Thursday, January 9, 2014

What Is A Human Being?

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a gorgeous tropical rainforest in Africa.  Among the many beings living there were three tribes of primates.  They were the ancestors of modern chimps, baboons, and humans.  All of them were tree dwellers.  Primates, who evolved whilst bounding from branch to branch in the forest, have highly developed senses of sight and touch.  On the other hand, mammals that evolved for life on the ground have highly developed senses of smell.

By and by, the climate cooled, the rainforest shrank, and grassland expanded.  The tree dwellers were not amused.  Living on the ground was dangerous, because there were many predators eager to invite them to lunch.  There came a time, some say between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago, when the human ancestors became fed up with the hardships of life in the trees, and began walking on the ground.  Evolution had not fine-tuned them for surviving in the midst of large predators, and they were easy prey.  Unclever pioneers became cat food.

A bit later, between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, the human ancestors evolved into Homo erectus, a meat-eating, tool-using animal.  Around this time, many large carnivores in Africa went extinct.  Some believe that this was not a coincidence.  Later, when Homo sapiens emerged 250,000 years ago, we were tool-using hunters from day one.

Now, let’s fast forward to the twenty-first century.  The chimps, with whom we share 94 percent of our genes, have remained close to the trees, where they build nests.  They have both day nests and night nests.  The olive baboons have also remained in Africa, and they inhabit rainforests and deserts, but most of them live in grasslands near open woodland.  The humans abandoned tree dwelling, and have spread across the planet, spending much of their time in manufactured nests.

All three tribes eat meat.  All three use tools, but those used by chimps and baboons are still very simple and no-tech.  Chimps and baboons do not read or write.  They have not developed complex language or abstract thinking.  Neither have exploded in numbers or ravaged the global ecosystem.  Both do their hunting primarily with bare hands and teamwork, snatching small critters.  They have found no need to till the soil or enslave other species, because they live in accordance with natural law, and never had an urge to become unusual smarty-pants.

Both chimps and baboons have remained in tropical Africa, the ecosystem for which evolution had fine-tuned them, their home.  Thus, they have no need for clothing, fire, substantial shelters, cell phones, or psych meds.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life — in a genuinely sustainable manner that could not be more intelligent.  Their major challenge is the growing destruction caused by exploding numbers of you-know-who.

Baboons have lived on the savannahs for a very long time, without complex tools, in neighborhoods frequented by hungry large predators.  Hence, spears and javelins are not necessary for the survival of ground dwelling primates.  Thus, humans were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction.  Projectile weapons were a half-clever experiment that resulted in colossal unintended consequences that continue to multiply.

Evolution brilliantly encouraged a balance between predators and prey.  If the predators gradually became one percent faster, the prey gradually became one percent faster, not two.  Our development of complex tools blew this ancient balance out of the water, because tools gave us powers that far exceeded those provided by evolution.  They allowed us to kill megafauna.  As our hunting tools became more powerful, we killed more and more animals, while our own numbers grew.  Eventually, this expansion inspired humans to migrate out of Africa, in search of happy hunting grounds.

Leaping beyond our evolutionary boundaries was a risky move, and the unfortunate result is the world you see around you, and the growing storm that’s moving in on us.  At this point, a heretic who thinks outside the box must propose a core question.  Is it better to live simply and sustainably, or to have lots of amazing gizmos and live in a toxic, self-destructive manner that has no future?  The heretic is asking what does it mean to be human?

Imagine a world map that indicates where nonhuman primates live today.  They live in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, Central America, and the warmer regions of South America — the tropics.  They do not inhabit Europe, most of North America, or most of Asia, because evolution has not prepared them for surviving in these cooler habitats.  The only reason that humans can inhabit non-tropical regions is because we developed complex technology — clothing, warm shelters, fire, food storage, stone-tipped spears, and so on.

I’ve been reading about shamans lately, old-fashioned healers who could communicate with the spirit world.  In the tribal mindset, all misfortune is caused by evil spirits sent by sorcerers via invisible projectiles, tiny darts.  This belief is common to many places, including Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Peru, Amazonia, and Australia.  In Ireland, the darts are fairy darts or bolts, and the victims are elf-shot.  The healer’s job was to locate the dart, and suck it out of the victim’s body. 

Is it possible that this widespread belief in evil projectiles reflects an archetypal truth?  Is there an understanding in the collective unconscious that our addiction to spears, javelins, and arrows threw us out of balance and put us on a bad path?  Many old cultures also perceived dark magic in reading, writing, and metal making.

It’s clear that there is an enormous gulf between the primitive mindset and the industrial mindset.  The shaman Martín Prechtel says that we all possess an original, natural, indigenous soul struggling to survive, but it has been largely suppressed by the modern mind, which we use to understand the world.  Healing requires us to rediscover our soul.

Carl Jung talked about the archaic or original mind, which thinks in images, like dreams.  It is the mind of young children.  The modern mind is very different, because it engages in directed thinking — thinking in words.  Jung believed that our minds had many layers, and the oldest layer was the unconscious.  Maybe at some level our minds are similar to those of chimps and baboons.

Our ancestors obviously perceived that humans were unique.  No other animals were killing mammoths with spears, or sitting around campfires in stylish fur coats.  Over the eons, we have been getting more and more clever, and more and more out of balance.  Somewhere in the process, humans developed consciousness, which greased the wheels of cleverness. 

