With which collective of people do you most identify? Robert Peston, in his recent book WTF, raises the important question of identity politics. He asks: When questioned, do you describe yourself as English or British? There appears to be a strong correlation between people who describe themselves as English and people who voted Brexit, and between those who describe themselves as British and those who voted to Remain. I’m sure that much could be written and implied about such a correlation, but I shall resist. Instead I want to first share my own personal response to the question, and then make some general comments about the (hopefully) continued evolution of humanity.
When asked a formal question regarding my nationality or country of birth I have always replied “British” or “UK”. Reflecting on this response, however, it occurs to me that this is a likewise formal reply – I have always said it in a formal ‘matter of fact’ way, in a way devoid of any deep emotional attachment, and in a way that has little or no bearing on my political identity. And reflecting further, and no doubt opening myself up to a salvo of rebuke regarding elitism and privilege (none of which can possibly apply to my life), I would say that I actually identify myself as European. The whole structure of my thinking, my world view, has been developed by reading European philosophy, particularly French, German and Greek philosophy. And this philosophy cannot be separated from European literature, history and politics that, in various ways, has both promoted the spread of different philosophical approaches and caused them to go in and out of fashion. No, on reflection I am European – no other political identity comes anywhere close to explaining who I am. But is such an identity actually practical?
I can understand why someone would identify themselves differently, with a far smaller collective – one confined to a much smaller geographic area and one with a far greater degree of homogeneity. We have evolved to strongly favour our in-group – our tribe or community. Instinctively recognising a member of your own group through often subtle differences in physical characteristics and behaviour has had very obvious survival advantages. Through such instincts we have been able to assess the degree of threat from a person not personally known to us without the slow and cumbersome use of reason. During our evolutionary history our fledgling reason, in certain situations, has been too slow in assessing risk to life, and in many situations still is. Such evolutionary traits are surely at the root of human prejudices – our ability to ‘pre-judge’ a person based purely on a few simple characteristics. Instantly recognising a person as a stranger or non-member of our community, and as a result judging them as a threat to that community, has been a positive aid to human survival during our long evolutionary history. But this human trait has long passed it’s sell-by date. Not only does it no longer offer a survival advantage, it actually threatens our survival.
Some people would use the above argument to justify prejudice, and many other human traits, as ‘natural’. The fallacy of such an argument springs from the very nature of evolution itself – that evolution means evolution, that human traits are not fixed but adapt to circumstances. And the circumstances of human life on this planet have changed very drastically from those of our distant ancestors. One of the great problems we face is the relative speed (and acceleration) of social evolution in relation to biological evolution, and the struggle of the latter to keep up. Our current social life (and in this I include our political and economic life) is evolving at a rate quicker than it ever has in the past, largely on the back of technology that connects humanity across the world. Whether we like it or not we are becoming increasingly connected at the global level. Communities and groups of people who were once unknown to each other, and therefore not to be trusted, are now known. And once known, they no longer become such a treat. And of even greater importance, such treats that do exist can now be assessed through reason. But it’s not just that global humanity is becoming known to us – in so many ways global humanity is becoming actually connected to us. It is now next to impossible for any community to be independent. In all aspects, the political, the economic and the environmental for example, human life is becoming connected at the global level – and we desperately need to see, understand and act on this bigger picture.
So I fear that even my identification with Europe is fast approaching its own sell-by date. It may explain where we’ve come from, but it neither offers a route map to where we’re going nor, in evolutionary terms, offers much of a guide as to how humanity (a highly connected and inter-dependent humanity) will survive the many threats to its existence. We need to identify with a global humanity – a global species that needs to learn to respect and understand its relationship with the whole of the ecosystem in which it is embedded. This is a big ask. It is oh so much easier to identify with a relatively small and clearly defined group of similar people. But such an easy and comforting identification will, in all likelihood, prevent us from seeing the bigger picture upon which our long term survival depends.