Currently, our species is the driving cause of a sixth mass extinction, meaning our global superpredatory behaviour, population growth, overconsumption, habitat destruction, toxic pollution, and climate change have drastically reduced the world’s biodiversity, annihilating plants and animals at least 100 times the natural background rate.
Amazingly, though, the ongoing Holocene extinction is a tempest in a teapot, because “today wildlife accounts for only 3 percent of earth’s land animals; human beings, our livestock, and our pets take up the remaining 97 percent of the biomass,” as Peter Brannen explains in a careful article that points out we’re only at the beginning of a mass extinction, because if we were in the middle of it, all would already be lost and there would be hardly any life at all on the planet.
Brannen goes on to say, “This Frankenstein biosphere is due both to the explosion of industrial agriculture and to a hollowing out of wildlife itself, which has decreased in abundance by as much as 50 percent since 1970. This cull is from both direct hunting and global-scale habitat destruction: almost half of the earth’s land has been converted to farmland.”
The implication Brannen doesn’t draw is that not only have we killed off many species at an anomalous rate, but we torture, slaughter, or enslave the vast majority of the remaining wildlife, namely our livestock and pets.
As for the nearly 8 billion humans, although much crippling poverty has been eliminated around the world, there is hardly any humane society in which the vast majority of the citizens are allowed to achieve their full potential. Most adult humans on the planet are still exploited in dictatorial, theocratic, kleptocratic, or capitalistic social systems that benefit primarily tiny minorities in the upper classes.
All of which raises an existential question: Why is our species is so destructive? I don’t mean to ask specifically how this or that disaster is caused, but what our fundamental nature must be for our all of this destruction and misery to be the bulk of our legacy.
Intelligence and Wisdom
The answer is that there’s a mismatch between our high intelligence and our practical naivety. Our language-based intelligence and ability to objectify and solve problems by rational inquiry and trial-and-error enable us to progress in instrumental, technological terms. We understand how the world works and can exploit that knowledge, redesigning nature to suit our interests.
But that kind of intelligence is evidently not the same as wisdom. We’re masters at figuring out how technically to achieve our goals, but that’s a far cry from knowing which goals we should be trying to achieve.
This is clearest in the case of our childhood behaviour. Children lack most of the information acquired by adults, but children are still far more intelligent than most animals, because children have language and the cerebral cortex. But our young are also paradigmatically naïve when it comes to deciding what they should be doing, which is why they have to be guided by adults. If you let children do whatever they want, they would spend all their time eating chocolate, fooling around, and destroying their home, and they’d grow up to be monsters.
Suppose, then, the child Stevie gets hold of a loaded gun even though he hasn’t been trained to handle weapons. This is hardly a farfetched scenario, precisely because Stevie is a human child with relatively high intelligence; for example, he might observe how his father stores his weapons, and discover how to pick the lock on the cabinet. The chance of disaster in this case is high, because Stevie is too intelligent for his own good: he can figure out how to use a weapon but is wholly ignorant about what should be done with a gun. So the kid might accidently shoot himself or someone else.
We like to think adults are very different from children, but apparently the difference is only a matter of degree. We’re still cognitively one-sided in that our raw intelligence runs rampant, while we give short shrift to moral and normative questions.
Indeed, with regard to wisdom we’re in a dark age, since most people still appeal to religions for answers. We think invisible parent figures called “gods” will reveal the answers to us, because with regard to existential matters we’re as clueless as the children to whom we hypocritically condescend. The fact that spaceships, the internet, and nuclear weapons exist on the planet at the same time as active organized religions is terrifying. The scariest ten horror movies are like Disney cartoons compared to that eerie asymmetry.
On the one hand, we’ve evolved this trait of language-based intelligence, which enables us to plan for the future and to analyze, simplify, and categorize processes to control them with ever-more powerful technologies. On the other hand, our cultures are thoroughly childish: we anthropomorphize fundamental reality, praying to gods, holding up some texts as infallible scriptures, and dictating how society should be run based on alleged divine commandments.
The Marginalization of Wisdom in Childish Society
Here’s how even we childish adults can confirm our societies might as well be run by actual children, because our grasp on what should be done is as feeble as a child’s puny hands: ask yourself where the wisest people are, what they’re wearing, and how much power they have. I’m not talking about scientists here, about those with the most empirical and instrumental knowledge, but about the individuals who have been awed and humbled by the deepest insights into our existential situation.
Don’t those wisest persons tend to be social outsiders? Don’t they withdraw from society to live in monasteries, caves, or basements? Aren’t they more likely to be dressed in rags than expensive suits? Aren’t they impoverished because they’re disgusted by the prospect of acquiring transient wealth at other people’s expense? So aren’t wise people disproportionately marginalized and powerless to help determine what our societies and cultures should be like?
The reason wise men and women historically withdraw from mass society is likely because they’re appalled by the grotesque spectacle of hundreds of millions of adults acting like gullible, naïve yet glorified children.
Put differently, the wise are shunned because their kind of knowledge threatens the childish social order. In the same way, children eventually view adults as impediments to their playtime, especially if the adults don’t know how to play like children, that is, if they spoil the games and fantasies by presuming adult ways of thinking are more serious and grounded and should therefore take precedence over the child’s carefreeness.
No, our “serious and grounded” conventional assumptions and goals — which pass for “received wisdom” — are evidently as divorced from reality as children’s make-believe. We’re like little Stevie who’s wandered into the gun cabinet. We can invent, manufacture, and use weapons, but we have no idea what should be done with them or whether we should be paralyzed with shame simply for tolerating a world that includes arsenals.
Although rigorous, scientific reasoning is often counterintuitive, we instinctively reason in instrumental ways to solve problems caused by our naivety about our existential situation. Sure, we have a moral sense in that most children are raised to be compassionate, so we instinctively recoil from the thought of murder, for example. But morality is different from the existential knowledge and character that would inform the deepest wisdom.
Moral training amounts to domestication, meaning we’re pacified to ignore or to preserve the overall destructive lunacy of our civilization. Wisdom that’s grounded in the philosophical conditions of our existence is more profound than this mere moral passivity.
And if we have no instinct for existential grounding, this is likely because such wisdom is antithetical to what we normally regard as our health.
Aristotle would have said the opposite, since he reduced wisdom to instrumental reasoning, believing that purposes are built into nature and can’t be altered. His teleological metaphysics would leave no mysteries of how things should behave. All we have to do in life, he said, is hit the target that our biological and psychological natures set for us; specifically, we have to develop virtues to moderate our behaviour.
But that all went away with the Scientific Revolution, when we realized such teleology commits the naturalistic fallacy. The more we understand the facts in objective terms, the more we realize they’re pointless and value-neutral apart, perhaps, from their aesthetic status of being awe-inspiring or monstrous. The ideals that guide most of our actions are subjective and fictional, not fixed by any objective fact.
Late-modern wisdom begins, then, with a confrontation with life’s absurdity and an acknowledgement that most of our values lack any objective foundation — and that’s where the multitudes jump ship, preferring blissful ignorance and childlike blundering to paralyzing wisdom.
Most of what we do on a daily basis would be summarily condemned from a standpoint of existential wisdom. We all contribute to severe levels of global destruction and depravity. We frown on so-called mental disorders because they harm the ill, but we give a pass to human normality because our societies at large damage only the entire rest of the planet, including the lower classes within those societies.
We commit these titanic misdeeds not because we’re evil on average, but because we’re as foolish as children. The horror is that we have no parents to correct our waywardness, because we’re the spawn of water, earth, and sunlight.