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Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
12 March 2000 Issue

Human Identity Politics:
Homo Indeterminus
By Steve Best - sbest1@elp.rr.com

"It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story."
--Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth

"That's the premise of your story: The world was made for man. Your entire history, with all its marvels and catastrophes, is a working out of this premise."
--Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

As the current scene shows, social life is fragmenting into various forms of "identity politics" involving issues such as race, gender, religious outlook, national background, and sexual preference. There is yet another major form of identity currently under contestation, involving the identity of the entire human species.

As human beings continue to explore their evolutionary past and gain a more accurate knowledge of the intelligence of the great apes and other animals, as they further probe the depths of the cosmos in search of life more advanced than themselves, as they develop increasingly sophisticated computers and forms of artificial intelligence and artificial life (self-reproducing "digital DNA"), as they cross species boundaries and exchange their genes with other animals, as they clone various life forms, and as they move toward bionic bodies, the question arises inexorably: Who is homo sapiens? Are humans unique in any way?

Since Aristotle's celebrated notion of the "featherless biped," Western culture has struggled, and failed, to attain an adequate self-understanding. The specificity of human nature has been clouded in numerous ways, ranging from religious and anthropocentric attempts to define us as possessors of soul made in the image of God, to sociobiological efforts to deny human beings any uniqueness from insects and other DNA-bearing organisms. Traditionally, the riddle of human identity has been resolved through religion; today, however, we know the answer to this question depends on science, yet it requires a return to cosmological thinking and a new kind of spirituality.

Human identity in Western culture has been formed through the potent combination of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Greek and Roman humanism, Medieval theology, Renaissance humanism, and modern science. All of these sources, whether religious or secular, concur in the belief that human beings are wholly unique beings, existing in culture rather than nature, and therefore are radically separate from the earth they inhabit and the animal life surrounding them. No doubt, the most pervasive influence on Western human identity has been the biblical story of dominion, whereby human beings take possession of a world made just for them, an earth in which their proper role is to seize command of nature through technological prowess.

Since the sixteenth century, however, this geocentric and anthropocentric identity has been dealt a series of powerful blows. Beginning with the Copernican revolution that posited a sun-centered, rather than earth-centered universe, continuing with Darwin's theory of evolution, and culminating with Nietzsche and Freud who overthrew the primacy of consciousness in favor of desire, instinct, and will, human identity has been radically decentered. Despite the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and Galileo and the development of a secular scientific culture, human beings nevertheless could feel comfortable in their alleged radical novelty and superiority in relation to "brute beasts." Comfortable, that is, until 1859, the publication date of Origin of Species, for Darwin's critique alone posed a real challenge to anthropocentrism. Only since 1859 have human beings begun to understand the forces of life and their own origins at all. Moreover, it was not until 1960, when Jane Goodall made her historic journey to Gombe, Tanzania, that human beings acquired any real knowledge about the higher apes, specifically the chimpanzee, our closest evolutionary relative. Human beings split from a common ancestry with chimpanzees some six to eight million years ago. Structurally, behaviorally, and genetically (a 96.8% match), human beings and chimpanzees are remarkably alike; in fact, chimpanzees are genetically closer to us than they are to orangutans.

Without an accurate comparative basis to our closest biological relative, we could not have produced an adequate understanding of ourselves and we have been living, to borrow a phrase from Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in the "shadows of forgotten ancestors." Until Jane Goodall's work, the identity of homo sapiens still had some security: only we were homo faber and homo loquens; only we could make tools, use tools, and linguistically interact; only we lived in behaviorally complex communities.

Through Goodall's research, however, we have learned that chimpanzees also make and use tools, and through the work of Roger Fouts and others, it has been demonstrated that chimpanzees and other higher apes can learn American Sign Language, that they have developed a working vocabulary of hundreds of words, that they can communicate their thoughts and emotions to us, and even that they can, on their own accord, teach this language to their young.

Human beings are unique in the degree to which they possess intelligence; no other species, last time I checked, has written books of ethics, solved algebraic equations, or meditated on the meaning of life. But humanity is not unique in its possession of a neocortex (which enables abstract thought); of complex emotions like love, loneliness, and shame; of sophisticated behaviors and communities, and perhaps even of an aesthetic sense. Human beings are immensely complex beings, with both a penchant for both violence and compassion, egoism and altruism, but they have overstated their uniqueness and separated themselves from the community of life on the earth, both conceptually and existentially. This is our main failing, and the central reason behind the environmental and spiritual crisis human beings currently confront.

Like any other identity issue, "homo sapiens" is an identity politics. Human beings differentiate themselves from other groups in order to gain their identity. In the case of human identity politics, the "other" involves different species. The construction of human identity, more so in the Western world, has been inseparable from anthropocentrism, a human-centered worldview, and from "speciesism." As analyzed in Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, speciesism follows the same logic as racism or sexism: it establishes an absolute gulf between one group ("humans") and another ("animals"), it claims the former is superior to the latter, and it concludes that the superior group has the right to exploit the inferior group. Interestingly, in every case of human domination, both within and outside of the human species, the inferior group is designated "non" or "subhuman," and therefore a complex politics emerges around the discourse of "the human."

The politics of human identity involve who gets to count as "human"; what privileges subsequently accrue; and whether or not the "human," however broadly or progressively defined, is an adequate marker for the boundaries of the moral community. Human identity is identity politics writ large, and the consequences of human separatism and fragmentation from other species are far more consequential than any form of identity politics separating human from human (unless this should be so volatile as to erupt in nuclear war).

Thus, there is a desperate need for a new consciousness, for new cosmopolitan identities, in the broadest and most literal sense of the term. Human beings must begin seeing themselves not as citizens of one nation or another, but of the earth, indeed, of the cosmos itself. Accordingly, human identity can only be properly perceived in the context of cosmology and new ecological stories. The old geocentric and anthropocentric stories are false, limited, dysfunctional, and dangerous, wholly unsuited for the destructive power of a technologically advanced civilization. Homocentric dramas need to be superseded by cosmological narratives that situate human life in the larger evolution of the universe. As Thomas Berry writes, "The story of the universe is the story of the emergence of a galactic system in which each new level of expression emerges through the urgency of self-transcendence." Despite the religious overtones, this new story can be understood in strictly scientific terms of dynamic, evolving matter, leading to ever greater complexity of life.

The new cosmological narratives often seek to reconcile science and religion, using science to explore the physical nature of the universe while retaining religious sentiments as a source of meaning and reverence for life (re-ligere means "to re-connect"). Unlike the mechanistic science of the modern period which disenchanted the world, reduced nature to objects of manipulation, and estranged human beings from the process of life, the postmodern science developing in the last few decades is telling a new story, one that reintegrates humanity into the entire drama of evolution, while bringing science into contact with ethics and values, which previously science had eschewed in the name of "objectivity."

It is a promising sign that science, which has done so much to eradicate our ties to life, is beginning to help rebuild these connections through new holistic and ecological theories. We truly are "in between stories," and a key task for the future is to continue to write a new story of creation, a cosmic narrative that emphasizes our responsibilities in the larger community that engulfs us, the biocommunity in which we are only one of millions of interdependent, co-evolving species.

While we are free to write our own social and ethical laws, we have yet to learn that we must conform to the laws of nature. These are the laws of ecological balance that are inconsistent with our burgeoning population, insatiable consumption levels, and ideology of limitless growth. The new story will inform us that humanity survives and flourishes not by opposing itself to nature, as the old story has it, but rather by harmonizing itself with all that has come before it in the multi-billion year odyssey of evolution.

This article originally appeared in "Life Giving Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).

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