Turn your mind’s eye far into our past, noticing that about 2.5 million years ago, species of the genus Homo appeared and began to change in ways that, to our knowledge, has not happened to any other species on our planet. As a means of adapting to change, we began to use psychological evolution as a primary venue, rather than physiological adaptation. That’s to say, we began to evolve by thinking innovatively and inventively instead of adapting to environmental change physically. Our creativity surged, and the notion developed in us that we could devise items that were useful to us in our efforts to survive. We began to create tools. Some time afterward, our sense of social cooperation took a step forward, and we began to exchange our new tools and the knowledge of how to make them. We began to barter among ourselves.
The two behaviors complemented each other well. Creative thinking led to the creation of new goods—things like stone axes, fishing nets, and spears, and the knowledge of how to make them. This encouraged more bartering of ideas and knowledge. The more we bartered, the more time we had to think because trading for something like a fishing net takes much less time than it does to make it yourself. Thinking more allowed us to create more items and ideas that were useful to us and could be bartered. The process continued to build upon itself. It happened many times in many cultures, and the process took many, many thousands of years, but as the work of sheer survival was taken off ever more people, the opportunity to think creatively and produce tradable items became available for more of us, and the amount of goods and ideas that would be held in high regard by others started to rise dramatically. We found ourselves inventing novel methods of generating sources of food, and our social behavior became more complex. Some of us began to do nothing but engage in commerce. In time, some of us began to do nothing but teach and exchange ideas. Ever more creativity encouraged commerce, and ever more commerce encouraged creativity. So began the long journey to modern societies, which trade work time, information, and goods for an abstract item invented by human creativity to facilitate easier trading. We call it money. Our psychological evolution and skill at trading items accelerated with time and continues to this day at an ever-increasing rate. Where once there were very few items to desire and trade for, now there are thousands. Where once there were few ideas to ponder and use as building blocks for yet more thought, now there are thousands. Where once there was no infrastructure for trading ideas and items, we now have huge, sophisticated economies and societies that facilitate both the need to create ideas and items and the opportunity to exchange them. All because one day, far, far in the past, humans began to evolve psychologically, rather than physiologically.
Our remarkable ability to create technology, as well as the incredible rate at which our species can increase our information base, are direct results of this psychological evolution. Our unique method of adaptation has the potential to be as effective a way to accommodate change as any possessed by any creature that has ever lived. At the same time, it is not without its problems.
People don’t ordinarily look at their actions in terms of adapting to change. Caught up in our daily labors, it’s easy to spend most of our time thinking about what we are doing rather than why we are doing it. Even when we do take the time to think about why we’re doing the things we do, most of us tend to think in terms of months or years, or at most, lifetimes. Most humans never think about the behavior of their species in terms of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. Because of our eagerness to stay on task, because of the desire to create ever more information, items, and money, many members of our species have become obsessed with them. Although it is by no means a universal affliction, many of us are like drug addicts, whose craving for the things we create and the money it takes to get them has become an overriding, overwhelming, all-controlling need. For many of our species, knowledge, money, and goods have become much, much more valuable than life itself. Often, those of us with the most try to hoard even more and will stop at nothing to do so. Because of this, the history of man is littered with millions upon millions of deaths in the name of more money, superior ideas, and more cunning technology.
So many of us are completely caught up in our obsessions that, as a group, Homo sapiens often seems unable to bring due consideration to bear on our rapidly inflating pool of information or our ever-increasing level of technological sophistication. We are very, very rapidly approaching the day when our medical community will be able to alter our DNA in any way we so choose. We will soon be able to genetically engineer entire populations, if that’s what some government decides it wants to do. In the not too-distant future, our computers will approach, then equal horses, dogs, and cats intellectually. Will we have the insight and forethought to utilize these technologies to our benefit? Meanwhile, our abuse of the environment appears to be contributing to the recent die-off of species. Continuing deforestation of both temperate and tropical forests around the planet depletes the ability of our environment to supply itself with life-giving oxygen and contributes to widespread climactic changes. Our use of fossil fuels appears to contribute to dramatic changes in Earth’s weather and atmosphere. In the early twenty-first century, the question before all mankind is, “Do we possess the forethought and wisdom to stop challenging our environment and abusing ourselves?” Only time will tell what the answer will be. One thing is for sure—the answer to this question is more important than worrying about your power bill, your next job promotion, how you’re going to make more money, or if you can afford an iPod next month.
