I just finished reading the latest book by the venerable Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, entitled (somewhat presumptuously) The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson, who does not shy away from controversy, is unapologetically biocentric in his outlook, insisting that both the potential and the constraints of human nature are accidental products of our biological heritage as a branch of large primates who stumbled onto language and symbolic thinking, which coevolved with a larger cranial capacity to allow such distinctively human traits as complex socialization and self-consciousness.
The constraints he mentioned are, above all, tribalism--the strong inclination to identify with a group, and to treat all outside the group as potentially hostile outsiders--as it combines with religion, by which he means, above all, religious fundamentalist ideologies that serve to rationalize a group's sense of superiority by viewing themselves as the Chosen People of God, and to suppress critical thinking that challenges their ideological orthodoxies. Wilson has a thinly disguised contempt for all forms of tribalism, nationalism, and fundamentalism, but sadly sees them as "cultural parasites"--an endemic bad habit of human nature based on our socialization. And I agree entirely with his judgment on this.
The potential, of course, is the capacity of humans, especially those who are scientifically literate, to transcend such tribal ideologies and (what Blake called) "mind-forged manacles" of religious or nationalistic orthodoxy, in order to recognize and celebrate both our common humanity and our total dependence on the health and resilience of the biosphere that sustains us at all. This potential, which blossomed during the Scientific Revolution and the European Enlightenment in the West, and in the rise of Buddhism in the Far East, is alone what makes a Gaian future possible. But only if we can find ways to propagate it so that it does not threaten people's cultural, religious, or nationalistic tribal loyalties, causing a murderous backlash of hateful fundamentalism. Tall order!
So what, then, do we mean by a Gaian Future? I'll begin with what it is not. It is NOT a world in which a single ideology triumphs, so that we all happily abandon all our prior identifications and call ourselves "Gaians" while singing "Kumbaya" around a solar-powered campfire. To be sure, I would not mind this a bit, just as a committed Muslim ideologue dreams of an entire planet subjugated to the Will of Allah, living under Sharia law, or a committed Christian Fundamentalist sees everyone on the planet kneeling down to Jesus and the Absolute Truth of the Bible. But it ain't gonna happen for me, any more than for them. Tribalism, as Wilson observes, is too deeply rooted in human nature to allow for any such global utopian fantasy.
Rather, I see a Gaian future as one in which everyone is entitled to his or her own religious or political belief system and the communities that share it--but through systematic efforts at universal education in science and the humanities, everyone cultivates and shares a common understanding of what is real and what is not.
And what is real is, above all, the following understandings:
- That we, as humans, are a part of, not apart from, the biological world (Gaia) that sustains us.
- That all living organisms and communities, ourselves included, are driven by the urge to eat, survive, and reproduce.
- That we all, therefore, depend for our survival on three basic, asymptotic values: health (internal homeostasis); competence (ability to compete, within and between communities); and resilience (ability to adapt to unpredictable changes in our shared environment, both biological and cultural).
- That "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," in which "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." (MLK)
- That we are therefore ethically obligated, by both scientific understanding and the shared wisdom traditions of all religions, to "take care of everyone, and abandon no one" and to "take care of everything, and abandon nothing."(Lao Tzu) In other words, to constantly cultivate and practice tolerance, compassion, and understanding for others, including both other cultures and other beings, with whom we share this unique living planet. To work together, whenever possible, to take care of our common home--our land, air, water, and biota--and restore it to health and resilience, for the benefit of all future generations.
That's it. In every other respect, the communities, cultures, and tribes of the planet are free to believe, to be and to do whatever they wish. This is the Gaian Future, to which I pledge myself, right to my dying breath.