We are not very important.
We do not stand astride the world. We do not sit at its peak. All of evolution does not lead to us; only a very tiny sub-branch of it does. The artifacts we create as humans are not the pinnacle of achievement or the goal of all life. Our particular kind of primate intelligence is not the only kind; it is not the best kind; it is, honestly, not in the end all that impressive. We are not the only sentient species. We are not the only species with culture. We are not the only species with language.
It’s entirely possible that we are not the only species in this planet’s history to have created complex civilizations as we understand them today. It’s entirely possible, as well, that we are not the only current species to create complex civilizations. We do not understand the full depths of the minds of other species, we are not good at communicating with most of them, and we are often too arrogant to imagine that they may have just as complex and reflective thoughts as we do. Certain other species may be creating cultures right now that we are too dumb to understand. If I had to choose whether it was more likely that another current species has cultures and societies far more complex than we realize or that we are too smart to not recognize it if they do, I would every time choose the former. We are much less intelligent than we think.
Not to mention, plenty of other species create complex cultures and societies that we are aware of, we just tend to think those creations are not as good or important or impressive as our own. That is a specious assumption.
The course of this planet’s history does not lead to us, and we will be long dead and gone as a species by the time this planet’s history comes to its final closing. In the great long scheme of this planet, we are not likely to be overly noteworthy. Future species will almost certainly build grand civilizations and achieve accomplishments that are more interesting and impressive than our own. In fact, future generations of humans will do the same, creating civilizations more impressive and fascinating than our modern industrial one—and we cannot even imagine those future civilizations. They are unimaginable to us. Partly that is because this current civilization massively stunts our imagination, but also it is because of one of our great limitations as a species: that we cannot well imagine that which we have not experienced. Our mental models are too confined to what we know, which is one of the reason I suspect our past and current world contains much that we do not realize.
We believe that our view of the world is expansive and moving toward all-knowing; in reality, we are incredibly narrow-minded and provincial thanks to the mental confines of our culture, and our mental capabilities are not overly impressive to begin with. Interestingly, that is not necessarily bad, but it can certainly lead to poor outcomes, as we see too often around us.
What to make of all this? Personally, I thank the gods for it. I would want it no other way.
I live in an apartment that is part of a fourplex. Out our back window is a shared backyard: a stretch of grass and a few trees, a back patio and some outside furniture, garden boxes, an old and broken down chicken coop. Beyond that backyard, over our dividing fence, is the backyards of neighbors, filled with additional grass and trees and ADUs and shrubs and concrete and cars.
Being in the city, this stretch of land is not the richest in life, but it still is rich. A handful of dirt can hold billions of living organisms. Bacteria and fungi spread throughout the soil. The trees are countable, not more than a dozen; but beyond them there are shrubs and flowers and weeds and grass and vegetables and more; how many separate living creatures? Insects slip through the air, along the ground, within the plants; birds live in the trees and shrubs; beetles and earthworms and grubs and ants writhe through the soil. Rodents dart about. Crows land and flip leaves in search of meals. Cats roam. Looking out my back window the view appears calm and orderly but in reality it is teeming with an incalculable amount of life. Between my back apartment window and the walnut tree in my neighbor’s yard exists trillions upon trillions of life forms, an absolutely unimaginable amount of life. Asking me to understand that—to truly grasp how much lives out there in this tiny bit of land—is as impossible as asking me to understand the true distance between the couch I sit on and the edge of our universe. My brain is not in any way capable of handling it at any level of true comprehension.
I believe in the earth as a living organism. What that means exactly I do not claim to know; what the earth experiences as consciousness is not something I will claim to understand. But of the trillions upon trillions upon trillions of life forms living upon the earth, I assume the planet has some sense of them. My guess is it has a better sense of them than your average human does of the trillions of microbes that living within and upon his or her body—that, indeed, are an inseparable part of our bodies. Possibly, though, the earth is not particularly aware of all the life upon it.
Regardless of which might be true, let’s imagine just how important humans are to the planet we call home. Either this planet has some kind of awareness of humans as one sprawling but ultimately very limited lifeform numbering in the billions and spread among additional lifeforms numbering in the quadrillions and beyond, or it is completely unaware of us. I suppose it could be something in between or separate altogether, but I am confident that the earth is not sitting around completely aware of and attentive to human beings and our particular actions while simultaneously ignorant to all the rest of the life on and within it.
What does that mean? Well, I dare say it means we are not very important.
