Heinrich on humans

Besides his many insightful observations of the natural world, biologist Bernard Heinrich adds philosophical insights that confirm the relevance of science to a reflective and sensitive evaluation of human reality. Humans are objects of observation, of course, and are part of the natural world, as much as they militate against that identification.

Thus, while Heinrich’s Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, focuses on biological recyclers from beetles to ravens, always from first-person experience, reflecting classical scientists’ reliance on being in the field versus being in the lab, the author also discusses human behavior in the context of early or primordial human hunting and scavenging behaviors. Despite the image of the benign and self-sufficient hunter presented in many modern circles of thought, humans moved in fast and rapacious social groups that destroyed many large mammalian species, driving them to extinction, the same mindless human behavior that more recently has accelerated the extinction of contemporary species. Prompting human evolution were increased brain size, social hierarchy, and an unlimited drive for destruction, even when consumption and needs were long satisfied. Heinrich calls this behavior, negatively, “no knowledge of limits.” He notes:

Our tapping into the energy of meat some three or four million years ago instigated an “ordinary” evolution , with one innovation furiously generating the next. This eventually led to a new stage of human social evolution, now cultural instead of biological, which was kick-started and maintained by the massive influx of energy from recycling the remains of 3000-million-year-old plants, most prominently trees. This processing of fossil energy led to iron smelting, which opened the way to even more tools for energy extraction. Now these processes are fueling us through our farms and factories by feeding on ancient cycads, horsetails, and tree ferns. We are the ultimate scavenger of all time. Everything from the coal forests to a large part of the earth’s animal biomass — domestic birds and mammals (and , increasingly, fish) — are cycled into us, instead of into a sustainable world ecosystem. …

Key characteristics of human evolution seemed to hard-wire the killing skills of hominids into human society and culture ever since. Killing animals for food is enshrined in Western religious ritual, whether literally in the bovine sacrifices of the Hebrews or the horse sacrifices of the Indo-Europeans, or the symbolic flesh and blood of Christianity, and even in the secular sacrifices of mainstream culture’s holidays.

The image of the strong, brave, hunter so admired by society taps into the two animal instincts of survival and reproduction. The societal image is variously transmuted as soldier, athlete, celebrity, and power-holder, surviving war and competition to win the right to survival in luxury and/or to reproduce with chosen child-bearers.

The massive destruction of species in earliest human times is continued into the modern era and transmuted into the destruction of all nature. Modern humanity in advanced technological societies have simply extended the rapacity of earliest humans to control and destroy, from animals and plants to other peoples, cultures, and societies. This process extends to the “conquest” of space, where the motive to seek out extraterrestrial intelligence may well have sprung genetically from the desire to destroy all competitors for survival and reproduction, or culturally as a secular searching for extraterrestrial intelligence substituting God.

Aggression is the lot of human nature in groups, such that only the individual can check in him or her self the inherited patterns that require addressing. It cannot be done collectively. The creation of the now-called Anthropocene age of mass destruction has been coming for millions of years, and cannot be stopped. Yet this is what makes the detailed and admirable work of scientists like Heinrich so fascinating in its contrast.