Dr. Guy McPherson believes incompetence defines the human experience. Can we save ourselves from ourselves?
It appears we have one final chance to rescue humanity. I’m not considering merely our own species. Consider, for example, these definitions from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:
1: the quality or state of being humane (i.e., marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals)
2a: the quality or state of being human b: plural: human attributes or qualities
3: plural: the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics)
4: the human race: the totality of human beings
Sure, that fourth definition matters. We’re selfish creatures, after all, interested primarily in persistence. Unfortunately for our species, we’re really, truly interested in persistence of our own selfish selves, and not so much interested in our own species. Ergo, the self-induced, greed-inspired, utterly human, generally predictable (but specifically chaotic) predicaments in which we are currently marinating, up to and including the near-term demise of our species.
Let’s consider the other three definitions, too. We could argue all day about the first definition (the others, too, for that matter). Are we capable of being humane? How deeply do you have to drill into your memory to come up with a time you saw a large group of people acting compassionately, sympathetically and considerately toward other humans or animals? On the other hand — and please excuse my eternally optimistic outlook as it bubbles to the surface yet again — it’s probably quite easy to recall the last time you saw an individual human being displaying those same characteristics. Perhaps it was you, earlier today.
On, then, to the second definition: the quality or state of being human. What makes us human? The question is, of course, easy to address on the surface and nearly impossible to address in depth. DNA tells us whether we’re human, that is, whether we’re of the genus Homo and the species Homo sapiens, as opposed to one of the myriad other organisms on the planet. We’ll leave the easy question to gene jockeys, and take up the more difficult and deeper question: What makes us human, beyond DNA?
I’m hardly the first person to ponder that question. My predecessors are myriad and varied and at least to Plato and Lao Tzu. I defer, as I often do, to Nietzsche (particularly in Human, All Too Human). Nietzsche recognized humans as tragically flawed organisms that, like other animals, lack free will. Unlike Descartes, Nietzsche thought our flaws define us, and therefore cannot be overcome. We are far too human for that. Although we are thinking animals — what Nietzsche termed res cogitans — we are prey to muddled thoughts, that is, to ideas that lack clarity and distinctness. Nietzsche wasn’t so pessimistic or naive to believe all our thoughts are muddled, of course. Ultimately, though, incompetence defines the human experience, thereby leading to the disasters associated with industrial civilization.
The third definition of humanity: “the branches of learning (as philosophy, arts, or languages) that investigate human constructs and concerns as opposed to natural processes (as in physics or chemistry) and social relations (as in anthropology or economics).” The branches of learning are defined by the culture. In the present case, arbitrarily dividing knowledge into natural sciences and the humanities has contributed to the division we see at all levels of human interaction. Echoing C.P. Snow’s conclusion in his eponymous two cultures, Edward O. Wilson’s argued forcefully in Consilience that the separation of learning, hence knowledge, into two groups is a huge blow to meaningfully understanding the human experience. C.P. Snow was, of course, echoing Plato and Lao Tzu.
Shouldn’t we be trying to integrate knowledge, instead of compartmentalizing it?
In an effort to serve the culture of death that is industrial civilization, we have taken the worst possible approach: We developed our entire educational system around the twin pillars of compartmentalization and ignorance. Throw in a huge, ongoing, forceful dose of opposition to integration and synthesis, and we’re left with a tsunami of incompetence. We probably stood no chance of overcoming the all-too-human incompetence described by Nietzsche, but we purposely designed an educational system to reinforce the incompetence on a massive scale. A truly comprehensive approach to learning would focus on humans as part of the world, rather than apart from the world. It would strive for integration and synthesis. It would assume the learner is one part of an ecosystem, but not a superior part. It would be as unique to a specific location as climate, topography and the durable culture that assumes its place in that place.
About that fourth and final definition, the one that absorbs our tender existential psyches: Nobody who ever gave the matter serious thought could honestly reach the conclusion that “the totality of human beings” was destined to last forever. But even a token amount of “compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals” demonstrates our humanity, regardless how long we persist on the planet.
Humanity is at a crossroads. Let’s save it, shall we?