Received wisdom: Domination does not mean superior

Columnist Al Lehmann argues humans are our own worst enemies

Al Lehmann

Humans have long considered ourselves the peak of biological development. Shakespeare’s Hamlet described humans as “noble in reason…like an angel…the paragon of animals.” In various places in The Bible it is claimed that man is made “in God’s image.” What could be more flattering? Or self-serving?

We must react with some skepticism to our assumed, god-like status. To paraphrase the acerbic Mark Twain, we are said to be created in the image of God, but don’t actually resemble Him enough to be mistaken by anybody but a very near-sighted person.

It’s indisputable, humans dominate the planet, but this domination has ultimately led to the absurd and imminent catastrophes we now face, including: The progressive murdering off of huge numbers of species, from apex predators down to pollinating insects; Vast conversions of land from forest and grasslands into desert; Poisoning our oceans and food chains with plastic while fishing once abundant species into extinction; Heating the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans with released carbon dioxide; Developing weapons systems capable of destroying nearly all life on Earth.

An invading extraterrestrial species would be hard-pressed to inflict such damage as we consistently inflict upon ourselves. We may reasonably inquire: Does the fact of our domination of the planet in any way prove that we are superior beings to its other species? I think not. Yet the received wisdom humanity has operated by for millennia is that the Earth belongs to us rather than the other way around.

Trying to alter our approach to the non-human world is an extraordinary challenge. After all, for millennia, nature was a force that threatened us at every turn: fire, flood, disease, storms, and so on were constant possibilities. Original forms of received wisdom to protect ourselves (prayer, sacrifice, and other rituals to appease the gods that putatively caused all these ills) have gradually given way to regimens of scientific inquiry, planning, and engineering. These recent strategies have proven dramatically successful. For example, the smallpox that once killed millions has been eradicated. Thus, it is these practices that have become society’s received wisdom (although many people still hedge their bets with prayer).

These spectacular successes nonetheless do not eliminate the above list of how the world is going seriously haywire. Further, our science-based successes are rather piecemeal, and the experts who manage them may frequently be unaware of the big picture, of how the tiny points of their expertise may unpredictably affect the complex feedback loops in the larger world system.

In 1972, nearly 50 years ago, researchers used computer technology to model feedback loops in the world system, factors as varied as R&D, population growth, food production, industrial production, subsequent rising pollution, and so on. Their inescapable conclusion, no matter how they “tweaked” the inputs, was that without our species’ curbing growth, the system will unavoidably crash before the year 2100. Someone once argued that “experience is a mechanism enabling us to make the same mistakes, over and over again, but with greater confidence!”

If received wisdom needs a definition, that one seems to fit rather well.