Do the Math readers have surely noticed a new bone I like to gnaw of late: human supremacy. For me, this started in early 2022 with a post that I called at the time Human Exceptionalism. Since then, I recognize that humans are indeed exceptional, as are other species—each in their own ways. In the 20 months since writing the “exceptionalism” post—bolstered by things I’ve read in the interim—my sense has only strengthened that the perception of separateness began in earnest when we started mastering land and beast via agriculture and herding, became far more pronounced during the Enlightenment, and now is the chief engine behind modernity and the meta-crisis. I recommend a magnificent book chapter by Eileen Crist from 2015 (republished at Resilience) that was missing from my life these past 8 years. At this point, I would far sooner try to address the root problem of human supremacy than engage in any talk of technology—which simply becomes a tool to effect human supremacist aims to the ultimate detriment of all..
If we could somehow stamp out human supremacy, I believe that humans would spontaneously organize differently, prioritize the more-than-human world, begin to place more value on the far future, set aside science/technology fetishism to focus on deeper values, and—in short—become wiser. Many of the ills caused by modernity would simply melt away under a new worldview, accompanied by a complete overhaul of how we think, know, and live. Many of the actions of today would seem unthinkable and repulsive under a non-supremacist worldview.
So how might we stamp out human supremacy? One step is to employ tools that help us recognize it in ourselves. Are you a human supremacist? I was. No doubt I still harbor aspects of the scurrilous affliction, embedded as I am within modernity. My apologies (and respect) if you happen to be the rare bird who has escaped the cage, but the safest assumption for now is that you are indeed a human supremacist—whether you recognize it or not—as that’s what our culture produces en masse. If you don’t like the suggestion that you’re a human supremacist, then good! That’s a great starting place, and I could hardly ask for more. Most racists bristle at being called racist, which is adorable in a contemptible sort of way.
This post proposes a crude test for deep-seated human supremacist attitudes. It has echoes of the classic “trolley problem,” and I hate myself for that. But the setup is not as hypothetical or unlikely. Also, rather than the intractable weighing of (sacred) human lives against action/inaction, I think this one has a clearer logical resolution.
Two cars rapidly approach each other on a two-lane road that for a short span has no shoulders (e.g., guard rails, steep bluffs). Shortly before the cars reach each other, a large deer suddenly pops out into one lane and freezes. It is too late to brake in time to avoid hitting the deer, so the only choice on the part of the unlucky driver is to plow into the massive deer at windshield height or swerve into the oncoming car for a destructive head-on collision and near-certain death of those in both cars. In order to bypass the effect of self-preservation, let us stipulate that the driver in the lane with the deer will die either way, and knows this. Which choice makes sense? Is it obvious to you?
One approach is to ask: who is in the wrong? Is the deer in the wrong for trespassing onto a human-made road? Should he know better, or hemming himself in to whatever land is crossed by no roads? Or, are the humans at fault for constructing roads and hurtling along in large metal boxes at great speeds, presenting a danger that evolution has not prepared the deer to avoid?
I find it hard to assign blame to the deer. He has done nothing wrong. He has a place in this world, and freedom to move around within it. I think about this when I see any road kill or other animal casualty of modernity: the animal did nothing wrong. He or she is just playing the game of life by the same set of rules that has worked for the species for countless generations. It seems obvious to me that humans are the ones who have suddenly gone off script.
To the extent that we place value in the millions and even billions of years of evolution that have produced a magnificently complex community of life, we ought to respect the rules by which the community of life operates. Humans are the rule-breakers. We pride ourselves in that, in fact—as a facet of human supremacy. But why on Earth are we careening down these newfangled abominations called roads in artificial, destructive machines at speeds outside of evolutionary experience? Of course we can expect bad things to happen, unmitigated by comparatively slow evolutionary forces.
If we insist on doing such things, fine (maybe). But then we should put on our big-boy pants and accept full responsibility for that choice. If a tightrope walker decides to take on a harrowing challenge and plummets to their death in the effort, we’d probably say “that’s on them.” They knew the risks, and went ahead anyway.
To get in a car and launch down a paved road is, ideally, to take responsibility for that bizarre choice. If nature interjects, then accept that you got called out and take one for the team. Nature does not have to lose (die) every single time, as modernity and human supremacy would normally have it.
What about the “innocent” oncoming driver, whose lane is clear? Don’t they have a right to travel unmolested by a head-on collision? Firstly, rights are simply human fabrications to justify stuff we want (and politics is squabbling over claimed rights that others deny). Secondly, no. Both drivers made the same choice to get in a car, so it is immaterial which lane the deer is in. But wait—our society is structured so that we drive because we have to, for jobs or whatever. That’s still “on us,” and not the deer’s problem. Modernity created the situation. Modernity (and its human participants) should bear the cost, even if those drivers did not invent the system themselves. Why should the deer (always) pay for modernity’s dastardly decisions? If we operated according to a new ethic, favoring the deer, we might decide that driving (fast) is not worth the risk or that it is not justifiable in the context of a larger community of life—and that would pull a crucial rug out from under modernity, which may be just as well.
