From Sapiens to Omnipotentus

Science is pretty clear that Homo sapiens has been populating the planet for more than 200,000 years—a considerably longer time than the Christian story would have us believe.  The Garden of Eden was purportedly created some six thousand years ago, and most archaeologists believe it was located near the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at a spot now submerged in the Persian Gulf.

The_Temptation_in_the_Garden_of_Eden_by_Jan_Brueghel_the_elder

But in fact, forms of earlier human life have been documented as far back as two-and-a-half-million years.  Our human predecessors—part of the animalia family, the vertebrata subphylum, the mammalia class, the primates order, the homininae subfamily, and the Homo genus—include, among others, such species as Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis.  All are now extinct.

As a child raised in a Christian home, I was taught, and came to believe, that man was created in God’s own image.  (As an aside, I was also taught that woman was created from a rib of that man—which, if not an original sin, was at the very least an original prioritizing of importance.  As a further aside, I later came to understand that the Christian stories depicting this creation were written by men, which explained that version of events.)

Somewhere along the way, I was also exposed to the tantalizing question: did God create us, or did we create God?

Humans alive today—let me group women and men together as humankind for purposes of this essay—are members of the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies, which we are told has been in existence for perhaps 70,000 years.  Were we, through some magical time-warp, able to confront some of our earliest sapiens predecessors, we would scarcely recognize them as human.  I cannot imagine what they would think of us.

Self-Domesticated-Apes

Nevertheless, biologically, genetically, we are virtually identical.

Pictures of earlier Homo peoples, reconstructed from archaeological findings, show they looked quite different than we do.  They behaved differently, too, living in an environment quite distinct from ours.  It seems obvious that, over the millennia, humankind has evolved to accommodate the changing conditions.  But beneath the skin, beyond the discrepancies in physical appearance, we are related as a part of the same family in the same fashion that any of us are related to our grandparents.  The earliest humans so far identified through fossil evidence—perhaps Homo ardipithecus or Homo australopithecus—were part of humankind.

When I was first taught that humankind was created in God’s image, I made the completely valid assumption that God, therefore, looked like us.  His many depictions in the magnificent paintings of the masters only proved it—a stern, majestic, bearded being, (male, of course), clothed in white raiment, surrounded by angelic hosts, allowing the tip of one finger to be touched by a mere mortal reaching in supplication.

1200px-Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

But I have long since wondered, can that be so?  If humankind was, indeed, created in his image, perhaps he actually looks like our earliest ancestors, hairy and ape-like—unless, he, too, has evolved across the centuries (which I concede is a real possibility).  This would not contradict the creation story, merely situate it in a much earlier timeframe.

Such speculation, however, leads me to an even more intriguing question.  It seems indisputable that Homo sapiens sapiens is continuing to evolve.  Our marvellous brains have led us to the cusp of some wonderful, perhaps terrifying, advances in medical science—advances which have allowed us to live our full span of years, and more, relatively free of the scourges of premature death, when compared to those who came before us.

Cloning sheep, so astonishing a feat a mere handful of years ago, was just the beginning.  Purposeful studies today in such fields as stem-cell research, human genome-mapping, in vitro fertilization, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, to name a few, are moving us beyond the boundaries of what we have always understood to be true of our mortal selves.

Will humankind, in the not-so-distant future, be able to create human life?  And maybe code it to follow a certain, predetermined path of development?  Will our brains, perhaps conjoined with, or replaced by, digital, adaptive intelligence be able to take us to another evolutionary stage?  From Homo sapiens sapiens to, let us say, Homo sapiens omnipotentus?

binary-1536617_960_720

Will humankind in that case become, not cast in God’s image, but God?  Is that the evolutionary future of the being that created us in the first place?  To become us?

It has been written that we are one with God.  Perhaps, some day in the future, we shall be so.

It’s the Rich Wot Gets the Pleasure

My parents considered themselves members of the ‘upper-middle class’, and took pains to ensure that we children understood that.  I’m not sure I ever did, though, although we were neither rich nor poor.

Most of my growing-up years were spent in a modest, suburban home, on a standard-sized lot, in a neighbourhood of similar families, none of whom had everything they might have wished for.  I was ten years old before we acquired our first black-and- white television set, for example; I was sixteen before we got our first car, a ten-year-old British import handed down from my grandfather.  As a matter of fact, hand-me-downs were integral to our lives.

suburb

We knew there were lots of families who had more material wealth than we did, but they didn’t live in our community.  Their homes were larger and boasted swimming pools, two-car garages, and paved driveways, with proper kerbs, not ditches, lining their streets.  We knew there were people with far less than we had, too, but we would encounter them only infrequently, and were taught it was best to avoid them.

