The Rogue Primate


Image from wikimedia by Nick Hobgood, CC-BY-SA 3.0

I. Is human destructiveness a consequence of the evolution of the self?

I have spent much of my life arguing that humans are not significantly different from any other living creature, and thus deserve no special consideration. And to some extent I still think this is true: genetically, biologically, our species is not exceptional, and certainly isn’t the culmination of anything evolutionarily extraordinary. Genetically we are more similar to the potato than many species of bacteria are to each other. We are an enormously ‘successful’ species, if you define that as ecosystem domination, global spread, or biomass, but no more so than other unexceptional species like dinosaurs, rats, jellyfish or bacteria.

Because we are unexceptional, I will not mourn the demise of our species over the coming decades. I don’t think humans will become completely extinct, though without the abundance of accessible, cheap energy needed to power civilization cultures, the remnants of our species will probably play a very marginal and unimportant role in post-civilization evolution on this planet. And even if humans disappear altogether, dying out, like the dinosaurs, not with a bang but a centuries-long whimper, I don’t think that would be anything to mourn about either. Life on earth will continue to evolve and thrive without us, until inevitable cosmic changes render this place unfit for life of any kind. Our universe is so vast that it is inconceivable that there won’t be still an unfathomable number of astonishing things unfolding in it long after our little blue planet, sooner or later, goes molten or gets sucked into an expanding, dying sun.

But I think I was wrong in saying there is nothing unique about the human species. We are not biologically unique, and in a real sense the species is not unique in any sense. What is unique is the affliction that our species appears to have succumbed to, due to what would appear to be an evolutionary accident, and a terrible mistake. That affliction is the illusion of separateness, of there being a self residing in the body of each human, that has agency, free will, responsibility and control over the body and its actions. The self — ‘you’ and ‘me’ — is a persuasive and enduring illusion, but astrophysics, quantum theory and neuroscience are converging on an appreciation that it is no more than that.

Even the body is not real, any more than anything is real in space and time. Ultimately, there is only everything, the appearance of what is happening. Nothing ‘really’ separate or apart. Ever.

So if the seemingly real self is merely a useful illusion, and everything (including space and time) that it conceives of as real is in truth only a meaningless appearance, to whom exactly are these conceptions of reality useful?

Self-invented languages aren’t helpful in answering this question. Maddeningly, recursively, it would seem the self and its imagined reality only seem useful to the self. Selves have no effect on the apparent behaviours and actions of the body, though they appear to, to the self. Each moment, the body (apparently) does the only thing it could possibly have done, given its conditioning and the immediate circumstances it faces. Our brains then rationalize, after the fact, what the body apparently does as somehow being the result of actions or decisions of our selves. In fact, our selves have nothing to do with it.

The affliction IS us. Human beings, bodies, aren’t really afflicted by our selves — what those bodies do is not affected at all by what our selves think, feel or decide. Our selves are afflicted with themselves. And that is what makes ‘us’ unique. Not the human species — it isn’t unique at all. What is unique — perversely, recursively, damnably — is our selves.

There is an obvious, and rather compelling, temptation to therefore blame our selves, and not our species, for the sixth great extinction, wars, violence, climate change and all the other apparent ills that have been unfolding since the fateful beginning of human civilization. Surely, if humans hadn’t been afflicted with selves, we would still be living simple, uncivilized lives in balance with nature as even our closest evolutionary cousins, the chimps and bonobos do?

Alas, this argument is too easy, and impossibly wrong. Our selves are illusory, and the affliction has no impact on human creatures’ behaviour. So we can’t hold our selves to blame for anything. Though as the illusory self is an embodied, psychosomatic (mind + body) misunderstanding, it may be that the self can incidentally (not purposefully) produce apparent ailments (neuroses, trauma, stress-related diseases) in the apparent body, which might in turn, one could argue, lead to dysfunctional behaviours.

But even that line of argument is weak. There is nothing separate, and no time or space, so there is no causality either, no association between one thing apparently happening and another. It is the self that insists on there being a causal connection. Chemical imbalances and traumas (physical and emotional) apparently happen, and there seems a connection between them and ‘subsequent’ (remember, there is no time) suffering and behaviours, but that is just the brain’s patterning and the self’s rationalization. Everything that apparently happens is just an appearance; it’s not real (but not unreal, not an invention, either). The self, however, has to belief there’s a reason, a connection, cause and effect. That’s how it makes sense. When something doesn’t make sense, that’s assumed to be because the reason, the connection, isn’t known yet, but will be sooner or later.