Man has a special ability to learn and produce technology. Creative thought is our way of adapting to change. It is part of who we are. But are we able to create well? Are we able to interact with the world skillfully enough to create technology in unison with our surroundings? Are we able to do it without destroying ourselves? Are we able to do it without turning our planet into a garbage dump? The earth Earth is constantly changing, and we are contributing to that change. Will we have the wherewithal to adapt?
It seems that as our creative abilities flourished, our infatuation with our intellectual powers became intoxicating. We forgot (or never learned) that our ability to guess well is just a way to accommodate change. Because our method of adaptation is so different from any other creature we know of, we’ve come to think of ourselves as more separate from the world and from each other than we actually are. Our special knack for creating a tremendous variety of ideas, novel devices, and consumable goods has only contributed to our sense of separateness. Meanwhile, our unbridled convictions in the ideas our psychological evolution prompts us to create has encouraged us to divide ourselves into ideological groups that will kill one another in the name of those convictions. Our obsessions with items and our determination to think in terms of separateness instead of connections has made many of us forget that the point of existence is to exist and be content as a small piece of something that is much, much larger than we can ever hope to be. Our sense of separation has fooled many of us into seeing themselves as significantly better than other ethnic or cultural groups and better than the creatures with which we share our planet. We’ve become so infatuated with the differences between ourselves and the rest of existence that we’ve neglected to remember much of what humanity shares with each other and with our fellow creatures.
Evidence of our obsessions with the items we’ve created and of our sense of separateness from one another abound and say volumes about our neglect at spending much time thinking about aspects of life that might allow us to function together more successfully. Notice that our tremendous surge of creativity over the last several thousand years is marked by the invention of thousands of new technologies and thousands upon thousand of discoveries about the physical universe, but in the list of all these discoveries there have been only a handful of major innovations concerning connections between groups of humans—that’s to say concerning government. Among the few innovations we have made, the most successful—representative democracy—dates back to pre-Roman times. Compare that one invention with the countless innovations that facilitate the creation of commodities, and the primary thrust of our creative ability becomes pretty obvious. I wonder what far-sighted ideas human creativity might produce if we put as much time and effort into designing better governments as we spend designing better weapons to defend existing governments.
Likewise, the most popular creative notions we’ve come up with concerning morality—the interconnections between individuals—again date back many thousands of years and are based on the fundamental belief that people should be organized into only two groups, those who are good and those who are bad. Compare that single bit of innovative thought to the scores of innovative ideas we’ve had about physics, biology, or engineering, and once again, the major thrust of our creative ability becomes clear. Imagine what new and creative ways of looking at each other we might have devised if all the monks in western Europe had spent the last fifteen hundred years examining the intricacies of human conduct instead of endlessly affirming and re-affirming to themselves that nobody’s point of view about God was as good and great as theirs.
We’ve gained an ability to adapt that is at least the equal of any other creature on the planet, but most of us have never entertained the idea that perhaps the primary reason for possessing that ability is to adapt to each other and the environment more successfully. With our nose to the grindstone and our thoughts always on the task at hand, many of us have lost our way. We believe too strongly in the consumable products of our creativity. We believe too strongly in our ability to guess well and in the items our guesses allow us to create. We believe we possess something more than a particularly effective method of adapting to change.
