Transcending our predatory animal nature

Life grows, that is its character. It grows over time, has duration, and passes along growth information when the spark of life is bestowed upon successive generations. Growth requires energy, however. Complex plants solved that problem through photosynthesis, the sunlight-driven process that produces sugars. The energy needs of complex animals are provided through predation, acquiring then consuming plant and animal parts that generate energy when digested.

This is not to say that plants don’t engage in defense and aggression. They do. Simple forms like bacteria colonize hosts; complex plants produce chemicals that discourage predators and employ strategies of shade and growth to suppress competitors. Plants don’t move freely on their own about the world, relying instead on the movement of seeds through water and wind. Their energy is used for growth, not movement.

Animal energy is spent in movement, in complex animals movement often intent upon rearranging material objects. Bees do it, squirrels do it, birds do it, and people do it, constantly, moving in space as well as time to influence the world around us. The energy we acquire is stored and used for movement within and by our bodies, the latter in concentrated muscle bursts as we construct and rearrange matter. Our intelligence, embodied in physical experience and within memory, is used in service to movement; both growth and predation require it.

Grow is what we do, and we are fixated on it. Farming is a hallmark of human culture; we know – not just in our bellies – that we must be fed, and that plants sustain the food chain. Not surprisingly, we like things to grow – plants, animals, families, economies, populations, cities, and yes, even national borders. The tools of predation serve a human world modeled on growth.

The ebb and flow of animal predators and prey has been continuous for nearly a billion years. Biologically, predation proceeds smoothly as long as predators have enough prey available. Ethically, and ethics appears to be particular to human beings, predation poses us a dilemma, namely that we’d like to transcend predation, to leave that part of our animal nature behind. Ethics are culturally defined, but all cultures rearrange the world of objects and ideas to suit their needs, both material and emotional. This produces a vast array of growth-oriented systemic instrumentalities that outwardly appear to transcend predation but at their core accumulate energy to keep bellies filled. Human growth demands predation; as its apex predator, the entire earth is our prey.

Predation is exploitation, extracting energy from external sources to sustain growth. Modern politics begrudgingly or wholeheartedly embraces this brutal reality while trying to transcend it through uplifting narratives and imposing codes of conduct supporting ethical behavior. So too institutional religion, which ostensibly seeks to direct human action and thought towards a higher purpose, namely, to transcend the predation of our animal nature. The results have been decidedly mixed, and the continuing clash of cultures gives testimony to the difficulty of this endeavor.

As basic as growth is, it’s difficult to imagine human existence without the imperatives of predation; yet transcending animal nature – its predatory impulse towards territoriality, aggression, and violence – appears to be a persistent goal of culture. Ironically, the development of non-living intelligence, machine-based Artificial Intelligence, may represent the culmination of our trajectory towards transcendence. AI raises sobering questions, however. Will AI want to grow and if so, how will it secure the energy necessary to do that?

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