Visit the companion blog, Keye Commentary, devoted to more general topics.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Human Exceptionalism and The Madness

(This a new editing of an essay published in the Dissident Voice in about September, 2008.  It is exactly what I wish to say today.)

If an invasive species spreads ‘out of control’ because of adaptations new to a region and lack of any evolved relationships that inhibit it, we use a disease model for the ecology.  If a group of cells goes “mad” and reproduces uninfluenced by the existing order of organs and metabolic function, we call it a cancer; cells made by the body, but “foreign” and deadly to its proper functioning.  The hominid genus, Homo, developed a new, powerful adaptation that overrode historical evolutionary function, rapidly spread into all bio-zones and ultimately began geometrically increasing in population, and increasing on a variety of other measures.  These changes we humans have claimed with pride: our spreading growth and dominance of the earth’s physical space and material sources.

Every species acts in the world as an ‘exceptional’ entity; that is, no species is shy and retiring in the face of ecological success.  But every species is on essentially equal footing with all other species in the sense that they are using the same basic tools for adaptation and are functioning on the same basic time scale.  One species might evolve a generation length that speeds up adaptation rates, but only a little.  Another might increase the costs for breeding, making more demands on the quality of the individual genotype, but again within the same order of magnitude typical of other species.

But, Human Exceptionalism is the result of an actually exceptional condition.  The human adaptation is new to our immediate region of the universe.  We are not on an equal footing with the other species of living things.  Our capacity to respond to environmental conditions has gone from the generational change rates of biological evolution (DNA/protein mediated) to the change rates of Consciousness Order processes (mediated by ‘story’).   This new process of adaptation is orders of magnitude faster, it is also orders of magnitude more fine-tuned to detail and it confers levels of power to action previously impossible for biological entities.

These questions suggest the dilemma: (1) Is such an exceptional adaptation a disease on the body of the biological world?  The human species has increased from a few hundred thousand living by evolutionary rules to 7 billion as our adaptation expresses its geometric growth potential. (2) Can an exceptional adaptation be inhibited to remain within the restraints of the biological world and still be exceptional?  Other species with powerful adaptations fit into the biological order, but none have been as revolutionary as this one. (3) The Consciousness Order adaptation contains the enigmatic capacity of awareness with the seeming potential to decide how to use our adaptation; how might we, and can we, decide to self-limit our total impact on the biological world?

Our actual exceptionalness fuels the dangerous Exceptionalism of our behaviors and beliefs.  This is really tricky: We are truly exceptional with the most powerful adaptation, as far we know, in the whole universe, yet for the survival of our world we need to be humble in the face of our completely obvious totally huge outrageous wonderfulness.  Basically, we can do anything we want and it seems that nothing can stop us.  We have learned the rules of physics – except for a few that we will get soon enough.  We are learning to make genes dance for us.  We can suck the energy right off the sun and stuff it into computers that can do a billion billion calculations a second.  We’ve got TV and refrigerators.  Perhaps there really is no reason that we should be humble!

Except for one little thing; well, maybe two or three.  The surface of the earth is the ultimate Exception in the universe, not us. We humans are only passengers on, and in, a space that is among the most rare of physical stabilities. Even in the fullest explosion of our hubris there is no way that we could, with our own efforts, make the earth’s surface a living place or sustain it if the subtle designs of our solar system began to change.  We, as the saying goes, ‘live at the pleasure’ of our biosphere. That is Reality.

And yet, we do not act in that reality.  Consistently failing to believe and function in The Real is insanity.  The natural Exceptionalism of a species to act in its own interests (this a part of the living condition and not to be confused with its counterpart in the Consciousness Order) is compounded by our ability to tell stories about how special we are.  The design of belief as a guide for behavior allows us to hold such stories as truth… and voilĂ : Human Exceptionalism at a pathological level.  Our real and remarkable capacities lead us to believe in imagined powers far beyond our true relationship with our world.  A thing of great power, with little appreciation for the consequences of that power and almost no ability to control itself is a great danger to itself and others.

There are, of course, many ways that we are not exceptional.  Our form and function are biologically based, we are animals with an evolutionary history that powerfully guides our behaviors.  We are food for other organisms just as other organisms are food for us – part of the food web.  Plants supply us, along with every other aerobic organism, with oxygen and glucose (at base, the only food there is on earth); there is no other source. 

It is unimaginable that a “primitive” tribal community could forget that they depend on the land, water and air to sustain them and yet we “moderns” forget; we even argue that it somehow isn’t so. Almost nothing could be crazier.  There is no question that the vastly complex societies in which we live separate us and seem to protect us from an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous natural world upon which we depend. 

That world is difficult to know about and to care about when we have so little experience of it, when we have so little occasion to learn to love it: When the cost of food is going up, the mortgage payment is a little harder to get together each month and your kid gets sick.  Some tiny disembodied half-figure yells from the TV screen that the problems will be fixed if you let them control the world, or some part of it.  It seems silly, with such pressures, to think about plants making the oxygen that we breathe.  Truly, the Madness is compelling.  Ask any recovered madman or addict.

My argument is not to change the world.  There is no way to move from the Madness that envelops our societies and our species.  I think our trajectory is set.  But I recognize this understanding in hundreds of people, and know that there are millions and even possible billions that feel these things; people who suspect that what they see and live is madness; wonder at their own sanity for wondering about the world they live in.  I want to say to them that there is a way to live with at least some dignity and with less than more of Madness.

Life has always been a crapshoot.  But living as a full member of the species of your birth can make it a purposeful and fulfilling one – no matter how it goes down.  It can be done!  Every one of us has the human pedigree. We were all born as full-fledged members of the honorable human, hominid, primate, mammalian, vertebrate, animal, multicellular, living lineage.  We all have the absolute right to specieshood, it is really our only inalienable right; and it is the basis from which we can act with sanity for a sustainable biosphere. It should inform our political and economic actions and responsibilities. And that would make us very special indeed.

We have been led to this pass in part by the sense of our exception from nature.  And yet the greatest expression of our powers would be in reconnecting with the realities of the biophysical order.  If one or a hundred successfully recover their specieshood, there is no gain for all, though there is for each of them.  If it should be a thousand or a million not only is the quality of their lives better – even in a dangerous world – but more might discover how to join in.   The realist in me says that the personal gain is well worth the effort, but there is no hope for the multitudes of us.  The dreamer says that this is the only way: discover and become again a member of your own species, and if enough succeed the world will be changed.