In the West in the 19th century, anthropologists and philosophers called the human brain "the pinnacle of creation." With that brain however, humans are bringing much of life on earth to the brink of extinction. Not to mention the self-absorbed "climate crisis" in the anthropocentric "Anthropocene Age."
The question 'where did man go wrong?' somewhat misses the mark. Man has been going wrong ever since the emergence of "fully modern humans" about 100,000 years ago. It's just culminating in our age.
So it's essential to ask: How did humans evolve as a destructive planetary force, when life unfolds in seamless, dynamic order? That, to my mind, is one the most important questions a human being can ask.
This line of questioning doesn't grow out of misanthropy, but out of deep curiosity, and a love of life, humanity and philosophy. If one asks the right questions, and persists in asking them, the universe releases its secrets.
To even consider the question of where man went wrong, one has to have a clear perception and feeling for the wholeness of nature, and of the fragmentation of man.
If one views nature in terms of the categories, objects and elements that humans separate it into, then one can't perceive the unbroken order of the earth and the universe. And if one has fixed ideas about what it means to be human, one can't explore how humans came to be a contradiction in nature.
Chaos does not exist in nature or the universe, only in man and creatures like man, wherever they may temporarily exist in the universe. Given that nature and the cosmos are evolving in increasingly complex order in undivided wholeness, and that Homo sapiens inextricably evolved along with all life, how did humans come to be such a huge factor of fragmentation and disorder, to the planet, and to ourselves?
Some philosophers see man's increasing disorder, destructiveness and darkness as rooted in patriarchy, or in the Agricultural Revolution, in the Industrial Revolution or in colonialism. To my mind, these and other historical periods and patterns are secondary; the root cause of fragmentation and disorder is the evolution of symbolic thought.
The phrase 'higher thought' privileges man, and reveals a tendency to idolize the human adaptive pattern of symbolic thought, rather than understand its place, or lack of place in the natural order.
Since the cognitive threshold to fully modern humans was crossed about 100,000 years ago, the human brain and 'human nature' have remained essentially unchanged. Remove a Cro Magnon child from Asia or Europe and raise her in Seoul or San Francisco, and she would as readily adapt to either culture as any average child born today.
Bring a Homo sapiens child from 1000 years before the Cognitive Revolution however, and they would be seen as intellectually impaired.
It's worth reflecting on the fact that all other animals fit within and derive their living from adapting to a single ecological niche. Only humans evolved an adaptive pattern that enabled us to break the bonds of niche, amass knowledge of the resources around us, and live anywhere on earth.
That adaptation rests, at bottom, on the ability to intentionally remove parts of the environment from the whole, accrue knowledge about animals and plants, and exploit and recombine reified 'things' in as many ways as our minds can conceive and imagine.
This constellation of cognitive abilities is the source of both our success as a species, and our alienation from and destructiveness in nature. In one sense therefore, as I wrote in my last column, man did not go wrong, but evolution went wrong in us.
The human condition is much more complex and subtle than anyone can encompass of course. But one can gain insight into the broad strokes of where we went wrong, and thereby see the way out of man's quickening spiral of fragmentation and darkness.
This trajectory of human evolution is the opposite of that the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin believed. Rather than an ascending spiral of evolution progressing to an imagined "Omega point" ("the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe is evolving"), the cycles of history have been accelerating in the other direction, generating an increasingly deep and global crisis, requiring an evolutionary leap to resolve.
In short, evolution produced a brain capable of consciously manipulating its environment, rather than living unconsciously within ecological niches as other animals do. The hardware (the increased gray matter and complexity of the human brain) that came with the evolution of symbolic thought gave us the capacity for self-awareness, but the dominant software of self-centeredness threatens to destroy everything.
Egocentricity (not just in the individualistic sense, but also as 'my family,' 'my religion,' 'my country') is not an inherent and immutable trait of human nature, as proponents of outdated notions of "self-interest" insist. But it is a very strong tendency and ancient habit in all cultures, requiring radical change and psychological revolution.
In the final analysis, because thought is a separative mechanism into which we generally don't have insight, it is projected and idolized as the basic principle of the universe. Hence 'God' is often seen as perfect thought.
Humankind internalized separation as the 'me and mine,' and as 'us vs. them.' That is the 'original sin' and ongoing mistake that we now have no choice but to address at the root within ourselves.
In this understanding, darkness/evil doesn't have a supernatural basis, and doesn't require theological explanations. Rather, it is the inevitable, cumulative byproduct of the unwise use of symbolic thought.
Self-made fragmentation is decimating and deadening everything and everyone on earth. It is the unseen driving force behind the need for "diversity" and to "preserve my culture," which is producing even more fragmentation.
However there's also the life force driving an increasing urgency and necessity of a conscious transmutation in the human brain, an evolutionary leap into self-knowing wholeness and true consciousness.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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