Breaking Down the Myth of Human Exceptionalism


Top 5 Things You’ll Learn If You Read This Whole Thing
  1. There have been five previous mass extinctions.
  2. We’re in the middle of the sixth.
  3. We evidently don’t know about 90 percent of the species on our planet.
  4. Knowing where babies come from is a relatively new thing.
  5. Humans aren’t that special.

What if you really are nothing special? What if, when some Great Arbiter of History examines your time here, you’ll be judged as merely a particularly violent primate? What if your entire view of yourself is… wrong?

Don’t worry. You’re only human. And that’s the point.


Science and Religion Have It Wrong

Humankind — especially in the West — tends to think of itself as the mountaintop. Depending on your worldview/religious persuasion, we either evolved into or were placed here by an all-seeing, all-knowing God as the pinnacle of creation. We can do all things and, by golly, we go about doing all things — sending robots to Mars, breaking up atoms to create energy, making the McRib.

This belief in ourselves is reinforced by institutions and loved ones that tell us as individuals and a collective how special we are, how unique we are, how we’re meant for greatness. Whether it’s the Halls of Academia, which traces our evolution from primitive ape-like thingies and then hard-stop at Awesome Us, or religions whose sacred texts have God setting all things just so before plopping Perfect Us into the scene, we are The Bomb. (Well, not you women. You came after creation was done, God was kickin’ back’, the dude he made got lonely and God remembered he had created other female animals so maybe he could make a female human from His Main Bro’s guts.)

Even when we humble ourselves and admit to fallibility — say, for example, that we have a negative impact on the sustainability of life on the planet — we’re quick to climb back to that peak and assert our control — for example, by saying we can fix it by driving electric cars, making power from sources other than coal and listening to worked-up Swedish teenagers say important things.

What if — and stay with me, because I know this is difficult — we’re really not all that important? What if we’re less Robert De Niro and more Steve Buscemi? Not so much Meryl Streep but a lot more Joan Cusack? What if the really big shit has, does and will continue to happen without much care about or say-so by us people?


We’re All About to Die (Geologically Speaking)

Knowing I’m technology-averse, my Missouri relative and runner of the website on which my blog appears — John Agliata — printed out and mailed me an article from a website called Live Science entitled “The 5 mass extinction events that shaped the history of Earth — and the 6th that’s happening now.” John is a very smart man, but he’s also really dumb to think I needed an article to tell me about the five previous mass extinctions. When you live as simply as I do, you have lots of time to read.

Assuming you don’t have as much time to read, let me sum up the article for you: Essentially, dating back to when we, with our limited capabilities as humans, can currently measure time, something has wiped out more than 75 percent of the species on the planet in what is deemed to be a “short geological time period” five times. (“Short” is defined as less than 2.8 million years, which seems rather arbitrary and truly not all that short, but I digress.)

In order, the prime suspect in each of the five mass extinctions are:

  1. Mountains forming.
  2. Algae blooming.
  3. Volcanoes erupting.
  4. Volcanoes erupting again. (Bastards.)
  5. An 8-mile-wide asteroid smashing into the planet.

Notice the startling lack of humans in what is ultimately the only history that matters — the ability for the sole place we know as capable of sustaining even marginally complicated life to continue sustaining that life. In fact, exactly none of those times have humans or anything even remotely close to what we consider humans been around.

If life as we know it can begin, end, begin again, end again, begin again, end again, begin again, end again, begin again, end again and begin again without us having anything to do with it, maybe we as a collective aren’t that important.

It is hard for humans to even comprehend that we are in the midst of another mass extinction. By God (or by science), we’ve only existed in a form we’d invite over for Sunday dinner for roughly 6,000 years — and, by those standards, The World’s Greatest Country is barely off momma’s teat. Could things really be that screwed up?

They could be, they are, and, as in the previous five mass extinctions, we’re not center stage in this drama.

Since my birth on the commune in Northern California, the population of species with a spine (which rules out politicians) have declined by an average of 68 percent. More than 35,000 species are considered threatened with extinction, according to the International Union and Conservation of Nature. During the 20th century, 543 land vertebrates went extinct.

That might seem like a drop in the bucket of the estimated 8.7 million species on earth and in the waters. Two things:

  1. If one of those species was, say, cute little puppy dogs, or perhaps, oh, maybe us, that number would appear a lot bigger to you.
  2. The study that came up with the 8.7-million number also said that 86 percent of land species and 91 percent of those in the seas haven’t even been discovered. Startling, yes, but if that’s true, we really don’t have any clue as to what their condition might be.

