The Unhinged Apes

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

In the article in which scientist EO Wilson famously said “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”, he speculates on what an alien species observing us for a billion years might have to say about the evolution of life on our planet. His view is that humans are an inherently destructive, excessively acquisitive, and selfish species, and that it may be inevitable that any intelligent species will quickly self-annihilate.

It’s a very conventional argument, assuming that it is our evolved intelligence that has turbocharged our innate destructiveness, to the point we have unleashed the sixth great extinction of life on the planet and may have already rendered most of the planet uninhabitable for most if not all species.

This argument does not quite ring true for me. The evolution of life tends (for prosaic reasons Stephen Jay Gould has explained) towards greater complexity, accommodating and promoting a vast diversity of species that ‘fit’ better in each ecosystem. Despite their purported rapacity, dinosaurs ‘fit’ well in balance with their environments, and for their 130 million years of existence on the planet, did not destroy, accidentally or deliberately, their ecosystems. Had it not been for the misfortune of the devastating meteor strike a mere 65 mya, they would most likely still be around. Had they destroyed their ecosystems, they would not have survived anywhere near as long as they did. That has nothing to do with intelligence, or ferocity; it is simply the laws of evolution.

At some point, humans ceased to ‘fit’ well in their ecosystems, and tried, futilely, to make ecosystems fit them instead. That effort was doomed from the outset, and we are now seeing its consequences. So the question is, What caused humans to stop ‘fitting’ well within the ecosystems we had evolved to thrive in (mainly, as tree-dwellers in tropical rainforests)?

The answer is probably complex. There is some evidence that our species was nearly completely eradicated when massive cosmic radiation from exploding supernovae some three million years ago essentially burned up all the tropical rainforests, so we had to abandon them and try to ‘fit’ in some other ecosystem (requiring us, among other things, to become bipedal). So part of the answer is that, as for the dinosaurs, our ecosystems changed so that we no longer ‘fit’.

But I suspect that another part of the answer is that, due to the Darwin’s Dice accident of trying out consciousness (ie creating a mental model of reality in the brain and positioning our invented ‘selves’ in the middle of that model), we became unhinged. By that I mean, we became disconnected from all other life on the planet, and convinced that our separation from it was real. As I’ve argued before, Gaia is in essence a super-organism, one ‘creature’ acting in its own collective interest. That ‘acting’ is not ‘intelligent’ the way we use the word to describe our selves; it is simply a successful evolution. Had it not been successful, in the sense of optimizing the fitness of its components, it would not have survived, and our planet would be, like most, lifeless.

The creation in the human brain of the illusion of separation, of separate “consciousness”, rather than being a sign of true intelligence or evolutionary advance, was, I think, rather an horrific mental illness, a loss of capacity to see what really is. It is similar to the mutation of cancer cells, which, like humans, are incapable of fitting in with the rest of the organism of which they are a part, and instead, in the desperate, disconnected, diseased attempt to survive, replicate until they actually kill the entire organism.

The trying-out of the idea of separation and self consciousness might well have been a simple extension of the instincts that provoke the fight/flight/freeze reaction when an existential threat is perceived. This reaction is evident in the tiniest and most small-brained creatures. There is no “thinking” involved in it (thinking is far too slow a process). How can such a process have evolved in creatures that have no sense of self, of being separate from the threat their instinct is responding to?

We cannot know, of course, but there may be a hint in the behaviour of many animals immediately after they recover from their fight/flight/freeze reaction. It takes the form of a furious shaking of the body. There is some speculation that the fight/flight/freeze instinct equips the creature with a rudimentary, brief, horrific sense of itself as separate from its predator, and hence in danger — a hallucination of sorts. Then, when the danger has passed, the hallucination ends — it is “shaken off” and everything is once again seen as it really is — with nothing separate, no space or time, and nothing needed.

I think it’s plausible that our sense of “consciousness”, of being “permanently” separate with a sense of self, positioned in space and time, is the same instinctive horrific hallucination permanently etched in “consciousness”. A cosmic evolutionary misstep, enabled by a brain with too much excess capacity for its own good. The illusion of self-hood is a maladaptive disease of the brain that afflicts us all starting in early childhood.

To me, there is no more compelling explanation for humanity’s outrageous, un-“fit” behaviour, its horrific self-inflicted suffering, and its lifelong unhappiness.

It is not the human species that is inherently destructive, acquisitive and self-obsessed. It is the endemic disease of consciousness, of self and separation, that has afflicted us all. The disease that has unhinged our sorry branch of the apes.


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2 Responses to The Unhinged Apes

  1. Brutus says:

    Super interesting. You’re correct to embed a series of hedges in this conjecture. I’m always bugged by arguments that cite evolutionary theory in the service of just-so stories. There is simply no way of knowing with much certainty when the systems in question exhibit so many extraordinary layers of complexity and dynamism.

    That said, you are begging the question somewhat in your characterization of consciousness as affliction. I’m not yet ready (unlike you) to jettison the whole conceptual framework of self and separation, even though I admit it’s a framework and that I’m conditioned within that thought bubble, so to speak. Mapping this onto industrial collapse is a flourish, perhaps. However, I’m also in the process of exploring what I’ve been calling the Counter-Enlightenment, an emerging rejection of rationalism and abstraction (including the alienated individual). But in favor of what? May just be stupidity. Considering humans can’t retreat into a former state of nature, even as a minuscule population compared to today’s (world human population stands as roughly 7.7 billion, still increasing), the path forward is obscure or blocked entirely.

  2. Ken says:

    I think about these things with a little less complexity , I’ve always felt like OUR systems
    have always (since I’ve been alive) been all wrong ! I’ve always maintained that there are really only 2 types of societies , competitive OR co-operative ! Our society and most others on the planet are undisputedly competitive , sadly , hopelessly resulting in a paradigm of winners and losers, haves and have nots , pain and suffering , inequality and inevitable self destruction of ourselves and the planet The other type of society is , as I have said , co-operative !!! Funny thing is , this is PRECISELY , how the natural world is created ,which includes the physiology of human beings ! Absolutely EVERY cell in EVERY created living thing (plants , microbes etc.) on this planet functions co-operatively !!! That’s because they were created to function that way ! WE Humans come along and create
    societal systems of competition , which means that WE are the beings that have separated ourselves from the natural organic order of the way Gaia is created to function! Or , you might say , we regard ourselves as not being a part of that order, and , worse than that, since we are separate from it , we are entitled to exploit it and destroy it!
    A notion entirely unsustainable !!! Nevertheless we continue to compete against it and others which can ONLY , undeniably , strictly , result in the annihilation of ourselves and every other habitat on the planet !!! It’s really as simple as that , something that indigenous peoples have always known and have been trying to tell us for centuries !!!
    You can NOT even exist unless EVERY cell in your body co-operates with EVERY OTHER CELL IN YOUR BODY !!! Nature co-operates , it DOESN’T COMPETE AGAINST ITSELF !!! It’s called WIN-WIN , NOT WIN LOSE !!! It’s really not meant to be survival of the fittest !!!
    Humans have set themselves up in societies that are COMPLETELY ANTITHETICAL TO THE CREATED NATURAL ORDER !!!
    This of course can ONLY lead to extinction by ourselves and all habitats, and , half measures can not even mitigate the process because in my understanding of the situation , this would only be too little too late at this time ALREADY !

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