Our Ugly Magnificence

Image by 12019 from Pixabay

Several sources recently made me aware of a Techno-Optimist Manifesto clumsily assembled on social media by one of the world’s many billionaire nobodies. I didn’t get far before dismissing it as a delusional toddler tantrum. This impression was later reinforced via references to 50 billion people, space colonization, and thousand-fold increases in terrestrial energy. The part I did see told me almost all I needed to know, in the line: “We are told to denounce our birthright—our intelligence, our control over nature, our ability to build a better world.”

Birthright? Hmmm. Calls to mind blood and soil. It’s all there: destiny, rights, self-flattery, obsession with control, and the hubris that we build the world—and can do it better, in fact. This is textbook human supremacy, which I believe is what got us into this mess! Doubling down will only make the loss more severe and catastrophic, in my view.

I have pointed before to the excellent essay by Eileen Crist on the topic of—call it what you like—anthropocentrism, human exceptionalism, or human supremacy. Part of the essay walks us through a disconcerting thought experiment about techno-social success of the sort that many today preach and seek:

…assume for the sake of argument that social justice is achievable on a planet of resources—a planet used, managed, and engineered to be productive for human beings. Let’s posit, along these lines, that humanity recognizes the folly of the unequal distribution of resources and decides to share the so-called commonwealth […] fairly among all people. This thought experiment discloses the second reason that social justice is untenable without a radically new relationship between humanity and the more-than-human-world. Consider the following analogy: that Adolf Hitler had won the war and the Third Reich achieved global rule. People of Nordic descent established their dominion, while “inferior human stock” was exterminated, assimilated, or put to work; the Aryan race succeeded in founding its Golden Age, with its members enjoying, more or less equitably, all the amenities of the good life. Now map this thought experiment onto the achievement of a just world for all humans (regardless of race, ethnicity, class, caste, religion, gender, etc.), within a civilization built upon the subordination of the Earth’s nonhumans and the appropriation of their oecumene (a.k.a. the wild)—a human world that, in order “to raise all ships,” required the unavoidable side effects of (mass?) extinction, global ecological depredation, and techno-managerial planetary oversight; required, in a word, an occupied planet. Does this scenario not describe a victorious Human Reich—with all its members partaking equitably of the world’s resources?

Compelling. The brilliance is putting ideals that seem to be on opposite extremes—equity for all (humans) and its vile antithesis of Nazi racism—in the same basket as both being comparably exploitative of an underclass. The feeling of whiplash is similar to what one experiences when recognizing that the most extreme on the political left share some common ground with the most extreme on the political right on an issue like drug legalization.

It’s unfortunate that we need to reference the worst atrocities against humans in order for the larger-scale atrocities against life to even register as a thing. Extinction rates are up a thousand-fold, and huge fractions of life are disappearing under human domination, but collective outrage only seems to emerge when one human group embarks on elimination of a sub-group of other humans, regardless of the relative magnitude.

What I thought I might try is to express the underlying beliefs of techno-optimists (those stalwart heroes of modernity) in language that I perceive would get general nods from most members of our society. In what follows, I have thought carefully about each sentence, and will point out later why every one of them is wrong—and I’m not talking about spelling or grammar (at least I hope those are okay).

It might be fascinating to pass the next section (four paragraphs) to others in your circles and see if it raises objections. To facilitate that, here is a link to a separate page that contains the same text in isolation, with minimal context. I would want every sentence to raise objections. But I’m guessing that most statements will go down easy, swallowed as familiar and correct mythology.

The Long Brilliant Future

Humans have emerged on Earth as the epitome of evolution. No other species comes close in terms of intelligence, dexterity, or resilience. A clear dividing line therefore exists between humans and the other species. We are more than just animals. Humans have something that other animals do not: emotions, and soul. Moreover, unlike every other species on the planet, humans possess free will. We get to shape our destiny, independent of our primitive past or physiological baggage.

So, as members of the pinnacle species, we deserve the bounty of this planet. We have invested our blood, sweat and tears in making it what it is, which is now rightfully ours. Other beings, by contrast, lost the evolutionary race. We should not be ashamed of our superiority and transcendence above animals. We should rejoice, and accept our role as inheritors of Earth, over which our sovereignty is now obvious.

Having accomplished this amazing leap, we recognize that humans now have the power to shape the world as we see fit, according to our imaginations. Our ideas are marvelous to the point of being unearthly—almost magical. The limits that kept other species down no longer apply to us. If we can imagine it, it can be done. And as there are no limits to our imagination, there are no limits we cannot overcome: it’s who we are. Our incredible inventions reshape the world and open up endless possibilities for our role on this planet and beyond.

