Why the biggest threat to humanity is humanity itself
For approximately 300,000 years, when homo sapiens (more commonly known as humans) evolved into the anatomically modern version of what we are today, we have completely seized control of planet Earth and nearly all its plant and animal inhabitants, either directly or indirectly.
As a result, most of us love to boast that we are the most intelligent species on the planet, and in a way, it’s difficult to argue against that. What other animal has managed to break the laws of physics, conquer the skies without a single wing on theirs backs, and send members of its own species to the moon?
But being so intelligent, yet not intelligent enough to control ourselves and the powers we now possess, can be very dangerous. Our unrelenting thirst for more of… virtually everything has led to the staggering population decline of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians by 60% in just over 40 years, while our desire for short-term convenience has filled the stomachs of 73% of deep-sea fish with plastic. Today, the majority of all mammals on Earth are now livestock animals, most of which are leading lives of misery on factory farms before being slaughtered (and continuously replaced by more that are bred into existence), simply to satisfy our lust for meat.
Our activities have raised the average global temperature by about 1.2 degrees Celsius, with the virtual certainty of an additional increase having potentially catastrophic consequences, on a global scale, within the next few decades, possibly much sooner than that.
But these issues are meager, at least in regard to our own species, when we consider the fact that the world’s nuclear powers possess, in total, over 10,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenal. Although that number has dropped significantly since the end of the Cold War, it is still way too high to avert a nuclear catastrophe, especially since today’s nukes are much more powerful than those used in World War II, and now it appears China, Pakistan, India and North Korea are ramping up their own nuclear arsenals and continuously producing more.
A nuclear war today would not only kill millions of individuals within minutes, it could also lead to a nuclear winter culminating in worldwide famine on a scale our species has not experienced in thousands of years.
Miraculously, we made it through the Cuban Missile crisis and the entire Cold War without annihilating ourselves, but this is not proof that it cannot and will not happen in modern times, especially with renewed tensions between the US and China, and the seemingly never-ending animosity between India and Pakistan, all nuclear-armed nations.
Can we maintain peace?
Many of us naively believe we humans are too rational and intelligent to let a nuclear catastrophe take place, but all it takes is two hothead leaders in power and the potential for a misunderstanding. In the US -the world’s most nuclear-armed nation (along with Russia), the president alone can make the split-second decision to launch a nuclear attack on another country.
It is true that, overall, the world has become a more peaceful place over the last few decades and centuries, but that has more to do with globalization and the need for cooperation, in large part for economic growth, than the notion that humans today are biologically more intelligent and peaceful than our ancestors. According to David P. Barash, professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington and an expert in evolutionary psychology, “almost certainly there have not been any significant changes in the human mind during the last 45,000 years or so.”
Just think of all the institutionalized human savagery that has taken place throughout our history, from crucifixions to witch-burnings to slavery, which were not isolated events but widely adopted and accepted practices at one time. The perpetrators of said atrocities basically had the same brains we have.
A fascinating experiment
If we built a time machine and went back to the early 17th century in, say, somewhere in Europe or North America, found one of the many people who enthusiastically participated in the burning of innocent women at the stake, and then decided to go back a few more decades, when the same witch-burner was just a baby, and then brought that baby back to the year 1995 and allowed them to be raised by a nice family somewhere like Berlin or New York or Singapore, that person would probably grow up no differently than any other “civilized” human being, and if we met that same person in 2021, they would probably seem pretty “normal” by today’s standards, and incapable of burning an innocent person alive, just like most “normal” people today.
The same scenario can be applied in reverse. Let’s find a decent, well-mannered and educated liberal born and raised in Paris or San Francisco or Lima in the modern era, and then go back a few decades when that person was just a baby, put the baby in the time machine and take them to the early 17th Century in Massachusetts, and have a highly religious family raise them to believe that the world is plagued by witches who must be burned at the stake. There is a high likelihood that the time-traveling infant (let’s imagine the baby was too young to remember being kidnapped), when he or she grew up would feel little remorse for the witches being burned at the stake and may even participate in the barbaric rituals of the time, simply because it is a widely accepted practice.
Trouble on the horizon
There is scant evidence that the human brain is actually evolving in a way that makes us more peaceful. I believe part of the reason entire generations are not systematically committing genocide on others (as has been the case throughout many periods in human history) has more to do with the circumstances than with any notable shift in our brain structure. As mentioned earlier, bombing other nations is (usually) inconvenient these days, especially when trading with them can be much easier in our globalized society.
