First an admission: I’m human. There, got that over with. With the obvious out in the open, let me describe how I’m not human. I don’t defecate wherever I please, I restrain my lusts for private moments and I’ve never tasted human flesh. You probably lead a similar existence. You see, we have transcended the short nasty and brutish existence of our human ancestors. Some of us more than others unfortunately.
Modern humans, those living in civilized society, have transcended our organic selves. Call it an infection of memes if you must, but we have adopted social conventions that set us apart from our genetic primate cousins. Our transcendence is not limited to bodily functions, either. We have made pacts with one another to behave in ways that result in the better good for all, on one hand, and which leave none behind on the other. For the most part. The U.S. Bill of Rights is one of our shining moments. So too the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Edward O. Wilson saw patterns in the behavior of ants that are mirrored in the behavior of all social creatures including Homo sapiens. Our behavior, it turns out, has been formed by evolution much the same as our bodies have. Formed, but not ultimately dictated. Wilson’s sociobiology has morphed into evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, which are giving us a window into the development of our emotions. We can introspectively understand how the drivers of our behavior came to be. Just as they can be understood, so too can they be tamed.
We can choose to be smarter than our emotions by using the mental skill of reason. It’s our species shining trait, like the lion’s teeth and the elephant’s bulk. Reason has given us our niche in the world and has allowed us to flourish. Some use it more than others, and there have been times when it was little used for ages, but reason defines us. It also has a property that is unique among the attributes of animals large and small; reason can be used reflexively, it can be used on itself. Humans have long struggled to reason about themselves, inserting myth for uncertainty. We live in a time when that uncertainty is dissolving.
Reason has jumpstarted our transcendence of the organic existence of our ancestors. It’s sad in a way to think that our more recent ancestors had the capacity to live as we do and yet had not accumulated the knowledge and experience we know of as history in order to make good use of reason. It’s equally sad to realize that we today do not know the full benefit of reason, due in large part to the vast vestiges of organic humanity among us that hold us back. So here we are, somehow more than animals, what with our ability to reason, and yet still bound to animal bodies with animal emotions, er, instincts.
Transcendence is the thing we all wanted to find. Some look for it in the myths of antiquity, some in mind-altering substances. Some of us see it in our conscious shaping of society, like the Bill of Rights. Transcendence is our ticket to free will out of the land of determinism. Hopefully we’ll choose the right train! Hopefully we can use our reason to connect the dots to make the utopian world we would all like to inhabit. Should there be some that disdain utopia, there’s always the jungle from whence we came; they should be free to return.
Sadly, not everyone is ready for such an abstract journey. It’s likely that the concrete-operationals among us will never “get it”, though there is hope for their descendents. And there may always be those that have to take it on faith that smarter people have found truths that are beyond the throng’s grasp, as it is with the hard sciences today.
Humanity is on a journey to transcendence. We may have barely just begun, or we may be near the destination. A trip to third world countries, to our inner cities or to the backwaters of civil society hint at the former. Our courts and schools hint at the latter. Oh that we can all live to see the day.