Next to this grand vision, the slow, grinding, biological mechanisms that led to this point become obsolete. That past is exciting mainly to the extent that it gave birth to the great awakening, when the universe became self-aware through us and things changed forever. Nothing should stand in the way of the human quest for more knowledge, more control, more amazingness. Next to the soaring human endeavor, which may now last indefinitely, no single other species measures up. In the name of science; in the name of progress; in the name of continued human ascendancy, the fate of other species takes a back seat. While it might be nice to preserve them, doing so is not critical to what really matters. After all, anything humans do in advancing our greatness serves to make the world a better place.

Give it some Blitz!

What did you think?  You already know that I disagree, but do you struggle to identify fault from end to end?

Now I’m going to take the same sentences, but punch them up in a way that periodically evokes the Third Reich. I’m no scholar or even aficionado in this area—possessing no abiding fascination. My knowledge is probably fairly typical of people in my culture: informed largely by documentaries, movies, and museums. I have surely missed opportunities to ply additional references for a more electrifying statement. It’s telling that in trying to make it more evocative of the Nazi viewpoint, I didn’t really have to change all that much.

In what follows, think of “Humans” as those “legitimate” persons participating in or benefiting from the Nazi regime—or in the parallel sense, humans in the club of modernity. One might also use race and species interchangeably to appreciate the parallel interpretations.

Million Year Reich

The Human Race has emerged on Earth as the epitome of evolution. No other race comes close in terms of intelligence, dexterity, or resilience. A clear dividing line therefore exists between Humans and the other (mongrel) creatures on the planet—mere animals. Humans have something that other animals do not: emotions, and soul. Moreover, unlike every other wretched beast on the planet, Humans possess free will. We get to shape Our destiny, independent of Our primitive past or physiological dreck.

So, as members of the Master Race, We deserve the bounty of this planet—Our Fatherland. We have invested Our blood and sweat in the soil, which is accordingly Ours by birthright. Inferior beings, by contrast, are unfortunate brutes that are—let’s face it—losers in the evolutionary race. We should not be ashamed of Our superiority and transcendence above mere animals. We should rejoice, and accept Our rightful role as Inheritors and Rulers of Earth, over which Our dominion is by now manifestly obvious.

Having accomplished this amazing leap, We recognize that Humans now have the power to shape the world as We see fit, according to Our imaginations. Our ideas are marvelous to the point of being unearthly—almost magical. The limits that kept other species down no longer apply to Us. If We can imagine it, it can be done. And as there are no limits to Our imagination, there are no limits We cannot overcome: it’s who We are. Our incredible inventions reshape the world and open up endless possibilities for Our role on this planet and beyond.

Next to this grand vision, the slow, grinding, biological mechanisms that led to this point become obsolete. That past is only exciting in that it gave birth to the Great Awakening, when the universe became self-aware through Us and things changed forever. Nothing should stand in the way of the Human quest for more knowledge, more control, more amazingness. Next to the soaring Human Reich, which may now last for a million years or more (during which We might hope to escape Our primitive corporeal prisons), no squalid stepping-stone species measures up. In the name of science; in the name of progress; in the name of continued Human ascendancy, the fate of the mongrels does not matter one whit. They lost the race, and can get out of the way now that We invented the rungs to the ladder, so that We may climb out of the muck. Anything Humans do in advancing Our Greatness makes the world a better place. Heil Humans!

Despicable We

I hope you feel like taking a shower to wash off the self-aggrandizing filth. Note that the basic sentiment is the same in both versions, sentence for sentence—so both versions ought to require a post-reading cleanse. It’s true that modernity’s disregard for the natural world is not as contemptuous or hateful or conscious as the Nazi attitude toward other races. But in some ways, we give the living world even less credit and recognition than Nazis did to their non-Aryan allies and enemies. It’s as if the more-than-human world isn’t even important enough to merit contempt. It’s just pointless, worthless, collateral fodder that generally gets in the way of our material and comfort demands, and thus can be discarded without a second thought if it means smart phones for us.

I hope this comparison does not come off as insensitive to the tragic fate of victims of the monstrous Nazi regime. Roughly 10–12 million innocent people were deliberately exterminated by Nazis (about half of those being Jews). I do not wish to minimize the enormity of this. In fact, it lends a sickening context to the present holocaust on the living world. Of the 2.3 billion people on the planet in 1940, about 0.5% were victims of the Nazi holocaust—or about 0.1% per year if taken over 5 years. This is against a backdrop of an overall global population increase averaging 1% (23 million) per year across the decade so that, in net terms, the 1940s was a story of increasing human population. The global animal kingdom, by contrast, is currently seeing annual net declines in the 1–2% range, decade after decade: an annual rate that is ten to twenty times larger than that seen in the Nazi holocaust, and sustained over a much longer, relentless campaign with no end in sight.

