This episode will consider where an awareness horizon view of the universe must ultimately take us. In previous episodes we have considered how things are. In this one, now that we have much of the evidence in place, we can start to ask how things should be.
Could our deep nature have a bearing on the way we think as human beings? In this context we return to the "God" question, to ask how likely it is that God might exist. And, in the same context, there is another Big Question looming: During the long history of life on this planet, there have been a number of cataclysmic mass extinctions. Could our world be heading for another? Some scientists believe it's already started. Can humanity survive with the deep nature we have inherited from our distant ancestors?
Please note: At 48 minutes, this episode is longer than the previous episodes.
Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.
Episode Eight: The road’s end – Or the end of the road?
It is really hard to think of any idea on which all human beings will agree. I might suggest that none of us want to die, but many thousands take their own lives every year. A better one might be that we all want to be happy, I’ll come back to that, but another idea that comes about as near to universal as any is perhaps is the belief that it would be a bad thing if there was a massive cataclysm that were to wipe out most of humanity, and even more so if it caused the extinction of the human race, but even here there are some fundamentalist religious sects that think that, based on particular readings of Biblical scripture, such a cataclysm is necessary to trigger the second coming of Christ.
Let’s assume though, that almost everyone wants humanity to survive, and to do so without experiencing a massive and destructive apocalypse, let’s think about what could threaten the status quo. The one that gets most people animated seems to be the threat from a comet or asteroid impact, founded on the evidence of the one that created the sixty-six million years old Chicxulub crater, which triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs. Such ideas might make fantastic Hollywood movies, but events like this are incredibly rare. As far as I’ve been able to discover, the Chicxulub asteroid is the only one of equivalent size to have hit the earth in more than half a billion years, and even that one did not destroy all life. That isn’t to say that one won’t hit and cause massive damage and loss of life in the future; it probably will. I haven’t done the maths, but the chance of a large, extinction level strike in our lifetimes is probably about equivalent to my dropping dead of some unknown deadly disease in the next two milliseconds. Hang on a moment guys… No, it’s ok I’m still here. I might be getting on a bit now, but I should be good for the next half an hour or so at least. And anyway, it looks like we might soon have technology available that will let us deflect or destroy dangerous asteroids or comets.
Most of the major mass extinctions in earth’s history seem instead to have been related to climate change, a sobering thought. These extinction events, though, seem to have resulted from massive volcanic upheavals called flood basalt events that happen in pulses over thousands of years caused when the earth’s crust rifts open spewing out hundreds of cubic miles of lava which release billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, radically changing the climate and heating the planet. There is a vast area in northern Russia called the Siberian Traps made up of enough lava to cover the continental United States to a depth of one kilometre which has been firmly linked to the mother of all mass extinctions, the Great Dying, two hundred and fifty million years ago, when up to 96% of marine species and around 70% of land species disappeared. We might need to worry a lot about climate change, but it doesn’t seem to be likely that the earth’s crust will split open any time soon, so we probably don’t need to worry about it coming from that source. Another possibility is that the death of a nearby giant star, a supernova, might flood the earth with cosmic rays which would strip away its protective ozone layer, and irradiate the surface, with massive implications for the survival of life on earth. There is a suggestion that an event like this may have contributed to another mass extinction, 440 million years ago, but this hasn’t been confirmed and, again, these look like extremely rare events. Because human lifetimes are so incredibly short on geological timescales, natural threats like these don’t look like they should be anywhere on any scale of concern, for beings like us.
I’ve read that some scientists seem to believe that on average a species ought to expect to survive for about a million years. And now it’s time for some fantastic news: We know that our solar system is about four and a half billion years old, and our sun will continue to burn for another three or four billion years, so the human race should expect to survive for hundreds of millions of years at least, right? I mean we have eliminated our predators and produced a reliable worldwide food distribution network, why shouldn’t we? You doubt it? You doubt that we could survive that long? Why? Animals like crocodiles have survived without changing very much for about two hundred and forty million years, sharks even managed to dodge the Great Dying and survived for about four hundred and fifty million years, why not humans? If you doubt that we might survive that long, I share your doubts. Our world is bristling with enough nuclear weapons to wipe out humanity several times over, and many nations that don’t have them have in mind enhancing their primate status by acquiring them. On the other hand, some argue that the presence of nuclear weapons has prevented conventional war for the last seventy years or so. As I am recording this the war in Ukraine is raging, and as we’ve so far seen, major nuclear armed-nations are fearful of getting into a conflict with other nuclear-armed nations because of the worry that the conflict might escalate into all out nuclear war which neither side could win. So perhaps we don’t need to worry about extinction. All we need to do is to make sure that we never elect, or otherwise bring to power, any patriotic leader who might want to take too many risks with everyone’s future in the interests of national prestige. And additionally, of course, we need to make sure that no-one ever makes a simple mistake or miscalculation that might lead to Armageddon. This is easy, yeah? All we have to do is keep this up for a million years or so and we’ll have reached the average life span of most other creatures. Simple right?
