Written by Paris Williams, PhD
For those of us who’ve been paying attention to the general state of the world and human society, it’s readily apparent that we as a species have sent ourselves hurtling into the depths of a global crisis that has the potential to wipe ourselves out along with many of our fellow Earthlings. So how exactly how has this happened?
It’s easy and certainly well justified to point our finger at the many harmful industries that have emerged from our society—fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture, overfishing, mining, the military complex, etc. (have a look at this list of Harmful Practices Critiqued for a more extensive list). And yet what if there is a deeper cause that we can point to—a common “seed” that underlies all of these harmful industries and practices?
I believe that there is such a seed, one that is surprisingly simple to name and yet highly elusive, difficult for many of us to grasp. In a nutshell, I would say that this seed is a domineering attitude that appears to have increased in magnitude over the past 10,000 years or so of our evolution. In recent years, our collective eyes have begun to open to the great harm and even horror wrought by our ongoing efforts to dominate each other. But as the even larger horror of the accelerating global ecological collapse has become increasingly apparent, many of us have come to recognize that our domineering attitude is also probably the leading culprit.
I suggest that we drop down even one more level on this causal ladder and ask oursevelves, what is it that feeds humankind’s urge and sense of entitlement to dominate each other, our fellow Earthlings and the Earth? And I would say that just as the justification of one human group to dominate another is typically fueled by that particular group’s belief in their own superiority, so it is that humankind’s general belief in our superiority over other living beings fuels our ongoing desire and entitlement to dominate the Earth and our fellow species.
It’s readily apparent that pervasive among contemporary society is the strong belief that human beings are superior to other species, which in turn has spawned a number of closely related beliefs, such as: “The Earth belongs to us,” “We made it to the top and are entitled to do what we want,” “We are the most important/valuable species on this planet,” “We have dominion over the Earth and all of its creatures,” etc. This belief is so insidious that it even reveals itself within seemingly virtuous beliefs such as, “We are stewards of the Earth,” or “We need to work hard to manage the environment/ecosystems.” So strong is this belief in our superiority that I would say that very few people even regard it as a belief; rather, it is generally seen as simply a fact of life.
But let’s take a moment to scrutinize this belief more closely. In particular, let’s look at what I believe are the major core assumptions that maintain and reinforce it?
Assumption #1—We are the most intelligent species on the planet
Initially, this assumption may appear self evident. Certainly it’s true that we humans are an extremely inventive and productive species—the signs are everywhere, in our vast technology, our sprawling cities, our complex cultures and societies. If we define “intelligence” broadly as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to the meeting of our needs,” then at first glance, it would appear that we are indeed very intelligent when compared to most other species.
However, I feel that there are three serious problems with this reasoning that need to be addressed—I’ll call them problematic sublevel assumptions: (1) that because the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior; (2) that we really are as intelligent as we generally consider ourselves; and (3) that superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and a general sense of entitlement to dominate those species with less intelligence. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these in turn:
(1) Since the products our own intelligence are so much more readily apparent to us than those of other species, then our own intelligence must be superior.
Let’s approach this by first taking a more intuitive/spiritual tack…
Take a moment to take the anthropocentric blinders off and look around at the world—I mean really look around at the world. Take in this incredible web of life composed of billions of complex living organisms living together in symbiotic harmony. Take in this complex dance of creativity and adaptation that has gone on continuously for billions of years, and which is far more complex than any human mind could ever fathom, let alone replicate. Think about it—with our vast knowledge and technology, we haven’t been able to replicate even the simplest single-celled organism.
So if this awesome intelligence and creativity hasn’t come from us, then where is it coming from? Some spiritual and philosophical traditions conjecture an omniscient, omnipresent source of intelligence and creativity simply inherent in the fabric of existence; others say that a more personal God or group of Gods/Goddesses play a prominent role; and still others say that an incredible stroke of “luck” has set the wheels/physics of the universe turning in just exactly the right way for this evolutionary flow of life to unfold.
Despite all of these differences, there is one answer to this question with which virtually all scientific and spiritual traditions agree—that this intelligence did not originate from humankind, but that rather humankind has originated from it. Philosopher Alan Watts offered the following helpful analogy: Let’s turn the word “apple” into the verb “to apple,” as in “An apple tree apples.” In this way, we can say that “the universe peoples.” The universe also “dogs,” “frogs,” “starfishes,” “cockroaches,” “forests,” and “mountains.” This vast intelligence is the source of humankind’s much narrower intelligence. Certainly we have access to this intelligence, as it is our source after all, but we can say the same thing about every other living being on our planet and in our universe. From this perspective, how can we really say that our own intelligence is so superior, so special?
