Human Consciousness - an evolution catastrophe? 


Edward F Kurtz, Jr.  Nov 18, 1992




        Our environment is under stress.  Few would argue otherwise. Nonetheless, there is much disagreement about what that means. Environmental enthusiasts seem willing to take extreme measures to help the environment. Conservatives balk when proposed measures to help the environment seem bad for business.  Few would welcome proposals that would require them to sacrifice their own prosperity.


        The basic problem is that we all have a basic conflict-of-interest problem when it comes to considering environmental proposals.  Our industrial society provides us with jobs, and with convenience, comfort and pleasure.  For example, how we do love our cars!  What would we do without electric lighting?  It's one thing to ask the people of Brazil to stop destroying the rain forests. It's altogether something else if it is suggested that, to consume less fuel, we sacrifice some of the performance of our automobiles or raise the tax on fuel!  We are willing to demand sacrifices, just as long as it's the other guy who has to make them!


        Just how bad is this environmental problem?  Is it just a  matter of how pretty the countryside is?  There used to be lots of lovely open farmland that is now filled with houses.  To eliminate smog maybe we just need to develop solar-powered cars. If so, maybe things aren't so bad after all.  We can adjust, change our expectations.  Maybe the technology causing the problems can be used to solve them.  Wait!  Are we talking, instead, of something more basic?


        Albert Einstein used to conduct what he called thought experiments.  He would use his imagination when practical considerations prohibited a real physical experiment.  I propose here a thought experiment concerning our environment.


A thought experiment


        For this thought experiment imagine that there is an extraterrestrial observer that has been watching the earth during the entire period during which life has evolved.  This observer does not

attach any value to any particular forms of life.  It has no favorites.  Ethical and moral issues are irrelevant to it.  It is absolutely objective in all its observations.  It simply observes. This observer also maintains a record so that it can make comparisons. It observed and recorded the entire evolution of life on the planet.


        It will be difficult for us to imagine making observations without any value judgments.  However, that is exactly what I propose here.  I want to make an objective assessment of what has occurred during the entire period of evolution of life here on earth.


        What would this record be like?  It would show how millions of species evolved, and how millions of species disappeared.  For the most part, things evolved rather gradually, new species developing over a period of millions or tens of million years.  There were occasional cataclysmic events.  A popular current theory holds that an asteroid or large meteor struck the earth 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of thousands of species.  The observer's record would show that, nonetheless, the biosphere recovered and evolution continued.  The biological system was able to respond and adjust to drastic changes on the earth.


        This extraterrestrial observer would note that something unusual has been proceeding during the last several thousand years. Whereas all the animals on the earth exhibit varying degrees of consciousness, one animal has recently developed a consciousness so powerful that it is distinct from that of all the others.  Comparing this consciousness with that of the other animals is like comparing a thermonuclear explosion with the ignition of a match.  It is of such a different order of power that it has to be considered to be a totally unique phenomenon.  It is a superconsciousness.


        With the emergence of this new consciousness, striking changes are occurring on the earth.  The character of the land masses is changing rapidly, especially as regards the degree of forestation. The chemical composition of the atmosphere is changing noticeably. There is a drastic increase in the rate of disappearance of other species.  This highly conscious animal has assumed complete domination over all other species on the planet and even over the planet itself. What is most striking about these changes is the accelerating rate at which they are occurring.  They became noticeable several thousand years ago, and their rate has increased steadily ever since.  In the last few decades the rate has increased explosively.


        The evolution system has behaved in a stable fashion throughout the millions, even billions, of years past.  As new species appeared they effected other species, sometimes favorably and sometimes adversely.  Yet, the system as a whole was stable, maintaining good natural balances, and recovering well from large disturbances.


        However, the evolution of this new high-level consciousness raises the possibility of an instability in the evolutionary system itself.  Now the system appears to be out of balance, and to be diverging at ever accelerating rate towards some new state,  the character of which is simply unpredictable at this time.  The viability of the biosphere is threatened.


        That ends the observations from the hypothetical extraterrestrial observer.  They are cold statements, without passion. "Now the system appears to be out of balance, ...  The viability of the biosphere is threatened."  If the entire biosphere died, ended, this observer would simply note "The biosphere died."  Simple statements of fact from the totally objective observer.  However, these statements cannot pass without causing passion in us, for the animals with the new form of consciousness are of course humans.  The totally objective observer, a machine, if you will, does not care, but we do!  We care!  These statements must evoke great passion in us, regardless of where we stand on environmental issues, whether politically on the right or on the left, whether anti- or pro-environmentalists.  These observations are either rubbish or factual.




        I said that the evolution of human consciousness may represent an instability in the biological-evolution system.  What is stability?


        Stability is a branch of applied mechanics.  We are always, or at least should always, be glad when designers or operators do a good job as regards considering stability.  Sometimes they don't, and then bad things happen.  One famous example familiar to lots of school children is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster.  A beautiful new suspension bridge across the Tacoma Narrows in Washington started to gallop one day in 1940 when a strong wind blew across the bridge.  The galloping motion increased steadily in amplitude until the structure failed, and the bridge fell into the narrows.  The event was captured on a now famous film, and is frequently shown to school children.


        It was subsequently realized that the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was unstable in the wind.  Small disturbances to the bridge enabled the wind to generate ever increasing disturbances.  The bridge left its original state and entered a new state; it collapsed.  The bridge contained within it the instability which was the seed for its own destruction.


