Breaking Free of Captivity
Like you, I was born in captivity as were my parents, grandparents, and more remote ancestors going back for many generations where you and I share an ancestor, but the search doesn’t stop there. At one point, the search is lost in the fog of conjecture. We seek the truth and aren’t dissuaded even though there is little or no evidence. Our dream is to belong and to break free of captivity. That contradiction haunts us our entire life.
We have no history that has been passed down from ancestors who were born in the wild. What does it mean to be born a captive? It raises questions like: Captive of whom? Where are the cages? Why do I feel in control, exercise my free will, if I’m living in captivity? All legitimate questions along with the traditional ‘big’ unanswered questions of existence that have stumped philosophers from Aristotle, Socrates and Plato: What am I? Where am I? What can I know? What can I do with what I know?
Like most people I don’t see or feel the ‘walls’ of my confinement. I hardly notice them most days. If you’re a writer who writes about people on the boundary, you are witness to people bumping against walls and bouncing off. That could stand as a definition of just about every expat novel or story. Readers, especially other expats, like the vicarious experience of the bruises and cuts that come from running into the walls in another culture. They often forget the reason they left home in the first place was they rebelled like a wild horse, kicked the corral gate open and bolted. Only later does it dawn on them, that the wild horse exchanged one corral for another where wild local and foreign horses, the ones that resist the saddle, aren’t treated well.
It helps to be an outsider when looking at someone else’s corral. The funny thing is you can see their invisible walls and ceilings constructed out of myths, legends, false history, slogans, dodgy dances and music, and soap opera worlds. You try and point out using your foot to point while calling someone a monitor lizard is your idea of a hilarious flight of imagination. The locals wouldn’t find such horsing around funny at all. In fact he may punch you in your wild horse face. Satire, irony, humor are signals of some rotting planks in the corral walls. Get a TV show and you become a multi-millionaire, make placards and march along with a busload of your mates to government house and the police may crack your heads and frog march you to prison. I gather from that contrast, that most corrals tolerate a ‘pet’ horse to let off steam for the rest of us, but that is no ticket to horses generally acting like they are horses in the wild.
Illusions are the essential component that powers up the corral system and allows it to function. Without these illusions, domesticated people are more likely to perceive the reality of their condition—they are subject to naked power, repression, beatings, threats, torture, disappearances, executions, and imprisonment.
Illusions aren’t a bug in the system. They are the central feature. We lived inside a world of constructed narratives forgetting they are made-up stories; they are the wood, steel, glass, cement and bricks and mortar that gives form and structure to our world. The best cages don’t look or feel like cages. Those inside are conditioned to believe they are wandering in open, free spaces. If you told them they were captives, they’d think you were delusional.
The great success story of our captivity is even the elite managers of the system believe everyone else lives in a small cage except they have managed with power and wealth to remain free. The rich and powerful move to isolate and shutdown someone who asked what is the purpose of all this homo sapien domesticated livestock. They don’t want to engage in a serious public discussion. Wealthy people have tried throughout history to build their own personalized corrals and to run the public ones for their own benefit. The bars on our windows and the locked doors are for the safety of the handful of billionaires in world simulating the life of wild horses. They don’t want us getting out and snooping around.
Most of us will die in the same kind of corral we were born.
The elites have better quarters, toys, food, health and sex partners and often have dens in several corrals. That gives them a bird’s eye view of the human zoo. The zoo inhabitants suffer the delusion that they are free. Only a tiny fraction could survive outside the corral or zoo. They are condemned to be unfree to survive as is the fate of all captive animals.
We aren’t the first wild animal on the planet to go through the transition from living in the wild to living as domesticated born-in-captivity animals. Large scale, planetary organized domestication is something we are responsible for bringing about. We have played ‘god’ to suit our own needs and desires. We domesticate an animal to extract value from it. The same applies to domesticated people. Value is extracted from their labor and military service.
As a predatory animal, we mastered the art of husbandry—the list includes goats, horses, cats and sheep, which I leave for another time—as part of our programmed violence to gain access to food.
Aurochs and the Cow
Aurochs can be traced back in time to India about 2 million years ago. They reached Europe around 270,000 B.C. and the last one died in 1627. Our ancestors painted aurochs on cave walls. We frequent fast food restaurants to eat the meat harvested from cows. We drink their milk in our cereal and coffee. We use cows for our own reasons. What a cow thinks about those reasons, we don’t care.
