In the era of social media and 24-hour news cycles, every story is “breaking,” and everything is apocalyptic. We tweet about how President Trump has already destroyed America, or, alternatively, about how political correctness is one step away from plunging the country over the cliff and into the proverbial “thousand years of darkness.” Ironically, though, what puts us in real danger of igniting a crisis is our own jaded and Revelation-inspired perception of the admittedly unique times in which we live.
We are actually wealthier, healthier, safer, freer, and more open as a society than at any other time in history. Man thinks and learns best through stories, and perhaps with so little else to weigh us down — as compared to all other peoples in all other times in the grand scheme of history — it is only natural that we place ourselves amid a historic struggle over the fate of civilization.
But history doesn’t actually work like that — at least, 99% of the time it doesn’t. Matthew Ridley’s audacious and excellent book “The Evolution of Everything” eclectically documents the reality: the “Great Man” theory of history is false, there is no skyhook pushing society toward its ultimate destiny. History works much slower and requires the input of far more people. Even if you fundamentally disagree with every action he has taken as president, Donald Trump can’t destroy the country by himself, both because he is subject to mitigating (political, economic, and social) forces, and because many, many other people had to exist and manifold past events had to transpire for history to evolve into a reality where Donald Trump is the President of the United States.
Furthermore, it will not take a “great man” or historic event or policy to right the ship and save civilization; rather, taking the time to understand the reality of the problems we face and the operation of the social laws that must be exploited in pursuit of progress is a far more effective means of changing the world. Like an organism, history, and our civilization in it, evolve within physical constraints and concurrent with the operation of their foundational mechanisms. An ant cannot grow to the size of a man because its legs will not support the weight with such proportions. So too is society confined to evolution along a path dictated by economic law, political reality, and social foundations.
What is particularly striking about this fact is that we actually believe it, and that subconsciously we do not, in fact, believe our own fiery rhetoric. We don’t actually believe history changes at the pace of the news cycle and we are not so impudent as to think we can change the world overnight. How is this so?
Well, as is always true for much of humanity, there is a striking asymmetry between thought and action. What we say and what we do are two very, very different things. This rings as true today as it has in centuries past. If we are to ignore the tweets and Facebook rants that are products of our system one thinking and instead focus on the things we actually do and the positions we overtly stake out, we come away with a very different — more optimistic — and grounded picture of the world in which we live.