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Serious Stuff

Getting a Comprehensive View
of the Human Condition

by Somebody Else
November 14, 2010

There's nothing like visiting a zoo for reminding yourself about the fundamental nature of the human condition. Evidently, these days at least, zoos are set up with children in mind, but that doesn't mean that they don't inspire plenty of adult philosophical reflection. So, as you the adult walk through your nearby zoo, watching a miniaturized train go by, thoughtfully stopping to read cheerful instructional signs designed for children who resolutely ignore them, and groaning at the approach of yet another concession stand targeting tender youth with unhealthy food at outrageous prices, you will probably find yourself wondering about the animals you see, and then perhaps questioning the role that we homo sapiens have on this planet that we share with our fellow creatures, a significant number of whom we have imprisoned in zoos.

In some ways, we are not so different from zoo animals. We are territorial. We are aggressive. When we get angry, we often become confrontational. We form hierarchies. We can work collaboratively. We care for our young. We have to eat, sleep, eliminate bodily wastes and reproduce sexually. We are highly susceptible to diseases. We can become sickened and die through extremes of temperature. We can be solitary. We can experience sadness, joy and mirth. And in one way or another, we must all eventually pass through death's door.

At one time, the standard definition for humanness was the use of tools. Man was considered the sole tool-making species. We were intellectually superior, so the argument went, and for that reason we were the only creature on the planet that could make tools. It was a comfortable and reassuring theory until Jane Goodall noticed chimpanzees pulling leaves off of twigs and then sticking them into the ground to extract ants. Since this constitutes the clear use of a constructed tool, and since later observations by Goodall confirmed that this tool-making knowledge was passed down to succeeding chimpanzee generations through personalized instruction rather than through any kind of instinctive knowledge, the whole argument for man as the planet's only tool maker was overturned. The question once again arose. What does it mean to be human?

Religion provides a compelling answer to this question through the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible. Taken literally, the account of the Garden of Eden might seem to be nothing more than the primitive babblings of some senile patriarch of ancient times. Taken symbolically, however, the expulsion of humanity's first couple from a sinless paradise says a lot about who we are as a species.

Before we had developed an understanding of morality, we were as blameless and as innocent as any animal. There could be no unethical behavior in those times, simply because we were incapable of distinguishing between good and evil. Undoubtedly, brutal and horrible acts were committed by proto-humans, but again, without the mental capacity to recognize the moral implications of such acts, there could be no accountability or blame.

Then, at some point in our development, a figurative light bulb went on over our collective heads, and we realized that some of our conduct was pleasing to our creator whereas other conduct was not. We came to understand that some of what we did was good and that some of what we did was evil.

At that moment we also came to understand that we were naked, and sought to cover ourselves. To my knowledge, it is a practically universal trait of humanity throughout the globe to cover both male and female genitalia, no matter how hot and oppressive the climate where a particular human group might live. This tendency is undoubtedly based upon our clear awareness of the reproductive function of sexuality in our lives and of the consequences and responsibilities it brings. Such awareness undoubtedly formed one very important part of our newly emerging ethical outlook as a species.

So, naked and sinful, we were symbolically expelled from the Garden of Eden. That is, we found that we had become accountable for our own behavior. So, when did this transition actually take place?

Quite recently, artistic representations of the proto-human Ardipithecus have appeared in the magazine National Geographic. These representations are based upon the detailed and prolonged analysis of the 4.2 million-year-old skeletal remains found. Despite the many differences in physical appearance from modern humans, it is hard to deny the essentially human aspect of the creature evident in the representations.

Did this ancient ancestor have the ability to distinguish between good and evil? Did she realize her nakedness and cover her genitalia? There is a strong possibility that the answer to both of those questions is yes. After all, if chimpanzees can fashion a tool, perhaps it is not such a stretch of the imagination to suppose that Ardipithecus was capable of ethical thought.

In any case, we can reasonably suppose that Adam and Eve, or the first humans capable of moral thought, were primitive beings that lived countless millennia ago, at a time when we lived in close proximity to and in great harmony with the natural world.

In those ancient times, human beings, despite their ability to distinguish between good and evil, did relatively little to set themselves apart from other species on this planet. Our numbers were only the tiniest fraction of what they are today. We were limited to a relatively small section of the African continent. Although we might have enjoyed the taste of meat left over from the kill of a large predator from time to time, we were primarily gatherers of edible vegetation, and we must have been constantly on guard for carnivorous animals. We did not have the means or the inclination to leave a significant and lasting impression upon the landscape and environment. However, this would eventually change.

First, human beings began to hunt other creatures. This required the use of tools, since otherwise man is a very poor hunter, lacking in speed, agility, claws and fangs. In those days, hunting also required the use of intelligence, ingenuity, and above all collaborative effort, since kills of large game were most probably carried out by teams of humans, each of which must have had a specific role in the kill. We undoubtedly became involved in hunting because we had not yet mastered the art of agriculture and were still getting most of our sustenance from gathering edible vegetation. Quite simply, we discovered that we could get a lot more additional calories by hunting.

Evidently, we were and still are very successful hunters. It is curious to note the great number of extinct large mammals, both herbivorous and carnivorous, that disappeared from the fossil record around the time that humans had spread across the globe and were hunting extensively. Thus, from very early on in our history as morally aware creatures, we had begun to exert a distinctly pernicious influence upon the environment of our planet.

Secondly, only a few millennia ago, we developed agriculture on a large scale, which led to the formation of societies in which large numbers of people might devote themselves to activities that had no direct relationship to obtaining calories for sustenance. Elaborate systems of governance, law and theology developed as a consequence. Likewise, we undertook to demonstrate our mastery over the landscape by creating massive stone structures that strained upward toward the heavens, as if man himself were trying to reach out and touch his creator. Dams were built, forests were cut down and mountains were terraced. In the process, the ecological balance of the planet was upset even more, but even so, our numbers were still relatively small, and our impact upon the planet as a whole remained rather limited in comparison to what it is today.