…let’s move on now to the cutting edge of human science—don’t our latest discoveries in neuroscience and biology clearly reveal our superior intelligence?
Within the fields of these and related scientific traditions, it was initially postulated that intelligence is essentially correlated with the number of interconnections between the neurons of a brain. In the most simplistic and reductionistic terms, this theory says that a neuron functions more or less like a computer bit—it acts like a switch that either fires or doesn’t fire depending upon the signals it receives from its fellow neurons, which in turn determines the firing/not-firing of other neurons. And as more and more neurons are connected together in this way, an increasingly complex web of linear and circular causality forms and ultimately emerges into increasingly complex forms of intelligence. And since the human brain has more neural connections than the brain of any other species discovered on Earth (it’s estimated that we have approximately 100 trillion such neural connections), then we must therefore be the most intelligent species.
However, our understanding of this has evolved in recent years to embrace a much more complex picture. First of all, we now recognize that the intelligence (as defined above) of an organism is based on far more than simply the activity of the neurons of the brain (or more specifically, the cerebral cortex). As brought to the forefront by the pioneering work of Candace Pert among many others, we now understand that every cell in our bodies are individual living organisms in their own right, with each actively communicating with the other cells of the broader organism, and with each contributing their own intelligence to the overall intelligence of the entire organism.
We also now know that a number of other species have brains much larger than ours—both in size and in the number of cerebral cortical neurons and interconnections. For example, both the brain size and overall (full body) neural count of African elephants are about 3 times those of humans; and the long-finned pilot whale, a type of dolphin, has more than twice as many brain (cerebral cortex) neurons than humans, and likely a correspondingly far higher count of interneural connections.
So while the evidence mounts that an increase in intercellular connections does correlate with a general increase in intelligence (i.e., the capacity to gather knowledge and apply this to meet one’s needs), it is becoming well established that the neuron cell is not the only intelligence-generating cell in the game. All other living cells within an organism contribute to the intelligence of the whole, but with each kind of cell specializing in a particular kind of intelligence (i.e., retaining specialized sets of knowledge, developing specialized sets of skills, and applying these to specialized needs/functions essential to the organism).
Furthermore, we can say the same thing about the connections that exist between living organisms themselves—bee and ant colonies, flocks of birds, herds of deer, etc., clearly demonstrate much greater intelligence than can be found within any individual member of these groups. This concept is often referred to as swarm intelligence—a phenomenon that is very well established but the details of which we are only just beginning to grasp. And this brings us to a particularly profound concept within our exploration of intelligence within contemporary biology and evolution—what I believe is a real mind-bender, a game-changer really.
So you know those simplest of all living organisms—the bacteria that we often think of as being little more than “germs”? They’re so simple that they don’t even have a nucleus, let alone anything remotely akin to what we tend to think of as a brain. Now let’s take a moment and expand our view backwards in time. Based on ever accumulating research, the bacteria (technically prokaryotes, but the term “bacteria” suffices for this discussion) are the very first living organisms to have come into existence on the Earth, coming into existence over 4 billion years ago. They adapted and evolved over a vast amount of time, first converging to become nucleated single-celled organisms (protozoa, algae, etc.), with further convergences resulting in multi-celled organisms (fungus, plants and animals), which finally brings us to well… us.
Let’s now take a moment to look at our own bodies. The leading edge of our own science has brought us to quite a startling conclusion. Our entire body and every cell within it is essentially composed of an extraordinarily complex colony of bacteria culminating from a very long line of the Earth’s very first bacteria evolving ever more complex relationships with each other. This doesn’t even factor in the many trillions of “exotic” bacteria living within our gut, with whom we are also symbiotically engaged in order to digest our food among other essential processes to sustain our life. Let’s take a moment to let this seep into our sense of superiority for a moment.
Now let’s take a moment to look around—wherever we happen to be located, right here and now. Every single plant, insect, animal, mushroom, and other living form we see or can imagine shares this same basic feature with us. Just like us, they also are embodiments of what we think of as the most simple (“least intelligent”) living organisms having converged into more complex forms. The entire web of life, in other words, is the grand culmination of a mysterious universal life force emerging first into the simplest living cells (bacteria), and then spreading across the entire surface of the Earth, merging together and emerging into the extraordinary array of symbiotic communities of single-celled and multi-celled organisms that we call “organisms,” and ultimately forming the living ecosystems of the Earth.
