The blog’s name, you’ll notice, has changed. Instead of my name glaring at would-be readers, I now have an actual title, taken from Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871). Since I’ve had to start thinking about a thesis-topic, I’ve had to aggregate my views and, indeed, the views I oppose into neat headings. Thus, when contemplating what it is I stand against, what the special contentions are that manage to crawl beneath my skin, set fire to my blood and dance between the raised hair on my skin, I came to a conclusion: it is the persistent view that our existence, as a species, is something meaningful beyond the bounds of human ties.
From my opposition to religious bullying to my defence of antinatalism, all the views I oppose can be seen as emanating from this one idea: “we are not only part of the natural world around us, we emerged as something special, we will continue as something that should exist; therefore we must exist.”
Generalisations are, of course, the scatter-shots from an assault rifle as opposed to the perfection of an arrow head into a Bull’s Eye. Good critical engagement should be the latter. Yet, we would get nowhere in the tide of argument without broad strokes like these.
My attempt in writing is always about making us realise we are animals. To say “simply” animals is an insult to both non-human animals and us and, furthermore, a meaningless statement. When people say we are not “simply” animals, they might as well say we are not “simply” two-legged. It is meaningless, uninteresting and unjustified.
We are animals.
When that organ in-between our ears is damaged, we are more than likely unconscious, forgetful, unable to speak, think, and so on. We know when it is removed, the body no longer functions. We do not “defy” gravity (when something float in space, it’s not defying gravity – it’s just operating under different conditions of universal laws); our relationships have no significant ties to the movement of heavenly bodies (unless we make it so, as in “Lonely Hearts” advertisements that limit suitors to Leos and Capricorns). We are natural, emerging from the natural world – there is nothing cosmically special about us except what we wish to be significant. This is the limit of meaningfulness. The emanation of meaning comes from no other source than our quivering flesh.
But we want more. The idea that our bodily frames contain a portrait of nature in action is something too horrifying for us to realise. But written in our blood is a history of the universe that puts to shame anything Clarke or Asimov could conceive. It minimises and puts to shame the tawdry tie-dyed woo claiming Mars moves star-crossed lovers into each other’s arms. Breaking open our veins is a path of significance far more satisfying than any fairytales of deities or magic books. And it has the added quality of being true.
Rejecting this idea has bad consequences. When we imagine we are not animals, when we imagine we are “special”, we think “special” techniques can aid us. Parents think praying will cure their child; people reject potential partners because they have the “wrong” birthday based on a calendar out of date and out of sync; we think animals are not like us and can, therefore, be used for our benefit. We imagine this planet as a temporary toilet for us to piss all over before we pass on into the white-carpets of paradise, but we wash our hands in holy water, cleanse our “souls” with prayer, before “passing on”.
Darwin’s dangerous ideas about us being part of, evolved from and forever remaining in the natural world – the so-called “animal kingdom” – are opposed because people don’t want to be considered “monkeys”. Darwin recognised the strangeness of this. The famous quotation is here in full and displays Darwin’s wonderful writing ability (all emphasis mine).
Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it; and I have given the evidence to the best of my ability. We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.
This beautiful paragraph illustrates, more gently than I, my problem. It is when we, deliberately or unthinkingly, proclaim cosmic significance or the rejection of our “indelible stamp”. We are fallible, subject to breaking, easily leak and can’t withstand much moral or physical force. There is no “Return to Sender” stamp for us so we pretend or bow down to ideas which claim there is: We were made for a reason, our suffering and horror form part of a plan we have no access to. I’ve realised in writing for a general public (*salute*) that for many it is easier to accept god doesn’t exist than to realise we at some point will not; it is also hard, if not harder, to realise all the pain and anguish and horror we see around us (what some, including me, might call the Problem of Evil) is for no cosmic reason. There is no reason children suffer and die in Africa, days after being born, from diseases that we could cure in the Western world; there is no reason why good people end up murdered for a few dollars. This is just life.
But we might also add a further layer: the almost infinite disjoint between desire and satisfaction, between our idea of finitude and ideas of timeless existence (whatever that means). It is what Schopenhauer was trying to get at when using the worlds Will and Representation. This is what pessimism defines as the ever-elusive concept of “happiness”, which will never be fulfilled. Schopenhauer wrote that the idea that “life must be some kind of mistake is sufficiently proved by the simple observation that man is a compound of needs which are hard to satisfy.” He says “hard” when he actually means “impossible”. This is the joke: We suffer for no cosmic reason; when not suffering, we attempt to satisfy desires that, once satisfied, are no longer desired; when not yearning for goals or in pain we experience the great final proof of evidence that human life is meaningless: boredom. At which point is it good to be alive?
Here comes the concept of “significance”, a rational one premised on human as opposed to cosmic engagement. Here comes the final, winnowed outlook that looks at existence and faces it as reality rather than optimism and happy illusion. Wrapping our goals in the broken wings of hope, wishing they’ll take flight, has come to define our species; viewed from a distance, we are mumbling apes surrounded by goals with shattered spines that never took flight.
My point is neither to fill you with doom or “hope”. I am not interested in either. I, in general, have a dislike for those who try to instil hope or optimism – even those who claim godlessness – in some metaphysical significant way. What scares me is not god but godlike solipsism, coupled with ignorance of reality. Our species, bearing our stamp ever-brightly in our denial of its lowly origin, must come to recognise our natural origin, our existence in the natural world. Our morals, our science – all exist here. As Christopher Hitchens often quips, we are half a chromosome away from a chimpanzee. And it shows.*
* This to me is an insult to chimpanzees rather than humans.