“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.” – Agent Smith, The Matrix
At the age of 16, while working on a project for Jugend Forscht (Youth Researching, a German science competition for teenagers) in the biology lab of my school with two friends, I found a book in the small biology library: Theo Löbsack’s Versuch und Irrtum: Der Mensch – Fehlschlag der Natur (Trial and Error: Mankind – Failure of Nature, 1974, ISBN 9783570022603). In this book, the author – an anthropologist and science journalist – describes why mankind is NOT the summit of evolution. He claims that mankind is heading unstoppably towards its extinction, for the same reasons as the dinosaurs or the sabre-toothed tigers. The sabre-toothed tiger had teeth that were too large, specialised too much on a certain type of prey. For a while it was good, but as the world changed, this tiger species could not keep pace with this change, so he had to go extinct. The dinosaurs had too large bodies that could not adapt to the changing circumstances when it was necessary, so they also disappeared. And the same will happen to mankind, because the human brain developed into an excessive organ, too. The book features chapters about technological progress, about religion and ethics, about diseases and about human short-sightedness. In short: mankind stepped out of evolution by creating its own world, with high technology that people cannot control anymore. Mankind invented morals and ethics, inflicted onto people by powerful institutions like organised religion or political systems. The main adverse effect of it is that we can’t let fellow humans die. We save everyone! By this, mankind undermined important principles of evolution, thus avoiding the balancing effects of selection pressure, leading to genetic decay and vulnerability of health and immune system.
The book was in fresh and convincing contrast to the implausible nonsense we learned in religion classes and in the church classes that prepared for the Confirmation ceremony: Mankind as the crown of creation, God’s final masterpiece, equipped with ratio and reason, thus smarter than animals and superior to them. It never made sense to me! Not only is that entire God-story nothing but a bed-time fairytale, but also is the idea that humankind is superior to other elements of the biosphere highly flawed. For each and every ability that we have you will find an animal that is better at it. Our last resort was and is our cognitive and self-reflective capacity. In terms of human intelligence concepts, we are indeed smarter than animals since we have never seen a non-human animal solving math equations or flying to the moon and back. But what is intelligence? Obviously, the human brain developed into a state in which its output – enabling man to do impressive and creative things – threatens the future of its carrier and his/her offspring. We are not able to use our brain to secure our further existence. In contrast, with the help of our brains, we even put it at risk, unable to understand it and counter-act. A sustainable intelligence would, above all, ensure its survival, like ant or bee societies.
This worst form of ignorance – not admitting our humble position in the world fabric but believing strongly in the superiority and divinity of the human race – has devastating effects. Uprooted from the harmonious equilibrium of our ecological niche, human activity leads to a global disruption of environmental balance. Even worse, the ends, our motivations for all we do, serve avoidable, implausible, selfish desires, a craving for pleasure and well-being that greatly exceeds the necessities of survival and pleasant life. Selfish, in the context of mankind as a whole, doesn’t refer to individual selfishness of people, but to the widespread overestimation of human importance, significance and superiority. We may call that anthropocentrism. Human convenience, according to this view, may legitimately be weighed against environmental or ecological impact. A new tunnel that makes the train ride between two cities 30 minutes shorter justifies the destruction of natural habitat and landscapes. Producing electricity for our neon-light temples (malls, amusement parks, stadiums, etc.) and profit generators (factories for the production and dissemination of more and more goods) justifies the exploitation of Earth’s resources in an unsustainable manner, damaging the ecosphere and putting all life forms at risk. The industrial era is an unprecedented case of serving and increasing human suffering (in the Buddhist sense): We desire eternal life and freedom from unease, so we consume mindlessly everything that is offered to us, promising an increase in convenience and pleasure. Yet, today, more people than ever suffer from mental decay, psychological disorders, emotional instability and fears. Our destruction of the planet was even useless, it seems. People get older, life quality (in terms of hygiene, labour, medical care) is highly improved, advanced societies established peaceful ways of living together. Yet, doubts are frequently raised that overall well-being and happiness could be improved by that. Even worse: Our activities induced a change of the ecosystem (new germs and bacteria that are resistant to our antibiotics, climate change, prolonged recovery cycles of agriculturally important land) that the human race is not able to keep pace with. Current lifestyles (close to water, mostly coastlines, dependent on large scale agriculture, artificial protection from infectious diseases) turn vulnerable and fatal at a rate that no social, cultural or political system can react on (or against). Therefore, I see Löbsack’s prediction – extinction of the human race within a few generations – in a realistic light.
The source of all the trouble that arises from self-consciousness and self-awareness is fear. The fear of death manifests itself in eager activity and desperate attempts to avoid death. Biologically, evolution equipped us with features like emotions (to induce escape reactions or attraction to something beneficial), sense-perceptions and cognition. In the large time-scales of evolutionary pressure, these features developed because they brought advantages to their carriers. But now, within a few centuries – a very very short time frame for biological processes – the conditions created by ourselves turn to our disadvantages. Three artificial human-made systems, all the product of fear in one or the other way, are the root of all problems: power (manifested in religions and socio-political systems), materialism (the belief that things have a value, the basis of economy with its monetary system), and pleasure. They all increase human suffering since they support and fertilise the mind poisons (in Buddhist terms): Greed makes people long for power and well-being, often for the cost of others. Selfish interests in power and material wealth cause hatred and resistance against others, causing a lack of willingness to cooperate and form peaceful communities. Ignorance is more subtle: Religious and political systems are based on people being ignorant. The powerful and superior have no interest in others being potent and knowledgeable. I am sure you will be able to come up with countless examples for all these aspects.
To summarise: We are a life form that is equipped with an organ that enables self-awareness, learning, and creativity. The self-awareness drives us into fear-induced activities in which our creativity and cognitive potentials can bring phenomena (ideas and artefacts) with devastating effects into existence. This makes humankind a dangerous element in the global environmental equilibrium. Or with other words: We are not in a natural equilibrium any longer. Therefore, as with all life forms like us before, the ecosystem will try to get rid of mankind – man will go extinct. This is not sad, but good for the overall cosmic harmony and balance. Trial and error. But it wasn’t nature that failed! We humans had a good chance, with outstanding mental and cognitive abilities. We failed in using them appropriately. It is mostly sad and unfair for all those life forms that had to suffer from our stupidity!