Finally, let’s extend our view spatially across the surface of the Earth. In addition to the colonies of bacteria that have come together in various ways to form individual living beings, the entire surface of the Earth—the entire biosphere—is filled with these little guys. Actually, it’s more accurate to flip this statement around—this extensive web of bacterial life is itself the fundamental nature of the biosphere. Lynn Margulis, acclaimed microbiologist, puts it like this: “Bacteria initially populated the planet and never relinquished their hold.”
Now let’s weave back into this story the principle that intelligence emerges from the symbiotic interactions among living cells and living beings, and that greater interconnectedness generally results in greater intelligence. Firstly, there are untold trillions of bacteria hooked together in what is well established to be the far largest self-organized living system on the planet, what many refer to as the ultimate superorganism of the Earth; and secondly, we know that the bacteria communicate with each other very effectively, and even in ways that other kinds of cells can’t—such as being able to instantly (without sexual reproduction) share with each other bits of their genetic material and the information coded within them, and even doing so across bacterial species, genus and even family lines.
Many people, even many scientists with a particularly reductionistic bent, have come to recognize that this global bacterial superorganism is far more intelligent than we could ever imagine, and that it plays many crucial roles in maintaining the conditions for life on this planet. As the Gaia Theory has evolved (the well established theory that the entire biosphere acts as a unified and extraordinarily intelligent organism in her own right), a number of people have conjectured that it may be appropriate to consider this bacterial superorganism as being akin to Gaia’s “brain.”
One prominent lifelong bacterial geneticist, James Shapiro, has summarized this emerging understanding of our bacterial kin in this way:
The take-home lesson of more than half a century of molecular microbiology is to recognize that bacterial information processing is far more powerful than human technology….These small cells are incredibly sophisticated at coordinating processes involving millions of individual events and at making them precise and reliable. In addition, the astonishing versatility and mastery bacteria display in managing the biosphere’s geochemical and thermodynamic transformations indicates that we have a great deal to learn about chemistry, physics, and evolution from our small, but very intelligent, prokaryotic relatives” (as quoted in Buhner, 2014).
Furthermore, in addition to this bacterial superorganism, there are other vastly intelligent living systems at play whose behaviours are still far beyond our own comprehension. For example, there are the myriad mycelial networks that facilitate the communication and exchange of essential nutrients among the plant and fungus life of most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems; and there is the complex interplay among many other kinds of micro-organisms and inorganic elements that has successfully regulated the Earth’s temperature, oxygen, atmospheric composition and ocean salinity and pH levels for billions of years.
In summary, the more we begin to grasp the intelligences of other living organisms and living systems, the more clear it becomes just how limited (and un-superior) human intelligence actually is.
(2) Are we really as intelligent as we consider ourselves?
To answer this question, let’s return to our working definition of intelligence, but add one key emphasis: “The capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs.” Considering the key quality of sustainability and now being able to compare human intelligence with the much broader and much older intelligences found in living systems such as bacterial superorganisms and mycelial networks, challenging this particular assumption is relatively straightforward.
In contemporary society, it is well established that the Earth is entering its 6th largest extinction event (in the past billion years of complex life), and that it is we, the human species, who are causing it. Our behaviour is changing our climate in extremely dangerous and unpredictable ways, and we are decimating the Earth’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems, due primarily to completely unnecessary eating habits and farming practices, along with other problematic behaviours. We consider it acceptable to generate energy by boiling water with extraordinarily concentrated radioactive materials (i.e., nuclear power), the leak of which we know will devastate the local environment for hundreds and even thousands of years. We have over 14,000 nuclear weapons ready to detonate, with the plan to continue making more, and with some countries actively threatening others who also possess such weapons. We continue to pour millions of tons per year of toxic chemicals into the environment and even onto our own food. And the list goes on…
So at first glance, observing that the human species has managed to inhabit nearly the entire planet, and that our population has grown over 1,000-fold in the past 10,000 years, it may appear that we are indeed extremely intelligent. But when we consider the fact that it is very clear that we cannot continue to exist much longer with our present behaviours, and yet we persist with them anyway, this belief that our intelligence is so superior becomes very doubtful indeed.
(3) Superior intelligence (at least as we see it) must imply superior worth and entitlement.
Hopefully by now, the case has been made well enough that considering our intelligence to be so superior to that of other living species and living systems on this planet is highly problematic at best, which then makes this final argument in favour of humankind’s superiority moot.
But for those who still find themselves hanging onto the belief in our superior intelligence, I’ll say a few words about this final point—that superior intelligence must imply superior worth and entitlement. This argument is often used to justify our exploitation of other species and the Earth in general, and even the exploitation of one human group by another (i.e., racism, sexism, slavery, etc.). Fortunately, human society has evolved quite a bit in recent years with regard to recognizing the problems inherent in exploiting other human beings (though it is certainly still a serious problem). Many of us have been able to see the enormous suffering that this attitude causes, both to those who are exploited and also to the exploiters’ own sense of integrity and ability to live in a peaceful society.
