We Are (Not) Special: Anthropocentrism and the Evolving Universe (Part 2), by John Halstead

Cosmic Evolution

As mentioned in Part 1, if we were to go back in time and reset the course of evolution, it is highly unlikely that we would be here the second time around. On the other hand, according to some theorists, it is highly likely — perhaps inevitable — that some form of tool-using, self-conscious species would evolve. (For example, self-consciousness might be a form of convergent evolution.) While many biologists emphasize the directionlessness of evolutionary history, many physicists are now identifying a developmental trend in cosmic history, one moving toward localizations of increasing order and complexity which operate against the general entropic trend of the universe. If this is true on the cosmic scale, it is arguably true on a biological scale as well.

Philosopher Ken Wilber argues that, by portraying humankind as merely one strand in the web of life, deep ecology assumes a one-dimensional or “flatland” metaphysics. According to Wilber, a “deeper” ecology would perceive that the cosmos is hierarchically ordered in terms of complexity. Hierarchy does not imply dominion, though — it implies responsibility. This brings me to the third model of evolution, one which combines the insight that human beings are both special and not special. In this “Special/Not Special” model, the universe itself is evolving toward self-consciousness. One step in that evolution of the universe is the development of beings who are self-conscious. In other words, at some point in its evolution, the universe goes from being unconscious to having parts of itself — us — become aware of themselves as parts, as a stage in the process of the whole becoming aware of itself. In this sense, we are special. We as a species represent a point at which the universe has moved closer to self-consciousness. As a result, we have special responsibilities toward other species and the universe as a whole.

Checking Anthropocentrism

Alison Leigh Lilly has cogently criticized hierarchical models of evolution as being a form of “weak anthropocentrism”, in so far as they fail to challenge the supremacy of human culture and consciousness. Alison may be right, but there are few caveats that I think at least mitigate the latent anthropocentrism of this model of cosmic evolution:

First, it must be recognized that human beings are not the only beings that are self-conscious, much less the only beings that are conscious. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Living with a Wild God,

“The scientific notion that humans are the only conscious beings on the planet had been an error all along, an error rooted in arrogance and provincialism. … By the 1980s, science was beginning to move toward an acknowledgement of animal subjectivity and emotions, but for the most part educated humans were stuck with the Cartesian view of animals as automatons, driven entirely by instinct and reflex, which is a way of saying that they are in fact, for all practical purposes, already dead, just mechanisms responding to instinct and external stimuli. … When observed through a lens cleaned of human vanity, more and more types of animals, many birds included, are found to reason, cooperate, use tools, and plan ahead.”

In addition, there are other animals that are likely self-conscious, most notably other primates (chimpanzees and gorillas) and the cetaceans (dolphins and whales), but also elephants and magpies. And that’s not even counting lifeforms on other planets. So, while we may be in a special group, we humans are not unique. And, it should be mentioned that even the species that are not self-conscious, have the potential to evolve into species that are self-conscious. Every species is a manifestation of the universe’s drive toward self-consciousness, and as such, every species has inherent value.

Second, it must also be recognized that human beings are not the end of evolution. Homo sapiens sapiens will disappear one day. We may evolve into another species. Or we may go the way of the homo neanderthalensis, leaving the whales to take the next step in the evolution of cosmic self-consciousness. So, while there is a hierarchy of evolution (based on degrees of complexity), human beings are not really at the “top”. The “top” is reserved for the universe as a whole.

There is a common belief that we have “evolved out of evolution”, that through the development of tools, we no longer need to evolve biologically, because we can develop a technological solution to any challenge. But, I think it is becoming increasingly dubious whether we will be able to solve all of our problems technologically, since our technological paradigm seems to be at the root of many of our problems. In addition, I think it’s a mistake to see technology as somehow “outside” of the process of biological evolution. The notion that technology allows us to escape our biology perpetuates the nature-culture dichotomy, which again is at the root of our problems.

d8e6f836cf8f12c313f7be35167be6e31Third, and finally, I think maybe it is a mistake to focus on the evolution of individual species. We might say that we are not evolving, but that the universe is evolving, and we are only a part of the evolving universe. I cannot emphasize this point enough — because it encapsulates the sense in which we both are and are not special. We are special only to the degree to which we advance the evolution of the cosmos as a whole. What this means is that we evolve, not by increasing our technological control over nature, but by deepening our identification with the self-evolving cosmos. As we dissociate from our narrow ego-selves, and identify with the interconnected web of life, then the universe takes a step forward toward complete self-consciousness. One way or another, our sense of ourselves as beings existing separately from the rest of the universe has to be overcome. In a sense, we have to disappear in order to fulfill our destiny. And if we don’t, then we will disappear in another way, likely through self-destruction.