However, worrisome is the fact that today’s relatively peace-provoking circumstances can change, either suddenly or gradually.
A nuclear holocaust is still a very real possibility for the reasons already mentioned, and such a tragedy would surely alter our collective values, especially when our priorities have suddenly shifted from saving up for that new iPhone to finding enough food and water to survive, at all costs.
Regardless of whether or not we end up blowing ourselves up with nukes, we are playing a dangerous game by altering our atmosphere for the sake of convenience and monetary gain. Unfortunately, our brains are having trouble assimilating this crude reality, since they are still adapted to life on the African Savannah, where we, Homo sapiens, spent the majority of our 300,000 years or so of existence.
Our psyches are still only equipped to handle the threats of our ancestral past, such as falling trees, lions, other predators, and other tribespeople. There’s a reason racism and xenophobia remain pervasive even today. Thousands of years ago, those who looked different from us were most likely from a distant tribe, and unplanned run-ins with those from far-away lands often led to war and even genocide.
Religion, new age beliefs and conspiracies
The complex threats of the modern world, which often involve numerous factors and no simple answers or solutions, have become too much for our still primitive mindset to get a grip on. At the same time, as traditional religions (which also came about, in large part, to provide simple answers to complex phenomena, such as Why are bolts of light falling from the sky? The Gods must be angry) erode, new age beliefs have emerged (everything happens for a reason, you can do absolutely anything as long as you think positive), along with a boundless array of bogus, and often contradictory, conspiracy theories for every single threat humanity faces.
Sure, many scientists, intellectuals and certain segments of the population are logical thinkers and well aware of the real threats we face, but as an entire species we have not adapted, on a cerebral level, to the circumstances and threats facing us today, the most significant one -climate change- of our very own making, which may already be too late for us to stop. On a collective level, we humans are like a child at home, alone, with a flamethrower.
Let’s call that child Mr. Homo Sapiens, or Mr. HM for short. Sure, little Mr. HM has been having a darn good time with the flamethrower. Life can be fun without adult supervision. But HM has been lucky so far, managing not to burn himself and, thanks to what seems like a miracle, the flames just missed the gas tank for the BBQ grill by barely an inch.
But the curtains in the living room are on fire, and the flames will soon spread throughout the house. HM knows this, but is too immature to care, because this is just too much fun.
What can be done?
Many people argue that education is the answer to all the problems we have bestowed upon ourselves, be it global warming, the spread of pandemics, inequality, regional and global conflicts, etc. The problem is educators are often subject to the same cognitive biases, and other neurological hindrances to logical thinking, as the general public, because teachers and professors are also human (or HM).
For example, a major 2016 survey showed that 1 in 3 US school teachers were teaching their students that human activities have nothing to do with climate change. Even populations in countries known for their high education standards have fallen victim to their own cognitive deficiencies. In 2020, Bloomberg reported on the extraordinary rise of Qanon conspiracy believers in Japan, the country with one of the best education systems on the planet.
One potential solution, which may sound like something straight out of a science fiction movie, would be to genetically alter the brains of the next generation of humans to better equip them for contemporary realities and threats. Of course, many people would object to such an idea because that would be “completely unnatural”, and we would be “playing God”. But didn’t we start “playing God” the moment we started creating fire, the day we harnessed electricity and the time we put the first airplane passenger in the sky?
Are we not “playing God” by obliterating entire habitats and species of animals while altering the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere, artificially causing more extreme heatwaves, droughts, floods and storms?
Didn’t we stop being “natural” the moment we started using toothpaste with fluoride?
If we really want to save the planet and (at least) save our own species, first we have to confront our own worst enemy, ourselves. Otherwise, little Mr. HM’s pyro-party is not going to end very well.
If you like what you just read, then you may very well enjoy my fiction novel (and eventual New York Times Best Seller) The Shadow in the Mirror, where you can find out what’s actually going on with Harold Hopkins.
Harold’s only wish is to lead a normal life. Yet for reasons he can’t comprehend, he is shunned by all living things. No matter how hard he tries, he is unable to garner attention from the woman he loves, nor can he foster genuine friendships or find a decent job. Meanwhile, since childhood, he has been haunted by his own reflection in the mirror, which frequently acts as a window to another world. The person on the other side is everything Harold wishes he could be, like a clone of himself leading the fruitful life he was destined to lead. He finally sets off in search of answers, where he learns about the unearthly events that took place when he was born, and discovers the tantalizing truth about his own existence…
Available on Amazon both in paperback and Kindle here.