Intellectual Evolution: Is this a thing?

Can we think–our believe–our way out of this mess?

In the Anthropocene, is human adaptation obsolete? Will humans continue the process of evolution? Or have we swapped genetic adaptation for technology? This is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot. I also have to wonder whether a species needs to adapt if it can profoundly change its environment through, say, geoengineering?

Many would argue that this line of thinking is naive. If humans are good at one thing, it’s self-deception! We are great so at telling ourselves stories. But in so doing, we may be deceiving ourselves about our ability to alter our environment in the long term. Climate change and depleted resources (hey, peak oil) also throw a wrench in humanity’s plan to defy Darwinism.

Charles Darwin

WWDS (What Would Darwin Say)? Originally, Charles described adaptation and speciation as applicable to all organisms. But for thousands of years—as the late Stanford historian Lynn White reminds us in his famous article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis”—humans have not just been adapting to their environment. We’ve also been physically altering it on a massive scale, from engineering rivers to deforesting large tracts of land. To at least some degree, we’ve removed ourselves from Darwin’s environmental “web of complex relations.”

White argues that the human M.O. of treating nature as a treasury of resources made just for us originates with, you guessed it, religion. The Judeo-Christian creation myth put forth a human-nature binary that led to the despiritualization of the natural world. With the decline of pantheism and animism, no longer did the majority of the world view rocks, trees, and animals as beings and spiritual vessels. And consequently, as White perfectly puts it, “… no creature other than man has ever managed to foul its nest in such short order” (1204).

From a survival-of-the-fittest standpoint, this ethos has benefitted the human race, at least until now. Our population has skyrocketed from around 300 million people when Jesus walked the earth to 7.6 billion and counting. Joining population in its upward march are life expectancy, for example, and quality of life. There’s no debate about the fact that we are the dominant species on the planet, even if we are technically outnumbered by bacteria.

If the Biblical tenet of human dominion over nature has helped homo sapiens succeed, could this belief be considered intellectual adaptation? Despite the fact that it clashes with the principles of other religions, humanity’s “I-It” Buberian relationship with nature is now widespread globally regardless of religious alignment.

How might intellectual adaptation work? A set of beliefs—be they Christianity or democracy—develops during a generation and is passed down to future generations. Parents raise their children to believe the ideology as reality. Writers codify the ideology, rendering it part of the record, even fact.

Over time, the origins of the ideology blur, allowing it to become even more fundamental to a society. In the case of religion, it becomes more than natural fact; it assumes the position of divine and universal truth. In its new position as sacred truth, the ideology becomes the bedrock upon which systems are built. It bloats and spreads and entrenches deeply in society. This is what the ideology of humanity’s reign over nature has done.

Yet unless we soon somehow geoengineer our way out of climate change or develop a way to reestablish harmony with our planet, I argue that this ideological adaptation will ultimately be to our detriment. In that case, what purpose, if any, did it serve?

Though we humans may have collectively stepped into the role of Manager of Nature, our current predicament serves as clairvoyant reminder that we cannot fully excuse ourselves from or control the larger natural systems at play, from a virus to the wildfires that now rage in the West.

It’s time for another intellectual adaptation. Whether driven by religion or ecological awareness, an evolution in thought is in order. Our very survival as a species may depend upon it. The first intellectual adaptation moved us into the position of planetary engineers, growing stronger, older, wiser. The next must leverage the wisdom and skill we’ve gained, while moving us into a place of careful balance with the planet.


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