I am writing this because the error in current cultural evolution, as defined in academia, is culpable not in what it says but in what it does not say. I am anxious that if we do not cease to regard ourselves through a Cartesian and Abrahamic screen, as the instruments of destiny of a first mover or creator god, we and a lot of the more complex biosphere will be destroyed within a century or two.
This is the beginning of my book.
We humans have a comfortable picture of ourselves, built on myth and delusion. The myth seems very old to us but compared to the time that has passed since we and the great apes parted evolutionary company, or even the time since the dominant myth, the monotheistic myth, emerged, our picture of what we are has lasted only a small fraction of human time. For tens of thousand of years before the creator God, Yaweh or Bramah or Allah, or just God, began to dominate large tracts of the earth, we humans believed in a more accurate version of ourselves, one where we were a group of animals among other groups of animals, all interconnected within the same web of time and space, each with our own ancestry, our own customs and beliefs, and our own connections to the indefinitely extensive parts of the world and of existence which we could not immediately see or control, the infinite space of spirits and natural forces which were only partially available to our senses through the surfaces and boundaries which contained all of us animals, the sky and the earth and the surfaces of water and rock and the line of the horizon where most distance lay and went on seemingly for ever. We could partly penetrate these surfaces, or at least some of us could, through trance, drugs and music and art and the suffereing of bodily extremes of heat and cold, mental disintegration and reintegration, hallucination and mutilation of the flesh and all the stuff of shamanism.
And from all this came wisdom and understanding, shaped by constant repetition and adaptation into myths, “songlines”, stories of who we are and where we came from and where we are going, all woven in words and pictures into maps of space and time which could be studied at many scales, the dream time, the season to come, where we head from here, tomorrow, now. These stories ensured not just our education about the whole universe as we knew it, but that we remained faithful to both the principles and the minute details of that education and tradition, and survived from second to second over big tracts of time, in Africa and out of Africa, hundreds of thousands of years.
Compared with these myths the one true God myth, in a month of human time, is only as old as yesterday. But it paints a very different picture of who we are. We are no longer merely a group of animals among many others, sharing the world with them. We are a unique and wholly detached creation, overlords in the all-powerful creator god’s image, and the world is there to obey and serve us. And so it has. We have treated other species not as free-born presences in a mutually necessary relationship with ourselves, but as commodities and slaves. And we have transmuted the stuff of the world into our own creation, thirty trillion tons of it (Zalasiewicz, 2016), concrete and steel, tarmac and brick, acid, dead bone and offal, steel hulls and wheeled capsules and flying machines, soot and toxic gases, weapons of mass and every other kind of destruction; as well as art and music and theatres and books and films and wine and mosques and all the good things of life.
To belittle our “creation” would seem like puritanical joylessness, and so it would be if that physical mass were not becoming a danger to us as a species, a danger that we collectively are beginning to fear. Increasing thousands are dying every day in our proliferating cities from poisoned air. The very thought of the millions of refugees that our excesses have created mean that all but the most confidently comfortable and enormously rich do not sleep so securely in their beds as they would like. The ice caps melt, there is increasing turmoil in the atmosphere, the auguries are dire. Cassandra shrieks night and day.
I did not write this book with a message in mind, it only came to me afterwards and here I am writing it down. But the message is, and this is the purpose of the book, to argue that we are not creator beings, despite what has emerged through our hands and brains in the last three hundred thousand years or so, all the realisations of human art and science, which are it would be safe to bet among the most wonderful assemblages in the universe. What we are are is evolved animals, cousins to the apes, but with extraordinarily large and hungry brains, and through these brains and our unique bodies our material culture, so primitive at first, a few sticks and stones, has replicated and evolved into seeming miracles, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Watt, a harpsichord which gives Bach’s Goldberg variations voice. And all the toxic junk that will kill us.
And the simple message is, we shall only survive if we stop making bad things, poisons, and explosive missiles, prisons for the poor and plastic yachts for grotesques cast in the image of the U.S. President, a man who does us the convenience of signifying in one unique organism all that is, and always has been, amiss with humanity. We must start to take stock of what we more accurately are, which is the organisms through which the current thirty trillion tons of the technosphere has evolved over the last hundred thousand years; and decide what we want of that technosphere before the decisive moment when we can no longer harness the power of the sun because it is totally blanked out by acid smog and the particulates of war.