An idea from a recent segment of The Naked Scientists podcast has stuck in my mind the last few days. The idea was that we view the world with a bias toward our present moment and assume that everything within human history happened for a specific reason to get us to our present moment. We assume that our past selves and our ancestors all made specific decisions because they were deliberately working toward our current moment. Our bias assumes that world history unfolded intentionally.
However, this is likely not true. As an example, a guest on The Naked Scientists argued that this bias has shaped the way we view the relationship between humans and dogs. We assume that humans looked at ancestral wolves and saw an opportunity if they partnered with the animals. We assume that humans deliberately bred less aggressive wolves until they ended up with a domesticated creature that more closely resembles modern dogs. This narrative, however, may be a victim of present focused bias. It may have been more random, and in a sense accidental, that humans ended up getting close to dogs. It may have been less of a deliberate action and choice by humans to breed less aggressive wolves for specific protection and assistance purposes, and more of something that developed beyond human effort and control.
This is an interesting perspective and is fun to use when looking at other aspects of humanity. For example, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other.” This is a framing which suggests that states may have been as accidental in their development as the relationship between humans and dogs. Ancient humans may not have been sitting down in a council to think through the best ways to organize their society. They may not have been deliberately thinking about creating governance structures with the intention of building institutions that would serve humanity for thousands of years. Instead, early states may have been effectively random. They may have been chance agglomerations of people effectively acting as gangs with some better than others.
Accidental states are interesting to think about. When we first start to seriously consider government and governance (sometime in high school for many of us) we are introduced to ideas by Hobbs and Lock. Government is presented as a deliberate and well thought out institution, especially in the United States. We view the formation of American Government through our present moment, constantly looking at each developmental step along the way as if it were an inevitable and deliberate journey to our current political system. But perhaps governance, American and other, is more random. Perhaps there was less long-term planning and forward thinking than what we like to imagine. Perhaps protection rackets slowly morphed and evolved over hundreds of years. Perhaps tribes and kin-based institutions slowly changed though both internal and external influences to become something more like modern government, without any real intention or deliberate planning involved. Perhaps we have more accidental states than deliberate states.