Western thought, both conservative and liberal, has a long tradition of viewing human beings, individually and collectively, as a scourge that must be contained. I think it goes back to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian acceptance of Original Sin. In Genesis, Adam and Eve listen to the Serpent’s twisted counsel, disobey God’s commands about touching certain fruits, and eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In consequence, they are banished from Eden before they can also eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal—essentially becoming gods themselves.
In the myth, this disobedience was the root of all human wrongdoing. Humans became differentiated from the other animals of creation which, lacking such knowledge, retained their innocence. The tiger might eat a lamb, a ram, or a human being and yet remain innocent because savage predation is the tiger’s nature. The tiger simply knows no better. But a human who lies, steals, murders, or does other harm is condemned because he or she now has understanding of moral choices and their consequences and knows right from wrong.
This ought to be an advanced state. The human perceives and understands more deeply than the tiger. The human is capable of self-awareness and self-examination, can know about cause and effect, can predict consequences, and can choose a proper course of action. The wise human will of course choose moral actions leading to a good life, but he or she is also aware of other possible, less desirable actions. The tiger simply kills whatever crosses its path that is warm-blooded and looks like prey.
Presumably, if Adam and Eve had closed their ears to the Serpent, obeyed God’s injunction, and not eaten from the Tree, then they and their progeny—the whole human race—would still be innocent. We would live according to God’s rules but not know why. We would obey without thought or conscious choice. We would not need to examine or think about our actions. It might even be argued that, like the innocent creatures, we would have no need of self-awareness, no need to identify ourselves as beings separate from the world around us and operating in the context of our own actions.1
From a religious viewpoint, where obedience to God is the highest good, this would seem to be an ideal state. Unfallen humans could not disobey. God would obtain obedience from his creatures without the troublesome effort of monitoring human actions, judging them, and disposing of the operators upon their deaths to a place of either punishment or reward. The world would function in perfect harmony: humans eating fruit, hawks eating sparrows, tigers eating lambs, and nothing to mar the peace except the occasional stricken cries from sparrows and lambs.
In such a world, there would be no distinction between humans and the other animals. Humans would roam forest and savannah eating roots and berries and now and then scavenging the bones left over from a lion’s kill. Society would be limited to the family and an extended kinship of uncles, aunts, and cousins that approached the definition of a tribe. Gorillas and chimps live this way in the wild. Perhaps Australopithecus lived this way. If one chimp or hominid happened to kill another—well, accidents do happen, and male bears have also been known to innocently kill and eat their own cubs.
Certainly, such a world would be free of organized society and its preferences for class and ethnic distinctions, ownership, trade, warfare, and hierarchical religion. That means there would be no inequality, no possessions or greed, no massacres or genocides, no climate of fear, no courts or inquisitions. There would also be no stories or plays about personal or societal conflict and choice. There could be no heroes or villains, no one to look up to or down upon, no context of action, no reason and no way to dedicate one’s life to something greater than roaming and picking berries.2
Several authors who shaped some of my early reading and whom I still greatly respect—among them C. S. Lewis in the Perelandra series and James Blish in his novel A Case of Conscience—have viewed human space travel as a potential disaster for planets with races that still lived in innocence without moral distinctions. Humans would infect them with our original sin and destroy them.
Other authors and thinkers whom I do not so much respect—among them John Muir and most of today’s radical environmentalists—apply this thinking to our own planet. Because humans have developed technologies that draw metals and fuels from the ground, cut trees for their wood, change the course of rivers, and expunge natural habitats, we have destroyed Eden. We are a scourge upon the planet, like a microbe that will consume all the nourishment in its petri dish and drown in its own wastes.3 Their view of humans—at least in the aggregate—is that we are a beast of the belly who doom both ourselves and our planet.
Like most humanists, I believe that human beings, both individually and in groups, are capable of self-knowledge, understanding of consequences, and choice of action. We are capable not only of astounding evil and depravity but also of astounding good and nobility. Further, I believe that it is only through the possibility and example of evil that the possibility and example of good can be known.
Like the ancient Greeks, I believe that human beings belong in, and function best in, the polis—the city, where strangers may meet and interact in cooperation or competition—rather than in the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of instinct and sudden violence, while the city is the place of reflection, order, reasonable debate, and reasoned action.
