Ideas that add up #188

Because we evolved in the Palaeolithic, I like to say humanity has Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike power.

E.O. Wilson, interviewed for The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4, July 28th, 2015

In other words we’re out of our depth: simple-minded, irrational creatures wielding humongous physical power but outpaced by our own organizational and technological advances. As Wilson puts it in another interview: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions.”

Implicit in those statements is the familiar arc of Progress, from Fred Flintstone to Flash Gordon. To infinity and beyond. After all, we blasted a dog into space in an airtight tin-can, didn’t we? We have miraculous medical arts for prolonging the lives of the would-be dead, don’t we? And we blow things up, big timeThat’s godlike, right?

Not really. To me, these exploits are variations on the basic business of making, breaking and burning things. Variations, moreover, which have holed the ship below the water. We’ve woken into a world and way of life that is “unsustainable”, to put it mildly, and more technology only makes it more so. As does requisitioning more of nature’s resources. As does having more people jostling for room on this crowded mossball.

Not so clever, not so godlike, when you pan back and see the big picture.

Godlike power, if there could ever be such a thing, would mean standing up against self-destruction, which we have allowed to become our biological destiny. It would mean negotiating, with divine speed, a managed climb-down from “Progress” as we know it. It would mean truly taking fate into our own hands, not by separating ourselves still further from our supposedly benighted Palaeolithic forebears with photovoltaic panels, missions to Mars and driverless cars, but by mapping, with everyone’s consent, a path back towards some kind of harmony with the rest of the living world, the kind of harmony we were much, much closer to back in the days before our species ran amok.

I hope there is such a thing. Shit, sometimes I even imagine there is – we can do it! Or is that just my delusional social programming doing the thinking, the part that firmly believes in happy endings…?

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