The problem with people is that they’re only human.
— Bill Watterson
We emerged from the mists of our deep history into awareness as rather appalling, scary creatures, and also as rather wonderful, amazing creatures… something completely new in the world: animals who told stories, who learned to laugh, befriended other species, created new things with their deft hands and spun delightful images with their clever brains. Initially, our powers were small. We lived, more or less, in harmony with the world, like other creatures. We were no more — but no less! — awful and destructive than the hyena or the shark. Like a hyena or a shark, we heedlessly grabbed what the planet offered. But since our powers were small, any damage we did was small. The limits Mother Nature places upon all organisms limited us as well.
Still, we evolved. Any shark or hyena grown an opposable thumb and a manipulative brain would be a very alarming creature indeed, especially as it began to evade, at least for a time, the bounds nature places on all organisms. I don’t blame humans for becoming more destructive as our capabilities grew. Would any other animal behave differently? As our behavioral repertoire expanded — better language, cooperation, skills of survival, hunting, reasoning abilities, symbols, dexterity — our ability to change the world, to help or harm it, increased apace. We became very good at survival, and very good at destroying what stood in our way. Any large predator – had it evolved such abilities – would become a very dangerous creature indeed, to self and others. Jekyll grew in powers. How wonderful. But so did Hyde. How very, very inauspicious.
As our capabilities expanded, humans began to cause significant damage to certain parts of the planet. We damaged a large part of the continent of Australia and its climate through fires. Imagine: small roaming bands of humans equipped only with simple stone age tools managed to bring ruin to an entire continent! We probably had a hand in wiping out our cousins, the Neanderthals, and perhaps other descendants of erectus as well. Our greedy hunting methods included mass stampedes of hundreds of animals over cliffs and into cul-de-sacs when only a few of their bodies could be used. With a variety of improved hunting strategies, we began to have significant impact on certain animal populations, and likely contributed to the extinctions of the Upper Paleolithic. We certainly caused great devastations much later as the outlying Pacific islands were settled, or used as larders by passing sailors.
Picture leaving a few pairs of predators – say, cats — on pristine Easter Island. They would have multiplied, wiped out the naïve fauna in relatively short order and collapsed, leaving an impoverished island behind. Just the way the Polynesians did it. We think that humans should know better. But the cats’ predicament is our predicament too. Even today, with all the bells and whistles of modern life, we are not good at dealing with the future staring us in the face. We find ourselves just as unable to modify our destructive behaviors as did the hapless Easter Islanders.
Face to face with a more realistic assessment of human nature, is pessimism or cynicism called for? I don’t see it that way. I do think evolution has saddled us with a problem that calls for a great deal of caution. Our shadow side cannot magically disappear by going into therapy, getting religion, via bootstrap evolution, through self-discipline, or doing the 12 steps. It will not disappear by sloughing off civilization. This is who we are: dangerous, amazing, limited human animals. We must face what is in terrible glory inside us. To let our heart be broken by who we are. To know, to surrender to the truth, and to find peace. Then we can quit tearing Mother Nature to pieces in revenge for having made us so imperfect, so “fallen.” Then, we can finally stop destroying each other and the planet we love.