Friday, December 31, 2010

The Universal Constant?

In Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Last Theorem mankind is threatened with extinction at the hands of highly evolved aliens.  Eventually, however, the aliens absorb our notion of The Golden Rule and come to embrace this maxim as the great constant that should apply throughout the universe.  For me "do unto others…" is a moral and ethical constant applying to the existence of life itself – life in all its forms.  I believe that except for the luck of the draw I might just as easily have been born a salamander, a snake, or a cow.

For most of us any sense of relationship with other species is just about nonexistent – we are just woefully uninformed about the other life forms around us. How many of us can name even a handful of our native plants or animals? Very few – although most of us can easily rattle off the titles of numerous TV sit-coms including the names of the cast. It's difficult to have empathy for what you neither know nor understand but I think we would be better off in the long run if we had the humility to think of ourselves as a species among many species (rather than as us versus everything else). The proposition that the plant and animal kingdoms were placed here only to serve us doesn't even deserve a comment.

About the only constant we can interpret from observing life on earth is "systems that work survive." This is representative of the complex web of millions of interrelated life forms that come and go as they respond to ever changing environments. But something very different is taking place these days. Our newly acquired planetary dominance coupled with our exploding numbers has brought about a new age with new ways to provide food for ourselves – we have moved away from biodiversity and towards huge doses of monoculture. Not just our crops – our meat too now comes primarily from penned or caged animals that are born into the world for the sole purpose of providing us sustenance. For now the system is working in spite of its numerous problems – nevertheless it just doesn't feel right…

Human dominance implies human accountability and it is time for "systems that work survive " to receive an update.  How about a touch of humanity?  How about a touch of The Golden Rule (the ethical code of reciprocity)?  If our morality is limited only to each other then what can we expect if we one day encounter superior aliens that may very well not be familiar with such a moral/ethical standard?  In time perhaps someday we will find a way to better share the planet with its other species.  Then we will be able to show our visitors a world order based on what really could be the universal constant of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you."


  1. We are animals, yes.
    But it is our very differentness as animals that allows us to so handily be the dominant species, and simultaneously obliges us with ethics. "Survival of the fittest": who are the fittest? Those who survive. It becomes a tautology: "Survival of the survivors", and as a system, that sure seems to be how it goes. Systems that can successfully propagate themselves endure.
    My hope (for any of this turning out at all well) stems from the following: a critically important component of successful iterative propagation in an evolving environment is the capacity to change over time. And as special animals, we aren't limited to genetic evolution. We can learn, culturally. And either we're gonna eat ourselves out of house and home, or the enduring system will be one that lets chickens have perches. Because how we've been doing this is just not sustainable.
    Either way, though, the earth will be fine; it's seen far worse.
    It is just a real shame to take all the frogs down with us.

  2. Great input, John, I look forward to your future comments. I have lots on my mind so will probably be reflecting on life related issues for some time.