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Timely Readings on Humankind's Crossroads of Destiny Timely Readings on Humankind's Crossroads of Destiny
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-30 09:47:40
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   papa01_400_02

Published in 1995                                   Published in 1996

     papa02_400

Published in 2004                          Published in 2005

Within the span of ten short years, between 1995 and 2005, four extraordinary books dealing with humankind’s evolutionary journey and its final and semifinal destiny appeared on the academic and intellectual horizon (three of the five authors are university professors!) to persuasively debunk the myth, alive since the Enlightenment among the shallow entrepreneurs of our brave new world, of inevitable an unstoppable scientific progress impeded by pretentious professors.

Having put it off for some ten years now, I decided to remedy this lamentable intellectual gap of mine in environmental knowledge, and read those books during my Christmas break. I am still at it as I write this. Those books make for some fascinating and enjoyable, if disturbing reading. Allow me to briefly survey those books for the Ovi readership with the hope that they’ll be motivated and encouraged to read them too. I can practically guarantee that you will not regret it. Those books will render any reader, no matter where your political persuasions lie, more aware of our existential human condition, unembellished by utopian fantasies and myths.

As I have mentioned before, the problem with much good intentioned New Age Spirituality nowadays is that by focusing only on the positive aspects of the human situation, it ends up ignoring the philosophical problem of evil or original evil and with it the analysis of coming environmental catastrophes. That is to say, it runs the risk of creating a Pollyannaish world of positive thinking or a myth, seeking evasion by placing of one’s head in the sand, so to speak, devoid of any realistic analysis. The books I am about to survey will surely disabuse them of that tendency, unless they wish to continue deluding themselves by obtusely persisting in their pseudo optimism.

The books are as follows (see cover illustrations above): The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995), Full House by Stephen Gould (1996), The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins (2004), Collapse by Jared Diamond (2005). The titles already furnish us with what those books have in common, but more on that later.

Their authors are all, none excepted, eminent experts in their respective fields: Richard Leakey is probably the world’s foremost paleoanthropologist, former head of Kenya’s wildlife preservation program and an international award-winning science writer; Stephen Jay Gould is the Alexander Agassiz Professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University and curator of its museum of comparative zoology; Richard Dawkins is one of the most influential scientists of our time and is the Charles Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University; Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at the UCLA Medical School and winner of the National Medal of Science in 1999.

What the four books have in common is that they all look straight in the eye of the upcoming catastrophe of the extinction of the human race and unflinchingly proclaim that unlike previous occasions when it could be considered a purely natural phenomenon, this time around man will be mostly responsible for its own demise. Dominant as no other species has been in the history of life on Earth, Homo sapiens, may also be among the living dead. This is undoubtedly a terrifying scenario for the future of life on earth. The event is so existential and angst provoking as to make all our political theories attempting to bring about a more just society, almost meaningless in comparison.

Gould’s message, in particular takes a hard look at the commonly accepted notion of inevitable progress to affirm that, contrary to common popular opinion, progress and increasing complexity are not characteristics of the evolution of life on Earth and the anthropocentric view may be fallacious. The new paradigm of progress ought to be one in which the true measure of excellence is variety and diversity. Trends should be interpreted as changes in variations rather than something with telos moving somewhere.”

In his Ancestor’s Tale Richard Dawkins, as an evolutionary biologist, presents us with a witty reverse tour of evolution, from present day humans back to the microbial beginnings of life four billion years ago and with his stories sheds insightful light on diverse topics such as speciation, sexual selection, and especially extinction.

Finally, in Collapse Jared Diamond shows us how societies choose to fail or succeed. That is the actual sub-title of the book implying that the choice remains ours and time is running out. Humankind’s abuses of the environment reveal the inconvenient truth behind the world’s great collapses, from the Anasazi of North America to the Vikings of Greenland to modern Montana. The choice is ours and we ignore the signs at our own peril. This book reveals some of the deepest mysteries of the past even as it offers hope for the future. In some way, all the four books ultimately offer such a hope, but that hope is predicated on awareness of what is going on. Not to be aware spells doom.

As the title of chapter 16 of Diamond’s book asks: What Does it All Mean to us Today. Or as Leakey’s chapter 14 asks: Does it Matter? The cynic of course will promptly answer that ultimately it matters not; and that would be logical as per his nihilistic philosophy. We are doomed to extinction whether we like or not. Consequently the question naturally arises: is there no hope and if ultimately life is purposeless, does this reality of the human condition leave us without the hope of any kind of survival be it physical or spiritual. And if that is the case, why attempt to create a more just and compassionate society? To what possible end? It would all be futile. We’d just be assuaging our guilty consciences of what we have done to vilify mother Earth.

I’d like to leave the reader with some sundry questions of my own: if all there exists is matter and only matter, even if transmuted as energy, as our positivists insist, then of course our destiny is to eventually perish and extinguish ourselves as a developed species. That seems to be where life is headed with the help of man. Perhaps the best we can do is seek a more encompassing pantheistic meaning for the universe as a whole, but accept that the end of our individual journeys or our destiny as a human species is eventual oblivion. This is certainly what those who find no meaning in life as such proclaim to the four corners of the world.

But what a minute, could it be that this human journey in time and space, this ultimate destiny of humankind is merely a penultimate destiny? Could it be that this penultimate journey leads to another transcendent reality; its real final destiny? It would seem that the cynicism of our positivistic authors above examined can only be overcome by the hope, indeed by the faith that such be the case, for it could never be proven empirically and scientifically. Our authors do not talk about such hope, or faith or charity. They do not consider those virtues subject of scientific inquiry. But then another question arises: is it human to live without hope, or without faith, or without charity?

 


    
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