And now it’s beginning to dawn on many of us that the exploitation of other living beings and living systems is at least as problematic as the exploitation of other human beings. The living systems of the Earth are clearly collapsing, and if we maintain our course, we will certainly collapse right along with them. So let’s honestly re-evaluate this assumption: Is the global catastrophe taking place right before our eyes the result of the sense of entitlement by the intelligent; or is it a result of a sense of entitlement by the ignorant…?
Assumption #2—We represent the pinnacle and/or cutting edge of evolution
This second primary assumption that props up the belief of human superiority, particularly by those who believe in the theory of evolution, is that the human species represents either the pinnacle or the cutting edge of evolution.
From a purely anthropocentric perspective, this is certainly true. We are the latest “model” in our own particular evolutionary lineage. But for those of us who may believe we’ve reached some kind of a pinnacle (a kind of climax in our evolutionary journey), where is the evidence that our evolutionary lineage must stop with us? Why would the process of evolution on the Earth move along so persistently for billions of years, and then suddenly stop with us? (…unless of course we manage to wipe out all life on Earth, but that is another story.) And for those who believe we may not have reached such a pinnacle yet, but that we must certainly represent the cutting edge of the Earth’s evolution, let’s keep in mind that there are millions of other evolutionary lineages taking place within this vast Gaian tree of life, many of which are far older than our own particular branch, and many that will likely continue to evolve far after we are gone. What makes our particular branch so special?
Assumption #3—We are essential to manage/maintain life on Earth
From the perspective of Gaia theory, all living beings and living systems existing on the Earth are merely manifestations of her, merely different aspects of this one unified organism. So they all play important roles in some way at any given point of time in her evolution. However, just as with our own physical bodies, some parts are simply more vital than others.
For example, our physical body could lose a toe or even an entire leg and most likely continue to survive. But if we lose both of our lungs, then the loss would be too great and our body would certainly die. Likewise, Gaia has evolved to where she has become highly dependent upon terrestrial plant life (particularly tropical rainforests) and microalgae within the open ocean to generate the oxygen necessary to maintain her life. These essentially act as her “lungs” providing this essential nutrient to the other parts of her organism. If these systems were depleted enough, it is possible that Gaia could die, or would at least be forced to regress to a much more primitive state. On the other hand, if humankind were to go extinct, our loss would probably be much more akin to Gaia losing a little toe, or more realistically, only sustaining a small cut to her little toe—certainly not terminal to the organism. In the big picture of Gaia’s life, spanning over 4 billion years now (that’s 4,000,000,000+), humankind in its current form (Homo Sapiens) has emerged only about 200,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, if Gaia were 80 years old, humankind would have emerged onto the scene about 36 hours ago.
So it’s really impossible for us to make the case that Gaia needs us. Actually, at this point, the case is all too easily made that this “little toe” of humanity has become cancerous and is now acting as a direct threat against the life of the entire organism—of all life on Earth. If you were Gaia, would you not seriously consider cutting off that cancerous toe? (btw, I’m not advocating for the extermination of humankind—I’m just pointing out that as we broaden our perspective, we should naturally find ourselves moving towards a much more humble position).
Assumption #4—Our religious scriptures say that we are superior
Granted, I find it a bit more difficult to challenge this particular assumption than those above. When a person’s convictions are based solely upon what they have read or what somebody else has told them, and they have chosen to abandon critical thinking or deep personal reflection, then there’s not likely to be much potential for a paradigm shift. However, even within the religious scriptures and creation stories found within different cultures and spiritual traditions around the world, we find a very interesting theme that many (most?) of them share—and that is the recognition that our sense of superiority has gone hand in hand with our separation from our source of abundance and vitality.
In the West, this theme is probably most well known as illustrated in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of The Knowledge of Good & Evil, which then led to their being banished by God from The Garden of Eden. Essentially, the story goes that Adam and Eve lived for many years as members of a thriving and abundant ecosystem. But then they became tempted to “eat the fruit” which shifted their paradigm from one of harmonious unity to one of disharmonious duality—the “knowledge of good and evil.” One way of interpreting this story is to see it as a metaphor that represents the moment when humankind replaced their value for living in harmony with the natural world (as merely one member of a thriving ecosystem) with a dichotomous value system—inferior/superior, better/worse, more/less valuable, more/less worthy, mine/yours, and of particular relevance to this article here, humans/nature.
