The Search for Our Better Selves 

“So slowly, by human standards, did humanity gather itself together out of the dim intimations of the beast. And that first glimmering of speculation, that first story of achievement, that story-teller bright-eyed and flushed under his matted hair, gesticulating to his gaping, incredulous listener, gripping his wrist to keep him attentive, was the most marvelous beginning this world has ever seen. It doomed the mammoths, and it began the setting of that snare that shall catch the sun” (H.G. Wells, The World Set Free, pg. 17). 

Deliberations surrounding humanity’s place in the cosmos, within the great web of life, and amidst evolutionary ‘progress’ have taken myriad forms throughout history. Conceptualizations have ranged from audaciously hubristic and anthropocentric notions of man’s uniqueness and superiority to the rest of life, propagated by the Judeo-Christian tradition and related Western world views, to more heterodoxical orientations espoused by such prominent thinkers as Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, and Michel de Montaigne, which entirely invert the traditional human-animal hierarchy. In many of their writings writings, the aforementioned have provocatively characterized humans as the lowliest and most destructive of all beings with a very long way to go before reaching their full potential as a species. Many who have held either of the above positions have tended to view history and evolutionary ‘progress’ as linear phenomena that follow ever ascending trajectories towards ‘higher’, more ‘civilized’, or more ‘advanced’ stages. Disillusioned by the litany of mankind’s destructive capacities by way of war, avarice, mutual oppression, duplicity, and related pathologies, G.B Shaw sums up humanity as not having ‘progressed’ an inch towards civilization, and designates it as incurable of its woes until human evolution leads to the arrival of the Superman. Similarly, in ‘Harmonian Man’, french philosopher and utopian socialist Charles Fourier characterized modern ‘civilization’ as a ‘subversive social period’ plagued by such scourges as injustice, carnage, disease, widespread poverty, and ‘climatic derangement’, and foresaw its eventual replacement by an ‘associative’ or ‘Harmonic society’ of abundance, wealth, unity, and happiness for all.

“And is Man any the less destroying himself for all this boasted brain of his? Have you walked up and down the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man’s wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence and famine…This marvelous force of Life of which you boast is a force of Death: What is his religion? An excuse for hating me [the Devil]. What is his law? An excuse for hanging you. What is his morality? Gentility! an excuse for consuming without producing. What are his politics? Either the worship of a despot because he can kill, or parliamentary cockfighting.”- The Devil, Man and Superman, G.B Shaw

Similarly, in the ‘The Damned Human Race’ chapter of Mark Twain’s brilliant work, Letters from the Earth (which also features the Devil as an observant and brooding protagonist in its opening chapter), after reviewing humanity’s litany of wars, inclinations towards religious intolerance, and overall seemingly pugnacious nature, he concludes that as one descends the evolutionary chain of beings and passes the microbes in the soil, one at last reaches humans; and then, ‘below us, nothing’. When one considers the follies of mankind, such as the litany of horrors we’ve inflicted and continue to inflict on one another, our animal kin, and on the planet itself, it isn’t difficult to arrive at the somber conclusions presented by Twain and Shaw. We’ve wreaked total havoc on our natural support systems, we’ve purged the earth of over half of our coevolutionary cousins, we devour rainforests and other natural resources like a cancerous plague, and we terrorize one another with all manner of sophisticated weaponry. Our very socioeconomic systems are designed to place the utmost importance on the pursuit of profits rather than on the safety and wellbeing of people and planet. As the quote by Shaw suggests, we never seem to have enough funds or resources for societal goods such as healthcare and education, yet somehow there is always more than enough money for war and for constructing ever more elaborate shopping malls.

And yet, in spite all of this, we have been and continue to be capable of such wonderful things. That ever-present and all-important evolutionary principle of cooperation continues to rear its bright head and rival its more notorious counterpart, competition. In July, for instance, volunteers in India planted a record 50 million trees in a single day! For every account of violence, bigotry, and xenophobia one can point to opposing acts of compassion, mutual aid, and empathy. Like many before me, I do not uphold the notion that humans are fundamentally evil by nature. In my view, this is a dangerous falsehood that only serves to stifle change by convincing us that we are capable of no more than baseness. What’s more, it is mere myth that has no evidential basis whatsoever, save the warped perspectives of the ultra pessimistic. The views espoused by Shaw, Twain, and others are undoubtedly useful in their ability to shock us into awareness of ourselves and our actions, but they are ultimately too one-sided. The fact is that we are complex and multifaceted creatures who are very much moulded by our environments. What we are taught and exposed to, how we are treated, and what cultural and societal norms we absorb profoundly impact how we think, act, and view the world; And therein lies our downfall as well as our hope! Our natures and personalities are not etched in stone; we are as mutable as the seasons, and when conditions are congenial, we can be better.

No one knows for certain where the great creative force that is evolution will take us in the future, or whether we indeed must wait for the age of supermen before we mature as a species and leave our juvenile blunders behind. Is it the enlightened mind that creates the adequate social conditions for the emergence of an enlightened species, or is it adequate social conditions that create enlightened minds and enlightened species? The answer seems to be: both. That is, that the processes of evolution and change are iterative. Organisms and their environments influence one another in intricate ways. In the span of Gaia’s 4.5-billion-year evolutionary history, we represent but a minuscule drop amidst vast oceans of time, as the modern human arose only around 200,000 years ago (compare this to sharks, our ancient cousins, who’ve been around for over 400 million years!). We are indeed a very young species; in light of this reality, perhaps it is not so surprising that we have not yet found our way. We are still learning, still growing. Yet, as Darwin so eloquently expressed in his landmark work, ‘The Origin of Species’, the evolutionary trajectories of Gaia and her myriad life forms (and this applies to the social world as well) do not follow a linear path; each species, stage, etc., descendants of one common stock, represent interdependent and ever diversifying branches of the grand tree of life. These branches extend in an infinite number of directions and manifest in forms and levels of organization as simple as the single-celled organism and as complex as the human and cetacean brain. For life strives not upwards but ever onwards, on a journey wherein change is the only constant.

“It would seem, if our sciences may be believed, that the present social order, called civilization, is the ultimate limit of human progress; that it would be impossible for divine wisdom to invent a more perfect system than this labyrinth of misery and duplicity. There can be no greater error. Humanity is destined to organize many happier societies…”- Harmonian Man, Charles Fourier 


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