The Fatal Flaws in Human Exceptionalism

What’s “human exceptionalism” got to do with ecological destruction and the climate crisis? Really, everything.

Kyrnos on Pixabay

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Humans and Other Homo Species

Humans seem to have a natural propensity for making order out of chaos and for simplifying complexity. One of the ways we do that is through categorization and classification. We break things down into groups and then name and structure them. Our formal systems for doing this have a long history. Our informal ways of doing so have an even longer history. And throughout this time, there have been innumerable benefits to come from this propensity. There have also been some dire costs. Please bear with me here while I lay the foundation for connecting the dots between these costs and our current situation on planet Earth.

Arguably, one of the most detrimental effects of so much naming and grouping, categorizing and structuring is that we’ve come to see ourselves as something separate from everything else of which we are, in reality, a part. All living things on this planet together form an integrated whole. But by defining ourselves as the species of Homo sapiens sapiens, we have set ourselves apart. And in so many ways we’ve set ourselves above — above everything else.

Our biological divisions into orders, families, genera, and species are, of course, completely human-made and arbitrary. And as such, they can be changed, undone as it were. But there was a foundation for the classification system and so there’s also a foundation for a change to that system. It starts here: Based on the scientifically-accepted definition, in order to qualify as separate species, two animals cannot produce fertile offspring. A commonly used example here regards a horse and a donkey. The two animals certainly look related. And they’re able to, and often do, mate with each other. But their offspring, a mule, will be infertile. Thus, a horse and a donkey are considered separate species and both fall under the genus Equus.

Now let’s apply this to our own genus. Since 2010, it’s become clear through advances in genetic sequencing that what previously were thought to be different Homo species had come together and interbred. Because DNA from these “other” species — namely Neanderthals and Denisovans — can be found in our own genetic sequences today, it’s clear that their interbreeding (theirs and also ours with them) was able to produce fertile offspring. Applying the definition of species to this new information begs the question of how many Homo species there really were.

It’s also pertinent to consider that geographic dispersal and climate-related isolation are likely to have caused population fragmentation of these early Homo species. The resulting differences from adaptation to extreme conditions through natural selection may have made Homo species in different geographic regions and across time look somewhat different from each other, but the similarities were great and the different groups were able to produce fertile offspring through interbreeding. They were all representatives of a species that evolved gradually but continuously, not towards the ends of “perfection”, i.e., Homo sapiens sapiens, but toward the adaptation that best fit the time and location in which they existed.

Important factors like (1) the relatively small sample sets of fossils for most early Homo species, (2) recent conclusive proof of interbreeding between what has been referred to previously as distinct Homo species, and (3) the many notable similarities found across Homo species begin to form an argument for a different treatment of the Homo genus. Respected evolutionary biologists and paleo scientists like Ernst Mayr, Milford Wolpoff, Clive Finlayson, Henry Gee, and others have advocated for collapsing all distinct Homo species into the one Homo sapiens. The use of lineages — ancestor-descendent relationships across time — leave aside the false distinctions and leveling implied by species classifications. Lineages can merge and they can also diverge. Lineages can also dead-end; they can become extinct. The lineages can be referenced by using the name of what was formerly considered a separate species but now using it after the genus name so that what was referred to as Homo erectus is referred to as the Homo sapiens erectus lineage, Homo neanderthalensis as the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis lineage, and so on, just as our own name is referred to as the Homo sapiens sapiens lineage.

Homo sapiens erectus skull at the Smithsonian, photo by Mafnoor on Pixabay

This taxonomy better represents the “bush” that Darwin described as part of the tangled bank in the last paragraph of The Origin of Species. The long-standing “tree” of evolution so iconically adhered to for so many years is less representative of what research to date shows us is the currently-understood story of our own evolution. Some scientists are concerned that those advocating for a single Homo sapiens species take the human tree and convert it into a single limb. Rather, when sticking with this analogy, it’s a branching limb that spawns geographically distinct lineages as the Homo sapiens species continues its evolution over 1.8 million years. And some of these branches had their own forks and twigs branching off of them but they were still part of that Homo sapiens limb.

Human Exceptionalism of the Homo sapiens sapiens Lineage

A crucial aspect of our attachment to a multi-species view of the Homo genus has long been grounded in our sense of Homo sapiens sapiens’ exceptionalism. From this perspective, once our “not quite like us” ancestors appeared on the scene, each other Homo species fell to Homo sapiens sapiens superior powers, that is, to our superior knowledge and abilities in both the physical and cognitive realms. This happened wherever and whenever we encountered them, just as it did with the megafauna of those times. We, Homo sapiens sapiens, had (and presumably still have, by this view) the ability to extinguish other species, to drive them to extinction. Why else would we be the only ones left standing here today?

