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  • Between Humanity and Human Beings:Information Trauma and the Evolution of the Species
  • Mikhail Epstein (bio)

Some two centuries ago, in 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society. . . . Here he formulated the law of disproportion between population growth and the available resources of food. Population grows in geometric progression (2, 4, 8, 16 . . . ), whereas the increase in the supply of food is merely arithmetical (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . . ). Malthus predicted a demographic explosion, which did take place in the twentieth century, especially in the Third World, causing food shortages and even starvation, as well as the worsening of social tensions.

It is well known that the intensity of this crisis lessened by the end of the twentieth century because technological successes accelerated the development of agriculture and because effective means of birth control and family planning were introduced. However, two hundred years after Malthus, a new disproportion—no longer demographic but at least as explosive—has become conspicuous. The disproportion presently is between the collective producer of information and its consumer; in other words, between humanity and human beings. [End Page 18]

The Gap between Humans and Humanity

Various thinkers—Vico and Malthus, Hegel and Marx, Oswald Spengler and Pitirim Sorokin—have attempted to formulate what might be called "the basic law" of human history and development. Given that these formulas are famous, there is not much sense rehearsing them; given that they are speculative, there is no sense pronouncing judgment on them. I would like instead to propose a basic law myself: individuals fail to keep pace with the evolution of our species. This "law" does not pretend to universality, and I offer it only to help explain some contradictions and paradoxes of our own time. What I mean is that the development of individual human beings is limited by their biological ages—we each die in an underdeveloped state—whereas the social and technological development of humanity as a whole has no limitations of time. The increasing age of Homo sapiens as a species does not result in anything like a commensurate increase in the life span of individuals. With each new generation, therefore, individuals have to cope with an increasingly heavy load of knowledge and experience that their ancestors have accumulated.

The problem of alienation, raised by Marx and others in the nineteenth century, is evidence of this disproportion, as is the failing belief in reality—in reality per se—that characterized the last years of the twentieth. The chronological progression from Marxism to existentialism to poststructuralism, despite wide differences among the three, makes clear how the gap between species and individual has widened. Marxism had not yet relinquished the idea of reality and even made of it a foundation for the critique of social constructs and superstructures. The primary reality for Marxism is the labor of human beings and the resources of human consciousness that have developed and accumulated during our struggle for mastery over nature. This common possession of humanity, despite the current perversity of private ownership, can be reappropriated eventually through social revolution. By the early and mid-twentieth century, existentialists regarded alienation as inherently human and thus irresolvable by any kind of reform or revolution. Individuals are doomed to solitude; they lose their authenticity in society, which imposes unsuitable roles upon them. Whereas Marxism still tried to bridge individual and species, existentialism found the abyss between them impassable. Finally, in this breathless survey: poststructuralism, in the late twentieth century, obviated the problem of alienation by dismissing the very idea of reality: there is nothing to be alienated from. Reality is not temporarily alienated from us (as Marxists argue) or eternally alien (as existentialists say); reality is regarded as delusional, fabricated, or infinitely deferred. In poststructuralism, the idea of humanity as a coherent species is rejected, supplanted by an array of social and cultural constructs, local and partial world pictures. The words mankind, humankind, and humanity appear rarely in poststructuralist texts [End Page 19] without scare quotes, question marks, or cancellations. Each race, gender, age, place, culture, and individual creates its own "reality."

Placing "humanity" and "reality" in scare quotes, however...


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