So we did realize, I suppose, that we were in the middle between the rich and the poor, between the so-called upper and lower classes.  But the finer distinctions within this middle class were lost on us.  It mattered not that one kid’s father drove a bus, while another’s worked in an office.  No one cared if somebody’s mother had a job, while another’s was a stay-at-home Mum.  Blue-collar and white-collar meant nothing to us.  Knowing we were loved and safe was all that mattered.

As an old rock song attested, …Here [we were], stuck in the middle with you.

stuck

One of my grandmothers used to sing an old British pub-song, in a fake Cockney accent, to the great amusement of her grandchildren, and it seemed to reinforce the fact that we were solidly and safely middle-class—

It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure,

It’s the poor wot gets the blame,

‘Tis the same the ‘ole world over,

I’n’t it a bloomin’ shame!

Mind you, as we grew older, we were encouraged—strenuously—to strive for as much as we could get, to never be satisfied with less.  It was important, we were taught, to pursue an education; to find, not a job, but a career; to plan for the future; in short, to rise above our station in life.

Inevitably, some of us took that advice, and some of us did not.

Today, I’m led to believe by pundits and prophets that the middle class is disappearing as the wealth-gap widens between the rich and the poor—or, perhaps more accurately, between the few rich and the multitudinous poor.  I admit it’s hard for me to comprehend that, because I’ve never been either fabulously rich or ruinously poor.  Being in the middle has always seemed a good place to be.

I recently finished an interesting book—Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari—that delves into why, despite a professed passion for equity and fairness in our modern, liberal society, our species continues to divide ourselves into castes—cultural, religious, and economic.  I’m about to begin a sequel, Homo Deus, which looks at where we are likely headed.  Harari does not paint a rosy picture.

An overly-simplified conclusion I am drawing from this reading (as one ensconced in our privileged, first-world setting) is that some people appear comfortable with their lot, no matter how mundane it may be, apparently satisfied so long as their basic needs are met.  Others, fewer in number, do not accept that status quo, and try to break new trails.  Some plod along their life-journey, eyes cast on the path beneath their feet (or, more likely, on the smartphone in their hands), while others, more curious, more ambitious, look for alternate routes to follow, even if that means foregoing some of the more immediate gratification they might otherwise enjoy.  Sort of like the proverb of the grasshopper and the ant.

grasshopper

But why do we make the choices we do?  Why are some of us seemingly content to muddle along in what I might call a state of arrested development—consumed by our electronic gadgets and devices, immersed in our own narrow worlds, uninterested in the broader issues of our time, and desperate to believe we are going to be looked after?

Looked after by whom?  The rich?

A new ruling class of people—those who rouse themselves to effort and endeavour, who pay attention to what is happening around them and in the wider world, and who consciously think about the consequences of their actions—is rapidly moving ahead of its less-diligent cohort.  And the space between them—call it intellectual-gap or achievement-gap—will only exacerbate the wealth-gap we publicly decry.

Recent studies are demonstrating that an over-dependence on electronic gadgetry, an inability to pry oneself away from those seductive pixels of delight, is changing the human brain’s learning patterns.  And not for the better.  In its extreme, this change will render addicted users incapable of thinking for themselves, dooming them to a dreary lifetime of mindless, eight-second sound-bites and 280-character communications.  In virtual servitude to those who rise above.

It hearkens back to the maxim of Roman times, the trick to keeping the rabble in their place—Give them their bread and circuses.  Already there are disturbing signs that much of the populace cares for not much more.  And technology has provided it to them in the palms of their hands.

170729164127-cell-phone-walking-file-full-169

The day may or may not come when all of us will live out our daily existence like so many drones and worker bees, ruled by entities possessed of artificial intelligence.  That remains to be seen.  But until that day, it is almost a certainty that the strivers among us will assert dominion over the slackers—a triumph of directed, purposeful intellect over superficial intelligence.

Given all this, I would change the words to my grandmother’s ditty—

It’s the thinkers and strivers wot will get the pleasure,

It’s the complacent plodders wot will get the blame…

Just wait.

Whither Humanity?

The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:

  • a collective name for all human beings;
  • the state of being human; and
  • the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.

The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.

In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens.  These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures.  But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.

It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then.  The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment.  Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.

Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species.  One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure.  Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.

It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally.  Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone.  Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately.  But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.

The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess.  And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.

So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question:  Whither humanity?

We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development.  The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established.  But where are we going?  And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet?  Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time?  If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.

But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all.  And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity.  At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.

We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations.  But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel.  Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?

I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—

          With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a

just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!