We are very proud of the wonders of consciousness, but Jung thought that it was also our worst devil.  He saw the modern mind as unstable, infantile, and a dangerous loose cannon.  Near the end of his life, in 1963, he had a vision of global catastrophe, maybe 50 years away.

The domestication of plants and animals profoundly altered our relationship to the family of life.  We developed the ability to redesign and dominate entire ecosystems.  Chimps and baboons, on the other hand, are perfectly happy to remain wild, free, and simple.  It’s easy.

In his book, The Parable of the Tribes, Andrew Bard Schmookler discussed the problem of power.  It meant forcing your will against the will of another.  Power was a new form of energy on the planet, and it led to conquest and exploitation.  Once a belligerent bully arrives, the party is over.  Power can only be neutralized by greater power. 

Many, many tribal people around the world developed mindful ways of living in balance with their ecosystem.  The tribes of the Pacific Northwest lived in a relatively sustainable manner, and would still be living like that, if they hadn’t been overrun by bad craziness that metastasized in the Fertile Crescent — on the other side of the world!  Power trumps mindfulness.

As we move beyond peak energy, peak food, peak people, and a stable climate, much of our knowledgebase will become obsolete.  Our glowing screens will go dark, our world will shrink to the nearby locality, and survival will involve spending much of our time outdoors.  How badly will ecosystems be damaged?  Will gardening be possible?  Will humankind survive?

As we work to envision the path forward, it would be wise to be wary of the dangers of tool addiction.  A century or two down the road, we might return to a life of pure jungle simplicity, like Tarzancíto.  If we did, I suspect that our complex and chaotic modern minds will become much calmer and quieter.  If farming and herding become impossible, or if we abandon the habit, and outgrow our obsession with wealth and status, maybe bully power, like patriarchy, will go extinct, too. 

Importantly, we will no longer be able to live in a manmade world, in isolation from the family of life.  We will once again become acquainted with our relatives in the family of life, and learn to live with them.  I don’t think we’re genetically flawed; we just tried a new path, had a bad trip, and made a big mess.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant and kind essay. Thanks. I stumbled upon it when completing "The Wind Kicks up ...and the Wind Kicks Down" which benefited from linking to this "What Is a Human Being", at

Riversong said...

I prefer Jung's insights over Freud's, but I enjoy Sigmund's take on the start of civilization:

He wrote that, while in the trees, human ancestors relied on smell like most wild creatures, and hence sought out sexual partners only when they were in heat.

But once on the ground, we were forced to walk upright and rely more on our eyes, and that led to the males being attracted to females for coupling all the time, which eventually led to the institution of marriage to "own" our sexual partners so that they would be readily available.

So, Freud insists, it was man's ability to be constantly erect that led to civilization.

What Is Sustainable said...

Anonymous, thanks for the heads up. I met Jan in Arcata in maybe 2006. Way back in 1997, I got a major piece on Peak Oil published in his Auto-Free Times.

Oil and the Future

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, I've never spent any time with Freud. Yeah, I'm also very impressed with Jung. Maybe Freud was right. Maybe the wildlife biologists are right. I'm not going to jump into that fight.

Ambassador Renate said...

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What Is Sustainable said...

Renate, thanks for the link. I'll take a look at it this afternoon. I like the image of "your comfort zone" and "iceality."

Anonymous said...

Hi Richard,

I'm with you on the modern mind being not so great as we like to think it is. However, I'm wondering what you think of the fact that chimps and other primates (aside from bonobos, if I understand correctly)have patriarchal and often violent hierarchies, maintained by a power structure based on physical male dominance?

I agree that Humanity has created cultures that remove the impetus for power structures based on physical violence, or at least made that strategy fairly unsuccessful, but they developed fairly rarely (to the best of my knowledge) and at this point aren't around much.

I certainly wish that wasn't the case, and find it very upsetting that an animal capable of recognizing a better alternative refuses to use it.

But to say it would be better that we stayed in the forest? I think that paints an overly rose colored picture of what it is to be a primate. Of course, if we had stayed in the forest, at least we wouldn't be destroying the earth. So I suppose it would be better, but I don't think it would be easy or necessarily pleasant just because it's what we originally physically adapted to.

I understand the argument that if we just hadn't left we wouldn't realize how 'comfortable' life could be with all our luxuries, but that cat is well out of the bag.

Anyway, thank you for your writing. I continue to enjoy it.

I bought Brian Fagan's books regarding the social impacts of climate change and have been enjoying them, thank you for the recommendation.


What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Ned!

<< I'm wondering what you think of the fact that chimps and other primates have patriarchal and often violent hierarchies, maintained by a power structure based on physical male dominance? >>

I don’t know enough about primate behavior to have a knowledge-based opinion. Many, many species have social hierarchies and conflicts. I don’t think that wild nature resembles a Disney utopia. Humans have definitely pushed hierarchy and conflict to new proportions.

<< I certainly wish that wasn't the case, and find it very upsetting that an animal capable of recognizing a better alternative refuses to use it. >>

Humans are NOT rational and ethical. I don’t think we ever will be.

<< Of course, if we had stayed in the forest, at least we wouldn't be destroying the earth >>

Right! That’s an extremely important consideration. No, living in the forest would not be easy. But if we could learn to live in balance once again, we might have a future. That would be nice! I don’t think that a dead end way of life is worth it, no matter how many gizmos it gives us.