Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
August 10, 2020
By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Aug 10 2020 (IPS)
COVID-19 has become a scourge affecting all levels of human society – morals, behaviour, human interaction, economy and politics. The pandemic has wrecked havoc on our way of being and its impact will remain huge and all-encompassing. It is not only affecting our globally shared existence, it is also changing what has been called ”the little life”, i.e. our own way of thinking and being, our personal life situation and the one of those close to us; people we love and depend upon – our friends and family.
COVID-19 has so far mainly contaminated humans, though since everything on earth is connected it is already threatening other species, maybe the entire equilibrium of our vulnerable planet.
A painting by Paul Gauguin is inscribed with the questions D´où Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Où Allons Nous – Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Questions we may ask ourselves while being confronted with COVID-19. When we reflect upon our origins it is difficult to avoid the most essential question of them all – What makes us humans different from other animals?
Like any other animal we are multicellular creatures, mobile and obtain our energy from food . Furthermore, we have muscles, nervous systems and internal cavities where food is broken down and converted into energy. As mammals, we can regulate our body temperature, our female variety can give birth to live children and breastfeed them.
However, our brain has difficulties in accepting that we actually are animals and thus highly dependent on nature. Our excessively abstract thinking, our ability to express ourselves in languages and symbols, have set us apart from other animals and contributed to the development of complex, ever-changing societies. We are able to communicate and cooperate in large numbers and have developed a unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in our imagination, such as gods, nations and money. This has placed us beside nature, made us think that we are unique and have the right to exploit everything for our own benefit, making us arrogant, prone to discrimination and making use of other creatures in an often abusive and even cruel manner.
Is this an unavoidable ingredient of the evolution of life on earth? As an answer to Gauguin’s first question: ”Where do we come from?” science has organized human evolution into six levels. We share the first five with other creatures, while the sixth level makes us unique.
In the beginning, chemical compounds developed in liquid water and became bacteria, which over millions of years were transformed into eukaryotic cells, containing a nucleus and organelles enclosed by a plasma membrane. Our bodies are constructed by such cells. Millions of years later, a third crucial advance came about – sexuality, i.e. the controlled and regular exchange of DNA between cells. Finally, the eukaryotic cells assembled into multicellular organisms and it is here we find the ancestors to all animal species, including Homo Sapiens.
The fifth transition was more of a social than a biological change – eusociality, a phenomenon that occurred when animals came together in huge groups, where they developed a high level of cooperation, based on division of labour and altruism. It is altruism that makes us human, meaning that we as individuals are prepared to benefit others at our own expense. You might, with good reason, claim that humans are not at all any sympathetic beings. That each one of us is mainly concerned with her/his own well-being, and this quite often at the expense of others. Nevertheless, while considering human society in its entirety it becomes evident that every individual is dependent on the welfare of others.
Humans are actually prepared to sacrifice themselves for the well-being of their loved ones, or even risking their lives for what they believe is the contentment and prosperity of the entire human society. They may act as health workers, fire men, or soldiers – there are numerous more examples of such tasks and assignments that actually have an altruistic origin. However, this is also common among other animals, even among such insects as ants and honey bees, where altruism is even more developed than among human beings. Nevertheless, the eusocial behaviour of such creatures is exempt from what we humans would call love and compassion.
What we humans have obtained at the sixth, and so far final, level of evolution is an advanced capacity for language, empathy and cooperation. This in spite of the fact that we easily may point out major shortcomings when it comes to the last two characteristics, especially empathy.
The crucial faculty that makes us human is language. Other animals are capable of communicating by sound, facial expressions, bodily postures, and movements, though they are unable to speak in the sense that they can create the words and symbols that constitute the imaginary concepts mentioned above. This human ability has delivered us from the shackles of instinct and premeditated behaviour. Humans can create and communicate imagined and real stories, something that enable us to move back and forth through past, present and future time, and from place to place. We are able to create imaginary worlds that can be transformed into reality.
Through experience amassed by empirical science and stored in books and other data banks, we can with the help of means of communication, like mathematics, and mentally created maps and plans, transform almost anything in accordance with our needs and imagination. This unique skill has developed from our use of language and given rise to the sciences and philosophical thoughts that now are transforming the entire biosphere, while abusing it to such a degree that we are currently on the verge of destroying it completely.
This leads us to Gauguin’s last question: ”Where Are We Going?” Our human capacity for changing things for the better is currently put to the test, and COVID-19 may be part of that challenge. The long chain of evolutionary development has taught us that survival and success do not depend on brutal force, but on empathy, compassion and cooperation. In these days, chauvinism is once again exposing its ugly face around the globe and political leaders assert that competition between nations is a driving force of human social evolution. However, contrary to such ideas science has proved that it is entirely reasonable that alliances and cooperation between large populations have been beneficial for cultural evolution and the sharing of resources. Innovations and beneficial solutions are more frequent within a large and diversified group, than in a small, homogenous one. Knowledge and skills are most effectively created and preserved within a global environment.
At the same time, it is also important to safeguard ”the little life”. It was apparently there that the success story of human evolution once began. Our current, massive cerebral memory banks were established by the African campsites of the first Homo Sapiens. While they prepared and shared their food they were talking about what had happened during the day and made plans for the future, and not only that – they entertained one another with tales about real and invented incidents and adventures, they sang and danced. While devoting time to such social interactions our ancestors developed and advanced their social skills and capacities. This meant that brutal strength and physical proficiency was not the most essential component in their struggle for control and survival. The main issue was to take care of and accept the abilities of each and every member of the group.
One specific feature of humans has been that we honour and take care of the elderly. It was the stories about their experiences and the time they, in particular grandmothers, were able to dedicate to their grandchildren, that made it possible for younger members of the group to procure and prepare food, as well as shelter and protection for all of its members. Both children and their parents could thus, by making use of the skills of the elderly, gain experiences that ultimately fostered human development.
It is social interaction and empathy, not violence and discrimination that have been essential contributors to the evolution of our larger brain and higher intelligence, as well as the enormous source of experience and knowledge we humans have amassed over time. Let us now hope that all this will lead to a global consensus that the future well-being and actual life on earth depends on us all and our ability to express compassion and work together as the eusocial creatures we de facto are. Hopefully this could be a lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching us that the earth is an enclosed sphere where every living creature is connected. It is now high time that humans shed their harmful arrogance and finally realized that peaceful coexistence, mutual support and shared responsibilities for our vulnerable biosphere is not only our raison d’être as human beings, but a necessity for the survival of our entire planet.
Harari, Yuval Noah (2019) Sapiens. A Brief History of Mankind. New York: HarperCollins. Wilson, Edward O. (2020) Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies. London: Penguin Books
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.
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