20 minute thoughts — A Letter to Humanism
I have a few to answer here. Why do I have such trouble with the term humanism? What animism can teach us? And what are the limits of human exceptionalism?
To answer the first, I would make a suggestion that leans heavily towards the second question. I am very wary of the term ‘humanism’, because, it makes the same presumption as theistic religions have throughout history. In religious texts such as the bible, but also the tracts of Mesopotamia and Hinduism, we find a narrative in which if man is not made in the image of God (as in Judeo-Christian doctrine), then he is at least made to dominate the planet, control which animals get into the ark, and what number of those animals —14 clean and 2 unclean in the case of Noah. Humanism makes the same mistake. In touting evolution by natural selection, scientists should have been paying attention to the fact the Octopuses have very different nervous systems to us, and thus would have a different consciousness to us — one that we might never understand, but they were not.
The story of humanism is one which enables us as humans to place our selves in a tier above the rest of the planet; land, plants, and animals. This is a error. We know now that we were not made in God’s image, but were once lizards, and diverged from chimpanzees millions of years ago. Humanism makes the error of presupposing our exceptionalism as the justification of our dominance and destruction of the planet. We are in a very real sense, animals.
I might suggest that animism, though derided by us as unimportant, archaic, and stone age in culture, actually has a lot to teach humanists. Animism takes the assumption that we are animals as a given, and thus awards the same level of value to the forest, animals and humans alike. There is not one creed or cut of animism, different cultures valued certain things over others, but there is a message worth listening to nestled in the animist worldview. If you believe the sharks offer the same value to the world to humans, then it does not come into your mind to cull them for the sake of recreationists. We are not fit for purpose in the ocean. We need tools to survive. We are sitting ducks if a shark decides to attack, and we should be. We can respect and use the ocean, without ruining it for the animals that belong there.
Humanists should have become muli-specieists in earnest once they realized that animals show the same emotions as us, extraordinary and different intelligence to us, and a base level of sentience and awareness which must allow for the possibility of consciousness. That is certainly the case in Octopuses, though there is no handy app to allow us to learn Octopus languages or grammars. But we as scientists, naturalists and humanists should allow for the possibility. Animism already accepts such musings as fact and carries with it the possibility that we might not get carried away with human exceptionalism, even in cases where no such exceptionalism exists.
To discuss human exceptionalism, we must take a few things as a given. First, that humans are exceptional; we build the grandest of tools, we are deeply flexible and extraordinarily social, we have taken our intelligence to places never thought possible, and we are extraordinary creatives. Adaptation is the name of our game, a game played well, if never to absolute completion. However, we should also ask if our use of the environment has been exceptional? Whether we are as efficient in certain spaces as other animals? Do we have the same perceptual view of the world? Are we creators or destroyers? Where does our vanity end?
The answer to that last question is never. We will never cease to build monuments to ourselves. In a way, we are fast building a decaying monument of a planet to ourselves. We are exceptional problem-solvers, and one might argue that while we rarely solve big problems before they arrive, we find ingenious solutions very quickly.
Take the environment as an example. Once upon a time, cities around the world were in crisis, because sewage, horse muck and society’s general waste were thrown wherever; in the street, vacant lots, into rivers, into the sea. Cars and sanitised landfills were touted by residents as environmental saviours. In hindsight, the irony abounds as we struggle with overstocked landfills, pollution in our waterways, and a fossil fuel industry driving our planet towards oblivion. Our cities still offload their waste into the ocean and our transport waste is belched into the atmosphere.
So, are we able to solve our problems? No. we simply design ways of making ourselves feel better, while the rest of planet goes through ecological collapses, which in turn put humanity at further risk. We are doing nothing of note to solve these issues because we have forgotten that we are animals. So, while it would be inconsistent to worship other animals and forests as actual gods, we could do well to build our society around them as equals, rather than continue to behave as if we were fated to be a quasi-divine species of destruction — a cut price Cronus
Our knowledge of our superiority, given to us by theistic beliefs dating back thousands of years, has not been swayed by science. The fact that the new atheistic church is known as humanism is alarming since it seems to forget that we are not superheroes, but mere crude mimics and clumsy inventors. We create inefficient and unsustainable versions of the phenomenon seen in nature.
We fly in metal tubes that are burning the atmosphere we need to survive, yet albatrosses cross the Pacific Ocean in huge numbers with comparatively minuscule effort and zero cost to the environment, as do Godwits. We eat the honey Bees work hard to manufacture, whistling while the insect population collapses. We drink spring water treated in chemical plants yet rely on an agricultural system that remains badly regulated. Agriculture causes the vast majority of our freshwater issues in New Zealand. We build cities that house millions and shut out the stars. Ants from Argentina have built nests which dwarf our cities in comparison — when the two are scaled of course — and the colony has expanded its reach to multiple continents. Last but not least; everybody loves Tequila, do they not? Well, as David Attenborough showed in his documentary about Rodrigo Medellin,The Mexican Bat Man, we can thank the Tequila Bat for all its hard work pollinating the agave plant, because otherwise there would be no Tequila shots — which result in post-midnight vomiting
These few words are not intended to deny humans their exceptionalism, for that would be nonsensical. Rather these musings aim to put limits on that exceptionalism and deny humanism its overwhelming sense of achievement. Humanism is in danger of forgetting the most important thing evolution and biology has taught us; that we are animals. While we evolved, other animals did too, to fit their niche and add necessary sparks to a thriving planet. As a result, humans can thrive too. We are master tool builders, often learning from animal maestros. We are not the image of God, for such an idea devalues Bees, Peregrine Falcons, Whales, Octopuses, and Horses.
We are animals, and the term humanism lurks in the region of theism, dangerously close to leading us down a path to a place where humans are the only sentient or conscious animal of any worth or value — we will surely unveil others. Instead of being charitable to animals, the path forward is to reign in the idea of human exceptionalism, so that we keep the good bits, and share the planet with equally exceptional mammals, reptiles, fish, birds, insects, and cephalopods.