So the real question remains: If human brains had not (apparently) evolved to the point they were capable to abstracting the idea of separation and creating the illusion of self, would the human species have (apparently) evolved in the destructive and violent way it did?

The answer to this is complicated and probably unsatisfying (at least to the self). Because there is no separation, and no time, and since nothing is ‘real’ (the way the self understands that term), only appearance, there is actually no evolution either. Evolution is just a story made up by selves to make sense of what is apparently happening. Any question that is founded on an ‘if…then’ supposition implies that causality is real, and it is not. That we see our selves as moving through space and time, and see things as evolving over time, is just part of the self’s story, which is just a baseless mental construct (as incredibly and sometimes terrifyingly real as it seems to be to the self).

There is no reason for the appearance of what seems to be the sixth great extinction of life on this planet, nothing that ’caused’ it, human, self or otherwise. It is just an appearance. That extinction is not happening continuously and sequentially over time. That is just an appearance also.

So the answer to the question of whether the evolution of large brains and/or selves led to humans’ ruination of our planet is moot: there was and is no evolution; there is no time over which anything can evolve or cause anything else.

While all of this is a new and daunting realization on the frontiers of physics, quantum science, neuroscience and philosophy, it is accepted, more or less, by many eastern religions and spiritual disciplines. The terms are different, since none of this can really be described in language, but the essence of the message — empty fullness, no-self, not-two, the whole idea that everything is one, inseparable, nothing appearing as everything — is present in messages from some forms of secular Buddhism to the ‘teachings’ of Adyashanti and Eckhart Tolle and the ‘insights’ of shamans, some of them on psychoactive drugs. Though couched in different ways, this is essentially the same as the ‘radical non-duality’ message I’ve written about extensively on this blog. This message says that while (the appearance of) anything is possible, suffering is a maladaptation, a psychosomatic misunderstanding that the self somehow owns and is responsible for the thoughts and feelings and pain that just arise.

It would seem implausible that so many different scientific, philosophical,  mystical and spiritual explorations are coming to the same conclusion about the nature of reality, from very different starting points, if there weren’t some validity to it.

II. Is human destructiveness a consequence of self-domestication?

In his remarkable 1994 book Rogue Primate, the late Canadian naturalist John Livingston argued that humans have domesticated ourselves, possibly because our species appears to have all the qualities needed for easy domestication: docility and tractability, a pliable or weak will, susceptibility to dependence, insecurity, adaptability to different habitats, inclination to herd behaviour, tolerance of physical and psychological maltreatment, acceptance of habitat homogeneity, high fecundity, social immaturity, rapid physical growth, sexual precociousness, and poor natural attributes (lack of speed, strength, and sensory acuity). We share these qualities, he argued, with most of the creatures (and many plants) we have domesticated. The only difference is, we domesticated ourselves.

Domesticated creatures, he said, are by definition totally dependent on a prosthetic, disconnected, surrogate mode of approaching and apprehending the world, to stand in the place of natural, biological, inherent ways of being. Such creatures see the world through this artificial prosthesis, instead of how it really is, and this self-domestication is what we call civilization.

Wolfi Landstreicher, in a quote I have used often on this blog, says that this way of being is unnatural and abhorrent:

In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.

John and Wolfi, interestingly, both equate civilization with (self-)domestication. Although causality may be just an appearance, they both make a compelling case for self-domestication being what has (apparently) led to our disconnection from, and subsequent (apparent) destruction of, the natural world.

III. Are civilization and self-domestication a consequence of the evolution of the self? (Or, put another way, is the self the “artificial prosthesis” that enabled civilization and self-domestication?)

So: We can’t blame human disconnection and destructiveness on the emergence of the illusory self. We may be able to argue that this apparent disconnection and destructiveness stemmed from our species’ apparent inherent predisposition for self-domestication and ‘civilized’ culture. Did the emergence of selves lead to, or at least precede, the emergence of this predisposition for self-domestication and ‘civilization’-building?

No. As in the first argument, something illusory cannot ‘do’ anything. Not ‘really’. An appearance can appear to lead to or cause another appearance (when it comes to appearances, anything is possible). But the self is not an appearance; it is an illusion. It can’t ‘do’ anything, even apparently, because it does not exist, period. When the illusion of the self drops away, it is realized (by no one) that it never was, and that all there is is everything, all that appears. So the self, being non-existent, can’t be blamed for anything.

