That our beliefs echo pre-Darwinian beliefs and values, or even Cartesian dualistic values, is evidenced by the amount of times we think of ourselves as being at the top of a hierarchy of living creatures, and how easily we slip into the language of ‘body’ and ‘mind’. So embedded is this hierarchical notion that challenging it elicits a violent response1: how can we even conceive of promoting a bacteria or a virus to an equal consideration with a Mozart or a Bach? The thinking that rejects this radical reshuffling of values is also the thinking that automatically assumes cognitive processing to be the prime example of intelligence, and homo sapiens to be the prime example of cognitive processing, (which is the ultimate in ‘ad hominem’ logic, if you’ll excuse the pun). Our success in altering the face of the Earth gives us ample confirmation that our species has had a qualitatively different impact from any other. Yet the accompanying assumption that this impact is somehow more positive than, say, the impact of a plague of locusts, does not stand up to scrutiny.
There is one other conceptual area in this context, to which we are often blind: the (Cartesian) fallacy of imagining the ‘self’ as a disembodied wraith located somewhere behind the eyes. Conceiving of an alternative – say, a series of electro-chemical reactions cumulatively extending until the self-conscious illusion of an ‘I’ is formed – is less familiar, and therefore less comfortable, as a means to describe our place in the world. This disembodied conception of ourselves allows all kinds of fracturing between any effort we might make to take material responsibility for the impact we have, as a species, on the rest of the biosphere, and our collective surrender to the myths and fantasies offered by religious faith – transubstantiation, the rewards of Heaven and the Rapture2.
1Those who call into question the wisdom of policies and practices which call for a rebalancing of human with non-human interests are sometimes called ‘human-hating’ (on the other hand, those who call for such a rebalancing are just as often themselves called ‘anti-human’) (see, for instance, Patrick Moore’s website online); Attfield finds it incomprehensible that we could view the complex cognitive capacities as anything but ‘higher’ processes, which are intrinsically more valuable than ‘lower’ processes like photosynthesis; and J. Baird Callicott recanted his own outspoken position on a rethinking of prioritising human over other interests for land use or animal husbandry in his Pallinode. To venture to question that human capacities are indeed at the apex of the evolutionary (Christmas) tree is seen as little less than heresy.
2The Rapture is widely accepted by a large proportion of the American population as a viable explanation of the state of the world as it is, and as a rationale for doing nothing to alter the destructiveness of our current behaviour, since the end of the world is more or less nigh. See…(website ref to ‘The Rapture’)