Keeping in mind that many Indigenous cultures today have little choice but to operate within modernity (their lands having been stolen using the clever fabrication of property “rights”), we might muse about how an Indigenous elder untainted by modernity might react to the scenario presented above.
I would like to think that the elder would have difficulty even comprehending the scenario, asking: what is a paved road—that most unnatural surface? Once past that: why is the person in a large metal box? Why are they going so fast? If insisting on doing this odd thing, why not travel more slowly? I would hope that the questions would help point out how bizarrely incongruent (and not innately human) the activity really is. Why indeed do we do these things, other than because we can for now—which is a lame answer? It seems on the whole to be a fairly adolescent practice, to me—lacking wisdom. The least we could do, then, is to accept personal responsibility and not slaughter innocents.
Contributions to Biodiversity
Another angle is to ask which life is more valuable on the planet. I suppose it depends on what exactly one considers to be of value.
One dimension is to ask which individual represents a larger fraction of its population. Humans number in the billions, and on the whole are doing pretty well (expanding). Deer number in the millions, not billions. More net humans are added each year than the total population of deer in the world. Moreover, modernity has led to an overall decline in deer population, relative to pre-industrial levels—as is true for a staggering number of species.
Relatedly, which species contributes more to biodiversity? One measure is that deer represent less than 1% of mammal mass on the planet, while humans are 36%. But the other measure is which one contributes more to the greater community of life—to the health of other species? Deer have been integrated into ecological communities for tens of millions of years. As such, they perform services upon which other plants and animals depend. I won’t pretend to be smart enough to know what all these are (and probably no one should assume they understand the whole picture). Humans have been around for a few million years, and can also be said to perform essential services—in pre-modern contexts, at least. But this is less true for members of the cult of modernity. Anthropogenic deforestation, habitat loss, overhunting and overfishing, extermination of “pests,” pollution, and climate change are causing what appears to be the start of a sixth mass extinction.
On these grounds, the deer would seem to win hoofs-down. Not only are they far more likely to be a net benefit to the community of life through countless interdependencies in traditional roles, but their competition in this comparison (humans) are actively wrecking biodiversity to an alarming degree.
Therefore, from the standpoint of biodiversity, losing a deer is more costly than losing a few humans. Suck it up, humans. Own up to your choices. Of course, such statements are likely to enrage the human supremacist, who may even daydream of hate crimes (against another human, ironically) in reaction. To be clear, I will be quick to defend a human’s desire to live, but not so quickly for those insisting on a “right” to do any fool thing they want to do on the planet, in contempt of other life. Think about your attitude toward serial murderers, for instance, and look at how we are collectively demolishing life on Earth.
Deer don’t have money (’cause no pockets), can’t hire lawyers, have no newspapers or blogs, do not vote, can’t own property, and as such are essentially invisible to modernity. Does that mean they lack value, or just that modernity has its head screwed on backwards?
In the present system, the driver who decides to swerve into the oncoming car faces legal action if they survive. The deer’s family will not sue, however. This lopsided arrangement places artificial value on the human side of the equation, but that doesn’t mean it’s justified.
The deer deserves more advocacy, consideration, and respect.
Did You Pass?
This exercise helps shine a light on our distorted sense of human supremacy: the damaging notion that we are worth more than other species, and are entitled to run (amok on) this planet in any way we see fit.
As an aside, another signpost for human supremacy is accusation of anthropomorphizing when discussing mere animals—or plants for all love. Reserving “people” status for Homo sapiens alone is a perfect expression of human supremacy. Any surviving species possesses a sort of bio-intelligence that is essentially incomprehensible to our left-brain disorder. The holy righteousness of anthropomorphizing accusations is very revealing.
So what do you think? On intellectual grounds, do you buy the argument that the human drivers are at fault and need to own up to their behaviors even at the price of their own lives (or cease those behaviors as a choice)? If not, can you simultaneously defend the “save the humans” stance without earning the human supremacist label—setting humans above the rest of “creation?” If you’re trying to do so, pay attention to the gymnastics required and be honest with yourself. In any case, I think this exercise might help exorcise the supremacist demons, or at least provide useful perspective for further thought.
Coming to peace intellectually is one thing, and an important step in subverting the Human Reich. I, personally, have convinced myself that the deer should live in this semi-hypothetical scenario involving two unknown drivers. Now if it came down to it, and I found myself in that exact situation, would I indeed swerve into oncoming traffic? I honestly can’t say. Self preservation is a powerful confounder, here. Hitting a deer is less likely to result in my own death (though still possible) than hitting an oncoming car. This is why I removed that aspect from the scenario by stipulating that the driver would die in either case. Hypotheticals are only useful to a point. Beware literal thinking, which has already done much damage.
The key is to reflect on the cultural programming that normalizes what on its face is unjustifiable behavior. Driving cars is an “unnatural” choice that has consequences, and it seems that the choosers should either bear the consequences themselves or decide it’s not a viable activity. But driving is just one of many examples. Most ecological loss is not via roadkill, so this lesson just offers a thought experiment to get us contemplating our own supremacist leanings, and the many habits we adopt at the great expense of ecological health.
In general terms, we ought to expand our consideration to value the whole. It’s not we humans that matter, but WE, the community of life. Now let’s act like it.