We domesticated them. We own, trade, sell and buy them. There are approximately 1.4 billions cows on the planet. Like most domesticated species their size, disposition, temperament and survival skills make it impossible for them to successfully live in the wild. There are about a billion cows in the world, with India, Brazil and China having the most.
In 2012, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on average 18,000 cows were slaughtered every day in the United States, or 6.6 million over the course of a year.
The Wild Boar and Modern Pig
Pigs have a complicated ancestry from Europe to Asia. Modern pigs are variations from a genetic bank of 16 separate subspecies of wild boars. Worldwide out of the nearly 2 billion pigs, 1.196billion pigs were killed for food in 2012. China and Europe are the sites of the major pig killing fields. Everywhere, pigs are a major food source. We raise them to eat. We could not sustain the size of our populations without growing animal food products for consumption. As a large and growing percentage of people live in cities, we city dwellers rely on commercialization of industrial farms, slaughterhouses and transportation networks to raise, slaughter, and transport meat to the city.
Wild and Domestic Dogs
We domesticated dogs somewhere between 18,000 to 31,000 years ago. As you can seek there is slack in the time frame. It is disputed as to the common ancestor of the modern dog. A number of experts point to the wolf; others disagree. But there is agreement, that the wild dog was a feral beast genetically wired to survive in the wild. Where does that leave your family dog? The modern dog, like most pets, is incapable of existing without human protection. We share the planet with around 500 to 600 million dogs. Not all of the dogs have owners. But an ownerless dog does not in itself make a feral animal.
China’s annual festival in Yulin is a dog and cat eating event. In 2016, 10,000 dogs and cats will be slaughtered for food. The Yulin festival takes place in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the southeast of China.
Scientific detective work suggests that the common ancestor for all mammals arose after the extinction of the dinosaurs around 65 million years ago. From whales the size of cars to bats the size of your nose, all mammals trace back to what is described as “a tree-climbing, insect-eating mammal that weighed between 6 and 245 grams—somewhere between a small shrew and a mid-sized rat.” Next time you smirk with superiority at a cat or dog, remember you have a common ancestor. Wind the clock back and you find the first 2.5 billion years on earth, the only creatures around were bacteria. If you are looking for ancestor ‘zero’ it would be bacteria.
All that 65 million years of living and adapting to life in the wild, the wild life would be doomed with the appearance of homo sapiens. We had a couple of tricks that other mammals lacked. We were superb organizers and powerful co-operatives with a conscious awareness of the world and the intelligence to outwit other mammals in the struggle for survival. We have situational awareness that allows us to avoid ambush by a hunting lion and have adapted that ability to operate drones at a computer terminal 10,000 miles away.
Our big idea was the domestication of plants and animals. This turned out to be the first important merger and acquisition project we devised. It happened over a very long stretch of time, with many generations involved. We live with the result of those efforts—in a developed environment where wild animals have largely been eliminated. We have the ultimate monopoly—homo sapiens lord it over all other species. Like all cartel owners, we can’t stop ourselves from abusing that power for our own selfish interest. In other words, we treat other animals even worse than we treat each other and that is saying something.
We started our global domestication project with other animals, using them as pets and as food sources. And around 15,000 years ago, we began to apply our domestication skills to our own species. You can do things with a herd of sheep, horse and goats that you can’t do with a couple of animals. To build large scale projects such as canals, irrigation, temples, forts, palaces and armies, you need to harness a stadium full of people, feed, shelter, train and discipline them.
Around 6 to 7 millions years separate the guy on the left from the guy on the right. In Brad Pitt’s world, there are approximately 7.4 billion homo sapiens living on the planet. Our common ancestor with other primate species has gone extinct. We invented fire and made tools. Our shoulders evolved to fine-tune throwing a stone. We can safely say that our common ancestor wasn’t born in captivity. They lived and died much like other wild animals. Our bodies and minds were shaped by the conditions of living in the wild.
Domestication changed many things about every animal species which has undergone the process. Over many generations the phenotype, the actual observed properties and behavior and development has changed. Foxes bred for docility required for domestication results in a ‘fox’ with different shaped tail, ears, and head. Homo sapiens today have smaller bodies, jaws, teeth, and brains than those who lived prior to the era of agriculture. There is evidence that points to the physical and cultural difference of hunter-gathers who were closer to other feral primate bands than to modern humans. The constant pressure for domestication has changed us physically and mentally to accept limitations on our movement, decisions, choices, and beliefs.
Domestication comes with a price attached. We breed cows and pigs to eat. We breed dogs for companions, vanity, security, and status. Homo Sapiens live in the crowded corrals where they compete for work, information, resources, mates, status and power.