Ok, ok, I’m being facetious again. We can’t predict what might happen for the rest of this month much less the next thousand years, let alone the next million. If we solve the consciousness problem, we might learn to build feeling machines that care about us and that might save us from ourselves. There could be other technological advances that make nuclear weapons, or their delivery systems, defunct, or societal advances that make it possible for us to ban and destroy them, but whatever the case, I don’t suppose we’ll ever be able to uninvent them.
What would nuclear war mean? There are four main ways in which you might die in one: Firstly, you might lose your life in the midst of one of the explosions themselves. Nuclear explosions come with their own ultra-efficient incinerators so effective that nothing is left: not even your ashes. You would be vapourised: reduced to a superheated gas, made up of the atoms of which you were made. If you are luckier, or perhaps not, and you were further from the epicentre of the blast, you could be killed by its effects such as the shock wave, or heat radiation which would cause any combustible objects within range, including human beings, to spontaneously catch fire. Thirdly, nuclear explosions suck vast amounts of dirt into the atmosphere. This becomes highly radioactive, then settles back to earth, falling as dust, like snow. It is known as radioactive fallout, and if you are exposed to it, it might cause you to succumb to radiation poisoning, which is a particularly unpleasant way to die; you might find yourself bleeding from every bodily orifice. But these effects, as monstrous as they may be, would not kill everyone. On the analysis, as I understand it to be, many billions of people would survive the initial blasts. Which takes me to the final effect. Because vast amounts of dust would have found its way into the atmosphere, the sun would be blotted out, for years. World temperatures would crash, and most, or all, crops would be unable to grow. This is what is called a nuclear winter, and, depending on its severity, could in theory finish the rest of us off. Disturbingly, during mass extinctions, larger animals, like human beings seem to be more vulnerable, and are more likely to disappear. In such situations it is always better to be a cockroach.
I have dealt with some of the big questions in this series of podcasts and here’s the next: with the deep nature we have inherited, is our species viable? That is to say, will the instincts programmed into us when we were evolving in the very different world of the African savannah be appropriate in a modern setting? Could they, in fact, doom us to self-destruction? Indeed, it is just conceivable that a nuclear cataclysm could wipe out all other sentient creatures on our planet and rob our world of the meaning it has had since the Nova point.
We set out at the start of this series, to investigate meaning. What matters in the universe and why? We can now see that it’s the feelings built into our deep nature that tells us what matters and makes us who we are. But feelings cannot be the final arbiter of what is right or wrong. Russian nationalism felt important to Vladimir Putin when he invaded Ukraine. It felt important to the Nazis to complete the Final Solution: the complete annihilation of all the Jews of Europe. In Episode One, I said there are good reasons for mistrusting human intuition in this episode we will find out why, and we will begin to ask what feelings should matter.
I’m going to leave the question of humanity’s survival hanging for a moment, because first we need a digression to consider another big question: I promised I would return to the topic of religion. Do I think there’s a God? Well, as I said in Episode One, you certainly shouldn’t be interested in what I think about it, although you might be able to work out the answer to that for yourselves. Would I call myself an atheist? No, although I wouldn’t object to being called one. What I have discovered on my philosophical journey takes me inevitably to the need to abandon labels, we are all just feeling, caring beings, I prefer the doctrine of humanism. There are different ways of defining humanism, but for me it means valuing the feelings of all sentient beings equivalently, and the promotion of values like kindness, consideration, respect and tolerance, so if I’m forced to choose my ‘tribe’, I am a humanist, and incidentally a member of Humanist UK. If it is ok to follow a football team, then I suppose it’s ok to belong to a tribe as long as its ethos is to respect, accept and understand the position of those who don’t subscribe to its doctrines.
So, what does the evidence say about God? Hmm, when we apply Best Guess Reasoning the God hypothesis looks, well, well it looks pretty preposterous really. If we want to answer the question of why things exist, and God created everything, where the hell did He come from? Unless, of course, God created himself at the moment of creation, hmm… I don’t know about that but well… what do you think… Shall we move on…?
