“‘Humans are intruders’ and the natural world is better off without us, says Sir David Attenborough,” runs the Independent’s headline.
It’s a sad comedown for the man who, as a BBC executive, commissioned Jacob Bronowski’s the “Ascent of Man”, but the doyen of nature doco-makers, Attenborough, has declined so far into nihilism and own-species self-loathing that he wishes humans didn’t exist.
It’s even sadder that while he has lovingly narrated the lives of various members of the animal and plant kingdoms, and the complexity of environments, he has never put the same care and attention into chronicling the most amazing and wonderful animal of all – human beings.
He’s not the only environmentalist to downgrade and misclassify homo sapiens, but it is a damaging mistake to pretend that, somehow, we are not members, albeit the most outstanding members, of nature.
We can partly blame the Jews, and their lineal descendants, the Christians, for this. One of the many errors in the Creation story is to have God make man after he has made the rest of the planet. While it is chronologically correct, it separates man’s creation from that of every other animal, and misses the fact that we are indeed the outcome of the process of the creation of every other animal, tracing our ancestry back to the first single-cell organisms, along with all other living organisms.
This is the point that Jordan Peterson makes when he compares humans to lobsters. His major point might be that hierarchies are inevitable, but his subsidiary point is that it is because humans are animals, and we share the same physical chemistry as even some of our most basic cousins.
This misconception leads to the deification of the lower animals, and the demonisation of humans, the highest animal.
We can also blame our exceptionalness for this mistake.
When I was younger I was a dab hand on the piano, even winning the odd competition. But I knew there was an unbridgeable gap between me, and say Mozart, who not only composed good music in his early teens, but could memorise and transcribe Allegri’s Miserere after just one hearing. I never kidded myself I was more than a journeyman.
However, I’m much closer to Mozart than even the closest of our animal relatives is to the lowest performing human being. That’s the distance between us and the rest of the animal kingdom, and it is so large that it obscures the fact that we are just another animal.
Think of some of the animals that are chronicled in wildlife documentaries, and then compare them to us.
There’s the Great Barrier Reef, able to be seen from space. Not bad for colonies of blind polyps, but I’ll take your GBR and raise you the Great Wall of China, also visible from space. Or the loom of civilisation at night, what the environmentalists call light pollution, which indicates to the whole solar system that someone is home on this planet.
I’ve seen documentaries about how clever termites are in building passive solar into their mounds. Well, how about an animal that builds taller and higher than any termite, by orders of magnitude, sometimes using passive solar to keep their buildings cool and warm, but also mining and burning minerals hundreds of kilometres away to make electricity which it pipes down copper networks to run electric engines to compress gases and cool or warm air to a consistent temperature that a termite could only dream about.
What’s more, unlike the drab conformity of termite mounds which come in only one design, and a limited range of colours, these buildings are many and varied, encoding aesthetic values – a concept barely known in the rest of the animal kingdom.
It goes on and on. Beavers build dams. And they are puny compared to even the most menial of ours. Lizards can grow a new tail. Well, not only is there prosthetics, but there are transplants, and who knows with further research into stem cells, perhaps regrowth that outmatches the lizard.
When our skin doesn’t suit the environment, we have invented various forms of exodermises, be they clothes, or hats, or sometimes a thin layer of sunscreen. When at risk of injury, we have exoskeletons we can use, like the outer skin on an automobile, or a motorcycle helmet.
We augment our brains by storing knowledge, and heuristics, externally. This might be socially through the stories we tell ourselves, or mechanically, via symbols written down manually, printed, or increasingly contained in electronic libraries. Bees and ants may be able to communicate the location of food using dances or pheromones, but Google and GPS can do it for us much more easily and reliably.
Humans are an animal without a specific environment. We can exist in the coldest and the hottest parts of the planet. We can live under the water, and we can fly in the air. We can even venture into space.
Yet when someone is eaten by a shark someone will say “Well it is their environment”. Nonsense it is our environment, and we shouldn’t tolerate them eating us, any more than they tolerate us eating them!
“Well,” I’ve been told. “That might all be so, but we’re making a mess of the place.” It all depends on what you mean by a mess. If by mess you mean that we “modify” our environment, then I don’t have a problem with that. Many species modify their environment.
Likewise, if you mean “destroy” I again don’t have a problem with that. Many species destroy their environment, at least temporarily, and sometimes permanently. A red ant nest is not particularly hospitable to anything but red ants. Crown of Thorns starfish eat out large areas of reef. Weedy species, like gum trees, crowd out other species.
As Darwin pointed out 160 years ago, nature is all about competition, and some species adapt and survive, while others die out. We wouldn’t be animals if we weren’t displacing other species. And perhaps we will be the ones to die out, but if we are, that is part of a natural process, no better or worse than any other species. The rest of the planet will be here long after we’re gone, and there is no ought in nature.
But this is where we are really exceptional as an animal. Unlike any other animal we are aware of, we have sufficient understanding of ourselves, and our environment, to notice, and measure change, and act to do something about it. And we do have a sense of ought, which means we can imagine purpose, a unique characteristic in the animal world.
Intelligence is the property that makes us worth studying, not apart from the animal kingdom, but as the ultimate realisation of it. And this is where Attenborough, and the environmental movement, goes intellectually schizophrenic, and Malthusian.
Attenborough is holding two separate, simultaneous and irreconcilable ideas in his mind. On the one hand we are not part of nature, and on the other, we will behave just like every other plant and animal in nature and just keep doing what we are doing until circumstances stop us.
But we are not like every other animal.
If we were like any other animal, then the carrying capacity of the world might be 1.6 billion – what it was in 1900 – or maybe that was already an overshoot. But that would ignore our ability to harness energy and fertiliser from fossil fuels, and improve the quality of our crops and distribution systems, so that now we can support 7.7 billion.
Every other species is shaped by rationing of resources, so their numbers wax and wane as they thrive and die. We apply intelligence so that now we can thrive in just about any circumstances, and as we get richer not only do we increase the resources available to us, but we adapt our breeding so that populations stabilise, or even decrease, without cataclysmic over-grazing and depletion of resources.
Unfortunately the Attenborough view of the man’s place in the world predominates and permeates our world. Millenarian catastrophism is everywhere, laced through our books, our movies, our conversations, our classrooms, and even our legislatures.
As a result we are rushing back to old technologies, and old ways of living, on the basis that “natural”, meaning like all the rest of nature, is better than “artificial” being the human contribution to nature. That is potentially disastrous. If humans were to behave like other animals there truly wouldn’t be enough room on the planet for all of us.
We need to redefine humans as part of the natural realm, and wrench the definition away from the Attenboroughs of the world. If we wish to ensure that mankind is not a deadweight on nature, but rather its observer, chronicler and sustainer, then we have to jettison the idea that we are, and should behave like, dumb animals.
Humanity’s moral, scientific and technological achievements are not the nadir of creation, they are, to date at least, the perfection of it. Man must ascend much further yet, for nature’s sake.
At 94 Attenborough will be relieving the world of his own weight soon, but our collective weights must go on.
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