We Are (Not) Special: Anthropocentrism and the Evolving Universe (Part 1), by John Halstead

I had something like a spiritual experience watching a movie recently.

The movie Lucy is not what I would call a “good” movie. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Lucy is about a young woman who is kidnapped and has an bag of a new recreational drug implanted in her abdomen against her will. She is then forced to “mule” the drug across international borders. In the process, the bag is perforated and she absorbs a very large dose of the drug into her system. As a result, she begins to be able to access larger and larger percentages of her brain. She gains superhuman abilities, starting with extraordinary reflexes and perception and increasing until she can control matter and even the flow of time.

What made the movie stand out for me was a montage of images which Lucy experiences connecting her both to her remote ancestral past — in the form of her primate ancestor “Lucy” — and to the universe as whole — in the form of mind-blowing macrocosmic vistas. It was little Kubrick 2001-ish. As I walked out of the theater, I had this intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I don’t know if this was the intent of the movie, but I was left with an intense feeling both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the universe as a whole.

One of the insights of deep ecology is that we humans are members of a vast more-than-human community. Deep ecology calls us to a new humility in the face of this fact, challenging us to abandon our anthropocentric perspective. It reminds us that we are made of the same stuff as the living world around us and that our ultimate destiny is the same as all the other-than-human beings on Spaceship Earth: namely to continue our journey as recycled star dust. In the vast scheme of things, our individual lives are barely blips in the evolution of the cosmos. Even as a species, we don’t seem all that important in the grand scheme of things, having only been around 2/1000 of one percent of the life of the universe. In short, we are not special.

And yet, we are at least one of the lifeforms through which the universe has become conscious of itself. And that makes us special.

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It’s lonely at the top.

Models of Evolution: To be special or not to be

There are basically three models for understanding our evolutionary history (four, I guess, if you count the theory that God plopped Adam and Eve down in the Garden of Eden … which I don’t count). The first is the model of the evolutionary ladder or pyramid or tree, which depicts the evolution of biological life as a progression which culminates with human beings at the top — the “crown of creation”. I call this the “Special” model — as in “Human Beings are Special”. This is the comfortable model of evolution, because it places us at the top.

One of the problems with this model is that it perpetuates the conceit that human beings are somehow inevitable in an evolutionary sense. But, according to some critics of this model, if we were to replay evolution, there is virtually no chance that humans beings would appear again. This model also perpetuates the notion that human beings are “more evolved” than other species. But the fact is that all species that are alive today have been evolving for the same amount of time — 3.8 billion years — it’s just that some species have not had to change much in order to survive over that period.

Another criticism of the this model is that it implies that evolution has a direction or a purpose. Even secular people can fall into the trap of teleological thinking, writes Connor Wood:

“… when queried, secular supporters of ‘evolution’ often can’t describe Darwin’s theory any better than a fourth-grader. Most of them tend to fall back on a kind of vaguely Spencerian, embarrassingly teleological understanding of things, one that imputes goals and purposes in evolutionary development, that assumes ‘evolution’ means ‘glorious forward march of advancement!’ In other words, they utterly fail to understand the goalless, meandering nature of Darwinian theory.”

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The “Where’s Waldo” of evolutionary schemes

An alternative model of evolution depicts the process less like a tree, and more like a bush, in that it does not have a “top”. Humans are just one among many other species, with nothing setting us apart. I call this the “Not Special” model — as in “Human Beings Are Not Special”. There are various ways to depict this, but the central idea is that evolution is not a hierarchical process. This brings human beings down to the same “level” as bacteria, in evolutionary terms. In visual representations of this models, it is sometimes difficult to locate where homo sapiens even are in the scheme.

This is the model favored by many deep ecologists. One of the goals of deep ecology is “democratize” the biotic community, unseating homo sapiens sapiens from their privileged position as the self-assumed royalty of the evolutionary kingdom and bringing humans back “down to earth”, literally and figuratively.

Some critics of the “Not Special” model object that it calls into question our very right to exist, since we have to consume members of other species to survive. This is a specious argument, as it confuses evolutionary hierarchy with the food chain. The food cycle of which we are a part consists of beings eating other beings at every level. Predators consume herbivores and herbivores consume plants, but both predators and herbivores are then consumed by decomposers, which then become food for plants.

But what if the survival of our species requires the extinction of another species — like maybe the bacteria that cause bacterial meningitis. Again, all species, wherever they fall on the “bush” of evolution are fighting for survival. I don’t think leveling the evolutionary playing field means we have to question our “right” to survive. The more salient question is not whether we have a right to fight for our lives or the perpetuation of our species, but our “right” to exterminate other species out of ignorance, negligence, laziness, or a desire for a slight increase in our already historically unprecedented comfort level.

From my perspective, one of the problems with the “Not Special” model of evolution is that it fails to account for the way in which human are special, i.e., our self-consciousness as an emergent property of a complex evolutionary system. And perhaps even more importantly, it fails to offer a compelling motivation for humans to identify with anything other than our own species. In the “Special” model of evolution, human beings might at least think of themselves as “stewards” of the earth. But if there is really nothing distinguishing us from bacteria, as in the “Not Special” model, then why should we care about other species except to the extent that we need them in order to survive? This brings me to a third model of evolution, which will be the subject of Part 2.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  In addition to being the Managing Editor here at HP, he is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the administrator of the website Neo-Paganism.org.

See John Halstead’s Posts.

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7 Comments on “We Are (Not) Special: Anthropocentrism and the Evolving Universe (Part 1), by John Halstead

  1. Model #5 (perhaps)
    “Adam” and “Eve” arrived here from “there” under their own volition and by their own choosing. They crossbred their particular configuration of stardust with Gaia’s (and Gaia’s [partially evolved] creatures’) stardust for the purpose of making something new.
    (THINK: Na + Cl = salt)
    (THINK: ligers and tigons)

    Is specialness a value judgement? To whom does this judgement belong?
    Is there a better way of conveying your meaning, without the need for the presence of a judger?

    • That sounds like some exciting science fiction. I saw something like that in the latest Aliens installment (Prometheus).

  2. As I recall Ken Wilber and the integral school criticize the deep ecology “web of life” model for being too flat. They definitely think consciousness is something special. I tend to agree, but how and why and to what consequence?

  3. “The more salient question is not whether we have a right to fight for our lives or the perpetuation of our species, but our “right” to exterminate other species out of ignorance, negligence, laziness, or a desire for a slight increase in our already historically unprecedented comfort level.”

    This was excellent, i think this is the perfect reply when i hear people, especially authoritarian religious types claiming we as a species have the right to use, abuse and destroy all of nature. As there are probably better, more intelligent ways for us to survive anyways without having to cause more pain and destruction to other species

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