Onward.

Now, it would be foolish and scientifically wrong to say humans aren’t a part of this latest shit show. According to the article from Live Science, fossil records don’t just tell us what types of things existed before us but supposedly how long a species can survive before becoming extinct without The Greatest Creation screwing things up. That’s called the “background rate” and equals roughly one species extinction per 1 million species per year.

The current background rate is tens of thousands of times higher, meaning that species are becoming extinct far faster than they should be because we, as a species, generally suck. According to a study published in the journal Science Advances, some species recently poofed would have survived another 800 to 10,000 years without us exhibiting our oh-so-superior intellects.

So yes, most sensible people should be able to agree that humans could, at minimum, be doing a bit better at ensuring the survivability of the planet and, at worst, should off themselves en masse and in toto so the worms and sloths and cockroaches have at least a fighting chance.

But here’s the thing: Everything I’m writing, everything the Live Science article says, everything anyone’s ever written on this topic… everything presupposes one “fact” that just might not be true — that humans know what the hell they’re talking about.

This goes back to what I wrote about before, that we think we’re the pinnacle, the tops, the bees knees. When we say something is “scientifically proven,” it’s meant to carry weight and convey that the jury has rendered its verdict, the case has gone through all its appeals, the Supreme Court has weighed in and God himself or herself or itself has come down from his/her/its perch and blessed it as Truth. After all, if you’re the peak of creation or the pinnacle of evolution, nothing could come along that could ever take a scientifically proven truth and turn it upside down.

So let’s examine that for a second.


Your Baby is a Paramecium

Where do babies come from?

From the union of a male’s sperm and woman’s egg that becomes this thing called a zygote that then divides and multiplies and turns into something that drains your energy, finances and will to live. Duh.

We accept this as truth even though only an extremely tiny percentage of the human population has ever seen this actually happening. We accept science on faith as much as others accept the life, death and resurrection of a divinely created man-god. And that’s fine, in both senses. Faith is a good and necessary thing.

Of course, we as a species tend to put our faith in things that end up being spectacularly and provably false. For example, on the baby question, it was less than 150 years ago that the leading theory from The Be All And End All Of Intelligence was that babies were parasites, perhaps related to the newly discovered mini-creatures that swam in drops of pond water. Something like this:

Meet the paramecium, or maybe your baby.

It wasn’t insane people in padded rooms who thought this. Sir Isaac Newton and many other brilliant minds of the time who subscribed to this theory.

Now we laugh at people who believed this, just like we laugh at those who once thought heroin was a solid option to cure coughs … in children!!!!

.. or, more recently, that Fen-Phen was a good way to lose weight.

So tell me again how we are now suddenly right about everything. Sure, we probably have the whole baby thing buttoned up, but what stuff are we patting ourselves on the back about that subsequent generations are going to think of us as morons for believing?

Rare is the article that talks to a scientist or theologian who says, “Um, I dunno.” Yet there’s frequent evidence that we really don’t know a lot of important stuff.

Yeah, we think we know how life begins, but we know stunningly little about the things that can end it. Most of us have learned about DNA. Heck, even Hippie Mom — she of the butt-length wavy blond hair and constant wearer of culturally appropriated moccasins — put that in her homeschool curriculum. But have you ever heard of Z-DNA? Researchers found it in 1979. This strange twist on the foundation of life lived in only one thing: a particular kind of virus called S-2L.

Well, that was they thought at the time. Now, researchers have discovered it’s actually in dozens of viruses and that it is particularly nasty because it allows the viruses to avoid the defenses of the bacteria that would ordinarily kill it, bacteria that recognizes a particular sequence in only normal DNA that isn’t present in Z-DNA. I presume as it’s passing by it gives the bacteria a huge middle finger.

More than 60 viral genomes have this little fun feature, and scientists now believe it is common in viral life. Sleep well.

So yeah, in the end, we know extremely little about viruses, DNA, diet pills and a whole host of other things that suddenly pop into existence. (Hello, COVID.) Yet we still have this hubris that somehow we’re in control.


Scientists, Politicians and Technology, Oh My!