This notion of our human exceptionalism (often translating to “superiority”) is defined as the tendency to view the human beings as we know them today as exceptional by virtue of their possession of a number of characteristics acquired through the process of evolution, which is understood here as a progressive and directional drive toward perfection of the species. The vaunted characteristics possessed by humans are held to be things like language, technology, and consciousness.

But here’s the problem you’ve no doubt already recognized with this definition. We now have indisputable evidence that previous lineages of Homo sapiens had all of these characteristics. Well, you might say, but not to the advanced extent that we do. Not so fast. For just one example, Clive Finlayson and his team have now presented highly compelling evidence that Homo sapiens neanderthalensis were doing all the things previous experts maintained were only done by Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e., us), like catching fast-moving prey, using feathers and shells for adornment and other symbolic usages, creating art, etc. And in some cases they may have been doing so long before Homo sapiens sapiens, and the latter may have even learned to do some of this from the Neanderthals. To that end, there is more evidence than not that Neanderthals were not made extinct by our Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors but by other factors including climate changes and geographic dispersion leading to pockets of isolation that resulted in too little genetic diversity for perpetuation of smaller and smaller bands.

As in all things, the more we study, the more we learn, and sometimes what we learn helps the biased blinders begin to fall from our eyes. Could the human exceptionalism we assert only belongs to our own most direct Homo ancestors be misplaced? Could it be a delusion of grandeur used for centuries to justify how we’ve denigrated other Homo species but also nature?

Speciesism and Its Counterpoint

Just as we’ve used our own invented hierarchies to reinforce the exceptionalism of our particular lineage compared to other Homo lineages, we have long imposed our human exceptionalism on all other non-human living beings. But here too we have indisputable evidence of the language, technology and consciousness of many non-human beings. And for those for whom we don’t have proof currently, there’s evidence that we’re just not conscious enough ourselves to be aware of it. An example here may be the evidence that AI is providing in terms of uncovering the languages specific to certain animals, or the new findings regarding the mycelial world in terms of its communication among mycelia but also with the trees and plants and insects that form the network within the ecosystem in which it exists. Can we say for sure that there’s no consciousness there?

Elephant Brotherhood, photo by alex-strachan on Pixabay

We have employed human exceptionalism as our special doctrine of a larger manifest destiny to oppress and ultimately destroy a growing percentage of the biodiversity of which we are a part on this planet. Our presumed entitlement to the exploitation of all other organisms is also referred to as “speciesism”. Speciesism is so built into our unconscious mentality at this point that most people are not aware of how it underpins their thoughts and actions. Here’s a typical unconscious action betraying one’s speciesism: Finding myself in a spectacular setting resplendent with wildflowers, I ask a friend to take a photo of me sitting in the middle of this grandeur, obliviously damaging many of the wildflower plants as I do so. On a much larger scale, we are now regularly deforesting large tracts of land to put up wind turbines for “clean” energy when the living trees were themselves serving as much cleaner contributors to the sequestration of carbon. And we congratulate ourselves for our use of “biofuels” or “biomass” for renewable energy. In fact, what we are generally referring to here is wood. We are cutting down trees to burn and calling it carbon-neutral. But of course it isn’t carbon-neutral because the trees were capturing and storing all that carbon for us. That’s the same thing we are now planning to build factories to do instead of the trees we’re cutting down.

Speciesism is grounded in two fundamental beliefs. The first is that species actually exist. We’ve already covered our preference for ordering and classifications, but also the arbitrariness of such distinctions. The second belief is that one or more species are superior to other species. This is where our conviction regarding our exceptionalism comes in. History is rife with examples of speciesism. The effects are far from inconsequential and they are aggregating to some of the ecosystem destruction and climate collapse we witness today.

In the past 500 years (not that long ago — about the time Columbus made landfall on what is now the Bahamas), the human population on Earth has grown from around 500 million people to around 8 billion people. Over that same period, at least 800 vertebrate species were lost from the biosphere due to human activity. In a little more than the past 100 years, the Earth lost as much of its forests as it had in the last 9,000 years. Again this was primarily due to human activity. Humans have been cutting down trees for millennia, but it’s the change from hunter/gatherer activities to those of agriculture and the exponential growth in population size has that has made this untenable for the Earth’s inhabitants (very short-sightedly including ourselves).

In the past 50 years alone, human activities have reduced the world’s wildlife populations by 50%. And we still don’t see ourselves as part of this perishing ecosystem. With the destruction of the forests and the biosphere via our relentless conviction of human exceptionalism, we’ve imperiled ourselves as well as most other living things. As humans continue our unchecked elimination of wildlife and wild spaces as well as our consumption of the planet’s extractable resources, human-caused ecological destruction and climate disasters impact ecosystems at a rate most plants and animals cannot adapt to.

