As a philosopher with the temperament and behavior of a hermit, I occasionally lose sight of where on the track the most common man is running. I mean this in no pejorative way; only in the sense of median and mode (and I have real allegiance to women’s complete equality, but also value the rhythm of words). Of course, I am aware that as a species we are not equipped to fully comprehend our true place in the pantheon of places offered by the universe. In fact, it is our species that has invented comprehension and is just taking our baby steps with it.
I cannot make clear the pangs – all mixed together – of anger, terror, hatred, amusement, shame, confusion and some pre-fire primate emotion of wonderment when I read an explanation/evaluation of the evolution of some aspect of our human condition that thoroughly misses the point; and leads the mind on wild goose chases through mine-fields guaranteeing detonations of prejudice, excess, apocalypse and murder. For like it or not, we will not get living right, if we are going to live by the fruits of our minds, until we get our comprehensions in alignment with the stars of the sky and the molecules of our manure. Failing this, the physical and living world, with which we refuse to be a full partner, will rub us out indiscriminately, along with much that we have touched.
I am moved to this rant by hearing (and reading) so much lately about selfishness, the selfishness of the phenotype and the selfishness of the genotype. There is no such thing. If it were only a matter of metaphor, only a matter of trying to create clarity about an otherwise impenetrable subject, then fine. But this is a mental suicide bomb in which, it seems, we are wrapping an economic system and a society.
The root from which grows such a complex tree of issues is very simple: that which is of such a stable form that it sustains ‘is.’ That which is labile ‘is not.’ There is no “trying to be” anything. We have these foolish arguments about altruism and selfishness: is it right or wrong, is it possible?
The counterintuitive claim is made that selfishness (always defined more in equivocation than illumination) left to run uninhibited will bring benefit to all in the form of a orderly and inherently just world – though not often explicitly stated – in the manner of an ecosystem. This obvious parallel is avoided given the many unpleasantnesses that might be brought up in the functioning of ecosystems. The very anti-intuitiveness is considered some kind of positive proof – you can see it in the knowing, barely tolerating smiles of the advocates.
But the fact is that humans act with selfishness and with altruism. There are behaviors that we mean by these words and that has nothing, literally nothing, to do with the deeper comprehensions of the biological motives and evolutionary designs that have formed the stabilities that sustain living, animal, vertebrate, mammalian, primate, hominid and human forms.
Our comprehensions have gradually been moved to organizing, in our minds, the earth as a small planet attached to a small star in an unassuming position in an ordinary galaxy among a 100 billion other galaxies. That this planet is favorably placed to have a remarkable physical stability is why we are here, not favorably placed just so that we could be here. However, the madness required to believe that latter is still wide spread.
Still, we have not really even begun to see our species in a similar way, organizing a comprehension that even remotely aligns with the biophysical reality of our origin and place in living space. Even the most enlightened arguments generally available in the public sphere are lightyears away from the comprehensions that would allow us to realign with the biophysical realities upon which our sustaining stability depends.
And the various mental organizing of experience of the earth’s billions are not and cannot be other than the product of immediate, local events and processes. Regional, national and international happenings must have some local effect to be more than a curiosity. And yet, it is the global human impact that must be addressed in collective action. Enlightened comprehension is in a race, not with parochial localism or single-minded political systems (though these act as sea anchors), but with the possibility of avoiding cascading ecological collapses with devastating consequences for human economies and cultures.
A critical mass of people with an allegiance to ‘the’ comprehension that best aligns human capacities and specieshood to the generally recognized physical and biological realities of the living space is necessary. The barest understanding is that we are too many and we use too much; the reduction in both population and consumption required is draconian by almost all measures; and these reductions will be made whether moderated by human agency or not. With that as a beginning the real Devil will be in the details.
It is perfectly understandable that people would reject such a view, just as they would reject government or ‘business’ conspiracies (until they become settled history), but this is no conspiracy, other than a conspiracy of our human capacities working to their zenith.
Yet even as we extract the last barrel of oil and clutter the sky with millions of pieces of space junk (perhaps our most enduring legacy), still we have the potential to comprehend and to include such understandings in our actions; a few people do it all the time and have for thousands of years. The question is: can enough of us do it quickly enough, when under the greatest possible need, to lead the way?