Frans de Waal: “… the survival of chimpanzees is quite dependent on tools … [and the great apes in general appear to use] a representational mental strategy, which allows solutions before action … but I consider us the only linguistic species.” — Chapter: Redefining Man.
In an age of post truth media, finding something we can all agree on is the only possible beginning for any useful conversation about big issues with contending vested interests. Issues like global warming. So I am proposing here that, if a man like Frans de Waal, granddaddy of animal behaviour research and author of Are we Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are (2016), can make only this one distinction between humans and all other animals, then this might be a good place to start if we want to talk about Humans and Nature — how we got to the existential climate crisis we are facing today, and what we are going to do about it … or not.
So how does talking effect our relationship to the Natural world?
Given de Waal’s full statement above — acknowledging a Chimp’s tool-dependency and the great apes’ reflective but speechless mentality — and given the vast gulf we see today between the global impact of humans and the demise of the ‘other’ great apes, I think we can at least agree that one very important early effect of language would have been to make possible the progressive nature of human technology, because progressive culture can’t be built on the limited memory capacity of single individuals. Then, bringing ecology into the discussion, since a species’ difference from other species established its very identity (though it’s really only anatomical difference that constrains an organism’s niche in the long run, so note the potential for disrupting this dynamic when tools are introduced), and must ultimately be ‘negotiated’ through natural selection as it relates to all other species’ differences, we should further agree that, if we are ever to see some level of ecological stability, the human project of progressively refining what started out as stone-headed spears, hide blankets and bark baskets must be evolving towards an ecological end-state. (The level of diversity we finally arrive at, if any, will depend on how quickly we get there. And of course, what we do with our gadgets after a stable ecological accommodation is established is a separate issue.) That’s just what’s been happening. And despite much agonizing over ‘decisive’ stages of the progression — from egalitarian hunting-gathering to hierarchical agro-civilization, to fossil fuel industrialization, etc. — that’s all that’s been happening.
So now we come to the problem at hand, for both humans and the Natural world our progressive technology has left behind. Because it seems the problem of global warming is finally forcing us to face the fundamental question of just what the ecological “end state” of our human project really is. Ecological collapse, food shortages and catastrophic weather events, are driven by our two hundred year old industrial machinery bent on a deadly mission only to maximize profits in the absence of a widely accepted science-based understanding of the “human project” that began two hundred thousand years ago. We can’t have a useful conversation without talking about this. (If you’re interested in my own reflections about the end state of human technology, at least in-so-far as it effects the non-human Natural world, you can download a 12 page illustrated version here: https://www.extremophilechoice.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Download-Quick-Tour.pdf )
It’s easy to see how language must be in the evolutionary mix if those stone-headed spears, hide blankets and bark baskets are to progress to a level that necessitates a division of labour which alone can take us beyond the natural capacity of a single ‘great ape’ brain. And here’s where our present situation gets interesting, because, as technological soft-media (an extension of language itself) reaches the point where everybody’s voice can be ‘heard’ at the same authoritative ‘power’ as everybody else’s voice, in fact, and more confusingly yet, on a visual ‘platform’ indistinguishable from that of highly accomplished specialists, then our willingness to submit to the chastening but essential human strategy of divided labour gets lost in the cacophony. We are encountering for the first time this very real bottleneck in the “progression” of our human project. That is, as our chatty egalitarian natures (our ability to count alone shows us how slim our chances are of becoming Number One, so we see social equality as more favourable than strict hierarchy) get inflated to absurd levels by social media, an overworked democratic reckoning (presumably unique to humans) subsumes our innate respect for authority (an older, more animal reflex that supports our division of labour strategy). When this delicate balance between an egalitarian calculation, and a pecking-order instinct gets upset like this, human nature itself is challenged. With the recent arrival of social media (or, on a functional level, we might call it homogenizing media), this precarious human balance has become wildly disturbed, and in the confusion social media’s promise of more widely distributed social and economic power has given way to a narrower consolidation of power by those who know how to take advantage of it. Frustration and divisiveness are rampant. So then, is this our twenty-first century predicament: that we must come to terms with the ecological ‘meaning’ of progressive technology at the very same time as technology pulls the rug out from under our capacity to come to terms with anything at all? Perhaps we can agree at least that this is a challenge worthy of our natural talents?
I feel I must apologize at this point. In spite of social media’s post truth legerdemain, and all it’s efforts to shorten our attention spans, I have allowed some considerable space in this blog (a rather hasty word for ‘discussion’ I feel) to set up what I hope to be a useful assignment. And so now I will try to make shorter work of concluding it:
Language takes us beyond the capacity of a single human brain to accommodate all the possibilities afforded by everyday things: a stone-shaper can know more about his trade than a basket-maker, and vice-versa. That’s simple enough to grasp. But what happens when we are faced with problems that can’t be explained by everyday experience, like disease, or like global warming? Humans are nothing if not resourceful, and our forebears came up with a trick to overcome this intrinsic animal limitation about four hundred years ago; they called it the ‘scientific method’. With our language advantage, and our division of labour, the human animal trains a subset of its over-large population to learn exotic new languages — the languages of sciences, and numbers — and this allows our animal body-minds to ‘grasp things’ that don’t belong in our everyday experience. We submit to this ‘academic division of labour’ because our technological experimentations in the past have got us into predicaments that can’t be understood intuitively, and when we agreed to listen to the ‘science-shapers’, it improved and even saved our lives — from bubonic plague, Ebola, the ozone hole …
So maybe it will save us again? Maybe science can at least warn us?
Only if we can come to terms with how our newest technological media are, by there very nature, triggering some even older animal instincts (for instance, fear and hate get a more immediate response, and a deeper memory imprint, than hope and acceptance — an obvious survival mechanism), and this un-looked-for effect is being harnessed to improve the corporate bottom line. The good news is that more and more of us are beginning to understand this McLuhanist “medium is the message” moment, and understand also that the corporate bottom line, and simple economic measurements in general, are themselves just psychological tools to support our simple brains in the belief that owning things is the most direct path to happiness. Or perhaps more of us are beginning to understand that our simple brains find it way too easy to believe that our willfully unexplored greed is a new kind of ‘generosity’ that will naturally ‘trickle down’ without the inconvenience of personally caring ?
Why, at this cultural tipping point in humanity’s two hundred thousand year learning curve, do we still allow our beliefs to be shaped by unexplored emotions? Has our technological ‘success’, and the convenience it offers, made us morally lazy? And, more to the point, why should we believe the ‘economic machine’ that’s reshaped the world in the last two hundred years or so has a right to also shape the natural ecological end state of a two hundred thousand year old technological progression of the human animal?
Our brains have evolved to look through departmental lenses to see beyond a purely animal horizon. So why should we not agree instead that a return to our human-natural balance is our first responsibility, and that it is past time we called to account these new-media-inflated animal egos, or these self-congratulating egos buoyed and protected by obscene wealth. In the name of all that is sacred, of that which is beyond ego itself even in an un-inflated state, please let us agree to support and listen to our scientists! Support and listen to them as they fulfill their mandate to take the long view, the deep view, the thorough and global view. For perhaps they will save us one more time with their, with our, non-intuitive (need I say self-correcting?) conclusions. Then let us act upon these like the deliberation-freed, and deliberation-constrained, beings we became when we first learned to speak!