The problem with humanity en masse is that we do not understand what we are. We think we do, but confuse the surface details of life with the deep structure shaped by the evolutionary history of our genus over three-and-a-half million years.
There are many around the world who say we are not animals. We were created by God in a unique act, distinguished from all other creatures by the possession of an immortal soul. I have met otherwise intelligent people who believe humans have always existed on Earth and can never die out—a spin-off perhaps from the biblical claim that Man was created fully-formed on the sixth day. There is no point in disputing such convictions because no evidence to the contrary will persuade believers that they are wrong.
Thanks to technological advance in the past two hundred years, we have created ever greater complexity and artificiality in the world around us, and the pace of that complexity grows exponentially as new technology opens doors on room after room filled with seeming opportunity.
Among other consequences, this has led to a global flight from the land, with small-scale agriculture increasingly replaced by agribusiness—giant plantations, giant fields serviced by a small contingent of technofarmers high in the cabins of over-sized tractors or combine harvesters. The flight from the land has created megacities which increase in size and number as the global human population continues to expand. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, I had never heard of Wuhan, yet it is a city of 10,000,000 people, and recently I heard of another city in China, whose name, even, I cannot remember, with a population of 18,000,000. Urban environments are, you might say, our ant hills or termite mounds, but on such a scale and of such ingenious artificiality that they conceal from us their origin in humanity’s deeply animal nature.
Humans and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor between 12 and 6 million years ago. After that, the genus Homo and the genus Pan evolved along separate evolutionary pathways. We nonetheless share 96 percent of our genes with chimpanzees. That 4 percent difference led to the megacities and humanity’s current global dominance, while the two species of chimpanzees are restricted to shrinking equatorial forests and are threatened with extinction.
We gaze at each other across a ravine of time and circumstance. I don’t like going to zoos, but I have been several times to the Ape House at Copenhagen Zoo to watch a family of chimpanzees housed in a large enclosure, with concrete walls on three sides, the fourth being of glass where visitors like me can gaze at the inmates and sometimes they gaze back.
We are of course the only member of our genus, Homo, left on Earth, though fifty or sixty thousand years ago this was not the case. At that time, we shared it with at least two, and perhaps four, other human species—H. neanderthalensis and H. floresiensis, and possibly H. erectus and H. altaensis (if the latter is indeed a separate species).
Had any of them survived into modern times, how would we have responded? In the heyday of European colonialism in the nineteenth century they would probably have been driven to extinction like the Tasmanian aborigines, or perhaps enslaved.
Homo floresiensis, though, was tiny—three feet six inches tall which is the same height as ‘Lucy’, the famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis who lived some 3.2 million years ago. Its brain was proportionately small—426cc, only slightly larger than Lucy’s or that of a chimpanzee. By comparison, the brain of a modern human averages 1400cc. Existing only on the island of Flores in present-day Indonesia, might this hominin, so strange, so different to modern eyes, have been kept in zoos alongside chimpanzees?
We gaze through the plate glass in the Ape House across that ravine, and what do we see? In The Chimpanzees of Gombe Jane Goodall has described how chimpanzees are organised in extended families, taking in females from other groups for the purposes of breeding. When a group becomes too large, there is a split which is not always peaceful. In one incident, the larger, more powerful group stalked the smaller breakaway group, attacking and killing the males and capturing the females. It was war-in-embryo. In another, a female and her adult daughter wantonly killed the babies of others. Chimpanzees are mainly vegetarian, but when opportunity arises they hunt monkeys through the trees in organised bands, tearing the unfortunate monkey apart if the hunt is successful, with subordinates begging for pieces of meat from the dominant members of the group. Cannibalism also occurs, especially after a battle.
What we are looking at is the bedrock of much human behaviour. We are not chimpanzees and chimpanzees are not us, but we share these deep traits which appear again and again in hypertrophied form across human societies.
Our large brains, relative to body weight, make us far more intelligent than chimpanzees and the argument can be made that intelligence, combined with human sympathy, can counter and even overcome the deep structure of our nature. The feminist movement has substantially altered the position of women in the western democracies and how men think of themselves in relation to women, for example, though the process is incomplete and fragmentary, and is non-existent in many parts of the world. Other things do not change—the struggle for power, for wealth, and for the influence that wealth brings, socially and politically.
We have not been successful in eradicating war either. It remains often the first, not merely the last, resort in international and internecine disputes, as the war in Ukraine demonstrates.
In so many ways we say one thing—even believe one thing—yet act contrary to reason and compassion. COP26 will be followed by COP27, COP27 by COP28, but global humanity needs to unite now if we are to avert the catastrophe we have set in motion which is likely to result in the extinction of up to 60 percent of species, including quite possibly our own. Climate change is important but it is an outrider to a far deeper problem, human overpopulation.
In 1960, when I went to university at the age of 19, the global human population was 3 billion. Today it is 7.9 billion and climbing. That is just under a three-fold increase in my lifetime and the scariest statistic I know. It is the source of all the Earth’s problems, and if we cannot solve the issue of human overpopulation, we solve nothing, and our extraordinary success will be our downfall.
Can we access the deep structure of the human mind in such a way as to override its imperatives which not only impede, but in many ways prohibit, radical change in our behaviour? That is the question.