The most urgent question, which neither science nor philosophy are truly asking, pertains to the relationship between humans and nature. Specifically, how did Homo sapiens, which evolved along with all other life, evolve the power to become such a destructive force to the entire fabric of life on earth?
It’s become fashionable to utter the bromide that the earth will be here long after humans are gone. There’s even a popular misanthropic series on TV called, “Life After People.” That’s both true, and a cunning evasion of what our species is doing in the here and now to this beautiful planet.
An asteroid could strike the earth and humans become extinct within months like the dinosaurs. Humans are not dinosaurs however, but sentient—indeed given the misnomer sapient—creatures that are wreaking havoc on the biosphere right now. Gaining insight into how ‘intelligent life’ could be bringing about ‘The Sixth Extinction’ is the most pressing spiritual, philosophical and practical question facing humanity.
Humans evolved along with other life, but all other life functions in a seamless flow of birth and death, prey and predation, emergence and extinction. Only humans acquired the power to become planet killers. What does that mean for the development of life itself?
Without insight into these questions, spiritually at the emotional level, and philosophically at the intellectual level, governments can hold environmental summits until hell freezes over (or until the ice caps melt) and nothing will change.
The urgent question of man’s relationship to the earth does not even register in most philosophy programs, nor does it occur to the vast majority of scientists, who are too busy pursuing their specializations and making their reputations to bother about such things. In any case, what used to be called ‘the riddle of man’ will not be answered through philosophical treatises, scientific experiments, or religious theologies.
Human nature is seen as both an immutable state and an indefinable quality. At bottom, much of what we mean by ‘human nature’ is series of age-old tendencies overlaid with generational habit and driven by self-fulfilling prophecies. Beyond these strands strangling the individual and humanity however, why is resistance to radical change so very strong, not just in reactionary conservatives, but also in sophisticated progressives?
From a psychological and spiritual perspective, why is ‘human nature’ impervious to insight? Certainly the now global culture of self-fulfillment is a great part of the reason, as is the absence of a clear alternative to consciousness as we know it. But resistance to self-knowing and transformation go beyond these things.
Could insight into how one species became a planet killer spur a breakthrough in human nature? Perhaps, but the explanation, however clear and insightful, won’t change the explained, you and me. Only self-knowing and questioning within oneself can do that.
It’s ironic that Christian theology, which puts ‘man’ at the center of creation, remains in denial about the effect that man is having on our fellow creatures and the earth. Placing humans at the center of creation has given Western civilization tremendous motive force. But the crude brutalities and impositions of colonialism have been eclipsed by a much more perniciously destructive global consumer civilization—Western individualism gone global.
The conundrum goes way beyond Western civilization however, much less American capitalism, no matter how widely adopted and adapted it has become in China and elsewhere. Armageddon fantasies notwithstanding (American TV is chocked full of them lately), it’s clear that something more than random activity is going on with human evolution, as heretical as that is to say in the Age of Science.
Apparently, given the right conditions and enough time, the evolution of life involves an increase in neural capacity until a creature capable of symbolic thought emerges. Certainly ‘higher thought’ gave us the ability to manipulate our environments and break the bond of ecological niche. Even the likeliest next smartest animal on earth, the Orca (named, in man’s image, “Killer Whales”) still lives within ecological niches. Only humans do not.
So along with the capacity for symbolic thought goes the strong tendency to psychologically separate, socially divide and ecologically fragment. Indeed, separation is seen as the core principle of life, rather than wholeness and the seamless flow of energy and matter, the universe’s actual first principle.
So ‘human nature’ has its basis in Homo sapiens’ adaptive strategy of conscious separation, vastly increased memory and intentional manipulation. That power remained within limits as long as people lived in geographically isolated groups close to nature. But it has now grown, with vast increases in human population, knowledge and technology, into rampant division and darkness, generating unsustainable individual and civilizational fragmentation.
Without the ability to consciously separate, humans would not exist. Conscious separation and manipulation is a tremendous adaptation, the true Promethean fire.
The mistake, the ongoing ‘original sin,’ is seeing the universe and oneself terms of separation. It’s a very deeply embedded mistake and ancient habit indeed, which lies at the root of human alienation from nature and each other.
In short, consciousness as we know it is separative, self-centered and divisive in its very nature. That’s why we call it ‘human nature.’
But there is another kind of consciousness altogether, and life is urgently demanding that we awaken it within ourselves.