I recently returned to the UK, making a swift transition from a warm and sunny Nairobi to a cold and grey Central London in all it’s Christmas fervour. As I journeyed from the land of little to the land of plenty, I was confronted by the differences but also the similarities. The material disparities were stark and yet the level of contentedness seemed more comparable than one might expect given that UK’s GDP per capita is 28 times larger than Kenya. Concurrently, coming to the UK and having a great variety of tasty cheese, I was forced to re-evaluate and develop a stronger rationale for my veganism as I do here – 1/01/18: Why I have become Vegan.
Through these reflections, I have realised quite how human-centric our world is, questioned why this is the case and considered the dark irony that despite having built a human-centric world, we seem to have failed the human at the centre of it.
Disclaimer: This blog post might seem like a self-righteous rant; it is a rant but not as self-righteous as it sounds. As I have emphasised in the name of this blog, I am an eternal hypocrite and any ideas I espouse, I routinely fail to act on. Finally, I discuss religion but do not intend to cause offence.
Aren’t we special?
Our society and culture are enraptured with the greatness of the homo sapiens. This is unsurprising and partly deserved.
In physical terms, we have far greater control over other species than any other. By evolutionary standards, we have amassed a population exceeding 7 billion and 350 million tons of biomass, greater than any mammal near our size. In mental terms, human knowledge is unrivalled. Our understanding of how the earth functions through physics and chemistry, and understanding of our own bodies and others through biology and chemistry, is remarkably vast and sophisticated. A trip to the Natural History or Science Museum cannot help but fill you with awe at our discoveries.
Our innovation is astounding. The rate of technological and medical progress is testament to the usefulness of this knowledge. Consider our fascination with time travel. Time travel is only an interesting concept if we are moving from an existence in the last 500 years. Before then, any two-time points looked too similar – it was not worth going through the ethical dilemmas of time travel. However, now, the rate of progress is so fast, time travel based on decades would be fascinating.Our greatness extends beyond our knowledge of others, human creations are also magnificent. The works of art, the monuments and relics, the pieces of music, the theatre and movies…. A visit to the National Portrait Gallery or Victoria & Albert museum is evidence of this. They say, ‘a chimpanzee with a typewriter and an infinite amount of time will be able to produce the complete works of Shakespeare’ – well it only took us 200,000 years. It is easy to feel superior and justify why homo sapiens are unique in the animal kingdom. (Why we are so is a different question and still grappled with, bbc article and new scientist).
It is interesting to note that this human-centricity is a relatively new phenomenon. Many ancient cultures and religious doctrines were based on respecting the power and spirits of the earth and its animals: the Inuits of North America believe in Animism, the Quechua of South America have Mother Earth (Pachamama), the Ancient Egyptians have non-human deities and Aborigines in Australia believed in spirituality. As humans became more adept at ‘taming’ nature, we lost our respect for other animals and developed religions which actively espouse our superiority. Ancient religions became seen as ‘witchcraft’ and dismissed, humans had to be superior to other animals – it said so in the new scriptures. The story implicitly assumed we had a right to the earth we inhabit and only owed obedience to a non-earthly being. God had even sculpted the earth and animals for us.
Not necessarily in physical terms…
Human greatness is only great if measured against human metrics. On physical characteristics, there are almost none which humans dominate. We are not the fastest at running, as I discovered when being chased by baboons in Zambia, or the tallest, as you would know from trying to speak to a giraffe. Our sense of smell and eyesight is trumped by most birds. By most physical attributes, humans are inferior to farm animals. In terms of reproduction, we are beaten. There are 10 billion billion ants on earth and their biomass outweighs ours by nearly 10 times. Even cattle have a greater biomass, 520 million tons compared to our 350.
The human centricity is perfectly captured by the ‘Natural History Museum’ – a name which requires the human to provide ‘his-story’ and almost suggests that without us, the rest would not be of relevance. Even our notion of time, with years marked by the death of Christ, is human-centric. A naive interpreter, myself included, might conceive there was not much of importance that existed before this.
Any David Attenborough programme would highlight the stunning complexity and skill of the other inhabitants of this earth – science provides a vital appreciation on how remarkably ‘un-unique’ homo sapiens are physically.
Maybe in mental terms…
There is one unique aspect to humans – the power of complex thought. Human cognition and awareness of non-literal things are unparalleled. We can conceive of things that do not exist, communicate images to those who have not seen them and paint a conceptual picture. This cognition has equipped us with the means to understand this earth, control it and its creatures. (Although, we should also be aware that there is a real possibility that some alien life-form in this universe is far more advanced than us and looking down on us with pity.)
