Over at my blog, I’ve just posted a review of the 1985 Greg Bear science fiction novel Eon. Without going into too much detail, or risking the revelation of spoilers, Eon is a novel concerned with describing the future, both the horrors that could intervene and the many ways in which these could be survived, overcome, perhaps even bypassed. (I’m so glad that the Cold War ended at the end of the 1980s, rather than continue into the early 21st century. That’s neither here nor there.)
One thing that Eon reminded me of is that, in any number of scenarios purporting to describe the future, before humanity enters a golden era of peace and prosperity and whatnot, it has to suffer.
Consider the Star Trek universe. By the 24th century, Earth and its offshoot and ally worlds enjoy a perhaps unrealistically utopian existence. Before that, though, Earth suffered: consider the Eugenics Wars which saw 30 million people die between 1992 and 1996, and World War III in the 2050s that killed another six hundred million people and plunged Earth into anarchy. If not for the launch of the first warp-drive ship, the Vulcans would never have come and saved us from ourselves, helping humans rebuild a much saner, peaceful, and dynamic society than they’d imagined possible.
That’s just one prominent example. Any number of other examples, within and without popular culture, come to mind. Consider how, after the First and Second World Wars, hopeful people in the combatant countries hoped that the massive bloodshed might push people in the direction of a liberal internationalist order, the millions of dead justifying–causing–the transformation of the sinful old world into a heavenly new one. If we suffer, many believe, it’s for a good reason; it’ll pay off in the end.
Over at A Bit More Detail and here as well, when I considered Dan Gardner’s Future Babble, I pointed out that while it might be possible to set outside parameters indicating what might be likely to happen, there were so many possibilities that it would be impossible to pick one out. This tendency is a serious problem for humans, since we tend to be fond of certainty to the point of being willing to pick out extreme possibilities if the people making these predictions are sufficiently charismatic. Thinking of people like Paul Ehrlich, with their predictions of massive insoluble famines in the Third World, one’s tempted to say that people are most willing to pick out extreme possibilities if these possibilities won’t apply to them.
Why do human beings so often make predictions of the future which not only see terrible suffering in the foreseeable future, but see terrible suffering happening to them or their immediate descendants? And why are these predictions so often popular?
One possible explanation might come through the Book of Revelation, final book of the Christian Bible. Written by an unknown man in the very late 1st century CE, the book was written in the context of an apocalyptic mindset influencing Jews and the proto-Christians alike, claiming that their sufferings under Roman hegemony (or, perhaps, of proto-Christians from Jewish authorities, too) would end soon, that the good wold be rewarded and the bad punished and things would be set right. Has this mentality, integrated from an early date into the Abrahamic faith complex, planted seeds in its followers’ minds? Or is the Book of Revelation itself the product of a deeper human desire for justice, whatever this justice might be? Does this all come down to primate reflexes?