In the Western Civilisation the predominant religions are derived from the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and we teach our children that there is a kindly, beneficent God who created us all. But if this were true, how do we explain why mother deer have to watch as their innocent young fawns are torn apart by wolves in front of their eyes? Why are there natural disasters? And why the holocaust? The problem of evil – why there is evil in God’s universe – has been debated by philosophers and theologians over the centuries, but there has never been any satisfactory answer.
The task I set myself in this series of podcasts was to find the most likely explanation for what the Omnitruth might be, and the presence of evil unfortunately militates very strongly against the idea that a kindly, loving God created the universe. We cannot assume that that the best explanation for reality is the one we might wish it to be, no matter how strong that wish is. I can only follow evidence and reason to find out where it takes us.
On the other hand, there’s an argument that seems on the face of it much more powerful. There are those who argue that science and reason are deficient when it comes to understanding existence and the place of humankind in it. They say that a scientific, materialist view of the universe leaves something essential out of the explanation, and this isn’t a view confined to the cloistered realms of philosophers and theologians; many ordinary people have a profound sense of transcendence: they feel strongly that there must be more to everything than just physical laws and moving particles. Indeed, the deep and fundamental need for some form of spiritual meaning whether founded in ancestor worship, animism, established religion or some other kind of supernaturalism, seems to be pretty widespread across all known current, and historical, cultures. You can guess what I’m going to say now, can’t you: so let’s say it. No matter how powerful and profound feelings of belief are, they are still feelings. Best guess reasoning takes us inevitably to the conclusion that the feeling that there is something beyond is part of our deep nature. If this is true, the transcendence argument for God completely collapses. Deep nature, after all, is made of feeling, it wasn’t built to access reality; it is there to promote the random, artefactual and amoral aims of our genes to get themselves into the next generation. Many of us may feel a deep need for transcendent feelings, but that’s just how we are made. Remember in Episode Four we talked about part of the left temporal lobe that seems to be involved in the generation of profound religious or spiritual feeling? Maybe our brains are just designed to produce that kind of experience.
It is obviously true that no-one is programmed for say, Roman Catholicism, Judaism or Islamic belief, deep nature is far too general and imprecise for that, it is just that our species seems generally disposed to need some kind of deeper meaning, and perhaps other kinds of systems which are central to people’s self-belief like Communism, United States’ Republicanism or British Conservatism are part of the same class of feelings. These are other things people believe in strongly. It also follows that, because of natural variation some people will need a sense of belief or transcendence more than others.
A side question here is that if we accept, and we must, that there is an Omnitruth, then there cannot be anything that can be supernatural. The Omnitruth describes what is true. If events really do occur that we think to be supernatural, then they are true and therefore part of the Omnitruth. Because the Omnitruth describes what is real and nature just is what’s real, then nothing can ever be supernatural because supernatural, by definition, means outside of nature. There can only ever be things which we just don’t know about yet.
Now we need to delve below our Awareness Horizon and ask why feelings of transcendence evolved, but before that something needs to be said about those who do believe, because this is one the profoundest and most difficult of human dilemmas. If feeling is what gives meaning to the universe, what do we say to those who have an honest and profoundly felt faith that provides them with meaning in their lives, those whose faith gives them comfort during bereavement, belief in an afterlife where they think they will be reunited with their loved ones, those who think they “know” there is a God, or those who have turned to faith as a less harmful obsession than illegal drugs, alcohol or gambling?
I don’t know the answer to this, I really don’t, and I wish I did. But I think that before we move on, we have to acknowledge how profound and meaningful these feelings are to those who do believe.
But then, what value truth?
I want to argue that the transcendence question is relevant to the question of our survival as a species. And the question we now need to address is why we have genes that build brains that predispose us to have faith? I don’t think this is too difficult to explain once we understand how the world of our ancestors would have worked. As we saw, we are tribal animals, and occasionally human tribes, like chimpanzee communities, go to war. War is a high-risk strategy; if your side wins, the advantages are likely to be considerable in terms of gaining new territory, status and males’ access to females. On the other hand, losing a war is likely to be devastating when it comes to getting your genes into the next generation.
