Philosophers have considered the nature of existence (metaphysics), whether god exists (religious philosophy), how we can know things (epistemology), how we can lead a good, just or happy life (moral philosophy or ethics) and how societies can best be organised (political philosophy).
Scientists, biologists in particular, have considered how species, including our own, are successful in biological terms. They have concluded that biological success occurs as a result of evolution through natural selection.
But surprisingly there has been little direct consideration given to what worldly success of the human species as a whole would look like.
Abrahamic religions postulate rewards for good or successful lives in the afterlife, as well a day when God will judge the human race as a whole. But leaving religion aside, if we had to set key performance indicators for the worldly success of the human species as a whole, what might these look like? What are the measures that might enable us to say “Well, we had our problems but, as a species, overall we made a good fist of it”? And at what point in history, if at all, could we ever hope to answer such questions?
The Longevity Principle
When judging the success of other species of animals we tend to reach conclusions based on biological considerations without adopting any moral considerations. Altruism is a key consideration in moral philosophy. It forms the basis for some moral systems and is rejected by others. But it can never be ignored in any discussion about morality.
Altruism exists in other animal communities. It occurs, for example, in the nurturing of the young, or when a guard animal within a group decreases its own individual chance of survival by giving a warning cry about an approaching predator for the benefit of rest of the group.
The guard animal’s actions in decreasing its individual chances of survival seemed contrary to the theory of evolution by natural selection at first glance. But biologists, including Darwin himself, soon recognised that such altruistic activity conferred a survival advantage for the group as a whole.
But altruism, as referred to by biologists, is only concerned with effects, not motives. It is not regarded as involving the exercise of any kind of moral judgement, at least when practiced by other animals.
The closest we get to passing moral judgement on other animals is to try to correct the errant behaviour of a pet or to anthropomorphise in relation to “good” or “evil” traits in other species such as “evil serpents” or “peaceful doves”. But we do not seriously condemn the predator for hunting down and eating its prey. We accept that this behaviour is in the predator’s nature.
Judgements about the evolutionary success of a species tend to be made with reference to the length of time that the species has been able to adapt, flourish and survive. I will call this criterion for judgement the “longevity principle”.
One of the advantages of the longevity principle is its simplicity and objectivity. The principle has no variables outside of length of survival. And we can scientifically validate the longevity of a species based mainly on study of the fossil record.
Various groups of organisms have different typical rates of extinction.
One of the longest surviving species in the world is the horseshoe crab. It seems to have survived, more of less unchanged, for some 445 million years. Tyrannosaurus Rex lived for about 3 million years. A typical species appears to survive for about 10 million years. Mammals have an average species “lifespan” from origination to extinction of about 1 million years, although some mammal species persist for as long as 10 million years.
There is a big difference between 1 and 10 million years. Nevertheless I will call the period of 1-10 million years the “rough average period of mammalian survival”.
Despite its simplicity and objectivity, the longevity principle is limited as a basis for judging the success of the human species. We might marvel at the horseshoe crab’s longevity as a species. But we commonly use horseshoe crabs for bate and fertilizer. We do not envy the horseshoe crab simply on the basis of its longevity. Indeed, insofar as we might contemplate the issue at all, we might generally pay more regard to the relatively short lived Tyrannosaurus Rex than to the humble horseshoe crab.
Though already extinct, Tyrannosaurus Rex demands more of our attention than the horseshoe crab. This is because of its size, ferocity and awesome power. This demonstrates that, while we may take the longevity principle into account, we are not really content to assume that longevity represents the “whole story”. Some might be tempted to consider the intelligence, beauty or awesome power of a species in judging its success, or at least its notoriety. I will refer to this as the “aesthetic principle”.
The Aesthetic Principle
Even if Tyrannosaurus Rex is more “notable” for us than the horseshoe crab, this arises from how we imagine its power. It might equally be regarded as a cruel, fierce and ugly “monster” or as having its own type of predatory beauty.
The nature of beauty has long been a matter of controversy in Western Philosophy. A central controversy is whether beauty is located in the “eye of the beholder” or has any objective qualities.
Plato and Aristotle disagreed on what constitutes beauty but both regarded it as having objective qualities. Both Hume and Kant maintained that taste, or the ability to experience beauty, is fundamentally subjective, although Kant also sees pleasure from beauty as emmanating from an awareness of one’s own rational nature and moral vocation.
Whatever the nature of beauty, it seems obvious that human beings derive pleasure from the contemplation or experience of it. This being the case, there is an obvious link to the ethical system of utilitarianism and its central concern with maximising the greatest pleasure for the greatest numbers.
