“Out of such ideas and a jumble of kindred ones grew the first quasi-religious elements in human life. With every development of speech it became possible to intensify and develop the tradition of tabus and restraints and ceremonies. There is not a savage or barbaric race to-day that is not held in such a net of tradition…. to distinguish any individual thing [such as a star, a mountain, a river] was, for primitive man, to believe it individualized and personal. He would begin to think of outstanding stars as persons, very shining and dignified and trustworthy persons looking at him with bright eyes in the night. They came back night after night. They helped him even as the Tribal God helped him.”H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, The Whole Story of Man, Volume One. (Doubleday & Company, 1971), pp. 104, 105.
Previously we noted that the notions of brokenness in nature, in creation, and in our inner beings and personality is universal to human experience, both historically and quite personally. It is fair to say that these concepts are ancestral, innate to being human. But why do we have the concepts of “salvation” and “saviour” so deeply rooted in our minds and hearts?
The citation at the top of this instalment is perhaps slightly “dated” in phraseology but certainly not in essence. It represents the common wisdom of the West’s intelligentsia concerning the origins of religion and humankind. Much truncated and stylized, and inasmuch as the regular layman gives it any thought, it is also the popular mindset of the West concerning the ancestral compulsion to bow before mystery and be “religious”. Via the cultural imperialism of the West, this perspective has taken hold of the “progressive” global community.
Some non-Western cultural traditions are not threatened by evolution. Hinduism and Buddhism, a sort of “New Testament” offshoot of Vedic and Upanishadic Hinduism, both accept a long-ages upon ages and cycles upon cycles view of material existence. Such a view is required to accommodate the doctrines of maya (impermanence, material illusion), samsara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth and suffering), and reincarnation/transmigration for millennia before the attainment of moksha (liberation, escape) and entering into nirvana (blissful union and absorption into the One). The ‘scientific’ doctrine of evolution was not part of this parcel until imported in the late nineteenth century. It then added a sort of superficial scientific confirmation to the religious dogma.
The tale of evolution as told since Charles Darwin succeeded in popularizing it (and he was far from the first to propose it) in the 1860s and ‘70s does not require any supernatural or spiritual component. While Darwin and many of the early post-Darwin evolutionists hesitated to outrightly erase God (he might still be the “First Cause” as proposed by many Enlightenment philosophes), the bolder ones agreed with Lamarck’s declaration to Napoleon in 1806, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.”
But if we have no Deity to fall back on, we must recognize that we have no one but ourselves (or the random destructive powers of nature) to blame for the woes we find threatening us and our world with destruction. It is of no consequence to such impersonal forces and powers whether we live or die, or for how long our race continues, or our little pebble of a planet and all the varieties of life it bears. It is only of consequence to us and that only because our own existence depends on it.
In the evolutionist sense, the deeply felt hope and desire to find some way of saving ourselves from oblivion is a meaningless freak, an unaccountable anomaly. Its only plausible cause is as an outcome of the instinct to survive for as long as possible at all costs—as individuals and as a species.
For as long as we have been able to observe our existence as a species from definite historical and archeological evidence, rather than the kind of pure speculation engaged in by Mr. Wells and others of his mind, all human generations of record have imputed a meaning of much greater significance than mere species survival to human existence. Coupled with our clearly observable sense of awareness of a special role for our species in the grand scheme of universal existence (however delusional this ‘awareness’ may be said to be by sophisticated group and individual psychology), we seem to have an innate sense of intimate connection to and responsibility for all the other forms of life found on our special speck of universe-dust.
It is a chicken-and-egg question: have we become like this as some sort of evolutionary strategy to survive, some sort of “evolution becoming self-aware to preserve life via the agency of the human species”? Or is there something else entirely at work here that is completely extraneous to evolution as conceived within its own ‘orthodoxy’? It seems we stand at the threshold of a mystery that not even science can answer and appears likely to be unable to answer for any foreseeable future with any kind of precision. This leaves the issue of ‘meaning’ outside the purview of ‘Science’ altogether.
The origins of our belief in ‘meaning’ aside, the sense that our planet is in or entering into a time of great crisis, of dire straits, is now almost total within its dominant, self-aware species, homo sapiens sapiens. Millions, even billions, of us believe that the planet needs “saving” and we, as its most advanced life-form, are intimately and inextricably tied to this need, at least in our own perception. Our ties are of two kinds: (1) as probable major contributors and perhaps precipitators of the present crisis, and (2) as the only species capable of acting to forestall or at least attenuate the effects of the crisis. In other words, if a “saviour” is to be found to avert our own potential destruction, or at least drastic reduction, we, the humans, are it!
It is not our purpose today to debate the extent of human guilt in the present slide towards disaster (at least from our human perspective) of earth’s climate. Doubtless, very many other species are and will be at least as drastically affected as we are and will be. Debates about guilt are of limited usefulness unless they lead to real ‘repentance’ and change of direction. Repentance is, after all, all about changing one’s life-direction and behaviours to both stop doing what has been so destructive and move to repair, restore, and do new, healing things. Repentance is also about contrition, admitting what we’ve (I’ve) done wrong, “’fessing up” and asking for forgiveness of those who have been offended by what we’ve/I’ve done. It is about restitution, setting things as right as we can in order to restore the damage and mend the hurt.
Let us say, for the moment, that we accept that the planet is on a climate trajectory towards catastrophe for the majority of its living species. Let us accept that humans are partly responsible for this because of our profligate, heedless exploitation of our home’s resources. We thus arrive at the conclusion that it is the human species that must restore the equilibrium, “save the planet”. This “salvation” really means somehow finding the means and method to permit the living things of Earth to survive and perhaps begin once more to thrive. It is about saving them from extinction. It is recognizing that their survival is necessary for ours as well. We are all passengers on our spaceship together. We are all intimately connected as living entities.
It is a curious and peculiar aspect of human identity, genetic coding, or however else one might choose to explain it, that humans are the only species that concerns itself with the welfare and salvation of other species. Healthy, mature humans do not perceive these other beings as a threat to their survival or existence. Too often, we humans have viewed them as things to exploit and use with little or no regard for their intrinsic “beingness” and value as amazing manifestations of life in its unfathomable variety of expression. But, in our better moments, we do recognize these qualities and the worth of these creatures. We take action to save them, preserve them, enable them to be restored.
In other words, we find ourselves with a built-in desire to save and redeem, just as much as we also find ourselves with innate tendencies to exploit and abuse and destroy. We find within ourselves a constant internal struggle to let “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln so beautifully phrased it, win out against the will to power and control and use and dominate for personal pleasure and gain, as Nietzsche described his view of human nature. In the old cartoons this was pictured as a mini-angel on the right shoulder and mini-devil on the left, each trying to convince the host to do things its way.
It is questionable to what extent we are really capable of “saving the planet”, even if we are largely responsible for what is happening to its climate and environment. It is questionable whether we, as a race, have the will to personally sacrifice to the degree necessary to effect “saving” action. Let us say that, by an amazing collective feat of will, we succeed in the next few decades in “turning things around”. Will this signify a fundamental shift in human nature with its Jekyll and Hyde schizophrenia? Will it mean we have at last saved ourselves from ourselves and that henceforth only Dr. Jekyll will manifest?
Will it mean that, at last, once and for all, we can lay to rest all the tired old fantasies about a great saviour coming to create final order, peace, and harmony for all the rest of our existence? Will we thus really and truly have arrived at the age when, as Buddha (in his own way), Lucretius (Roman naturalist and poet), Lamarck, Hawking and Dawkins have been telling us for millennia, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis?”
We will continue this discussion next time.