This is not to say that I don’t marvel at life in nature. I am fascinated by the interplay of environmental forces on established genomes to foster the development of new, unexpected traits and species to exploit previously unknown environmental niches. I look upon the energy-conserving lope of the kangaroo in pure astonishment. I am also fascinated by the physical world of stars and their origins and proper motions, of planets and their complex tectonics and geology. I look upon earthquakes and volcanoes in pure awe. But I am also reminded that the ability to know and study and respect these natural forces and their outcomes is based on a human activity—science. A human mind has experienced a mystery, applied the processes of observation and logic, tested its understanding of consequences, and used the languages of words and numbers to communicate this understanding to other human minds. Life, the Earth, and the stars do not know themselves—they are understood only by humans.
I am fascinated by technology: machines and engines that move of their own accord, circuits and software that manipulate data, structures and processes that control and oppose natural forces like gravity with bridges and dams. I am fascinated by the inventiveness of the human mind, which can conceive of a wheel and piston driven by steam, enhance and compact that engine through internal combustion, and optimize it with cams and valves and fuel injection. Here is a complete history of human thought written not in brushstrokes on papyrus but in linkages of steel.
Far from being a scourge on the Earth, I believe we humans are the best thing happening within a sphere of open space approximately four light years across—the distance to the nearest star—and perhaps in a much larger space. We may meet like minds out in the galaxy, or minds that are very different. But if they are the innocent minds of animals, lacking self-awareness and the capacity for good and evil, then they will be of little interest. We should treasure them for their oddity, as we treasure tigers and lambs and hawks and sparrows for their unique qualities. But we won’t have much to say to them.4
Various thinkers have looked on this human capacity, to know good from evil and then choose to do either good or evil, and despaired. They would create a different kind of human through education or indoctrination or breeding pressure. Utopian societies dream of forcing a new, benevolent, unquestioning lifestyle that knows only good and cannot conceive of evil. The Russian communists hoped to breed or bully their people into becoming a new race, Homo sovieticus, imbued with egalitarianism and selflessness. You can achieve much the same effect—quieting the human impulse to know and plan for the future, trace the possible course of events, and make informed choices—with an ice pick and a prefrontal lobotomy.5 But the result will always be something less than human, or at least lacking in human potential.
I don’t believe we are fallen angels. We are not outcasts from some mythical garden of peace and harmony. And we are not perfectible, except through the exercise of individual and group choices from among courses that we are free to evaluate as good or evil. That process is always going to be uncertain, messy, sometimes disappointing, and occasionally disastrous. The lobotomy or its social equivalent is certain, clean, predictable, and beneficial to religious reformers and social planners. … But it just ain’t human.
1. Presumably, we would also be vegetarians. Fruit-picking seems to have been the dominant occupation of Adam and Even while they lived in Eden. But possibly we would share the tiger’s innocence and kill among the sheep and cows of paradise in order to put mutton and beef on the menu. Certainly, as omnivores made in God’s image, our metabolism was designed to ingest and derive nourishment from meat as well as from fruits and grains.
2. This is a trend of thought in western civilization that probably started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Discourses.
3. Of course, microbes are innocent creatures that respond only to their biological imperatives. They have no brains to evaluate resources and see consequences. They cannot choose other than to suck all the good out of the petri dish and contaminate it with their wastes. Nature itself imposes consequences and limits the spread of microbes so that land and water are not inches deep in slime.
4. In fact, I would be very surprised if creatures that lack self-awareness could even attain language—anything more complex that the warning cry of the monkey troupe or the howl of the wolf. Whether whales’ songs and dolphins’ clicks and squeaks are communication or simple echo location is still to be proven.
5. The front part of the brain’s cerebral cortex is where humans perceive future courses, plan complex behaviors, make decisions, adapt personal expression to socially correct behavior, and coordinate thoughts and actions with internal goals. The prefrontal lobotomy was supposed to make aggressive and anxious mental patients become docile and pliable. Of course, if you can’t think ahead and perceive outcomes, if you don’t have a mechanism that lets you test the future and your place in it, then you don’t have much to care or worry about, come what may.