For Schopenhauer the aesthetic principle is central to his overall philosophy. He saw the Darwinian struggle for existence as essentially horrible, leading to human suffering. He developed a philosophy of extreme pessimism and described us as living in the “worst possible of worlds”. The only relief from this grim reality was through aesthetic experience and artistic production, in compassionate attitudes and actions, and in ascetic resignation from bodily existence. Music has a special place in Schopenhauer’s view about the arts. He sees music as directly expressing universal feelings, in contrast to other arts which imitate experience.
But the aesthetic principle also suffers from a number of limitations as a guide to measuring the success of the human species.
We have already touched on the first limitation- the element of subjectivity. How for example could one ever disprove a statement that a particular thing is or is not beautiful? From the point of view of philosophers such as Karl Popper, the fact that such propositions cannot be demonstrated to be false means that they are essentially non-scientific and meaningless. This is so irrespective of the fact human beings derive pleasure from experience or contemplation of what they consider to be beautiful.
The subjectivity of the “aesthetic principle” is likely to be evident both within and across different cultures.
An example of cross cultural differences is that some Asian cultures think of whales as “food”. Western cultures often see the harpooning of animals as beautiful and intelligent as whales as unacceptably cruel.
But the subjectivity of the “aesthetic principle” is likely to also arise within cultures, just as any views on beauty and power and perhaps even intelligence may be subjective.
The second limitation of the aesthetic principle is that it seems to be more a statement about our “nature” than it is an indicator of our “performance”.
The Development Principle
Human beings, in their present form, have existed on Earth for around 200,000 years. For 185,000 to 190,000 of these years we existed, in relatively small numbers, in our so-called “state of nature”, as hunter gatherers.
Around 10,000 years ago we developed agriculture. Cities and empires subsequently developed. Bursts and fits of technological and cultural advancement occurred. And then, for just a tiny portion of our overall history, some of us have lived in modern industrialised societies.
As a result of industrialisation our population and life expectancy have greatly increased, together with our technological expertise and our knowledge of the universe, the world, and our own history.
Even our knowledge of human prehistory has grown through modern anthropological and archaeological scholarship. We regard ourselves as having uncovered some of the secrets of the creation of the universe in the big bang. Today we know when we look at stars we are seeing them how they were thousands of years ago, due to the length of time it takes for their light to reach us. Physicists understand much about the relationship between matter, energy, space and time. Such knowledge was not accessible to our ancestors.
This progress would have been impossible without a unique ability, not possessed by other animal species. This is our ability to transmit new knowledge from one generation to the next. It arises from our ability to speak, count and engage in abstract thought. This capacity is responsible for the accumulation and acceleration of our scientific, technological, moral, philosophical, artistic and cultural knowledge. It is also responsible for the tendency of human societies to become increasingly complex. I will refer to this progressive increase in human knowledge, technological capacity and complexity as “the development principle”.
The development principle has more variables and is therefore less objective, or straightforward, than the longevity principle. But, at least at one level, it is less subjective than the aesthetic principle. There is scope for value judgements about what constitutes “progress” and the extent to which development has contributed to happiness. But the fact that our knowledge in the areas outlined above has accumulated and that human societies have become increasing more complex appears indisputable. One can accept this as simple fact without the need to reach any conclusion, as to whether or not this development is “good” or even as to whether it has increased the overall sum of human happiness.
Somewhere, as a subset of the development principle, or perhaps as an entirely different principle, the principle of equality also arises as a possible basis for defining our success as a species. Whether equality should be regarded as a subset of the development principle or as a separate principle may depend in part on whether equality was a “value” in hunter gatherer societies, or just a way that people lived, as a consequence of not having “developed” individual property.
In any event, the question still arises: Can we regard ourselves as having been successful as a species unless or until everybody has access to the things that are needed to lead a reasonably happy life?
We seem, in the various declarations we have made about human rights, to have identified a fairly good list of the things that are likely to contribute to a reasonably happy life. This in itself might be regarded as progress. Yet about one fifth of the world’s population, over one billion people, live on less than $1.25 a day. 2.6 billion people, more than one third of the world’s population, live on $2 a day, or less, a figure that has changed little since 1981. About the same number do not even have access to basic sanitary toileting facilities. Almost half the world lives on less than $2.5 a day and at least 80% of people live on less than $10 a day. When it comes to the achievement of a reasonable level of equality of outcomes, despite all of our ingenuity and technological advancement, thus far, our species seems to have been a fairly miserable failure. And our ingenuity even threatens to make inequality worse if and when the already privileged acquire first or exclusive access to human enhancement technology.
Whatever eventuates with equality, again unlike any other species of animal, our development has implications for the longevity principle as it applies to us. This is because our development has given us the means by which we are now capable of destroying ourselves. Yet it has also given us the means to adapt to environmental forces that, without such development, would not have been open to us.