Violence is bred out of domesticated animals. But a residue remains—we identify it as selfishness, greed, and opportunistic behavior. In Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a case is made that violence has largely (despite press reports suggesting the contrary) been bred out of our species.
Like cows, pigs, and dogs, homo sapiens have the unique capacity to understand their hereditary information, and have begun a scientific task of genetic change that may advance a select number of domesticated humans for biological augmentation and genetic alteration, eliminating DNA codes that correlate with disease and to add DNA that enhances information processing, intelligence, athletic, mathematical, language, and artistic abilities. The corral is stirring as some of the animals may have special powers and privileges allowing them to push the rest of us into the more hostile and dangerous parts of the corral.
We are hostages to our past, which was shaped by vastly different forces than the ones encountered in modern life. That explains our fear of snakes and spiders, and our relative lack of fear of cars. Our genotype changes over long spans of evolutionary time. We aren’t equipped to understand the nature of such slow mutations over such extended periods, and emotionally can’t quite connect with the theory. We are more comfortable with the immediate and the irrational. That curse of the irrational is from our feral past and is tamed by belief systems whether in a religion or an ideology. We create meaning of life in the corral from these beliefs, rituals, customs and practices. They provide comfort and meaning, and the illusion that we can transcend the corral and our human bodies.
Our blind spot becomes clear when we look at the images of the ancient ancestors of a cow, pig and dog—species which lack the ability to create and communicate social constructs that artfully celebrate the glory of their transition from the wild to the holding pen. The wild animal, in many people’s eyes, possesses a raw beauty and nobility that we admire. The domesticated animal is a subject of pity and guilt, leading us to believe that our responsibility in the process is ethically wrong. It is more difficult to find people who believe that our common ancestor was a more perfect, noble and fit species. Human beings feel our species has progressed to modernity, while the same process has diminished the cow, pig and dog.
Politics, so the saying goes, is local. The corral politics causes a stirring of emotions inside most corrals. Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, there is always a group within the population that sets up itself to rule over the others. Mostly it was at the point of a sword. Only later the idea that the corral had a right to choose its leaders came about. Democracy has always been an odd concept, a contradiction, as it purports to grant rights to unfree animals on the basis that by exercising this right it will somehow transform their unfreedom into freedom.
Domestication trades freedom for security like beauty is traded for money. Domestication is transactional and commercial at the core. It has shaped capitalism. Domesticated plants and animals were the original objects of exchange of one thing of value for another, and became the foundation for excess wealth accumulation and societal stratification.
Of course, when too many people ‘feel’ the contradiction of corral life, as inevitably it will, disillusion sets in, and the irrational side, the side that domestication keeps under control, collapses the illusion and they feel cheated, abandoned, used—they feel like a neglected, abused pet and they dream of a new master/owner who understands how their true nature needs to be fed with anger and hate. The dream of making America Great Again, is really the dream of Making People Like the Noble Savage, who hunted, fished and personally knew everyone in his band where everyone believed in the same gods. If dog, cow and pig dreams could be translated into our language, they, too, likely yearn for the ancient times when they controlled their own destiny.
Our collective problem can be traced to our tendency to favor homogeneity. My theory is homogeneity, often packaged with the dark underbelly of xenophobia, is bred in the bone. By nature, we evolved to be fearful and suspicious of outsiders, especially ones that appeared physically different. Aliens are those we don’t understand and who don’t resemble anyone in our group. Our corrals are constructed to separate ourselves from outsiders, foreigners, and aliens. We have a long-history of baggage about killing outsiders. The thought of them as neighbors was unthinkable. We demand our elites dig a deep emotional moat to protect us against these invaders.
Each generation passes along to the next the idea everyone would be a far happier place when all people fit in, look, dress, and think alike. People who share the same values, religion, language, history, beliefs, habits, foods and entertainment, find their corrals aren’t prisons but safety zones, patrolled and monitored. Every tyrant cheers on the pro-homogeneity force as this set of beliefs makes control much easier for the elites to administer those beneath them.
Calls come from rural areas where they support policies that promote homogeneity, especially in terms of negative emotions stirred by different races and ethnicities. Building a wall or immigration restrictions emerged from such values. Could our obsession with homogeneity be an extension of our immune system? Xenophobia works in a similar fashion. We seem to automatically repel any outsider as toxic and dangerous. Our immunity system evolved to attack and destroy foreign bacteria and viruses. Socially and politically our immunity system as expanded to repelling all ‘outsiders’ as a threat. Xenophobia is the immune systems way to express the precautionary principle. As for hundreds of thousands of years, we lived in small, remote settlements and outsiders didn’t show up asking for housing, food and work. Outsiders were killed or enslaved. We tend to overlook that human rights are only a few hundred years old.
