Title: One Planet, One People: Beyond "Us vs. Them"
Author: Carl Coon
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Nice summary of the history of human cultural evolution
• Powerful argument for the need to unite in larger social groups
• Advocacy of a more powerful UN will upset many conservatives
• Analysis of how widening human cultural groups has advanced cultural evolution
• Argues that the larger the group of “us,” the better off we all are
Perhaps one of the most basic facets of human social grouping is the ability of people to divide, sub-divide, and then divide some more. People split off into groups with great ease, often without even consciously being aware of it. There appears to be a fundamental need to separate into “us” and “them,” where the “us” are ostensibly more similar than different. Unfortunately, this tendency can contribute to suspicion, fear, distrust, and even hatred of “them.” Much of the violence in history can be attributed, at least in part, to success in dividing people into “us” and “them,” then demonizing “them.”
Violence can be reduced when the “us” is broader and includes more people — it’s harder to attack a member of “our” group then it is to attack a member of “their” group. Thus, the increasing nature of what qualifies as “us” may lead directly to a reduction in violence around the world.
This seems to have been the case if we look at the history of human tribalism and the manner in which humans have transferred their allegiance to ever larger entities: family, then village, then tribe, then ethnicity, then nation-state. These are the developments which Carl Coon focuses on in his book One Planet, One People: Beyond “Us vs. Them.”
Despite being relatively short (it could be read in a single sitting), it provides a sweeping introduction to around 50,000 years of human history and cultural development. It’s not just a dry history, though: Coon draws from the fields of anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and international politics to argue that widening the application of altruism has not only been important to our history, but may also be important for our future.
Coon doesn’t argue that the “us vs. them” mentality is necessarily bad — it’s a feature of our psychology that can be expressed in either good or bad ways. Europe was once torn apart by ethnic, religious, and nationalistic violence but today internal “us vs. them” conflict is mostly expressed through sports that only very rarely become violent.
- “We can regard the present nation-state era as a transitional period, and a relatively fleeting one at that. It is but a stepping stone from an ethic based on culture to an ethic which embraces a global community.”
- “The key factor is a new ability to think in terms of an in-group that embraces diverse ethnic and religious communities.”
How likely is that to occur on a global level, though? Is it reasonable to think that people will be able to conceptualize an “us” that encompasses the whole of humanity and would inhibit violent conflict? For many observers today, that seems unlikely — and Coon’s belief that the UN should have independent financing and military capabilities to enforce global rules will not be warmly received by those who continue to insist that nation-state allegiance is the highest good.
Coon, however, is hopeful about the future and is certain that such a transformation is not only on the way, but is absolutely necessary for the long-term progress of the human species. Human history is rife with stories of war and violence, but this is ultimately a hopeful book that is always marked by an optimistic tone: however much violence there has been in the past, we have moved forward, we have improved, and we have it within ourselves to continue improving in the future.