Our third and most recent stage of impact upon the environment would commence with the dawn of the industrial age, which brought with it the wide-scale exploitation of non-renewable energy resources.

With this, our disruption of the earth's ecosystem has reached critical levels. Our numbers have increased exponentially year by year. Greater numbers of humans must lead to a correspondingly greater impact upon the environment, since more people need more coal to burn for electricity, more petroleum for transporting people and goods, more land for agriculture and for building residences and places for work, education and recreation; more minerals and metals extracted from the ground, etc.

In particular, the irreversible climate change resulting from our burning massive amounts of carbon-based fuel poses a worrisome threat to the entire biosphere, we ourselves included. Will we prematurely bring about an ice age that we are not prepared to withstand? Will rising oceans force the catastrophic relocation of billions of people? Only time will tell.

How long can the modern lifestyle be sustained?

Another unfortunate and inevitable outcome of humanity's massive numerical expansion and ever-increasing demand for non-renewable energy resources has been the ratcheting up of international political and military conflicts. Access to such resources has become critically important to the survival of societies whose growing populations have become utterly dependent upon them. Political leaders throughout the world realize this, but they also understand that they can potentially upset the status quo that brought them to power by speaking frankly and publicly on this matter. So, they instead resort to arguments that confuse the greater issue by drawing attention to differences between opposing nations with regard to political systems, cultural and religious values, and the like.

This is not meant to minimize such differences. Unquestionably, certain governments have demonstrated a deplorable disrespect for basic human rights, whether those of their own citizens or those of peoples under their rule as a conquering foreign power. Had Nazi Germany been allowed to subjugate the entire world, it would have ushered in an era of ruthless oppression never before witnessed in the history of mankind.

However, let us be clear. As is commonly acknowledged, the defeat of Nazi Germany did not bring peace and tranquility to the earth. The fevered competition for non-renewable energy resources, which was admittedly one of the key factors that led up to WWII, did not abate with the ending of that great conflict. Instead, such competition has only intensified as more and more people place an ever increasing demand upon non-renewable energy resources that must exhaust themselves within no more than a few generations.

So, why is it that we have not been able to break free from what must eventually prove to be a suicidal dependency upon non-renewable energy resources? Why have we allowed our populations to swell to such burdensome numbers? Why have we soiled our one and only nest, Earth? How is it that we have come to be a kind of primate plague upon the face of the planet?

There is no one simple answer to any of those questions. However, it is possible to outline in broad terms the most significant contributing factors.

In ancient times, the most important reason for limited human population growth was probably the relative lack of medical knowledge and resources. With infant mortality rates at very high levels and with average life spans only a fraction of what they are today, populations tended to remain stable in size or even decrease.

In our era, the benefits of medical science have finally reached the most remote and undeveloped reaches of our planet. As a consequence, lowered infant mortality rates and increased life spans have led to exploding populations, particularly in those regions where disease had not long ago played a key role in limiting population growth. However, in more economically developed societies, populations have in some cases begun to decrease as families commonly limit themselves to two or fewer children. Therefore, perhaps the long-term key to halting population growth throughout the world is to promote sustainable economic development in all nations.

As for our increasingly irrational and self-destructive dependency upon non-renewable energy resources, the greatest contributing factor to this continuing paradigm is the intransigence, greed, and gross dishonesty of powerful corporate and political interests. It is a matter of putting the means before the ends. Supposedly, our use of energy resources makes it possible for us to carry out a wide array of worthy enterprises. In reality, the money and power generated through the extraction, distribution and sale of carbon-based fuels have become ends in and of themselves.

Demand for such fuels is purposely stimulated through the endless construction of highways and the encouragement of suburban sprawl. Such demand is also staunchly defended by means of political roadblocks thrown up against progressive legislation designed to promote environmental regulation, the development of renewable energy resources and the expansion of environmentally friendly forms of public transportation. The shortsighted promotion of non-renewable energy resources has as its essential aims the preservation of a very lucrative source of revenue and the conservation of an elite economic ruling class. Unless this wasteful and destructive paradigm is resolutely and fearlessly addressed, this elite class will maintain its stranglehold upon humanity until it has thoroughly exhausted the planet's non-renewable energy resources. It will be as the tick that sucks away all the blood from its host until that host dies, and then the tick will itself die from lack of nourishment. There is no real intelligence and foresight in such behavior, only base instinct.

Sadly, those who exercise the most power and influence over the earthly affairs of this planet are those who are most governed by animal-like qualities. They are like ferocious tigers and leopards in a zoo, lying in wait, ready to pounce and then devour their hapless prey. They are governed mostly by selfish animal tendencies according to which they put their own egotistical concerns over the great masses whose individual members are weaker and less fortunate than they. Their chief objectives are power and wealth. Their main concerns are the defense and advancement of their own position. They are like gorillas fending off male rivals so that they can mate exclusively with the females. Under the guise of ideological purity and nationalistic pride, they justify pitiless and barbaric acts more heinous than anything any animal might ever contemplate.

The place for such leaders is a jail cell, not a position of authority and honor. Let us strive with heart and soul to create a new zoo inhabited by such creatures as these. Then we might perhaps begin to reconcile ourselves with our fellow species and share with them a planet characterized by clean air, water and soil, free from wars and strife, abundant with healthy flora and fauna, and unburdened by an excessively numerous human population.

"Won't you tell me where my country lies?" said the unifaun to his true love's eyes...