David P. Turner / October 2, 2022
Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud are credited with delivering major blows to humanity’s self-image. They didn’t do it on their own of course, but their ideas were notably illuminating. Here, I revisit their insights and discuss two additional blows of that type rendered in more recent years. Awareness of the human limitations implied by these blows may help save us from our present environmental predicament.
Copernicus (1473 -1543) established that – contrary to Church dogma – Earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun. Humans could no longer maintain that we are living at the center of the universe. The scientific discipline of astronomy has gone on to reveal how remarkably tiny this planet really is in the context of an immense universe. Knowing that we live on a small planet points to biophysical limits on our current demands for natural resources.
Darwin (1809 – 1882) elucidated the theory of biological evolution, and the corresponding fact that Homo sapiens originated the same way every other animal species on this planet did – through natural processes. We were no longer a special creation of an omnipotent, benevolent god who dictates our aspirations and values. Ironically, though, humanity is coming to have a kind of dominion over the Earth even without the hand of god.
Freud (1856 – 1939) suggested that unconscious processes within our brains have a substantial influence on our thoughts and emotions. He turned out to be wrong in many respects, but his primary insight had merit. We are not even in full control of our own minds. Contemporary cognitive science aims to understand (1) the function (adaptive significance) of specific mental processes, (2) the representations and algorithms by which those processes are implemented, and (3) the underlying neurobiological mechanisms. Insights along those lines may help modify our destructive impulses.
The two recent blows to our self-image come from a biologist and an atmospheric chemist.
In the 1970s, Harvard professor E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021) fostered the development of the new discipline of sociobiology – the study of animal social behavior. He applied its concepts to Homo sapiens, as well as to ants (his favorite object of study). What he asserted (albeit in the face of raging controversy) is that humans have significant genetic influences on our thinking and behavior. Our capacity for altruism (self-sacrifice) and jealousy are notable example of traits which evolution has likely shaped. As with the first three blows, this realization forces us to question our spontaneous motivations and actions (e.g. our acquisitiveness).
The fifth blow is truly aimed at the whole of humanity. Around 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (1933 – 2021) helped consolidate a wide array of observations by Earth System Scientists concerning the baleful influences of humanity on the biosphere and the global environment. He suggested that we have entered a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene.
In the scientific Anthropocene narrative, humanity has become the equivalent of a geologic force; we are now capable of significantly altering the global biogeochemical cycles. This shocking realization and consequent shift in worldview have been characterized as the “second Copernican revolution”.
Unfortunately, we are altering the global environment in a way that may ultimately be self-destructive (e.g. by inducing rapid global climate change). Our self-image must therefore include the conclusion that we are an existential threat to ourselves.
Recognition of the Anthropocene epoch places a new responsibility on each of us as individuals, and a new responsibility on our species as a whole, to begin managing ourselves – and to some degree begin managing the Earth system – in support of global sustainability.
The prescription for better integration of the human enterprise (the technosphere) with the Earth system requires that humanity become aware of itself as a social entity, having agency at the global scale, before it can learn to self-regulate and reintegrate with the Earth system. Awareness of the five blows covered here introduces an element of humility to this project of understanding ourselves as a planetary phenomenon.