Chimpanzees will only attack members of another chimp community if they have a high numerical advantage; they seem to be very nervous about the potential downsides to warlike behaviour. So human beings are likely to have been “designed” with a delicate balance between warlike actions and peaceable ones. But if there was an evolved trait that didn’t involve the risk of making them more warlike in their general everyday behaviour but gave them a strong advantage when war did start then this is likely to have been strongly favoured by natural selection. Now imagine two tribes, one with a strong belief in something, whatever that might be, let’s say belief in ancestor worship, and the other easy going, laid-back hippy types. If these two tribes did go to war, all other things being equal, it’s not hard to see that the believers are going to win. They would be far more committed, they would be engaged in a battle for a higher purpose: they would be fighting in the name of beloved, lost ancestors, and whatever traditions they uphold. The hippy-types would not care as much about succeeding and would be at a massive disadvantage. The belief trait would be an attribute that does not confer a risky disposition to go to war unnecessarily but would be a trigger to give a much stronger response when war did start.
While we need to acknowledge the feelings of those who have a strong faith, we must also recognise the deleterious aspects of religion. I went to a Roman Catholic school, and I remember as a young child being taught that if I went to hell I would burn in the flames forever, and ever, and ever, for all eternity. But the teacher explained that I wouldn’t really be burning, it was just that burning causes the worst possible pain humans can endure. So that’s why we use that example. Fortunately, I was the kind of child who questioned what I was being taught, so it turned out that it didn’t terrify me and poison my mind for the rest of my life. I can’t speak for the other children in my class. We also bring our kids up to believe the ridiculous idea that God created the universe in six days. How on earth did we get here? One way to think about it is that these ideas are founded on the beliefs of what amounts to a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders. Another way of thinking is that we can’t really criticise those who wrote the scriptures: they could not have known of the great age of the earth or the mechanisms that made us what we are. In Episode Two, we saw that nature is highly organised. Before Darwin had what Dennett called his “Dangerous Idea” a quite natural assumption to make would be that someone must have organised it. The idea of a god, or gods, would have seemed perfectly reasonable to them. They were using best guess reasoning as it would have applied at the time. Given what we now know, the God hypothesis looks incredibly unlikely. And, of course, the 9/11 hijackers were doing what they thought their god wanted. The loyal battalion commander of faith seems to have been the main supporter of Major-General Tribalism throughout all of human history.
Do we need God? One faith position we can all hold onto is the fact that nature’s wonder and its glory are unbounded: the spectacular sight of mountain peaks, the night sky, the majesty and irresistible power of the oceans and the jaw-dropping extravaganza of different living things that share this wonderful planet with us are far beyond amazing. How do we know that our world is wonderful? We feel it to be the case and therefore it is the case. There are no downsides to this kind of spiritual experience. We can glory not just in the enjoyment of nature, but also the love we have for our dear ones and the love they have for us. These are the positive aspects of our Deep Nature. They give us something to live for. And, of course, compassion, empathy and concern for the wellbeing and happiness of others is part of our deep nature too. I suggested before that if there is something we all want it is happiness. America’s founding fathers eloquently sought to guarantee life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to their people. The Ancient Greeks too valued happiness, but with a rather different slant. They wanted people to have what they called eudaimonia which translates rather differently to the contemporary Western understanding of the word happiness, and, in part, means the quest for a good life well lived, so there is an implicit sense of duty to others in the Ancient Greek philosophical tradition which seems to be absent in the modern version with its focus on the freedom to be yourself.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the modern understanding of what happiness is seems to have been defined by politicians rather than the more thoughtful philosophers of classical antiquity. It is worth asking how politicians in our modern world come to power. To be successful, one would hope that they are good at what they do and that they have risen to the top as a result of hard work, commitment and that their personal history demonstrates sound judgement, and the knowledge and wisdom to do what is right for the people they represent. Now I am not a politician and I’m not privy to the inner workings of the political system, but from the outside this isn’t how it seems to work. Politicians are the alpha males and females in our society; it seems more likely that they get to where they are as a result of jostling for power in the style of social primates, not so much different from the way chimpanzees do it, where bombast, determination, subterfuge, alliance building and sheer bloody mindedness are as likely to achieve success as competency, thoughtfulness, kindness and a fair and decent set of principles. This is compounded by the fact that Western politics, at least is, dominated by a tribal structure: the party system, so that a disproportionate number of the people who achieve high office are bound to have a strongly developed tribal instincts, and where ideological beliefs and patriotism are seen to be strong and noble attributes.
