Friday, January 15, 2010
This evening I watched the PBS program "The Human Spark: So Human, So Chimp". The program was fascinating, but more than being struck by the footage, I was struck by the persistence of human self-obsession, what I might call the self-congratulatory impulse. We have come a long way from the climate that made Darwin hesitate to publish his theory of evolution, fearing a religion-minded retaliation; nevertheless, the homocentrism of Creationist views persists in a secular form: the constant insinuation that Man sits atop a long chain of evolution, heir-apparent to the natural world.
Evolution is commonly conceived as a process of which we find ourselves at its pinnacle, yet this is a fallacy. With 3.5 billion years of earthly life behind us, we can surely expect as inconceivable an amount to come. It is certain that every human being alive on this planet as I write this will not be around to witness the state of life on earth in the next 3.5 billion. And just as certain as this is the understanding that there will indeed be something, though it is incomprehensible to the human mind what this something may be.
There exists a "contemporary ancestor" fallacy, one in which the complexity of evolution is popularly summed up by the phrase "We evolved from chimps." However, this is false. Chimpanzees are regarded as our closest genetic relatives not because we evolved from them but because we have both as a species evolved from a common ancestor. What this common ancestor was is a question science is very eager to answer. But we cannot say we have evolved from chimps. This is akin to claiming your father's brother as your direct ancestor. This is important to remember because it reminds us that every extant (living) species today has just as rightful a claim to "contemporariness" as do we.
Returning to the subject of homocentrism, we see evidence of this in the title of the PBS program: "The Human Spark", and in its host's closing comments. As he stands in front of a chimp habitat at a research center, he remarks, "It is me on one side of the glass, and [a chimp] showing his uncivilized side on the other."
I will here refrain from further commentary and close with a quote from Albert Einstein, who said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle
One sidenote: I was struck by what seemed to me a major flaw in one of the experiments featured on the show: Child subjects were compared with ape subjects in an experimental game/test involving the performance of a series of maneuvers with a box to extract dice (in the case of the child), or a grape (in the case of the ape).
Yet....a die means not nearly as much to a child as a grape means to a chimp. Dice are relatively neutral objects to a child. A grape to a chimp is....FOOD. The experiment sought to test for each species' ability to grasp the idea of "right way/wrong way" in regard to how to perform an action. But what motivation would an ape have to follow a certain order of movement, when a faster way may be available, and that grape is staring him in the face?