It hasn’t always been this way. We haven’t always been this way. For thousands of generations, humans saw themselves as a part of nature and behaved accordingly. As we know, they interbred and had relationships with other Homo subspecies, but they also had relationships with other animals, plants, and aspects of nature (from wind and rain to mountains and rivers to the sun, moon and stars) that were a deeply embedded aspect of their existence. Ecologist and philosopher David Abrams reminds us that

“For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on. . . . Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations.”

David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous

The opposite of our ingrained speciesism is an awareness of the fact that our human lineage is related to millions of other lineages of living beings of every kind. There is no authentic division between us and them, no categories or nomenclature, no separation that keeps us well when the living things around us are expiring. There is no higher or lower in this web of life and everything in it holds an important though relatively minor role in the grander scheme.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite, photo by Hear2heal on Pixabay

Human Exceptionalism, Ecological Destruction, and the Climate Crisis

Climate change (including what today we would deem to be massive climate crises) has been occurring throughout the history of the planet. These changes were natural occurrences that transformed not only the climate but also the geology of the Earth. Accompanying these changes were both the development and the demise of a myriad of plants and animals. In the process, the Earth experienced the five great extinctions of its flora and fauna. Today, the infamously projected sixth great extinction differs from the previous five in that it is the result of humanity at the helm of the driving forces on the planet. It is the power of human exceptionalism that underpins all that we’ve done, for better and worse, and that has brought us and the wildlife and wild spaces left on the planet to where we are today.

As long as we feel we have the right to act upon nature as opposed to seeing ourselves as a part of it, as long as we see ourselves as living on the Earth as opposed to being of the Earth, we lack the awareness that allows us to see the destruction we’re causing on the Earth and everything of it, including ourselves. Instead we heap accolades upon each other for our impressive human capabilities and achievements. We gaze admiringly upon the history of civilization and project forward an even more dazzling future of human progress and the associated technical achievements.

Even as we move forward into more and more challenging times, how we do so can either be about remaining committed to the primacy of humanity or it can be focused on a balance with nature and our part in the health of planetary boundaries. As author and essayist Charles Eisenstein has recently written, “Environmentalism has been hijacked by people and institutions who are not nature lovers — but nature dies in the service of ‘sustainability.’ Forests are cut for solar farms. Landscapes are sacrificed to pit mines to extract lithium, cobalt, silver, rare Earths, etc. for decarbonization.” As profit-taking proliferates beyond all previous imaginings, ‘sustainability’ has gone from being an environmental goal to a big industry with the aim of profit versus actual continued conservation of the living world.

In the new green energy economy, we’re doing the same things we’ve been doing in our fossil fuel economy for the last 150 years. We’re prioritizing efficiency and convenience, ever-escalating consumption and profits, and short-term thinking about the Earth and its resources rather than planetary health and a balance with nature that features optimal biodiversity, plentiful ecosystems with clean air, water and soil (in short, a resilient planet with the most favorable conditions for life). Arguably, the new green energy economy goes a step further in its claim to virtue through a focus on reducing global heating. But as Eisenstein points out,

“Having hitched the environmental wagon to the global warming horse, what happens if the horse stops running? It won’t mean that our environmental problems will have been solved. It won’t mean the crisis has been averted if temperatures stop rising. That is because the core of the crisis is not warming, it is ecocide — the killing of ecosystems, the killing of life. . . . Destroying soil and plant life, and all the other ecological actors they nourish and depend on leads directly to flood-drought cycles that then get blamed on global warming. The complex, homeostatic feedback loops that maintain stability unravel. The loss of the Amazon can bring drought to Colorado. The loss of rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra might cause drought in China. The loss of the Congo causes floods in Nigeria. Everything is connected to everything else.”

Charles Eisenstein, “How the Environmental Movement Can Find Its Way Again”

The global decision to make excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere our primary measurement of progress (or lack thereof) toward a healthy future is itself an indicator of our entrenched human exceptionalism. While CO2 is certainly an important measure, it also leaves aside a full understanding of what’s happening relative to the biodiversity on the planet (a crucial aspect of our planetary well-being) and the degree of habitat destruction around the world. It gives little indication of the ecological damage being done through activities like mineral extraction around the globe as we pursue an all-electric future for the human populations living in the wealthier countries. And it provides minimal actionable information relative to the hydration conditions around the world as our collective agricultural and industrial activities (coupled with carbon dioxide’s effects on the climate) desertify greater and greater amounts of once usable land for flora and fauna (including of the human kind).