For those who have studied the theory of human evolution, this theme has clear parallels to the historical moment when humanity abandoned its indigenous roots extending back hundreds of thousands of years. At this point of time, about 10,000 years ago, humankind is believed to have generally “stepped out of nature” to embrace a much more dualistic mindset—humans vs. nature, human superiority vs. other species’ inferiority, the Earth and other living beings as being ours to own as property and personally dominate, exploit, etc. And we can look around now and clearly see where this path has taken us—initially to enormous short term abundance and population explosion, but ultimately heading right off the cliff of our own extinction.
So even within scriptures that are often used to justify the superiority of humankind and our entitlement to dominate other species, we find upon closer inspection this common core theme of a paradise lost, or of a deep ignorance having gripped us. As soon as humankind stepped out of their niche of living at one with the Gaian system, and attempted to instead place themselves outside of and superior to this heretofore unified living system, we ultimately lost our paradise.
So to Summarize…
Are we unique? Yes! Do we have unusual capacities and skills never before seen within the life of the Earth? Almost certainly. However, we can also say the same thing about every other species present and past.
As for our superior intelligence? Humankind does appear to possess a somewhat unusual form of intelligence combined with an upright posture and opposable thumbs, the combination of which makes all kinds of interesting technologies possible. However, considering the broad definition of intelligence as “the capacity to develop systems of knowledge and apply them to sustainably meet one’s needs,” humankind has clearly not demonstrated a degree of intelligence anywhere near as advanced as that of other living systems on the Earth. To the contrary, humankind, or at least in its present form as manifested within contemporary society, has demonstrated an unusually profound ignorance, having made the terrible choice of attempting to remove itself from the Gaian system, which of course is just as impossible and futile as a little toe attempting to sever itself from the larger body.
As for our general sense of superior worth and our associated sense of entitlement to do what we please with our fellow Earthlings and the Earth in general? Well, as discussed above, from the perspective of Gaia, there are clearly other species and living systems far more vital to her ongoing survival than the human species…
This leaves us then with the question of our own continued survival. If humankind is not as intelligent nor superior as we have come to believe, and if it is true that our attempt to leave the Gaian system has been a very bad decision, then what does that mean for our own future? I believe that the answer to this question lies within a close reflection upon our past.
Looking historically, the evidence is quite compelling that our departure from living harmoniously with the Gaian system coincided with an intensification of the belief in our fundamental “superiority,” as well as our fundamental sense of entitlement to exploit other species and the environment to our own very narrowly perceived needs. And if we track our progress over the centuries since we have adopted this belief, what do we find? We do indeed see that we have been able to experience tremendous benefit initially, in the sense of an explosion of our population and the capacity to survive on most of the surface of the Earth. But in recent generations, this short-term benefit is finally revealing the very serious long-term harm of this belief system and its associated behaviours. Though the ride may have been good to many (and hell for many others) while it lasted, the writing is becoming all too clear upon the wall: We have been “superior”ing our way to our own demise.
So what to do? We may not be superior to other species, but like all species, we do have our own unique capacities. And as humans, we appear to have an unusually strong capacity for productivity (both creative and destructive), self-awareness and self-reflection. What would happen if we shift the focus of these attributes to the serious attempt to return to the “Garden of Eden,” to establishing a harmonious niche as simply one species among many on this diverse and abundant planet?
I like to think that this would be possible, though certainly very challenging. What if we take our capacity for self-awareness/reflection/transformation, and work on shifting our paradigm to…
(a) expanding our understanding of ‘the self’ to contain all other living beings and the entire Gaian system;
(b) cultivating an equal compassion/regard/respect for all living beings, beyond simply other human beings and companion animals who are personally close to us;
(c) humbling ourselves in the face of Gaia—recognizing that she has a wisdom far deeper, older, and broader than our much more limited personal minds could ever fully grasp…
…and closely related to this, (d) reorienting our efforts at personal and human surviving and thriving to be much more in line with Gaia’s wisdom and natural behaviours.
This would entail shifting our focus from “managing” the environment (Gaia has demonstrated that she can do this perfectly fine without us, thank you very much) to managing ourselves—(a) stopping our destructive behaviours, and (b) simply stepping back from as much of the Earth as we can, and making space for Gaia’s own capacity to heal and regenerate herself.
In summary, then, it appears that the more our limited human minds begin to grasp the much vaster and more intelligent minds at play on the Earth, the more apparent it becomes that we simply need to lose the superiority complex and graciously re-engage openly and compassionately with our fellow Earthlings.
In other words, isn’t it about time that we got over ourselves and re-join the party?