“On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.”
–Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) from “Dreams and Facts”
Russell’s nihilistic characterization of Homo sapiens injects some much-needed perspective into a world in which our species of intellectually evolved primates suffers a collective delusion of grandeur. In “Dreams and Facts,” Russell further savages our God-complex with the powerfully humbling reminder that our solar system is but “an infinitesimal speck” and the Earth a mere “microscopic dot.” He does apply some soothing salve to our wounded egos with the observation that, “No man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness,” but his decimation of our grossly-overinflated sense of importance remains intact.
While I don’t suffer from deep-seated self-hatred and I’m not an alienated misanthrope who has isolated himself from the rest of humanity, I’m penning this brief jeremiad as a deconstruction of our species. And I’m not going to dilute my critique by extolling the real and imagined virtues of Homo sapiens. Pollyanna has fled the building. If you are too deeply immersed in our culture of narcissism to take a moment to gaze upon a collective image of humanity far more hideous and repulsive than Dorian Gray, stop reading and sprint for the television. You might get lucky and catch Paris Hilton’s latest escapade.
My objective here is to storm the parapets of narcissism, assail the bulwarks of speciesism, and batter our increasingly vulnerable ego fortress called anthropocentrism. Centuries ago, Galileo insisted that the Sun didn’t revolve around the Earth. Today there is a growing movement of people, including me, who are equally insistent that the universe doesn’t revolve around human beings.
What God would choose THIS species?
Ultimately, aside from Russell’s “big picture” description of human beings as “tiny lumps of impure carbon and water,” even within the scope and context of Earth and its inhabitants, we have a decidedly distorted and unjustifiably high opinion of our significance and importance. While we collectively view ourselves as “God’s chosen species” we are nothing more than primates with an evolved intellect and a capacity for complex communications. Yet despite the facts that the same anthropocentrasizing myths that inform us of our “divine qualities” also clearly remind us of our human frailties (i.e. Adam and Eve and original sin) and that we share 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees, by and large we still collectively conclude that we are superior to all other animals. Paralleling the widely reviled “master race” mindset propagated by von List, Schopenhauer and Nazi propagandists, most of humanity tenaciously embraces the equally repulsive idea that we are the “master species
The reality is that the Homo sapiens branch of the evolutionary tree held the potential to bear the most succulent and nutritious fruit, capable of nurturing the Earth and perpetuating its capacity to sustain the precious commodity of life. Yet at some point something went horribly awry. The apples of humanity over-ripened, their worm-ridden flesh withering and rotting into a pulpy mass of mucous-like, repulsive goo. We Homo sapiens have betrayed the great promise inherent in our powerful intellect, as we long ago became a huge liability rather than an asset to the Earth and its other inhabitants.
There is certainly no rational argument to counter the assertion that human animals are capable of performing many highly complex and amazing intellectual, aesthetic, and technologically-assisted feats. Yet we fetishize our intelligence to such an extent that we minimize or utterly dismiss the astounding capabilities of other animals.
It is true that wolves will never employ calculus to determine rates of change or the volume of a solid. Baboons will never compose Shakespearean sonnets or dance ballets. And dolphins will never build light-weight, aerodynamic, jet-powered vehicles to enable themselves to fly. However, without technological assistance, humans will never fly like bats and birds, echolate like dolphins, detect electrical fields emitted by other beings like sharks, use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate like birds, sniff out one particular grain of sand on a beach like a dog, or communicate over distances of two miles like elephants.
In our self-congratulatory, self-worshipping cultural schema of human supremacy, we devalue nonhuman animals and discount those capabilities they possess that are superior to ours. It is heresy of the first order to suggest that even a dog, despite being man’s best friend, could possibly exist as an equally respected sentient being and rise above the status of property, no matter how sentimental people may get about “their” pets. Why? Because if nonhuman animals ceased to be legally and morally (according to the dominant culture) subject to our perverse desire to subjugate, dominate, objectify, and exploit nearly every other being on the planet, our diseased means by which we’ve organized our existence, often referred to as “civilization,” would collapse in favor of a radical alternative.
If we stopped denying that nonhuman animals are as worthy of unfettered and unexploited existences as we are, not to mention our disregard for their sentience, we would obliterate our guilt-assuaging rationalizations for slaughtering them and eating their rotting flesh, reducing them to machine-like entities used to mass produce milk and eggs, gunning them down for “sport” (imagine a duel in which only one person was allowed to have a weapon), performing barbaric laboratory experiments on them in Mengele fashion, employing myriad psychologically and physically torturous tactics to train them to perform for us, “deploying” them as stand-ins for enemy soldiers in cruel, murderous tests performed by the military, and much more.
Rather than acknowledging the growing body of knowledge that demonstrates that we are just scratching the surface in comprehending the complexity of the emotional, intellectual and social lives of other animals (http://thomaspainescorner.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/minding-the-animals-ethology-and-the-obsolescence-of-left-humanism/), it is far more convenient, and in fact essential, for the dominant culture of speciesism and anthropocentrism to define nonhuman animals as the complex organic automatons that Descartes described. “Robots” don’t think, feel a range of emotions, or socialize with other robots. Therefore they cannot suffer and there can be no moral objection to exploiting them. So goes the “logic.”
At what cost?
Yet despite the fact that many Homo sapiens have little or no concern about the moral implications of the holocaust we are visiting upon other animals or our rape of the Earth, bending nonhuman animals and nature to our will is producing a fierce backlash that is impacting all of us.