        There are lots of examples of instabilities.  Consider a supersaturated solution.  Disturb the solution slightly and it will instantly cloud up as the dissolved material crystallizes.


        All stable systems have a common characteristic.  If they are disturbed slightly, they will respond by going to a new state that is only slightly different from their original state.  The measure of their response is of the same order as the measure of the disturbance causing the response.


        On the other hand, unstable systems behave in a drastically different way.  If they are disturbed ever so slightly, they will go to a new state that is extremely different from their undisturbed state.  The measure of their response totally out of proportion to the measure of the disturbance.


        There is a branch of mathematics called chaos theory in which the behavior of unstable systems is studied.  A typical example would be that the dropping of a feather in Massachusetts could cause a  hurricane to develop in the South Atlantic Ocean.  The disturbance is the falling feather.  The response is a hurricane,  a catastrophe.


        I have used the word catastrophe in my title in the chaos-theory sense to denote in a dramatic fashion how an unstable system behaves.  The measure of the new state that an unstable system

enters differs so much from the measure of its original state that it is appropriate to say that a catastrophe has occurred.


        When the evolution system produced human consciousness, it may have produced something that is going to lead to the destruction of that very system. The possible development of this consciousness had to be implicit in the evolution system at its very beginning, when the first single-cell organisms evolved to multicellular organisms!  The evolution system maintained a beautiful balance through millions of years of development until it produced human consciousness. Consequently, the state of the biosphere is departing drastically from the equilibrium state it enjoyed previously.  This is why I suggest that the evolution system is unstable, that a catastrophe has occurred in evolution.


Human consciousness - a catastrophe?


        I have arrived at a really terrible conclusion.  I am saying that something really basic has gone wrong in the biological system, and that this thing is human consciousness!  I have discovered the

problem, and the problem is that very capacity for intelligence which is a boundless source of pleasure and pride for us all!


        I blame Ian McHarg, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Univ. of Pennsylvania, for jolting me out of my state of materialistic bliss.  This jolt occurred when I attended a lecture by Professor McHarg at Queens University, Kingston Canada, during the early 1970's. He stunned me when he declared in his humorous irreverent way that the most blasphemous thing ever written was in the Genesis chapter of the Old Testament of the Bible: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.' ...". This is supposed to be the word of God!  Blasphemous!  I had long known that it was a good thing to be concerned about the environment, but this was something new.  Ian McHarg was saying that there was something basically wrong with our attitude that makes us think that we have the right, even the destiny, the assume dominion over nature.


Ian McHarg is not the only person to have jolted my environmental sensibilities. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth, his wonderful six-hour television interview with Bill Moyers, talked also about the Genesis.  He described it as representing western materialistic values, in which nature is viewed as being in error, humans being destined to make corrections.  He was extremely critical of this Judeo-Christian attitude toward nature, a criticism which has caused some to accuse him of being anti-Semitic, an accusation I find unreasonable.  He did not hold the Genesis responsible for western materialism - he instead said that it reflected the attitude of humans towards nature that was prevalent at the time Genesis was written.


        Campbell also described how the philosophies of Asia emphasized the need for humans to live in harmony with nature rather than being at odds with it as we are in the West.  There nature is sacred, as reflected in the gardens of Japan.


        Thus, there is an alternative to western materialism.  In the west we view animals and plants as things, to be used for our advantage and pleasure. How different that view is from that of the Asians, and even the tribes who migrated across the Bering Straits to settle North and South America thousands of years ago.  One can find, even today, natives in the rain forests of South America whose religions reflect the old Asian ideas of the divinity of nature.


        However, the old Asian ideas seem to be no match for western materialism.  As a matter of fact, nowhere in the world are the tenants of western materialism now finding greater appeal and more success than in Asia. Given the choice between nature on the one hand, and on the other cars, TV, jet airplanes, and all the other wonders of western technology, the choice inevitably goes to materialism.  After all, materialism is exciting; it's a lot of fun.


        Ian McHarg placed most of the blame on the shoulders of a few, the industrialists who produce the products that pollute the environment and the weapons that threaten world destruction.  I think the situation is more serious that that.  The responsibility lies with every single person who at any time utilizes any of the many wonders produced by our technological system.  The next time you are at a meeting of environmentalists, ask them how they got to the meeting.  Most probably came by jet.  Anyone who turns on an electric light is part of the problem.  We are all literally addicted to western materialism.  Our basic philosophy, our attitude towards nature and our taste for security, comfort and pleasure, is to blame.


Our challenge


        The basic issue has come down to this.  One animal has developed a superconsciousness which has enabled it to obtain complete dominion over the biosphere.  Does this animal have the ability to control its appetite so as to maintain the health - and even the very existence - of this biosphere?


        At this time it seems entirely possible that the biological system of evolution contained within it from the very beginning the seed for its destruction, an instability implicit in the system which has become apparent just as the instability in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge became apparent.  We thus face a monumental challenge.  It is not even clear what is required of us.  Is a complete renunciation of western materialism necessary, or is some sort of moderation adequate? Can we recognize the problem and do something about it?  Can we muster the political will required?  All this depends on whether or not our consciousness contains within it the ability to face the problem.  We must assume that it does, despite the fact that the preponderance of relevant evidence suggests that it does not.  We face a challenge demanding a truly heroic response!