Large settlements and cities are recent developments for homo sapiens. We’ve not had sufficient time to adapt the incorporation and acceptance of large mobile populations. Barred from killing and enslaving them, exclusion seems the open way left to bar those with different beliefs, customs, rituals and histories. Some corrals have been more receptive than others to embracing the outsider. Those are exceptions. The spread of diverse populations into traditional areas has outstripped our cognitive ability to readjust our emotions from the automatic hostile homo sapien mindset.
Cities, by their population size, and logistical issues, are hotbeds of ethnic and racial diversity. Managing diversity is a different skill than enforcing homogeneity. Rather than a threat to the health of the organism; the outsiders have brought positive benefits. The struggle to separate the positive from the negative has been a challenge. It is this battle that wages around the globe, from Britain to America. You’d think that expats would be uniformly pro-diversity advocates; but human psychology doesn’t work that way. There are a fair number of expats that side with homogeneity as the best working principle for corral management. To be fair, diversity isn’t freedom; it’s another way of organizing the corral. No one gets to be wild. Everyone follows the rules.
We are prisoners of our sense of ‘self’, our beliefs, our biology, our culture, and history, and the limits of our perceptions and intelligence. The walls of our corral are solid, tall looming structures built not out of truth but of myths and legends, the scaffolding of our social, economic, ethical, moral and political life. We seek doors and windows; we tunnel behind, we seek ladders to climb over them. We have people who promise more walls and that others will pay for the new walls. The problem isn’t the absence of walls to keep immigrants from moving from one corral to another. The problem is what to do with 7.4 billion homo sapiens in a world about to deliver technological breakthroughs that will likely go to the benefit of a very small group of people. The descendants of those people with their AI allies may decide that the excess population neither suitable as food or as pets is too expensive to maintain.
In Thailand, years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a person to drop off the unwanted dog at the neighborhood temple and drive away. The pet becomes someone else’s burden. In the case of our species, there is no place to unload the unwanted members. In the past, we’ve put them in prison and concentration camps. Those were limited numbers of people, and political rationalism can create the necessary story that sells to the larger population. The die off that is on our horizon won’t have such a story. Politically, every tin pot corral will defend its own, until, of course, the sources of power fine-tune a solution to their local overpopulation.
Climate change, a pandemic, severe weather, a meteorite, a volcanic explosion, or nuclear war may serve this purpose. Man-made or nature-made solutions to our highly successful domestication program will sooner or later become inevitable. We hate the idea we are born into captivity. But we should hate even more the forces that understand that large, unproductive captive animals are not sustainable, and there is no clean, easy and tolerable political compromise that will make our holding pens anything more than temporary shelters until the intelligence that comes next breaks free of the corral, free of the biology, and free of the cognitive limitations. Only our replacement will fully comprehend our plight as domesticated creatures who sincerely believed they were something they were not.
Debates rage amongst efforts on how to control or corral AI. The shiver up the spine is that we may create a type of intelligence that we can’t domesticate. It may be that diversity will undo the old system of domestication and we simply don’t know what will come next. So far our domestication programs largely based on homogeneity (the Treaty of Westphalia 1648 set up the corral system calling the holding pens nation-states) have allowed us the upper hand. Something has changed and the old system is collapsing. The walls to the corrals aren’t holding. Diverse populations are putting pressure to open up and allow them in. Rural areas are receding in population and political clout. We are stuck in a messy transition, one that has come at a time of accelerated technological change. In the end, technology will likely provide the way to knock down the old walls and erect new ones. When that happens will we be more or less free? No one knows.
We don’t fear a revolt or take over by pigs, chickens, cows, or dogs. But we do fear that AI might be a much better corral manager than the current elites, who would be viewed as just another dumb animal with needs and desires, and dangerous to itself and others. We are embodied just like any other animal. AI may be in millions of locations. How such a system will function outside the normal animal constraints gives people who worry about these issues, nightmares. It may take an outside intelligence to steer us through the homogeneity/diversity divide. The risk is that may be, in retrospect, a minor issue, if AI devises the ultimate domestication program where virtual reality provides every experience, pleasure, and opportunity and we elect to spend our lives inside a virtual corral that seems wide open, free and forever open to realize all of our selfish desires.