Meanwhile, if the earth is aware of us, it is probably only just getting around to noticing our doings. We have barely existed on it. Our best guess is that Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and humans have been around for about six million years of that. In other words, we’ve been around for about two minutes of a twenty-four hour day. Industrial civilization—that great pinnacle of existence—has been around about half a hundredth of a second. We really are not that important; Earth hasn’t even had time to notice the itch.
Industrial civilization won’t even make it to a full second of that twenty-four hour day—not even close. It would have to stick around for about three million more years. It might make it a couple half hundredths of a second more, depending on how you define “modern industrial civilization.” Maybe it will even make it to a couple hundredths under a lenient definition. But at the end of the day, we are hardly going to be a blip and Earth’s entire memory of humanity is going to be mostly devoid of any remembrance of what we did during those several hundred years when we burned through much of the planet’s fossil fuel reserve. In the end, though the consequences are real enough, it will be nothing more than a small explosion on a big planet, over and done in an instant. It will be little more than a glance and a “What was that?”
Yes, much will be different once all is said and done, but in the grand scheme of things it will not much matter at all. Time and again, this planet has been through massively disruptive changes that, on a geological time scale, are done and over in the blink of an eye. Species will die out and innumerable individual lives will, as well—just as they always do—but the planet will carry on, and in whatever planetary memory it holds, our brief interlude in its existence will not likely seem all that big of a deal. Just one more in a long line of changes, wrought by the vagaries of the universe and deep time.
It’s interesting to me that one of the more absurd aspects of our time is the incredible sense of self-importance collectively held by our modern culture. We think and speak and act in terms that suggest that humans and our particular ways of living and understanding the universe are the pinnacle of achievement, or are of some universal importance, or should or do structure near the entirety of existence. We act as though our particular tools and methods of understanding the world are capable of providing some kind of complete knowledge, not to mention the ability to control it. We think that we are world-makers and world-beaters; that we can make the world into what we want or that we can destroy it in our ignorance and arrogance. But really, none of that is true. We are not very important. We are just one more species, and not any particularly impressive of one.
Mind you, I don’t write that in derision or dismissal. I like humans and I like humanity. I like myself; I like being here; I like the people in my life and the world I live in. I don’t like it all and I have a lot of problems with it. I have my complaints! But I think being here on this planet as a human is pretty neat, and I think that as humans we have done a lot of really great things along with a lot of really awful ones.
I am also optimistic about our future. I think all the strange artifice we have built around us will fall due to natural limits and that future generations will create different kinds of civilizations that will do amazing things in ways we cannot even imagine right now—and that many of those civilizations will do those amazing things in much less destructive and cruel ways than we do things now. I am sad that we are wiping out untold numbers of species but I’m also really excited to see what kind of new species fill the niches we leave behind once these particular ways of living of ours are long dead and gone.
In other words, I think Earth is going to be fine. I even think humans will be fine, at least until we go extinct. Things look dark now, but we are not that important. History is long, the planet is big, and the particular forms of culture and civilization we currently think are so important and all-encompassing are going to be gone in the blink of an eye, to be replaced by entirely new ways of living. That long view, when I can truly remember it, is what gives me hope and a certain kind of stoic peace about the future. Much of what we are doing now is dumb but it will not last. And in that is our redemption.
That’s why I thank the gods that we aren’t very important. If we were, and if we truly held sway over the world the way we like to claim we do, then I would be in a very dark place. But I know instead that this planet has been around a very long time, that it has housed an impossibly large number of species that have undoubtedly done incredible things that we are completely unaware of, and that its future is filled with hundreds of millions more years of diverse and incredible life, most of which won’t be human.
With luck, my belief in reincarnation is correct and I’ll get to see some of that, first as human and then as other. If that belief is wrong? Well, it still is going to happen, I just won’t be around for it; I’ll have gotten my current time and whatever is alive then will get its own. Regardless, we win. We win because what is now is not all that is, and what we think is most important is not. We win because the world is not nearly so impressed with us as we are with ourselves. We win because all our cultural beliefs about how important we are just aren’t true. We win because this very strange and dysfunctional civilization we live in is not the purpose of life on this planet. It is just a passing hundredth of a second that will be done soon enough, and with luck what comes next will be a little more interesting, a little kinder, and will make way for a little more variety of living and life. I look forward to that and in it take my comfort.
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One thought on “Our Proper Place”
Great essay. I’m bookmarking this to return to in hard times.