The main here idea is to demonstrate how contemporary science destroyed multiple old paradigms that put humans into the center of everything. The secondary idea is that after proving human non-uniqueness, humans should know their place and use science to create somewhat minimalistic place for themselves within existing environment.
Part I: The Allure of Human Centrality, or, How We Persistently Try to Deny Our Place in the Natural World—and Fail
Prelude to Part I
Here author presents the main thesis of this book and what each of its two parts is discussing:
- Major paradigm shifts that involve diminishment of humanity’s self-image, and which have therefore been resisted with particular vigor, for example, heliocentric astronomy, the notion that human beings have been especially “well designed,” and so forth.
- Reassessments of certain previously held notions that deal with specific aspects of “human nature,” many of them still alive in the public mind; for example, altruism cannot be explained by evolution and must therefore be a gift from god, and people are naturally monogamous. Here, my intent is less to argue against human centrality per se than to take issue with an array of preexisting beliefs that have themselves been privileged at least partly because they place human beings in a flattering but misleading light.
In each chapter author is trying to present exiting paradigm, demonstrate why it is wrong and present the new one.
- The journey to Brobdingnag
Here author refer to Gulliver to characterize humanity’s descend from being the center of universe into being as everything else.
Old paradigm: Human beings are fundamentally important to the cosmos.
New paradigm: We aren’t.
- From centrality to periphery
Here author discusses anthropocentrism and modocentrism (central position of modern time), and all pain and suffering that caused people new understanding that none and nobody is especially unique. The paradigm change is:
Old paradigm: We are literally central to the universe, not only astronomically but in other ways, too.
New paradigm: We occupy a very small and peripheral place in a not terribly consequential galaxy, tucked away in just one insignificant corner of an unimaginably large universe.
- The meaning of life
This is about humanity as an exceptional species that can neglect procreation in pursuit of something else that they consider more important – meaning of life. At the first glance it does not make since since death ends life so nothing really matter, but humans come up with religion which virtually extend life into infinity. Author presents attitude of multiple famous thinkers to this issue, only to end with:
Old paradigm: Each human life has its own inherent meaning; it is up to every person to discover it.
New paradigm: No one’s life is automatically endowed with any meaning, simply by virtue of his or her existence; it is up to individuals who seek meaning to define and establish it by how they live.
- Well designed?
Here author provides critic of popular misconception that humans and overall our universe is well designed. Any more or less serious look at human body would demonstrate beyond any doubt that is not designed at all, but rather represent natural movement from one feature to another sometimes improving, but sometimes having deleterious effect. Author concludes:
Old paradigm: The human body is a wonderfully well-constructed thing, testimony to the wisdom of an intelligent designer.
New paradigm: Although there is much in our anatomy and physiology to admire, we are in fact jerry-rigged and imperfect, testimony to the limitations of a process that is nothing but natural and that in no way reflects supernatural wisdom or benevolence.
- The anthropic principle
This principle suggest that all physical constants of our universe so precise that any deviation, however small, would make human life impossible. Author discusses weak and strong forms of this circular argument and once again presents attitudes to this of a few famous scientists and philosophers. The result:
Old paradigm: The universe has been “fine-tuned” for life, especially human life.
New paradigm: There are many alternative explanations for this apparent fact, all of them based on a mechanistic rather than theistic conception of reality.
- Tardigrades, trisolarans, and the toughness of life
It starts with reference to Albert Schweitzer and his ideas of reference for life. Then author defines subject of this chapter that life itself is much more robust than individual life and could survive in practically inconceivable environments (extremophiles). This idea, as usual, brings us another paradigm change:
Old paradigm: Life is delicate; hence the fact that we are alive is testimony to our profound specialness.
New paradigm: Although individual lives are delicate, life in one form or another is remarkably robust; hence, aliveness isn’t in itself a statement of any living thing’s extraordinary importance.
7 Of humanzees and chimphumans
This is about cross-species experiments. Author refers to the first, unsuccessful ones done back in 1910. Now, with current understanding of DNA and life overall, it become much more possible, so author infers:
Old paradigm: Human beings, presumably because they have divine souls, should never be genetically combined with other animals, which don’t.