History seems to show that world leaders have often been very strange individuals indeed. You don’t often encounter massive egos like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson in everyday life, let alone more disturbing personalities like Hitler, Stalin and Putin who have such determined and resolute – but unverifiable – certainties about their nationalism. Such people always know best, and they are so certain of their beliefs that more balanced personalities around them either become terrified of their power or consumed by commitment to their leaders’ alpha male/female status. Such great egos are not representative of the billions of ordinary folk who just want to get on with it and enjoy a happy peaceful and contented life, and therefore the question must be asked as to whether these can ever be the right people to be in charge.
In contrast to perhaps most ordinary people, many politicians seem to enjoy the Darwinian cut and thrust and high drama of their particular brand of social milieu. But, of course, it has to be said that this isn’t universally true because, there is a subset of ordinary people who think the ordinary, quiet everyday to be humdrum and boring and want loud charismatic leaders to shake things up and provide them with entertainment and distraction. Perhaps the most disturbing thought to emerge from this dalliance below our awareness horizon that we have embarked upon, is that it is inevitably the case that some people will express the tribal instinct more strongly than other people and such people are perhaps more likely to be attracted to totalitarian ideas, extreme political viewpoints and even terrorism.
The need for a sense of belonging to a social grouping is what scientists call in-group/out-group behaviour, and it is certainly accepted by evolutionary psychologists as being one of their modules of the mind, and therefore part of our deep nature. In-group/out-group behaviour is a kind of catch all term that captures all kinds of xenophobic influences like tribalism, racism, sexism, nationalism and ultra-nationalism as well as what are considered more positive instincts like a sense of belonging, identity and patriotism.
We think of a sense of belonging as a vital part of our being, and when we think of our families, friends and loved ones as a unit to which we belong; it seems to define us. It is entirely right for us to feel the need for family attachment and it’s an essential part of what it is to be a feeling being. It leads many people to feel a connection with others who share an attachment to a particular sports team for example, and team sport, which is really a kind of stylised warfare, can be a relatively harmless and enjoyable way of finding meaning, and a massive boost to the well-being of those who feel the need for it. But unlike the love of a football team or the spectacles of nature, love of the wider communities to which we belong has a downside.
If we think about the Second World War from the German perspective, it was completely unnecessary, just as was, more recently, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Neither leader needed to invade. Their case for war was underpinned by a form of extreme patriotism. The opposing perspective was different. It could be argued that the West, and Ukraine, were reluctantly drawn into unwanted conflicts to confront evil, and it would be churlish to deny that the overthrow of Putinism would make the world a better place in which people could live. So, on this reading, the patriotism of the allies in World War Two, and the coming together of the West in the face of Putin’s brutality was, and is, an entirely good thing.
In fact, we seem to know intuitively that patriotism is a good thing, but how can this be true if its only useful role is to counter more extreme versions of itself?
While it is true that patriotism isn’t the only driver of military intervention, NATO forces were used to good effect to stop the Balkans War in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and some ugly, cruel and immoral regimes do need to be confronted at least when they seek to dominate other societies against their will. If we were about to be invaded by a despotic, totalitarian, foreign regime, who wanted to overthrow our system, should we defend ourselves? Many would say that we obviously should. But what if this leads to our extinction, and perhaps the extinction of meaning itself, would it still have been worth it? I’ll let you make up your own mind, on that one.
And it must be said that in other parts of the world I might be executed for blasphemy for writing these podcasts, or have Novichok smeared on my door handles for my treacherous attack on patriotism, or imprisoned in a “retraining” camp where I would be tortured, until I denied the truth of what I am saying. Unfortunately, as I’ve already implied, homicidal, genocidal and religious maniacs seem to be more common among our leaders than, thank goodness, among the general population. On the face of it, if feeling is really what matters in the universe, and the aim is to provide the people of the world with the greatest possible happiness the democratic political system, with its commitment to the rule of law and freedom of expression would seem to be superior to any authoritarian system, because for all its failings, faults and foibles, without democracy governments do not need to consider the best wishes of their people.
Whatever the truths of what I have just said, the point here is that it is only due to our deep nature that we feel the need for nation states in the first place. They only exist because we can’t seem to escape the need for an identity group, otherwise all that really exists are people. Bonobos probably wouldn’t understand war and would not have a word for it if they had a language. And, sadly, not for us the quiet, dignified, self-contained, contentment of the orangutan; although it has to be said that orangutans would probably not be bothered about learning to cure disease or to go to the moon.