Smile for the selfie! You’ve earned this! Bonus points if the background shows deforestation, habitat loss, polluted dead zones, or roadkill.

Point by Point

At the cost of swelling the length of the post, I thought it would be worthwhile pointing out why every sentence in the Statement of Greatness strikes me as wrong. I’ll use the original, gentler version, and sometimes address responses to the fictional speaker (so please don’t take the “you” references personally, unless the sentence gets your full support).

Humans have emerged on Earth as the epitome of evolution. Nonsense. The tree of life contains numerous branches and we’re at one momentary twig end. Evolution has no goal, and is never done. We are in no way “above” the rest of the tree, or at the tip of the most important branch. It is not a pyramid with a top, and we are easily outdone on any number of metrics by the plants and animals of this planet. We also absolutely cannot exist without a web of life supporting everything we do.

No other species comes close in terms of intelligence, dexterity, or resilience. Apes, dolphins, and others surely come close, by cognitive measures across the full spectrum. Spiders and countless others put our fat fingers to shame. Tardigrades, alligators, sharks, and a host of other survivors make us wimpy newcomers seem fragile.

A clear dividing line therefore exists between humans and the other species. We still must eat, poop, and die (hot T-shirt idea?). We’re made of the same stuff (atoms; flesh), employ the same proteins and genetic code, and have the same neurons as the “lowliest” critters. No sharp line to be seen.

We are more than just animals. Animals are exactly what humans are: no more, no less. Is any animal that is capable of doing something other animals are not (a description applying to most animals, incidentally) more than just an animal? Then basically all animals are more than mere animals.

Humans have something that other animals do not: emotions, and soul. Emotions: get over yourself. Soul: if anyone can be said to have it, all have it. The soul is a notion we just made up to explain the heady sensation of being alive—a state not unique to humans.

Moreover, unlike every other species on the planet, humans possess free will. The illusion, sure (likely true for other animals, too). Anything you do to prove to yourself that you have free will still originated in your physiological constitution, history, hormones, epigenetics, etc.  So predictable… [See later posts on this topic]

We get to shape our destiny, independent of our primitive past or physiological baggage. We cannot be independent of our physiology. We are our physiology, and have evolutionary context we can’t wish away. This statement mirrors the kind of disembodiment delusion often observed in schizophrenics and right-hemisphere stroke victims. Don’t fall for it.

So, as members of the pinnacle species, we deserve the bounty of this planet. Deserve is a fraught word. I’ll just say; no (such thing). Our claim is no stronger than that of any inhabitant of the planet, most of whom were here first, and for far longer!

We have invested our blood, sweat and tears in making it what it is, which is now rightfully ours. We concoct rights to justify wants, then argue over them: they have no biophysical basis. Ants—or any other species—have at least as much right to the planet as we do— which very probably is: none at all.

Other beings, by contrast, lost the evolutionary race. It’s not a race. It’s not a competition. And even if it were, lots of plants and animals can beat the pants off you in terms of almost any physical attribute or sensory feat you care to name.

We should not be ashamed of our superiority and transcendence above animals. We are not superior, and we haven’t transcended squat. Neither shame nor pride come into it.

We should rejoice, and accept our role as inheritors of Earth, over which our sovereignty is now obvious. Every living thing inherited Earth. We might lead in ecological destruction, but certainly not in positive contributions to biodiversity. Domination and destruction do not confer (moral) authority.

Having accomplished this amazing leap, we recognize that humans now have the power to shape the world as we see fit, according to our imaginations. We have power, yes, but not unlimited as for imagination. What we call “the world” is a thin and transient veneer of artificial human construct on top of an ancient planet that has the full force of billions of years of time-tested evolutionary experimentation behind it. Our hubris can be easily crushed by patient reality.

Our ideas are marvelous to the point of being unearthly—almost magical. I don’t even know what this means, other than sounding like the delusional drivel we frequently use to flatter ourselves.

The limits that kept other species down no longer apply to us. Physics and biology disagree: we are not exempt. We have manipulated a few things around the margins, and might temporarily think we’re making progress. But, wait for it…

If we can imagine it, it can be done. I hope each reader has enough imagination to violate this empty platitude after a few seconds of thought, then never suffer it again. If not, keep at it—you’ll get there!  If still no success, find a decent neurologist.

And as there are no limits to our imagination, there are no limits we cannot overcome: it’s who we are. I strongly suspect the first part is wrong, given physiological and contextual constraints. But even if granting it, the second part is a non-sequitur, relating to the previous sentence’s rebuttal: imagination is not reality. What we are is better defined as biological animals in an evolutionary context: impressively complex, yes—but not disembodied imaginings.

Our incredible inventions reshape the world and open up endless possibilities for our role on this planet and beyond. Again, we might shape an artificial veneer, but let’s chill out and not get carried away by rapturous fantasies.

