I have written before about the challenge humanity faces in overcoming its predatory nature. Briefly stated, as animals we must regularly obtain life-supporting energy; we do this through predation, that is by securing and consuming plants and animals. Ours is a life-eat-life world, a predatory food chain that governs animal behavior, both individual and group.
The individual need to satisfy hunger is nearly ever-present. As a group, we developed cooperative hunting, farming, and gathering of food to share. This accomplishment does not require great sophistication, however; ants and bees perfected the transition to cooperative social behavior nearly 400-million years ago. Human beings, the world’s apex predator, are still in the process of fully making this transition, a task ironically made more challenging by higher consciousness and individual ego. To become thoroughly social, to delay individual gratification and set aside personal desires in favor of shared group benefit, in other words becoming civilized, remains a work in progress.
We can safely say that nature is not ethical in its ruthless evolutionary march into the future, is neither good nor evil. Over hundreds of millions of years, countless species have come and gone, and 99.9% of all earth’s creatures that have ever lived are now extinct. Ethics, per se, appears to be a matter of solely human concern.
To be unselfish and altruistic is a paramount task of ethical behavior. If there is an ethical sentiment that unifies the many wisdom traditions of the world, it is humanity’s golden rule, to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated, with care and compassion. This effort necessarily confronts the continued presence of our selfish predatory nature, however. Tasked with a process of self-transformation that transcends biological evolution, in the words of Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, “we ourselves are chisel and statue.”
The evolution of a species takes an extremely long time, and even then, no particular outcome is guaranteed, including that of higher consciousness. Highly adaptable dinosaurs evolved and dominated the entire planet for over 150-million years, yet there is no fossil evidence for any social complexity beyond group nesting and joint feeding behaviors, something insects mastered long before. Homo sapiens, also supremely adaptable animals that, like dinosaurs, have colonized the entire globe, have been around for a mere 300,000 years, and what we call civilization began less than 10,000 years ago. Yet, within that short period of time the fraught process of our self-transformation has been ongoing, albeit in fits and starts.
Some elements of human society remain doggedly attached to predatory behavior, neatly dressed in intellectual narratives extolling the benefits of “individualism” and its social manifestation, “nationalism.” Individualism is the glorification of personal ego, and nationalism its collective expression, both effectively reproducing nature’s merciless biological logic of “eat or be eaten.” According to predation’s logical injunctions, competition and greed are ethical behavior, and sharing condemned. Such primitive ideas inhibit the ethical transformation of our species, a transformation of consciousness that aspires to leapfrog over the countless eons required for Darwin’s genetic evolution.
Were this transformation taking place outside the confines of modern technology, our species might succeed in sculpting itself; fossil fuels, nuclear weapons, and genetic engineering each pose an existential threat. As Buckminster Fuller elucidated in his 1981 book, Critical Path, our chances of success have dangerously narrowed because of our continued predatory selfishness. Fuller’s prescription: “It is to be everything for everybody or oblivion.”