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So, to bottom-line all of this preposterous, wild, convoluted, radical thinking:

  • The apparent evolution of large brains in humans apparently led to self-domestication, domestication of other species, a propensity for building complex civilizations, the emergence of the illusion of separate selves with agency, and an apparent disconnection from “natural, biological, inherent ways of being”, ie living as wild, free creatures. We apparently thus became horrifically destructive rogue primates. But we had no choice in the matter, and have no choice over what is apparently to come.
  • Intuitively, apparently, humans sense and lament the loss of the natural, wild, free, inherent ways of being, and the disconnection from everything ‘else’, but we can do nothing about it.
  • The illusory self, a spandrel (an apparently accidental and maladaptive consequence of the apparent evolution of large brains) suffers enormously from its invalid belief that it owns and has agency over thoughts, feelings, decisions and actions that apparently emerge in the apparently separate-from-everything-‘else’ human body it incorrectly believes it inhabits. In other words, it suffers recursively and monumentally from itself. There is nothing that can be done about this.
  • The apparent phenomenon of human self-domestication (civilization) and the illusion of the self are not causally connected. The illusory self is not to blame for the appearance of self-domestication, any more than it’s to blame for the apparently consequent destructiveness of the human species.

All of which is, of course, outrageous. There is no one. Nothing matters. Nothing is real. No one is to blame. All there is is everything, a wondrous profusion of appearances. And nothing can or need be done.

Impossible. Unthinkable. Absurd. Deranged. Useless. Infuriating.

And, it seems to me, against all logic, true.

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2 Responses to The Rogue Primate

  1. Dr Scanlon says:

    ‘nothing can or need be done.’ Indeed.

    I think once humans evolved behavioral modernity it was just a matter of time until we ended up where we are. The timing could have been different, but the end remains the same.

    I also think thermodynamics may be the driving force in the universe.

    The purpose of life is to disperse energy

    “The truly dangerous ideas in science tend to be those that threaten the collective ego of humanity and knock us further off our pedestal of centrality. The Copernican Revolution abruptly dislodged humans from the center of the universe. The Darwinian Revolution yanked Homo sapiens from the pinnacle of life. Today another menacing revolution sits at the horizon of knowledge, patiently awaiting broad realization by the same egotistical species.

    The dangerous idea is this: the purpose of life is to disperse energy.

    Many of us are at least somewhat familiar with the second law of thermodynamics, the unwavering propensity of energy to disperse and, in doing so, transition from high quality to low quality forms. More generally, as stated by ecologist Eric Schneider, “nature abhors a gradient,” where a gradient is simply a difference over a distance — for example, in temperature or pressure. Open physical systems — including those of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere — all embody this law, being driven by the dispersal of energy, particularly the flow of heat, continually attempting to achieve equilibrium. Phenomena as diverse as lithospheric plate motions, the northward flow of the Gulf Stream, and occurrence of deadly hurricanes are all examples of second law manifestations.

    There is growing evidence that life, the biosphere, is no different. It has often been said the life’s complexity contravenes the second law, indicating the work either of a deity or some unknown natural process, depending on one’s bias. Yet the evolution of life and the dynamics of ecosystems obey the second law mandate, functioning in large part to dissipate energy. They do so not by burning brightly and disappearing, like a fire torching a forest, but through stable metabolic cycles that store chemical energy and continually reduce the solar gradient. Photosynthetic plants, bacteria, and algae capture energy from the sun and form the core of all food webs.

    Virtually all organisms, including humans, are, in a real sense, sunlight transmogrified, temporary waypoints in the flow of energy. Ecological succession, viewed from a thermodynamic perspective, is a process that maximizes the capture and degradation of energy. Similarly, the tendency for life to become more complex over the past 3.5 billion years (as well as the overall increase in biomass and organismal diversity through time) is not due simply to natural selection, as most evolutionists still argue, but also to nature’s “efforts” to grab more and more of the sun’s flow. The slow burn that characterizes life enables ecological systems to persist over deep time, changing in response to external and internal perturbations.”

    https://www.edge.org/response-detail/10674

  2. philip says:

    Dave, you put me on to Daniel Quinn years back- Ishmael the gorilla describes our domestication in a illustrative way. ‘keep the river on your right’ Tobias Schneebaum is also descriptive. We are so domesticated we call ourselves humanity when in reality there are only humans. Ironically being so interconnected means that we are very separate. It is a level of belonging that humans become confused about. Our domesticated flesh is made from the wild things of the past as time is natures way of stopping everything happening at once. Destruction is why we can pretend we might not be destructive. Indeed no one is to blame. Peace to you and all those that want it.

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