The human species is hard to define biologically, except perhaps as a great ape marked out by hairlessness, bipedalism, and linguistic, technological and cultural creativity. The problem is that our inheritance is muddled, with signs in our DNA, bodies and behaviour that join us to all the other apes – gibbons, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas – as well as to Denisovan, Neanderthal, Modern and other lineages. Our various human-like ancestors certainly competed wherever they overlapped in time and space, in every way from ecological friction to voluntary and forced inter-breeding, and genocidal conquest, leading to a few winners and a lot of mixtures. Meanwhile, they also engaged over the last million or so years in waves of long-distance colonisation, all the way from Africa to Australia and the Americas. We are more sensitive to differences than similarities, so it can come as a shock that there is only one species of modern humans, but this is what our deep history has produced. So our job is to accept our biological unity while respecting cultural differences and the influence of our varied societies, from which we derive most of our habits, assumptions, priorities, and thoughts.
People are the most common large mammals that have ever existed, our recipe for success being strong adaptive capacity among groups of cooperating individuals in competition with other groups. We consistently invented, tested and demonstrated to others, through dialogue, trade or conquest, the power of new technologies (such as weapons) and new ways to manipulate each other (such as blarney) and the environment (such as farming). The result is that our collective ecological influence built up through the Holocene era (the 11,700 years since the last Ice Age), until we induced what is known as the Holocene-Anthropocene Transition or HAT. So a new Anthropocene era (‘the Age of People’) is counted from the 1st of January 1950, at the mid-point of the HAT. It features climatic instability, sea-level change, ecological collapse, the mass extinction of non-human species, and the ubiquity of plastic, nuclear and industrial residues, all of which will show up clearly in the sedimentary rocks of the future. Impact on this scale is clearly enough to make people among the most important things in the world.
There are, however, other ways to look at importance. Because of how we evolved, as a social species living in competing groups, people are almost always stronger collectively than they are alone. Thus our key priority is almost always to remain in a successful group, and our feelings of community, friendship and family are almost always vitally important to us. Each society is then maintained through the indoctrination of all the group’s children into each group’s myths of origin, identity and entitlement, its ways of doing and not doing things, and its ways of thinking and not thinking. All ideas of justice, evil, merit, leadership, etc. come from this indoctrination. The inherent conservatism of such a system is mitigated by individuals having occasional flashes of insight, induced by contact with nature, with other people, and/or with mysterious internal or external phenomena. These flashes then offer an ambiguous way for people to see themselves, and at least potentially for a conscious universe to see them, as very important indeed.
Thus, individuals, groups, relationships, myths, values, and mysterious insights are all important, and all contribute to the collective importance of the human species. But, it is clear that people also have enough mental flexibility to do new things. A person may contemplate the common roots of all people, their deep history through hundreds of millennia, their ultimate unity with all living things and with nature herself, and their shared capabilities and personal fates. The more this is done, the more reasonable it is to treat everyone as you would like to be treated: politely, generously, respectfully, as an equal citizen. This streak of reasonableness is yet another reason why people are so important, since it can break down social boundaries – of class, caste, race, gender, age, disability – and it can even be extended to non-human species, and to nature. But an assumption of equality like this leads towards fair and sustainable societies, and away from selfish competition. Now that we’ve bludgeoned the biosphere to the point of collapse, this capacity of people to learn to respect each other and nature has to be the most important thing of all. The sooner we use it the better.
© Julian Caldecott