Cosmic evolution is not a new idea, of course, even for Neo-Paganism. For example, Tim (Oberon) Zell of the Church of All Worlds taught as early as 1971 that humans and cetaceans are part of the “nervous system” of a single planetary organism, Gaea, which is evolving toward an “emerging planetary consciousness” — a kind of biological apotheosis (an idea influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). But Zell also speculated whether human beings might better be compared to a cancer that is multiplying out of control within the body of Gaea.

Our destiny

I’ll admit that the idea that human beings are in any way “equal” to bacteria wounds my pride. I react instinctively against it, and it likely colors my opinions. “How can human beings be equal with bacteria? We have big brains and opposable thumbs. We make tools and we are self-conscious.” And, of course, these things are true. But why are these adaptations necessarily any better than the adaptations of bacteria? Or sharks, who seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the last half billion years? (This is a question that Jeff Lilly takes up in the comments to Alison’s post mentioned above.) It is possible, I have to admit, that tool making and self-consciousness are not real evolutionary advantages. In fact, our technology and our consciousness of ourselves as separate from the rest of nature both seem to be at the root our headlong drive to destroy our own environment and thus ourselves. It may be that these things which make us “special” are actually maladaptive. And it may be that the notion of a universe that is evolving consciousness is appealing because it flatters our egos and perpetuates the belief that self-consciousness makes us special. Perhaps it is just another way of creating God (i.e., the universe) in our own image.

I don’t have answers to these questions yet. But I am left with the feeling that I had when I walked out the movie Lucy: We are special, not in the sense that we have special privileges, but in the sense that we have special responsibilities. We have a responsibility to evolve toward what deep ecologists call “Self-realization”, a paradigmatic shift in our consciousness, from one of radical separateness to one of radical interconnectedness. And I also wonder if we might have a responsibility to help “shepherd” other species toward the same destiny (although I imagine this would be less like the genetic engineering which science fiction author David Brin describes in his Uplift books, and more like making space for other species to flourish).

We have a choice: Humanity will either commit itself to furthering the evolution of cosmic consciousness or we will continue our headlong rush to self-destruction (and probably take a good part of the biosphere with us in the process). If we are to take the former path, we must come to understand these truths, outlined by Michael Zimmerman:

  1. Humanity emerges from and is part of the rest of life.
  2. Life is a self-organizating web and we must cease trying to control mechanically.
  3. The earth community is itself sacred.
  4. Human morality must be attuned to the “languages” of the larger Earth community.
  5. We must encourage the flourishing of all life, human and other-than-human.

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.

14 Comments on “We Are (Not) Special: Anthropocentrism and the Evolving Universe (Part 2), by John Halstead

  1. I concur with all of this. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that the Universe is inevitably evolving towards self-conscious intelligence, but there is no doubt that entropy gets exponentially increased when tool-users start making stuff.

    I think that these are two of the greatest challenges that face us as humans, and it may be that collectively we will never be able to get over them: the idea of a singular “self”, and the idea that our species is “special”. Transcending these ideas would go a long way towards a sustainable world.

  2. Well reasoned, John. I just have one question. How do you know that the universe isn’t already conscious and self-aware? If it were, how would we know? It’s so vast, we really are like its bacteria.

    • Thanks Sable. I had to pause to think about that. I think I would answer this way: The universe is even larger in relation to us than we are in relation to bacteria. But I don’t think it is a question of size, so much as complexity. Bacteria are not aware of us, not because they is smaller, but because they lack the biological apparatus necessary for consciousness to arise. Perhaps we can say the universe as a whole is more complex than human beings, in which case you could be right, but what is the material apparatus of this cosmic consciousness (if not us ourselves)? In addition, one of the attributes of consciousness is the ability to recognize signs of it in others. If it were there, I think we would recognize signs of consciousness in bacteria, the way we do in some other animals. But maybe not … after all, people believed for a long time that animals were automata. So if we miss evidence of consciousness in “smaller” life forms, maybe we’re missing it on the cosmic scale.

      • I think that’s what I’m talking about. Yes, it’s taken us an amazing amount of time to recognize consciousness in the animals we share the planet with. In the context of behavioural reasearch we define “consciousness” as logical reasoning capacity combined with an ability to anticipate the future, and only recently did we become aware that it exists in cetaceans, dogs, bonobos and corvids, What other animals might display consciousness now that we have better ideas about how to communicate with them? And these are creatures who function on our level of reality and who are (relatively speaking when compared to the universe) about our size. Again, I think that presuming that the universe isn’t conscious is an anthropocentric bias of the nature you’re discussing. (Relax, I’m not talking about “intelligent design” here; just a different level of awareness.) 😉

  3. Well said. It’s interesting to speculate on what it looks like for humanity to “commit itself” to this — or anything, for that matter. I don’t think it will be a monolithic decision. It might start with a small group. It might start with a blog post.