I love and completely support the thought behind the oft-quoted statement against those who would discriminate against minorities. When confronting, say racism, homophobia and religious discrimination like anti-Semitism kind, good-hearted, decent people say: “There is more that unites us than divides us.” But this is a lie, a bare faced, monstrous lie, because nothing divides us. All humans share the same deep nature. It seems to be the case that we have lying, conniving genes that have built into our deep nature the feeling that we are different from others when actually we are the same. And this seems to be the source of the deeply misleading Everest Syndrome. Animals, the feeling goes, are not like us. Although they won’t use these words, the meaning of those who argue for human exceptionalism is clear. Apes are other, they are smelly, hairy, stupid and subhuman, and have nothing at all to teach us.
While the life-enhancing love of nature, and of our families, is something we should feel, the othering of those who live in different societies, have a different sexual orientation, ethnicity and those of a different religion, is something we not only wrongly feel to be true; it is morally indefensible, it deprives millions of people of the happiness they deserve.
When chimpanzees exhibit warlike behaviour it only ever seems to be the males that are involved. If this trait transfers across true from our ancient ancestors, it seems clear that if all the world’s leaders were replaced by women, then war might disappear, and the greatest threat to the survival and wellbeing of our species: nuclear war would go with it. You might think this to be a ludicrous and completely impractical suggestion, and obviously it is, but only because our deep nature would never allow it to happen. It also needs to be said that not all women conform to what we think of as typical female stereotypes.
We think of ourselves as intelligent beings, but we are not clever enough to have brought the world together under a World Government where all points of view and all nations could be fairly represented. After World War Two, while the monstrous reality of war was still uppermost in people’s minds, humankind established an institution to prevent further conflicts: The United Nations. But it is regularly undermined, devalued and underfunded. Even at the time of its creation it was stitched up by nationalist politicians so that any of the resolutions made by its vitally important Security Council could be vetoed by any of the Council’s then permanent members: Britain, France, the USA, the USSR and China. No doubt the people successfully negotiating these treaties patted themselves on their backs as they celebrated the patriotic protection of the national interest of their respective nations.
We human beings are the product of nature. I said before that nature’s beauty is boundless, but we also know that its cruelty can be boundless too: this is the inevitable outcome when we remember what nature wants for us: The narrow and arbitrary aim of getting our genes into the next generation; it is not at all what we might, or should, want for ourselves.
On one previous occasion when I was writing these podcasts, I reached for a word that wasn’t there. When I was describing Nova, I wanted to say that she was important, but she wasn’t merely important she was more than that, the word was too weak. Even adding qualifiers to it like hugely or massively didn’t help either. Nova was far more important than even being massively important. No word adequately expresses how important Nova was. I now find myself looking for another word that does not exist, because no word adequately expresses the monstrous cruelty wrought on the countless millions killed, maimed, orphaned, bereaved, discriminated against or otherwise robbed of happiness, through countless generations by the lie we have been forced to endure. The false distinctions between religious, national, tribal and ethnic identity groups have led to all the wars, tribal division, discrimination and genocide throughout history and pre-history. The resulting anguish, death, hurt, suffering and destruction of lives is way beyond any calculation, or word to describe it.
At this point in the first draft of the script for this podcast, I wrote a stinging rant about lying, conniving genes, our obsession with status, the tribalistic, alpha-maleism of some of our leaders the corporate greed of those who promote their own capitalist “tribe” and to hell with soft, wet, woolly green policies that protect our planet and the precious creatures and indigenous peoples who inhabit it, but then I realised I don’t need to rant do I? You know exactly what all this means. And after all, even if it is all nature’s fault, who can we blame? There’s no-one home. Best guess reasoning points to Mother Nature as being as mythical as Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy.
It seems clear that Humankind is about to face the greatest challenge it has ever faced. While countries, many who are ideologically opposed to each other, have nuclear weapons, and future wars are probably the principal threat to our survival, the other is anthropogenic, human caused, climate change.
I started this episode by talking about mass extinctions, and the view of many scientists is that we are in the middle of one now. The sad and unforgivable list of lost species eliminated by us due to climate change and habitat loss increases every year. Many of these wonderful animals and plants had existed on earth for millions of years. What are we letting ourselves lose?
Alongside the loss of biodiversity, and despite all the rhetoric about climate change, every single year we release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the one before it, and people are now starting to see the effects for themselves on their television screens and increasingly through their own windows.