In just a few years, our world will look very different under the new green energy economy. Forests will have fallen to the massive turbines of wind ‘farms’ in the mistaken belief that these are a better way to deal with excess carbon dioxide than the natural carbon capturers (trees) have been. Further, the turbines cannot provide the shade, the enhancement to the water cycles, or the natural habitats that the trees have provided. Those forests that didn’t fall to make way for wind farms will be gone because the trees were used for bio-fuel. As countries are incented and compensated to deforest for “renewable bio-energy,” Derrick Jensen describes it this way:

“This is the Orwellian world into which bright green environmentalism–with its prioritization of fueling the economy over saving the real world–drives us: This culture is cutting down forests to stop global warming and cutting down forests to save the planet.”

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It

The natural open spaces of grasslands and flowering meadows will give way to solar arrays where there was no value placed on the soil building, water creation and, again, carbon sequestration that was going on in the natural settings. The grasses and flowering plants also captured the energy of the sun but unlike the solar panels they nurtured the animals in the ecosystem too. And, unlike the panels, no minerals were mined or petroleum products used in their creation.

Power lines and substations will be much more abundant in an all-electric world. There will be too many lines for the expensive process of locating them underground. And when we stand on the beach and gaze at what used to be a seemingly endless horizon, our view will now be filled with even more massive off-shore wind turbines. Places that used to be wilderness — mountaintops and vast desert terrains — will now be home to mines for critical mineral extraction as our need for these grows exponentially in the new green energy economy. These sites, formerly pristine habitats for flora and fauna of every sort will be desolate and deeply polluted places where it’s impossible for life to flourish. The gouged Earth will never be exactly the same, even after the mines have played out, given all they had to give of what we felt it so imperative to extract.

Offshore Wind Turbines, photo by Aitoff on Pixabay

Clearly our consumption of fossil fuels has been detrimental to the environment in many ways. But our current primary solutions to the climate crisis are as narrow as our primary measurement of carbon dioxide. While cows, cement, and combustion are certainly part of the problem, the reality is that if everyone on the planet stopped eating meat tomorrow, or everyone that currently drives a gas-driven car switched to an electric vehicle, the destruction we’ve wrought would neither cease nor be compellingly addressed. It’s the destruction of the Earth’s natural systems and ecological feedback loops that underpins the chaos and decline we’re experiencing and unless we can reframe and deepen our understanding of “the crisis”, it will not be undone. We have to think outside of the models from which we created our current planetary conditions in order to be a helpful part of the rebalancing. As it stands, our intense bias toward human exceptionalism drives our belief that through our own technology, we will overcome the nature we see getting in our way. “Of course we can figure this out through our highly-developed ingenuity — after all, we evolved to the top of the tree to do exactly that.”

We believe in this viewpoint because it serves us to do so. Or so we think. But of course it neither serves us nor any other living thing on the planet. Still, the world we’ve created provides ample reinforcement daily of the perspective that says we’re right to stay on the path of the past 150 years — now just keep going with this new version of it. And yet . . . many of us are wringing our hands because we don’t really believe this new version will save us or the world around us.

A few hours in nature is all it takes to remember there’s a different way, a way that plays to our true nature and is in harmony with the living systems of this planet. The other game is being devised in board rooms and conference rooms where the goals are not about “righting” the balance. In nature, we feel an irresistible (and often unconscious) impulse to behave in alignment with where we find ourselves.

In the end (that is, our end), human exceptionalism will not look so exceptional after all. Like almost every other form of life that has come before in the long timeline of this planet, we will be gone. And the Earth will still be here. It will heal from the wounds we inflicted and new forms of life will fill the void left by over 8 billion of us. It would be so much better, for all that remains and is yet to come, if we could leave planetary health in our wake. That’s still an active choice available to us. It won’t be easy but it’s possible for such “exceptional” creatures . . .

Photo by AlainAudet on Pixabay
Our ecological world is shattering, old forms are collapsing. From those scattered pieces Earth will create a new form - as it has so many times before. Is it really all that surprising then that we might be experiencing inside ourselves what Earth itself is experiencing? That we, who come from Earth, might feel in the deepest regions of ourselves the same shattering that the ecosystems and our kindred species are experiencing? Can it really be all that surprising that if Earth's climate is changing, its climate of mind might also be changing? That we might feel that alteration, take on that changing state of mind, just as strongly as we feel (and take on) the alterations in mood that attend wind alterations on the surface of a still pond? That as Earth's climate changes we find that our species' climate of mind is being forced to change as well? That all of us, along with Earth itself, are also, whether we wish it or not, inextricably involved in a process of adaptation and change?
Stephen Harrod Buhner, 
Earth Grief: The Journey Into and Through Ecological Loss

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One thought on “The Fatal Flaws in Human Exceptionalism

  1. I like the ending quote. A sad article to read. And so much truth: “Environmentalism has been hijacked by people and institutions who are not nature lovers — but nature dies in the service of ‘sustainability.’ It often seems like humanity/society is just cracking up, and it truly may be mirroring what we are doing to the world around us.

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