Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 861:
ON VIOLENCE AND CHANGE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 861.

Today, a new look at good, evil, and the nature of change. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stephen Jay Gould has become the great teller of our biological history -- not by writing great tomes, but by writing hundreds of short essays. Read one of his articles on an airplane and you're entertained. Read five during the year and you find that his independent pieces hang together in odd ways. Read a hundred, and a complex philosophy takes form.

One of Gould's themes is his theory of punctuated evolution. The fossil record shows long periods of biological stability. It's hard to find a species in transition. We go along unchanged for millenia. Change, when it occurs, takes place very quickly.

Like all fine teachers, Gould uses metaphor to help us see how that works. To make his point, he asks, "Are we humans cruel or are we considerate?" Of course, the record of history is written in blood -- in wars, treachery, and competition.

But what does our experience tell us? Walk through your day and count the transactions. What's happened to me by noon today?

My wife had interesting things to talk about before I left for a dental appointment. The technician and I compared pictures of her new baby and my new grandson. When I entered my office building with an armload of books, two students held doors for me. The man at the lunch counter shared greetings with me. Students in the overcrowded lunchroom graciously shared a table. Back at the office, my e-mail misbehaved, and a colleague helped me sort it out. Once it was working, a collegue in another state responded to my testy message with grace and good will.

I seldom look at my days like this, but the simple fact is, people who hardly know me have treated me like a king. I've been met with kindness everywhere. Yet you and I let ourselves be diverted by those rare occasions of human meanness.

So I take Gould's point. Human courtesy and kindness really are the norm, not the exception. Yet human history is the history of upheaval. History, like evolution, is the story of change wrought by disruption. Those rare acts of brutality make the newpapers, and they make the history books as well.

Gould calls it a structural paradox that one violent act so distracts us from 10,000 acts of kindness. I'll go a step further and ask you whether books on either history or biology would be so focused on violent transitions if they were truly accurate.

History tells how we've been shaped as a people. Wars and cabals have actually been far less important to that shaping than persistent acts of cooperation. It isn't terrorists and warlords who shape history. It's those very acts that've already touched my life so many times in the first hours of this still new day.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., Ten Thousand Acts of Kindness. Eight Little Piggies: Reflections on Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1993, Chapter 19.

See also Episode 720, which deals with Petr Kropotkin and his development of anarchist theory. Kropotkin also evolves the notion that political history is illusory -- that the reality of the evolution of human history is vested acts of mutual aid and mutual support.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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