AS many as 8,000 refugees have been adrift in the Andaman Sea lately, some of them stranded for more than two months. Here are a few more figures to configure the context. This universe is 13.7 billion years old, and the Earth was born 4.5 billion years ago. Our ancestors have been around for about six million years; the modern form of humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. Civilisation, as we know it, is only about 6,000 years old, and industrialisation started in earnest only a couple of hundred years ago.
Now let's talk about the boat people. They remind us of the bone-chilling observation made by David P. Forsythe that at the beginning of the nineteenth century three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will, either in some form of slavery or serfdom. The stranded migrants are the newest victims of one of the oldest crimes. Slavery predates written records, proliferating 11,000 years ago after the development of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution.
The difference between now and then is obvious. Modern slaves are no longer captured, bound and transported against their will. They willingly board the boats; actually they even pay to avail this opportunity. This much freedom of choice puts them between free men and slaves. In ancient Greece, this intermediate status was known as helotry.
Our migrant tragedy simply exposes that the human plight after thousands of years rotates on the same axis.Whether the enemies captured were forced into slavery in ancient Mesopotamia, or the Egyptians captured slaves by sending expeditions up the Nile River, or African slaves were ferried to the plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean, the Rohingyas and the Bangladeshis floating in the sea must have inherited their miseries from those wretched ancestors. Alex Haley identifies that connection in Roots: The Saga of an American Family. He writes: “Through this flesh, which is us, we are you, and you are us!”
The irony of our civilisation is that it has civilised everything but the human flesh. It's through the torments of flesh that impulses still fiddle with reason and cloud judgment. Hunger growls, lust howls and greed prowls, while hypocrisy harnesses hatred, excuses enervate exploitation, and contention causes confrontation. The modern men are stirred by the genetic memories of their ancestors, while the flesh rules the soul.
Conscience is supposed to control that tension, but civilisation hides its failure. The whole thing is a smoke screen tantamount to the black market or underground economy. The underground conscience thrives on double standards. It preaches what it doesn't practice.
Examples of this double standard are abound in history. The British Empire gobbled up other countries in the name of what Lord Curzon called “the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen” or what General Jan Smuts claimed as "the widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed in human history". The United States attacked Iraq in 2003 to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction which didn't exist. The world's emerging superpower China keeps mum when the Rohingyas are being persecuted. Overall, large countries are more inclined to cultivate subservient rulers than forging ties with the people of small countries.
Turning from politics to economics, the picture is muddier. Multinational companies, tariff barriers, international lending agencies, industrial carbon emission and other phenomena amply prove that the strong economies are evermore ready to exploit the weak ones. For example, small countries get beat up to comply with money laundering laws, when it's not clear how fat cats from these countries take their money to the developed nations to buy homes or invest in business. The OECD study claimed last week that the income gap has widened in the world as wealth is now even more concentrated in fewer hands.
Inside each country, smuggling, drug trafficking, gun-running, black money, bribery and prostitution are ravaging societies like the Visigoths ransacked civilisation. Morality muddled, ethics eroded and conscience crumbled, these societies are looking like front companies hiding dubious transactions. Our civilisation is providing cover to uncivilised intentions.
Studies show that modern hunter-gatherer tribes operate on egalitarian basis, suggesting inequality was an aberration that came with the advent of agriculture. Slavery too expanded since then. More deviations followed the Industrial and technological revolutions.
The mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia and the huddled bodies stuck in the boats once again established that human beings underneath their pretensions are seething with basic instincts. The waves in the sea that rocked those boats were sighs of ancestors coming from distant shores. This civilisation is a Ponzi scheme, forever looking for new victims to sustain the scam.
Human evolution is anything but the evolution of humans, because humanity hasn't been humanised although evolution evolved. Why hungry people defy death is implied in that contradiction.
The writer is the editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.