After detailing the five previous mass extinctions, talking about the sixth one going on now and admitting that what we’re doing is only merely accelerating our doom by a few thousand years over the course of up to 2.8 million, the writers leave the world of what at least passes for fact and fly firmly into Fox News (or MSNBC) territory. The claim? “Humans might be the driving force behind this accelerated extinction event, but we are also the answer to stopping it.”

Oh really? We are somehow the answer? What evidence from the history of homo sapiens would lead you to believe we can stop a mass extinction that started before we came on the scene and, if past extinctions are any indication, will come from forces no species can control?

Let’s review.

The prime suspect in the five mass extinctions are:

  1. Mountains forming.
  2. Algae blooming.
  3. Volcanoes erupting.
  4. Volcanoes erupting again.
  5. An 8-mile-wide asteroid smashing into the planet.

But according to the writers: “The world is awash with scientists, conservationists and environmentalists working in the laboratory, in conservation areas and in political battlegrounds to protect endangered species.”

Yes, and they are countered by far more people who don’t care about anything beyond their own existence or maybe … maybe … their potential great grandkids’ existence. For even the best of these, the zenith of “protecting the planet” is recycling their beer cans.

Further evidence from the writers that humans have got this covered: “From tackling global pollution emissions in the 2016 Paris Agreement to the U.K.’s Global Resource Initiative that combats deforestation, legislation will always be at the forefront of the fight against mass extinction.”

Oh please do tell me more about how politicians and what they agree upon can save us. Let’s just look at America. Our population gets yanked back and forth every four or eight years by “leaders” who are supposedly very different. They put us in and pull us out of (…aaaaand we’re back to the “Where do babies come from” thing again) various deals. But when you look at the political spectrum, one leader really isn’t really that different from the next. Both are equally unable — even if they happened to be genuinely willing, which they’re not — to do anything about the ongoing mass extinction because it’s being caused by things that have nothing to do with us!

But wait! There’s more! Said the writers: “Another potential solution to combat extinction could be to clone species.”

Ah yes. Let’s discuss cloning as the way to overcome planetary forces.

“In February 2021, scientists revealed they had successfully cloned a black-footed ferret from an animal that had died more than 30 years ago.”

Impressive. One ferret. Great start. At least we’re learning. Serious question: Will we get to where this is a viable option without creating zombie monster animals like the thing from Pet Sematary before we ourselves are in dire need of cloning to continue our own species?

Then the writers wrap it all up nice and neatly: “It is legal, scientific and technological advances such as these that will help to conserve Earth’s wildlife and hopefully slow down the sixth mass extinction..”

It is.

Will.

Will help to conserve.

That, my friends, is the definition of hubris.

I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along

Let’s return to where we started. What if you really aren’t that special? What if you’re just part of a species of particularly violent primates, the only animal species that beats, rapes, maims and kills for … what? Sport? What if your entire view of yourself is just wrong?

Stings, doesn’t it? But let’s suppose for a second that it’s true. There’s a certain sense of freedom that comes with resignation from a position we haven’t earned and certainly don’t live up to. Oh, I’m not suggesting that our scientists and politicians and you and I don’t try to fix things, to at least attempt to minimize the negative impact we have on that which sustains us, whether that’s our families, our society or our planet. I’m merely saying that we would be better served by owning up to the fact that we can’t fix it, that ultimately we are going the way of the dinosaurs and the millions of other species that came before them that simply reached a point in time when they … stopped.

Yes, it’s hard to accept this.

A) We love control.

B) We’ve been taught since we were tiny that we as individuals and as a species are special — The Best, appointed for More. Schools, religious institutions, politicians… they all indoctrinate us with this belief in Human Exceptionalism while ignoring a whole mountain range of evidence that suggests otherwise.

And yeah, we’re pretty good. But if you stop and examine who we truly are, what we’ve truly done, what we’re currently doing — well… there’s got to be something better than us coming, something more evolved or more divinely inspired to do better than we have done.

Right?

Q.F. Conseco is the relative of website owner and Storyteller-in-Chief John Agliata. He lives outside Escandido, California, near the Hellhole Canyon Preserve with his wife, Flaca, and their three children, Franz, Hans and Helga. All three are homeschooled and extremely unsocial. Q.F. is a singer, songwriter and poet when he is not working as a trimmer for a large medical marijuana growing operation in Humboldt County, California. He doesn’t eat fish tacos.


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