Even if we do avoid the levels of destruction the world saw during the greatest of all mass extinctions, The Great Dying, and that is by no means certain, the two dangers of climate change and nuclear war are not completely disconnected. Another great worry is that as desertification increases and vast parts of our planet are lost to us due to sea level rise, there will be food shortages, and the mass migration of tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions, of climate refugees which might destabilise the world order and lead to war on an unprecedented scale.
We often disregard messages from scientists. Our genes might tell us we don’t belong to the scientific “tribe”, and we can disregard what they are saying. Our deep nature tells us that we need to look after our own, except that now, the entire world is our own. The world now needs to come together. It isn’t for me to tell anyone what to do, but if scientists are telling our leaders to reduce emissions and to stop support for the search for new fossil fuel resources and that individually we should all find ways of lowering our carbon footprint, then maybe we should all listen.
Just as those other elements of our deep nature: the sex drive and sexual fastidiousness conflict with each other, rationality and the intuitions about protecting our tribe are in conflict too, but in the case of reason versus intuition, at this point in our history, we can see clearly which should be the winner.
In light of the profound and existential threat from climate change. It isn’t it perhaps obvious that it is time to enter a new emergency mode. There were aspects of it that can be positive, and these aspects were strongly evident during the Second World War in Britain, when it was not just the soldiers who were fighting, but everyone else became involved in the national struggle. Men who were too old, or too young, to fight, became Air Raid Precautions Wardens or joined the Home Guard. Young women joined the Land Army to work the fields, and every other spare bit of soil was dug over for crops by an army of allotmenteers, who were eagerly “digging for victory”. The special, positive, conditions of the emergency mode were evident, but perhaps not quite so strongly developed during the Coronavirus Pandemic, as people stayed home and clapped for carers. But when it comes to the climate crisis there seems, disturbingly, to have been no significant change to the public mood. Why not? Perhaps the answer is that the emergency mode seems to need an external threatening and dangerous entity to trigger, and maintain, it. It is very hard to get mad at a barrel of oil, easier to get mad at a virus and easier still to get mad at a Nazi Stormtrooper. But if there are large numbers of refugees, perhaps coinciding with food shortages and while our own countries are shrinking because of sea level rise, it’s not hard to see that the emergency mode might be back with a vengeance. Just as religion can have its positive and negative effects, the emergency mode is not always positive. It is usually only when communities of people trip over into it, that cataclysmic atrocities and serious violations of human rights occur. In normal, everyday human behaviour, it is one of the most egregious crimes of all to kill another human being. When we are at war, it is expected and sometimes even admired.
If the religion question throws up a profound human dilemma, the in-group/out-group dilemma is of a much more massive and more destructive kind. Our very survival as a species might well depend on our ability to confront genes which we acquired in the radically different world in which we evolved. We feel emotionally connected to our own. How do we preserve that wholesome instinct, respecting and valuing all other feeling beings while at the same time avoiding the worst aspects of tribalism like war with the inevitable dangers of the emergency mode?
Could our species be terminally ill with the genetic disease of patriotism? That’s another question to which I have no answer.
I should say here that I am emphatically not suggesting that we start fiddling directly with our genes. And it is an enormous relief to me that we can’t. There is no tribalism gene; genes interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways, so we wouldn’t know which genes to change or what other unexpected outcomes might follow if we got it wrong. As we heard in Episode six, the cruel and abhorrent behaviour of the eugenicists, should be warning enough that we shouldn’t even think about this.
And while I’ve done my best to understand truth, guided only by science and real-world evidence, and this suggests I’m probably right about our deep nature. I could have, and probably will have, got some things wrong. Science is always provisional. While it has given us some clear, demonstrable, and unarguable facts, like evolution happened and the earth goes round the sun, instead of finding answers, it very often only finds more questions. I have tried to use best guess reasoning after all, and there will inevitably be some things we think are true now, but which will turn out not to be.
So we can’t, and shouldn’t, try to change our genes, but then we might not have to. In his book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker, with a raft of intricately researched and compelling evidence suggests that wherever we look around the world human beings seem to have become more peaceable, less violent and far less aggressive throughout historical time. Back through the centuries, murder rates have declined sharply across all cultures and societies. Slavery has been abolished, we no longer burn witches, execute criminals publicly, and not at all in many countries. Most people today would probably not condone torture, let alone extreme versions such as stretching people on racks, publicly breaking them on the wheel by fracturing nearly every bone in their body, or hanging, drawing and quartering them. It is as if the more positive aspects of our deep nature, like compassion and empathy are starting to take a stronger hold. It is possible that these changes have come about because of cultural change, as a result of increased education, better means of communication, scientific knowledge and societies’ self-awareness. Cultures evolve as well as species do. Indeed, Pinker seems to doubt a genetic role for the changes he has highlighted. But I’m not sure he’s right. It is possible that our deep nature might indeed be changing. For that to be happening then the frequency of the genes in our population that underpin our deep nature would have to be changing too, and we would need to know how and why that was happening. I can think of at least one mechanism which could be driving it, and if the gene frequency in the population really is changing, then we are evolving. That’s what evolution is. But that fascinating question is beyond the scope of these podcasts. If anyone ever actually listens to them, and they become successful, I’ll add a supplementary episode, or episodes, to discuss the question of whether human beings really are evolving.