  4. This was very engaging and thought-provoking. Thanks!

    This “special/not special” model does a good job of acknowledging a lurking tension in the anthropocentrism debates between the hierarchical and “flat” models, which probably contributes to a lot of talking past one another. On the one hand, IMO deep ecology is totally correct that when all species are viewed evenhandedly, there is nothing special or privileged about consciousness, because there are any number of other adaptive traits that one could pick out as being the “best”, from the speed of the cheetah to the vacuum-of-space-surviving hardiness of the tardigrade. On the other hand, Wilbur and company are correct in so far as it’s true that consciousness is special when you pick out and focus on that one adaptive trait. Humans are unquestionably the most developed species in that case and hence “special.” But as soon as you focus on some other trait, you could very well end up with cockroaches “on top.” So, who is right depends on the angle from which it is viewed. The “special/not special” model introduced here does a pretty good job of acknowledging that tension. I think it is an advance over the other two in that respect.

    The part where it starts to get murky – and possibly anthropocentric – is the idea of a universe “evolving” toward self-consciousness. I’m not quite sure I understand what that means completely, and some careful distinctions in terms and meanings might help to avoid the ambiguity that leaves it open to charges of anthropocentrism. Here’s what I mean:

    I think we have to be careful to distinguish two different meanings of “evolve” here: 1) for a population to become adapted to its environment over generations through a process of natural selection, and 2) to change or grow in a way considered positive. A crucial observation here is the subjective valuation implied in 2), which can only be made by a value-judging subject such as a human. Since value judgments are made with reference to what the subject considers good, they necessarily imply a degree of anthropocentrism. This is not necessarily problematic if one intends meaning 2) and is clear about it, but the problem arises if it is allowed to creep into discussions of meaning 1). These meanings need to be carefully separated and not conflated in order to avoid inadvertently evoking the problematic kind of anthropocentrism that so many criticize.

    Positive personal growth through identifying with the cosmos is certainly something I endorse, and it is clearly a case of 2), quite different from 1). It involves a subjective valuation of the growth direction.

    The same may be true for the notion of the universe as a whole “evolving” toward self-consciousness, with a “drive toward self-consciousness.” One could read a subjective valuation of growth direction into that. Granted these phrases can be read in multiple ways, but they very easily suggest anthropocentrism. It is difficult to see how meaning 1) could be invoked for the universe “evolving” as a whole, since it doesn’t have an environment outside it to which it might adapt, nor does it exist as a reproducing population on which natural selection might act over generations. Rather, it is a single unitary phenomenon which changes over time in certain directions which might be deemed positive by some specific value-judging subject, which would be consistent with meaning 2).

    So, in a very long-winded way, all I’m saying is it’s hard to read meaning 1) into the “evolving universe” idea, and easy to read meaning 2) into it, which makes it appear open to charges of anthropocentrism.

    • B.T., I agree that it seems arbitrary, or even anthropocentric, to privilege self-consciousness. But I don’t think it is arbitrary to privilege complexity. I don’t think complexity is just one trait amongst others. I do see a trend from less complex to more complex life forms in the history of biological evolution. If we see self-consciousness as a special case of complexity (and I think there is good reason to), then the reasons for privileging it become less arbitrary … and, hence, less anthropocentric.

      Also, privileging self-consciousness would technically only be anthropocentric if we only recognized self-consciousness in human beings. There are other species that manifest indicia of self-consciousness, and there are likely billions of others throughout the universe, and it is likely that we or another species will evolve into other self-conscious forms of life which have yet to be seen.

      I admit, though, that my use of the term “evolution” may exceed the bounds of your #1 discussed above. I’m sure to be challenged by those who know more about evolution, but natural selection/adaptation to the environment has always seemed to me to be a necessary, but insufficient mechanism for driving evolution. In this article I am perhaps violating an axiom of philosophical naturalism by proposing a teleological argument (a la Teilhard de Chardin).

  5. The excellent discussion has made me curious about what the generally accepted overview is concerning complexity and evolution. Wikipedia’s “Evolution of biological complexity” is brief and interesting here. “Although there has been an increase in the maximum level of complexity over the history of life, there has always been a large majority of small and simple organisms and the most common level of complexity (the mode) appears to have remained relatively constant.” The article describes how evolution has moved in the direction of not only complexities but also increasing simplification. And it explains selection biases that are a pitfall in observing trends in natural selection. In short, it’s complicated.

    • Interesting. I’ll have to give this some more though and consider selection bias as a factor in my perception.

  6. Recent estimates say theres a possibility that theres between 28-30 billion planets in the milky-way alone that could contain liguid H2O and thus life. With 100’s of billions of galaxies, I’d say any form of life that can exists does and our limited knowledge of what life can be is indeed infinitesimal. Something alot like Avatar is out there, somewhere.

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