Think of a cat sitting on a hardwood floor. Throw an empty plastic cup on the floor beside it. The cat stares at the cup rolling back and forth. It imagines the cup as a good substitute for prey and pounces on it. That’s to say, it conceptualizes the cup in a way it finds useful and is thereby able to amuse itself and hone its predatory skills. It sees the cup. It thinks about it in a useful fashion. It utilizes the cup to its benefit. Humans are doing exactly the same in all of our conceptualizations. We do it very well. We do it so well, in fact, that we’ve forgotten that our ability to conceptualize is different from a cat only in degree of effectiveness. Acknowledging our ideas as the guesses they are doesn’t invalidate their usefulness or effectiveness in any way. What it does do is remind us that our intellect is different from other creatures only by the extent to which it is flexible and adaptable. A lion can jump very far, but it can only take small leaps of imagination. A human can take great leaps of imagination, but he can only jump a short distance. The actions aren’t any different, only the degrees of skill with which we do them. The more we acknowledge our similarities to the creatures around us, and the more we realize that all products of our creativity, both ideas and items, are nothing more than novel tools used for adapting to a dynamic environment, the greater our ability to use creative imagination will become.
Our creativity is clearly a fundamental aspect of Homo sapiens. Our conviction that we are separate from and better than all existence is not. The human arrogance of believing our intellect is not only more dexterous than our fellow creatures’, but also entitles us to some special status on Earth, is naive at best, and in the worst case, could lead to our demise. The more special and separate we consider ourselves, the harder it becomes for us to achieve that essential sense of connection to the environment that allows us to co-exist with it.
One can say with a good deal of certainty that our unique psychological method of adapting to change has given us the potential to join the select group of species who are able to exist for many hundreds of millions of years. Re-learning the ability to function as an integral part of nature is a vital step on the way to the realization of that potential.
In addition to learning the extent of our arrogance, man must also work to improve other areas of his knowledge before he successfully finds his way through millions of years of history. Perhaps it was our focus on the dualistic features of existence, on the poles of life, which led us to concentrate on the development of two-value belief systems. It seems we just haven’t progressed as a species to the point where we can widely use logic systems with more than two values. Unfortunately, the human insistence on using highly polarized values systems has contributed to our sense of separation from the environment and has significantly inhibited our ability to become adept at creating in ways that promote the interoperability of human systems with Earth’s bio-systems.
Systems of thought organized around two values, such as Aristotelian logic and Christian morality, have proven very useful, but they have distinct limitations. Just as increasing the resolution of a digital picture enhances the accuracy of its representation, so too multi-value systems of thought can bring us the ability to think about the world more accurately. Just as sound is digitally modeled better by using four samples per second instead of two, thinking plurally, rather than in a polarized fashion, models the world better. To allow computers to mimic human thought, computer scientists use programming methods collectively called “fuzzy logic” to pluralize the computers’ on/off binary calculations. Just as computers are “fuzzified” in order to mimic human thought, all humanity must fuzzify by learning to pluralize our moral systems and systems of logic. Thinking about another person’s point of view in terms of right/wrong/somewhere in between results in a much better assessment than thinking in the overly simple terms of “I’m right, you’re wrong” or “me good, you evil.” The aptitude to think in terms of intermediates instead of either/ or carries with it the ability to connect each of us to one another and to the world.
At least the problems associated with excessively polarized outlooks are widely recognized. Pluralized worldviews that encourage a sense of connectivity with our environment are common and popular among intellectuals. Still, the majority of us embrace the “us vs. them” and “good vs. evil” mindsets characteristic of two-value thinking. Fortunately, the balance appears to have been very slowly edging away from polarized systems over the last thousand or so years. The future well-being of humanity can arguably be expressed as a race between our increasing ability to create information and technology and our increasing ability to recognize and act upon notions that connect us to our world and our fellow man. In all likelihood, the course of this race will largely determine if Homo sapiens becomes a successful and long-lived species or proves to be an evolutionary wrong turn.