One could rest on these laurels and accept that this is enough to justify we are unique. But, as shown, all animals have a unique aspect. Instead, to assess the justification for a human-centric world, we should judge how we have used this ability.
What have we done with our ‘uniqueness’?
Have we managed to operate at a higher level of existence, to build a harmonious society, to help those less able than ourselves?
For other species? In a short three centuries, we have managed to drive millions of species to extinction and currently do so at a rate of at least 10,000 species per year. This rapid loss is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate (source). The earth would have looked more like this, had we not existed.
For those species which do have a clear human-use – we breed, raise, torture and kill millions of them for our pleasure. Despite the incredible human achievement of making a plant-based diet possible, the option to stop large-scale undue suffering to millions of creatures is not enough to convince us to stop using animal products. That burger is just too tasty! (I have been vegan for the last 4 months and, in addition to discovering tasty non-meat burgers, it has been rewarding. Find out more about why and how here.)
For the planet? Ya…. not great either…
For other human species? We drove those extinct as well. See your dead relatives here though! Interesting fact, Neanderthals had more powerful eyesight and many of the genes linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia are unique to Homo Sapiens (source). No clear reason we are ‘better’.
For future homo sapiens? Astonishingly, Homo sapiens may not be around much longer – in destroying our planet and source of resources, we have also threatened the survival of our species. Despite so much control and awareness, we have still managed to endanger our own species. We have failed the most basic evolutionary criteria.
For other homo sapiens? At the least, with all the damage we have caused, you would hope we have protected our own current species. Human consciousness and foresight enabled us the opportunity to care for all of our species and consider how our actions affect others. In addition, we have the ability to think and act for a long-term goal, not rely on our short-term pleasures like other animals.
Unfortunately, the history of humanity is filled with massacres, pillaging, raping of our own species. Just like we subject cruelty to other animals, we have often turned this onto our own species with even more enthusiasm. The Rwandan Genocide Memorial is a harrowing but very worthwhile place to visit. This was not a mass murder of 800,000 people by two estranged African tribal groups. This was a divide created by the Belgians and French, and a war weaponised by these countries (link) and then watched by the international community on the sidelines.
When we have not been actively creating misery, we have built a society which subtly champions it. Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources in the face of infinite desires, in such a paradigm there will always be winners and losers. Scarce resources are a fact of life; infinite desires are not. Instead of tackling a society which breeds those desires, we have been taught to pursue, accept and expect inequity. Inequality is treated as a sign of progress, the pursuit of self-interest as a natural instinct. The sentence ‘I want’ is acceptable.
Worst of all, we are taught to feel an entitlement and ownership over what we have been born with (something I will delve into in a future blog). As such, millions die avoidable deaths and live lives of abject poverty whilst others sip champagne. The fact that photos like the ones below are familiar, shows how desensitised we are.
What about all the amazing knowledge and human creations? These are impressive but such success has only occurred when the incentives are right. When humans disagree, we often fall into conflict – preferring to return to primitive means rather than empathise, understand each others perspective and compromise.
For ourselves? Lastly, and perhaps most depressingly, those that are fortunate are frequently unhappy. Our obsession with inequity has created a relative world. A zero-sum game. Without a self-reflection of how fortunate we are, we are never satisfied. What we have right now is not good enough when we can have more. We chase the ephemeral entity of ‘more’ without establishing the ‘why’, questioning the ‘why’ and finding our own ‘why’. Then, when we get the ‘more’ – it does not fill the void inside us. So the chase continues at whatever cost and we remain unhappy. Fundamentally, I think, we have created an individualist society for a species that operates in groups.
A Tentative Conclusion
Humans have built a human-centric world, proud of what our species is. The beauty of nature would suggest, however, we are not so unique. Instead, our greatness should be judged on what we have achieved with our uniqueness.
Humans could have been proud of that fact we have an understanding of the earth that enables us to survive and flourish without harming animals; the cognition to express compassion and consideration for those creatures less fortunate than ourselves; the self-control not to cause irreparable damage to an earth that has enabled our existence; built a society where all our species enjoyed a minimum, humanising, standard of life; did not jeopardise the future survival of our species and finally, that we are happy. I am afraid to say, I do not think we have achieved any of them yet.
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