In a recent e-mail:
... the scourge that is the human species is what is wrong with this planet. We are like a cancer that grows without bounds until it kills the body. Gaia will be better off without us.
Actually this is just one of many e-mails I have received in response to several blogs about evolution and especially the blog on Human 2.0 in which readers express a loathing for our kind based on the damage we have done to this planet and its life. I sympathize with the sense of loss and outrage over what seems like incredibly stupid behavior on our part, but I cannot bring myself to see us as monsters. Unwise though we may be I think we have to grasp that our species is just a step in the direction of higher consciousness.
I'm not necessarily referring to some ethereal, or supernatural consciousness, though I think to speak of it as a spiritual awareness is fair. I simply mean that the human mind is a work in progress. Evolution hasn't yet finished with our line. We are more like a clumsy and unthoughtful adolescent than a cancer. We need to grow up and become responsible citizens of planet Earth.
I think we are a beautiful species that finds itself at a crossroad of evolution. We are not wise enough to deal with the world we have created. But that is nothing new for biological evolution. Two and a half billion years ago, or there about, oxygen was a poison to all life on the planet. Cyanobacteria, a primitive life form, through photosynthesis, generated free oxygen molecules into the atmosphere, eventually poisoning it for all others. Except that, that poison was discovered by other life forms (the ones that figured out how to use oxidation to drive metabolism). In a way those bacteria, in their blind destructive way, created a world capable of supporting so much more diversity and charm. I'm betting no one now is cursing Cyanobacter for its rude behavior.
Humans are no different than any other life form that has ever existed on this planet when it comes to fundamental biological principles of eat, drink, and procreate. Even in our supposedly superior intelligence and creativity we are not omniscient. We are merely clever. We find ways to get what we think we want. But that is not being evil, or cancerous. It is just being alive.
I empathize with those who cling to the notion that somehow things went amiss with human evolution to produce such a selfish, shortsighted creature with such capacity to destroy the world. I spent a good part of my life wondering why we continue to do stupid things. And I wondered by what misstep in evolution could it have been possible for mankind to be such a screwup. I really do understand this sentiment. But I came to realize it isn't quite right.
It would be fascinating to speculate about what humanity and the world might have been like had human sapience caught up with and kept pace with cleverness in the coevolution of mind. As some of you know I pegged the invention of agriculture as the beginning of a decline is selection for sapience in humans about ten to twelve thousand years ago. My contention has been that sapience is the latest mental capacity to emerge in brain evolution and that it had just started having an effect on human behavior when our cleverness in invention dramatically shifted selection toward operational and tactical management along with enhanced aggressive tendances to protect or grab territory for farming. It doesn't take a lot of social wisdom to grow and store food, but it does take a hierarchical organization to manage the process on any kind of scale. The question is, was this shift premature, or a mistaken turning point for human evolution. Was it just bad luck that we would cease to develop the one characteristic that might have allowed us to be super-conscious of our own effects on the environment? The one characteristic that would have guided us toward good decisions about what further technology to pursue? The one characteristic that would have helped us get along with one another better than we do? The one cognitive capability that would have prevented us from overpopulating the planet?
I used to think so, but lately I think not. It may very well have been possible that things could have turned out differently. Suppose our prefrontal cortices had time to expand further and integrate more fully our intelligence, creativity, and affect. Suppose humans wisely recognized their place in nature instead of assuming a status of somehow being above nature. There is lots of anthropological evidence that man did have a vague notion of being a part of nature early on. I suspect that there is other intelligent life in the universe and that on some of those distant planets beings did manage to become wise along with clever. But I don't think it is the only path to higher consciousness.
Things didn't go that way on Earth. We are what we are. And what we are is highly intelligent and very creative. We have managed, even while destroying part of the biosphere, to invent wonderful things — I happen to like computers and the Internet — and create beautiful music and paint wonderful pictures, etc. We have developed medicine to give comfort in living. We have developed science so that we can understand how the world works (if we are wise enough to use that knowledge). We just aren't very good at good judgment when it comes to what to do with these things or what it all means.
An interesting question has to do with what degree did the scale of our presence on Earth have to do with the effusive exploration of design space? Would we have been as inventive and creative in smaller numbers? Would it have taken much more time to develop high technologies if our numbers had remained below the carrying capacity of the planet? We certainly would have consumed a great deal less. But could we have spurred progress in our development without growing markets? There are some good reasons to suspect that we might not have. It has to do with dynamical systems that are driven by some critical parameter to explore more of their design space. This is an admittedly abstract view of human history. But if it is right, it means that we humans have just been doing what comes naturally and you can't blame us for being what we are. Of course that doesn't mean we keep on being this way. We, as a genus, need to become better.
For me the remaining question is: What do we do now? Our existence to date has created an incredible array of knowledge and artifacts. Is it to be all for naught. Will there be a world without us? It seems clear to me that our precise species, with our limited comprehension and lack of wise decision making, cannot survive into the future without screwing ourselves and much of the rest of the biosphere. We need to evolve. We need to let sapience catch up with cleverness. I am convinced that will be the only way to save the genus.