modern philosophers. Although their arguments and reasoning are often quite sophisticated, there is an explanation for why many of their conclusions appear off the wall—they just didn't have all the facts that the accumulation of our scientific methods have now unearthed. Let's hear some of the good words of Hobbes then before his philosophy is picked apart in the light of our current perch in history.
In the state of nature, profit is the measure of right. (Note, free marketers, that this is not a good thing!)
Leisure is the mother of philosophy, and common-wealth the mother of peace and leisure; where first were great and flourishing cities, there was first the study of philosophy.
If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it, prognostications from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which, crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be much more fitted then they are for civill obedience.
For such is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: for they see their own wisdom at hand, and other men's at a distance.
Where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruin.
The source of every crime, is some defect of the understanding; or some error in reasoning; or some sudden force of the passions.
The office of the sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly, consists in the end for that which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature.
(Particularly the laws of nature that govern evolution!)
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679 CE) was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy. His 1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy from the perspective of social contract theory.
Hobbes is famous for describing the natural state of mankind (the state pertaining before a central government is formed) as a war of every man against every man in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” This is an apt description of a species characterized primarily by competition. Unchecked competition narrows time horizons and does lead to a shortened existence.
Hobbes’ account of human nature as self-interested cooperation has proved to be an enduring theory in the field of philosophical anthropology. Yes. We cooperate in order to better compete. Over all time horizons, self-interested cooperation explains the survival of genes, the survival of the self, and the survival of the species.
Needs to Adapt
Hobbes was one of the main philosophers who founded materialism (matter is the only substance, and reality is identical with the actually occurring states of energy and matter). He argued repeatedly that there are no incorporeal substances, and that all things, including human thoughts, and even God, heaven, and hell are corporeal matter in motion. Materialism is the basis for reality and it has discovered no evidence of god, heaven, or hell. Human thoughts are brain states.
The starting point for most social contract theories is an examination of the human condition absent from any structured social order, usually termed the “state of nature.” In this condition, an individual’s actions are bound only by his or her personal power, constrained by conscience. From this common starting point, the various proponents of social contract theory attempt to explain why it is in an individual’s rational self-interest to voluntarily give up the freedom one has in the state of nature in order to obtain the benefits of political order. Hobbes advocated absolute monarchy but he also developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the view that all legitimate political power must be "representative" and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid. Cooperative groups outcompete individualistic groups. This is why society develops from “states of nature.” Cooperation is maintained by recognizing the right of the individual, the equality of all men and women, and the consent of the governed. Absolute monarchies are incompatible with consent. Economic theory demonstrates the need to have monopoly providers for public goods such as justice, but representative government with checks and balances in the system is a better solution to the need to enforce and engender cooperation.
Leviathan was written during the English Civil War; much of the book is occupied with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Right diagnosis - wrong solution. A better one was yet to come.
In coming to terms with some of Hobbes' poor political philosophy conclusions, it's important to keep in mind just what a time of upheaval the English Civil War was. To give you an idea of the horrors that Hobbes was witnessing, estimates indicate that "England suffered a 3.7% loss of population, Scotland a loss of 6%, while Ireland suffered a loss of 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation. The great potato famine of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the Irish population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union also fell by 16%." A man of sympathy can therefore be forgiven for overreacting to these levels of destruction by arguing for the stability of strong monarchies. However, political reform was, and continues to be, necessary to avoid a repeat of the devastation that war and conflict bring to our species. The key to combatting our nasty, brutish, and short lives? It's cooperation among informed citizens in a progressive society organised by those with an understanding of philosophy. This is what will lead us to the pleasant, gentle, and long lives we all wish for ourselves.