Human Exceptionalism and The Madness

If an invasive species spreads “out of control” because of adaptations new to a region and lack of any evolved relationships that inhibit it, we use a disease model for the ecology. If a group of cells goes “mad” and reproduces uninfluenced by the existing order of organs and metabolic function, we call it a cancer; cells made by the body, but “foreign” to its proper functioning and deadly. The hominid genus, Homo, developed a new powerful adaptation, spread into all bio-zones and ultimately began geometrically increasing in numbers, and on a variety of other measures, but these changes we humans have claimed with pride in our spreading growth and dominance of the earth’s physical space and energy sources.

Every species acts in the world as an “exceptional” entity, that is, no species is shy and retiring in the face of ecological success. But every species is on essentially equal footing with all other species in the sense that they are using the same basic tools for adaptation and are functioning on the same basic time scale. One species might evolve a generation length that speeds up adaptation rates, but only a little. Another might increase the costs for breeding, making more demands on the quality of the individual genotype, but again within the same order of magnitude typical of other species.
But, Human Exceptionalism is the result of an actually exceptional condition. The human adaptation is new to our immediate region of the universe. We are not on an equal footing with the other species of living things. Our capacity to respond to environmental conditions has gone from the generational change rates of biological evolution (DNA/protein mediated) to the change rates of consciousness order processes (mediated by “story”). This new process of adaptation is orders of magnitude faster, it is also orders of magnitude more fine-tuned to detail and it confers levels of power to action previously impossible for biological entities.

The questions suggests the dilemma: (1) Is such an exceptional adaptation a disease on the body of the biological world? The human species has increased from a few million living by evolutionary rules to 7 billion as our adaptation expresses its geometric growth potential. (2) Can an exceptional adaptation be inhibited to remain within the restraints of the biological world and still be exceptional? Other species with powerful adaptations fit into the biological order, but none have been as revolutionary as this one. (3) The consciousness order adaptation contains the enigmatic capacity of awareness with the seeming potential to decide how to use our adaptation; how might we, and can we, decide to self-limit our total impact on the biological world?

Our actual exceptionalness fuels the dangerous Exceptionalism of our behaviors and beliefs. This is really tricky: We are truly exceptional with the most powerful adaptation, as far we know, in the whole universe, yet for the survival of our world we need to be humble in the face of our completely obvious totally huge outrageous wonderfulness. I mean, get real, we can do anything we want and nothing can stop us. We have learned the rules of physics — except for a few that we will get soon enough. We can make genes dance for us like the hippos in Fantasia. We can suck the energy right off the sun and stuff it into computers that can do a billion billion calculations a second. We’ve got TV and refrigerators! And we should be humble? What a crock!

Accept for one little thing; well, maybe two or three. The surface of the earth is the ultimate exception, not us. We humans are only passengers on and in a space that is among the most rare physical stabilities in the universe. Even in the fullest explosion of our hubris there is no way that we could, with our own efforts, make the earth’s surface a living place or sustain it if the subtle designs of our solar system began to change. We, as the saying goes, live at the pleasure of our biosphere. That is Reality.

And yet, we do not act in that reality. Consistently failing to function in The Real is insanity. The natural Exceptionalism of a species to act in its own interests (this a part of the living condition and not to be confused with its counterpart in the consciousness order) is compounded by our ability to tell stories about how special we are. The design of belief as a guide for behavior allows us to hold such stories as truth… and voilà: Human Exceptionalism at a pathological level. Our real and remarkable capacities lead us to believe in imagined powers far beyond our true relationship with our world. A thing of great power, with little appreciation for the consequences of that power and almost no ability to control itself is a great danger to itself and others.

The consequences of this Madness is our present normal. The three pervious essays in this series look at important institutions and beliefs that are part of the Madness, and Human Exceptionalism underlies them all.

There are, of course, many ways that we are not exceptional. Our form and function is biologically based, we are animals with an evolutionary history that powerfully guides our behaviors. We are food for other organisms just as other organisms are food for us — we are part of the food web. Plants supply us, along with every other aerobic organism, with oxygen and glucose (at base, the only food there is on earth); there is no other source.

It is unimaginable that a tribal community could forget that they depend on the land, water and air to sustain them and yet we forget; we even argue that it somehow is not even so. Almost nothing could be crazier. There is no question that the vastly complex societies in which we live separate and seem to protect us from the natural world upon which we depend. That world is difficult to know about, and to care about when the cost of food is going up, the mortgage payment is a little harder to get together each month and your kid gets sick. Some tiny disembodied half-figure yells from the TV set that the problems will be fixed if you let them control the world, or some part of it. It seems silly, with such pressures, to think about plants making the oxygen that we breathe. Truly, the Madness is compelling. Ask any recovered madman or addict.