Next to this grand vision, the slow, grinding, biological mechanisms that led to this point become obsolete. Then we are obsolete with it, as we are not us without US. We don’t get to decontextualize ourselves to mere abstractions, leaving biophysical reality behind.

That past is exciting mainly to the extent that it gave birth to the great awakening, when the universe became self-aware through us and things changed forever. Firstly: shamefully self-centered (the conceit that the universe wasn’t complete until we became the piece that allowed it to know itself). Secondly: who are you to proclaim that no other beings on Earth (or elsewhere) have evolved an appreciation or sense of awe for the external world?

Nothing should stand in the way of the human quest for more knowledge, more control, more amazingness. Tell it to physics. Tell it to the extinct plants and animals. Tell it to the future, wrecked by the narrowness, arrogance, and hubris of today’s world. How much anger would this villanous, juvenile sentiment generate for a member of that future?

Next to the soaring human endeavor, which may now last indefinitely, no single other species measures up. You need a better measurement, then. Humans fail to measure up in many ways, next to our older brothers and sisters, who have impressively figured out many exceedingly difficult puzzles just to survive for millions of years. Humans have not accomplished anything even remotely as impressive as life and its functional diversity.  In fact, our most lasting legacy could well be the sixth mass extinction.

In the name of science; in the name of progress; in the name of continued human ascendancy, the fate of other species takes a back seat. Then our fate is failure. We are contextually part of a living planet, and owe our lives to this truth. Nothing, in fact, is more important to humanity (whether recognized or not) as the health of the entire community of life in which we are cradled.

While it might be nice to preserve them, doing so is not critical to what really matters. These backwards priorities would bring an end to the very thing that is mistakenly thought to really matter (modernity). The Human Reich is a fundamentally flawed bit of imagination that can never be realized, as we critically depend on an intact ecology. What hair-brained evidence might one possibly propose for any other lived reality?

After all, anything humans do in advancing our greatness serves to make the world a better place. It might, for a short while, appear to make the artificial world better, but at the expense of the real, natural, biodiverse, and infinitely more valuable world. We might endeavor to make the most exquisite, beautifully executed saw cut on a tree branch—perfectly flush with the trunk—but it happens to be the branch we’re standing on. Don’t love the cut too much, or the technology that executed it.

If unconvinced, and preferring the original statements to the rebuttals, then at least own what that makes you.

Disembodied Delusion

A recurring theme in the content above is a sense of transcendence from the physical, or a disembodied, decontextualized plane on which human thought, will, and ambition operate. I have encountered this time and again: adopting the model over reality; the map over the territory; the product of human thought over the real thing it fails to represent in full.

Our blind spot is especially acute when it comes to self perception. I have found that students are not universally put off by the statement that continued 1% growth in human population would result in more humans than atoms in the visible universe inside of 20,000 years. It definitely strikes them as impressive, but not manifestly impossible. My conclusion is that they don’t consciously connect the idea that humans are made of atoms, and that we cannot, therefore, produce more humans than atoms. “Humans are a concept, not common stuff! Limits do not apply, when it comes to magical humans.” Similarly, many students are surprised to learn that the same energy units we use for human food can be applied to heating water, propelling masses, and other mundane elements of the physical world. Our culture simply does not stress our basic mechanical nature, and indeed quickly asserts that we are somehow much more than organisms made from atoms (back to having a soul)—somehow apart from nature, not a part of nature. Expect major consequences to stem from such mythologies, characterized by fundamental incompatibility with the actual world.

Along these lines, some future fantasists long for non-corporeal existence: no more base functions like breathing, eating, pooping, or dying. The physical world is so primitive! Let’s ditch the meat bags and be who we really are: thoughts. But that’s so wrong.

Iain McGilchrist, in The Master and His Emissary, offers many clinical examples of people with debilitating (or temporarily induced) impairments to the right brain hemisphere failing to perceive embodiedness. To these people, bodies are just collections of parts, sometimes wooden and lifeless. The world to them is abstract, floating, as it were, out of any physical context. Thought within these right-impaired brains systematically favors certain, linear constructs extending indefinitely—as opposed to cyclical, tangled, or ambiguous realities. Death is unacceptable: does not compute.

Similarly, it is hard not to look at human supremacy as an abdication of context, wisdom, relationship, and the tangled, interconnected world as we find it in favor of a pretend world of parts, algorithms, abstractions, and tidy categories. The techno-optimist cheerleader, therefore, not only reminds me of a dangerous ideological zealot—ready to eliminate any number of species for the next awesome gadget—but also of a tragically-impaired creature missing half his brain. I pity the fool.

Note: I no longer maintain comments here, but my posts are often picked up by Resilience a day later, so that its comment forum may be used instead.

Hits: 4054