Either way the development principle changes the way the longevity principle potentially applies to us. Our chances of falling short of, meeting, or surpassing, the rough average period of mammalian survival are altered by our development in ways that do not apply to other mammals, which do not share our capacity to accumulate knowledge.
Current indications are that our development may well have decreased, rather than increased, our chances of reaching, or surpassing, even the lower end of the rough average period of mammalian survival. We have the capacity for nuclear annihilation. And we face environmental threats including climate change, deforestation, anti biotic resistant super bugs, soil erosion and water shortage for which we may or may not find political or technological solutions.
Whatever our development means for our chances of reaching or surpassing the rough average period of mammalian survival, clearly enough it has reduced the survival prospects of many other species. We are undoubtedly the “king” of the predators. And our impact on the environment has certainly meant that the rate of extinction of other mammals has increased.
The fossil record indicates that the background or “normal” extinction rate for mammals was one species lost every 200 years. But the past 400 years have seen 89 mammalian extinctions, almost 45 times the predicted rate, and another 169 mammal species are listed as critically endangered.
Rapid extinctions have happened before. There have been at least five, the most recent ones 250 million and 60 million years ago. Only 1-10% of species that have existed survive today. But many scientists believe humans are perpetuating a sixth major extinction.
In any event, even if we survive the immediate threats of nuclear or environmental disaster, it seems certain, that at some point in time the human species will cease to exist. In the very long term, the Earth’s biosphere will eventually be destroyed by the Sun’s steady increase in brightness. The sun itself has a finite life. And even in the unlikely event that some human beings were able to travel to an alternative solar system, our best scientific knowledge is that, in the more distant future, the universe will cool to such an extent that ultimately the unique conditions required for human life, or indeed any life, will no longer exist anywhere.
These events are so far off that they appear unlikely to be of any relevance to our lifespan as a species because the chances are that we will not last that long. But the significance of these events is that they appear to give a scientific basis to the proposition that, at some point in time, humanity will cease to exist. Our ultimate destiny is extinction. To think that the human species can survive forever appears to be both unscientific and the height of hubris.
At some level, the inevitability of our worldly extinction has to enter into considerations of how we measure success for our species.
It appears that the dinosaurs were probably wiped out over 65 million years ago, after a meteorite hit the Earth. The dinosaurs were not particularly intelligent creatures and their extinction was due to factors completely beyond their control. Their extinction certainly represents no “moral failure” on their part.
If Earth was again to be hit by a large enough meteorite human life could be wiped out as were the dinosaurs. This would be a catastrophe for our species. But, once again, if such an event led to our complete extinction, this would be due to factors beyond our control. It could not indicate moral failure by our species, or be a measure of our success or failure.
If, on the other hand we wipe ourselves and other species out, through nuclear holocaust or by other means that we ourselves either created, or could have avoided, this would seemingly represent a huge moral failure.
Nevertheless, if such an event occurred tomorrow, a hypothetical question would arise. The question is: Would it have been preferable for us to have remained in the “state of nature”, as hunter gathers, instead of developing in the way that we did if this meant we could have lasted longer as a species? (The question is hypothetical, as is this entire essay, because there would be nobody to pose or answer it!).
We could assume, probably quite safely, that, leaving aside meteoric type events, we might have survived as hunter gatherers for a longer period, perhaps even for the rough average mammalian period of survival. We would never have developed the means to bring about own mass destruction if we remained as hunter gatherers. But neither would those of us who have benefitted from industrialisation have lived as comfortably. Human knowledge of the nature of the universe, of other cultures and of our own history would not have progressed as it has.
So what would be the better result? Would it have been preferable for the human species to have remained as hunter gatherers, if this meant we would achieve the rough average period of mammalian survival of 1-10 million years? Or would it have been preferable to have lived for a total of only around 200,000 before wiping ourselves out? An objective observer would note that for this 200,000 we have lived as hunter gatherers for 97% of the time anyway. Another 2% or so of this period time would have seen some very substantial cultural and scientific development. But over this entire period, most of us would either have been hunters, farmers or slaves who knew little of the wider world, let alone universe. Only about 1% of this period would have involved our industrialisation during which we vastly multiplied our comfort, individual life spans and knowledge before blowing ourselves up. And even during this 1% period a substantial proportion of humanity has continued to live in poverty, sometimes even in worse conditions than prevailed during the hunter gather period.
Judging ourselves by the same criteria we use to judge other species, that is, in purely biological or evolutionary terms and by reference to the longevity principle, the conclusion seems inescapable. We would have to conclude that it would have been preferable to have survived for a longer period of time in the “state of nature” and not to have developed in the way that we did.
But given that our pursuit of the development principle seems to be part of our inherent (or evolved) nature why should the criteria by which we judge ourselves be the same as for other species? But if it is not the same then what is it? How can we judge? Why do we care? And what is the relevance of our impact upon other species to our own success?