My argument is not to change the world. There is no way to move from the Madness that envelops our societies and our species. I think our trajectory is set. But I see hundreds of people and know that there are millions and even possible billions that feel these things; people who suspect that what they see and live is madness; wonder at their own sanity for wondering about the world they live in. I want to say to them that there is a way to live with at least some dignity and with less than more of Madness.

Life has always been a crapshoot. But living as a full member of the species of your birth can make it a blazingly joyous one — no matter how it goes down. It can be done. Every one of us has the pedigree. We were all born as full-fledged members of the honorable human, hominid, primate, mammalian, vertebrate, animal, multicellular, living linage. We all have the absolute right to specieshood and can act with sanity for a sustainable biosphere. It would help inform our political and economic actions and responsibilities. And that would make us very special indeed.

(This is the fourth and last essay of this series looking at the primary articles of faith that seem normal and essential to our present cultural life, but that are the underlying forces for damage to the biosphere, destruction of our specieshood and ultimately devastating to the most positive qualities of the cultural life we are trying to sustain.)

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Donald Hawkins said on September 12th, 2008 at 7:16am #

    James those last two paragraphs is something I have trying to get across for years. How does it go you can’t handle the truth. The people who can’t Handle the truth you see on TV everyday. That is because they live the lie sort of. This morning on Foxnews I watched in pure amazement as they had this guy on that was naming books in our schools that he said Liberals had written and he found 48 bad things. One was that the star wars program didn’t work and another was that Gorbachev ended the cold war not Regan, fascinating. I wonder how Foxnews would handle this.

    An important point to note is the rate of these natural processes. The typical imbalance
    between tectonic sources and sinks of atmospheric CO2 is about one ten-thousandths of a ppm of
    atmospheric CO2 per year. In one million years this would be a CO2 change of 100 ppm, which
    would cause large climate change. This natural rate of change should be compared with the
    present human-made increase of atmospheric CO2, which is about 2 ppm per year.
    So, yes, it is clear that natural climate changes are huge over long time scales,
    encompassing even an ice free planet. But now the human-made rate of change of atmospheric
    CO2 is ten thousand times larger than the natural rate that drove the huge climate changes.
    Humans are now in charge of atmospheric CO2 amount and global climate, for better or worse. James Hansen

    Let me say what James Hansen just said again. But now the human-made rate of change of atmospheric
    CO2 is ten thousand times larger than the natural rate that drove the huge climate changes.
    Humans are now in charge of atmospheric CO2 amount and global climate, for better or worse.

    Not well I am sure because you never hear this on Fox or NBC or CNN so just who is it that can’t handle the truth. It sure looks like so called smart people some smart people have a very big problem with the truth. Simplistic yes and very true.

  2. Donald Hawkins said on September 12th, 2008 at 7:25am #

    These so called smart people I am sure will destroy themselves living the lie I just don’t want to go down that path with them. How’s that for simplistic.

    How about Ike looks like a real Bummer fill up your car and don’t drive unless you have too.

  3. bozhidar bob balkas said on September 12th, 2008 at 9:06am #

    i am one of those very mal-adjusted people who handles a lie against me better than the truth.
    since each person knows self best, let each person speak for self anent handling variety of lies and truths.
    i do believe, that all of us have evaluated at least once a lie as truth. and it didn’t feel good once the lie is found out.
    but when it comes to wars mns/blns are lying to wage wars and there is safety in number; perhaps all of these liars feel quite good about what they are doing to other people.
    generally, and as far as i know, feelgood is achieved with nothing more than a prolonged rationalization.
    and even murderers can easily rationalize their deeds. but the cops/judges will not let him/her get away with that.

  4. Donald Hawkins said on September 12th, 2008 at 11:11am #


  5. bozhidar bob balkas said on September 12th, 2008 at 3:57pm #

    who’s going to punish the 100mn+ amers because they are murdering mns.
    basically, to me, that’s what is happening: a gang of people attacking a gang of people.
    the difference betwn a mafioso family and a huge american ‘family’ is that mafia families do not wave flags nor kill children or women.
    a mafioso family is vastly too weak, small, isolated to engage in that kind behavior.
    and american well-organized ‘family’ is in close touch with and in agreement with other huge ‘families’.
    thank u. by the way i’m off for a weak.