On human exceptionalism

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side.

E F Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered

It will not have escaped regular readers of this blog that I often refer to myself and my fellow-humans as social primates. This is not, of course, a complete description of what a human being is, although in some contexts I think it can be a helpful one. What it does serve to highlight is that human beings are not separate from the rest of nature.

We often talk as if there were this separate thing called “the environment” which is out there somewhere, and which is something vaguely to do with us, which we can have a minister for, and which can be a line item on a budget (and frequently cut). The reality is that we eat it, we drink it, we breathe it, we could not be more intimately connected with it. We are ourselves ecosystems, hosting and depending on countless other creatures, to the extend that we can be described as holobionts – that is to say, assemblages of life-forms, not simply a species on its own.

From this point of view, it makes little sense to speak of “the environment” as something out there. It is right in here with us; it is us. Yet not only do we in fact constantly speak like this, but we consider it an insult to be put on the same level as our fellow-creatures. Words like brutal and bestial literally mean “like an animal,” while the kind of cruelty that is only too typical of our species is branded inhumane.

We seem to need a lot of convincing that other animals are anything more than automata. Apparently, it is newsworthy that fish might feel pain, or that many animals self-medicate. (That one is even posted under the heading “Surprising Science,” despite the fact that any observant goat-keeper will have witnessed it routinely.) The default assumption is always that non-humans are without consciousness or agency or any capacity with which we might be tempted to identify. We claim an exclusive right to personhood, on no particular ground other than it is convenient for us.

What is this obsession with standing apart from the natural world? It seems to me to be about control. If we are a small part of a larger whole, we are clearly not in control. But if the world consists of objects outside ourselves which we can manipulate, suddenly we can be managers. It is not a coincidence that the word management turns up a lot in descriptions of what we do with the environment, despite the fact that a forest, for example, is dizzyingly complex and manifestly beyond the capacity of anyone to manage in any meaningful sense.

We can, however, at least imagine that we can manage a bunch of inanimate things, robots whose behaviour we can predict and control. After all, we do this all the time with our factories and warehouses. If the natural world is just a machine, we can make it do what we want by pressing the right buttons. That’s the thing about machines: they exist to serve our purposes. But this way of thinking goes back well before the industrial age.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:26 (King James version)

To claim dominion is to claim power. The root of the word is the Latin dominus, which means a slave-owner. In Roman law, a dominus had absolute power over his slave, up to and including the power of life and death. That is how we routinely think about our relationship to the natural world.

A good deal of the shouting about how we are destroying all life on the planet is an attempt to convince ourselves that we could if we wanted to. But Stewart Brand notwithstanding, we are not as gods. Yes, we can do and are doing a lot of harm. So long as we pursue the industrial path, we will carry on doing harm, because an essential part of that is being able to pretend that we aren’t doing harm, or that if we are it’s someone else’s problem.

Another defining characteristic of industrialism is that whatever one does is done at the largest possible scale, so we will do harm at the limit of our capacity. That capacity, however, is finite, and Mother Nature is a tough old bird. There have been multiple extinction events in the past, the granddaddy of them all being the Great Dying at the end of the Permian period, about 251 million years ago, which is estimated to have wiped out about 96% of all species on the planet. Life found a way then, and it will find a way this time.

Once we see ourselves as an integral part of the web of life, as members of the community of living beings, we can no longer pretend that our actions are without consequences. We can no longer treat our fellow-creatures as slaves, or resources. I don’t think it is a coincidence that industrial society increasingly treats even human beings in this way; one would have thought the phrase “human resources” came out of the Todt Organisation but apparently these days it is perfectly respectable.

If we want to go on living on this planet – and Mars would not appear to be an inviting alternative – we are going to have to change our attitude. We need to stop behaving like thugs and vandals and start living as decent citizens. This means that we need to give up what control we have and also give up the illusion that we have more control than we do. First and foremost, we need to outgrow our collective sense of entitlement. We are not the only show in town.

When I say “we,” by the way, I am talking about the inhabitants of the industrialised or industrialising world – you know, the sort of people who have Internet access. That is not by any means the entirety of the human race, especially when our ancestors are taken into account, but it is a lot of people. I am not expecting this to happen overnight. At the very least, it will take a generation; major shifts in attitude always do.

But like all such changes. it will happen one person at a time. You could be next. It’s just a thought.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

3 thoughts on “On human exceptionalism

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