The main point of this series was to show that our best guess about the nature of the Omnitruth is that we are animals with a deep nature that does not always work in our best interest.
As I said at the beginning of Episode Six, the fact that humans have a deep nature is seen as problematic, and is likely to be seen as incendiary, to some people. There are two potential worries that people have about this. The first is that because something is natural then that’s how it should be, and therefore if it’s natural to define human or non-human people as other, then this somehow justifies it. I hope I have shown this up for the complete tosh it is. Nature doesn’t know best; it doesn’t know anything. There is a principle in philosophy called the naturalistic fallacy which states – quite rightly – that because something is natural this does not mean it is good. The second worry is that if it is in our genes, there is nothing we can do about it. This is a slightly better argument, but it is also false. We might indeed be stuck with the deep nature we do have, but if we can learn from nature, we can see how it influences us, we can learn to confront its cruel effects. The first step is to avoid the Everest Syndrome: the idea that we can understand human beings without looking at our nearest cousins and where we came from, otherwise we risk letting our genes manipulate us to do evil without ever knowing why.
Because of its robotic mindlessness, nature has played three bitter tricks on us, the first is the cruel realisation that we are all going to die, the second is that we seem to need external meaning when it appears that there is none; meaning comes from inside us. And the third trick is that we seem to be programmed with the inclination to destroy ourselves.
The great news is that we can still do something about the third trick. It is not too late. The first step in solving any problem is to define it and understand it. In this case, the next is to solve it by favouring other parts of our deep nature like compassion, empathy, kindness and love. With the right political direction and will, we could set policies, legislation and other mechanisms to transform our future.
Humanity’s far future, if it has one, will be peaceful and harmonious, characterised by tolerance, co-operation, sustainability and respect for our environment. There will still be natural variation between individuals and there will be people who are outliers, but parochialism and sectarianism will be rare or non-existent. Whether these changes come about by social evolution or Darwinian natural selection it is where we must go, because if we don’t, we won’t be here.
In the final chapter of Charles Darwin’s world-shattering book “The Origin of Species”, in which he proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, he said that “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” for the first time we know enough about nature and how it works to begin the process Darwin so presciently pointed us towards.
Something incredible is happening, or rather, could happen. All post-Nova animals have a deep nature and, because we are animals, we have one too. But of all the untold millions of species that have called this planet their own, this species, Homo sapiens, this extraordinary, amazing and wonderful species has the unique honour of being able to look down through its own awareness horizon. Our nature need not be deep any longer. We now have the ability to see what it is to be human with more clarity than ever before. Understanding that, and seeing through our awareness horizon, will give us an incredible insight, and the tools that might help lift us up, to leave our animal heritage behind us, and turn us truly into intelligent beings, with the best possible knowledge of what is true, what really matters, and why. That’s how we will save our world, the other feeling beings we share it with, and humanity itself.
Before you go, I have something to ask you You will have noticed that you have not heard any ads while listening to these podcasts; that’s because I have chosen not to be paid for them. It might be monumental hubris on my part, but I feel the ideas you’ve just heard are important, and I didn’t want anybody to be put off by any unwanted advertising. The ideas are a summary of much bigger philosophical system, which I initially wanted to publish in a book, called “From Slime Eater to Sapiens”, but because I haven’t got a seat in a prestigious university, a certificate saying I have a PhD, or a picture of me in a funny hat, I’ve been told that mainstream publishers won’t take me on. If you work in the mainstream publishing industry, you are a literary agent, or you know someone who is, would you please think about whether there is anything you can do to help? And I suppose this is where I finally need to introduce myself. I have been Peter D Fisher, and if you need to find out more about my writing please visit, www.peterdfisher.com
Thanks for listening to these podcasts. I hope I haven’t offended too many of you and that you enjoyed them and found them useful.