New paradigm (not really a paradigm so much as an impertinent suggestion): Creating a new and viable organism by combining human and nonhuman DNA might usefully open otherwise closed minds to the connectedness of human beings and other living things.
- Separateness of self?
This starts with debunking idea of homunculus, which author uses trying to claim that individuals are not really separate from worlds around them, but rather just a part of it. To support this thesis author uses not only science, but also lots of poetry. The paradigm change:
Old paradigm: Everyone is separate and distinct, an army of one.
New paradigm: Not so! The boundaries between individuals are arbitrary, artificial, and for the most part illusory. Our states are united.
Part ll: New Ways of Understanding Human Nature
Prelude to Part II
Here author moves to more detailed review of human nature as it developed under evolutionary pressures. Author concentrates on panhuman features that are common across variety of human cultures. He also discusses science as methodology opposite to religion and professes his intention to go wherever fact and experiments, would lead, even if this would hurt someone’s believe in human exceptionalism.
- Uniquely thoughtful
It starts with kind of catalogue of everything conceivable that humans are and do, but animals do not. Then he proceeds to demonstrate that actually just about everything of this could be found in animals and their behavior, albeit not to the same extent as in humans. Finally author discusses a few well known examples that demonstrate human irrationality and concludes that paradigm is changing:
Old paradigm: Nonhuman animals are unreasoning automatons; people, by contrast, are notable for even defined by their use of reason. Moreover, our species is unique in possessing an internal mental life.
New paradigm: Human beings have not cornered the market on complex cognition and an array of complex mental capacities; moreover, we are often downright irrational, and not merely when in the temporary “throes of passion” but also as part of our complicated human nature.
- Conflict between parents and offspring
Here author reviews conflict for resources between parents and children and between siblings. He starts with birds and other animals and then moves to humans. In all cases it is conflict between need to stay alive for individual and need to pass one’s genes to the next generation. The conclusion is:
Old paradigm: Parents and offspring are united in their interests, albeit sometimes at odds for other reasons.
New paradigm: Parents and offspring have genuine, predictable, biologically mediated areas of conflict.
- True or false?
This is about animal communication and the latest research that demonstrated its complexity, including ability to cheat. Author discusses communication vs. manipulation; males of many species tendency to present themselves as quality partners, and specifically human propensity to tell lies 6 to 8 times a day. The conclusion:
Old paradigm: Communication is assumed to be honest, providing mostly truthful information.
New paradigm: It is at least as likely to be dishonest, or in any event, an effort by the sender to manipulate the receiver for the sender’s benefit.
- The myth of monogamy
This is about evolutionary reasons for monogamy, but there is also multiple evidence of human inclination to polygamy. The logic in both cases is the same – attempts to make male to support family and select the most effective male to pass his genes to the next generation, with the former being a bit more supportive for getting male support and second for getting high quality male who is able to protect his harem, depriving competitors of opportunity to pass their genes.
Old paradigm: People are naturally monogamous, if only they find their ideal life partner.
New paradigm: Men are naturally polygynous, interested in multiple female partners, and women are naturally polyandrous. But both sexes are essentially free to be whatever they choose, particularly if they free themselves from the straitjacket that is the myth of monogamy.
- War and peace
Here author rejects the idea that humans predisposed for war. He recites multiple sources from literature to anthropology that kind of indicate existence of such predisposition, but then critics methodology of research. He also stresses that archeological research demonstrate that only with agriculture human groups become violent against each other, hunter-gatherers were much more peaceful. Author also makes sure that he separates group conflict (war) from individual violence, which is much more common in all periods of history. The conclusion:
Old paradigms: (1) Human beings are irrevocably stamped with a biological predisposition to wage war, so we had best get used to it and plan accordingly, or (2) We are inherently benign, benevolent, and peaceful.
New paradigm: We are not biologically doomed to war, although we are inclined to be interpersonally violent on occasion; the war/peace future is in our hands, and isn’t written in our genes.
- About those better angels
This chapter is about people helping each other. It discusses evolutionary reasons: reciprocity, kin selection, and cooperative breeding. The change author defines:
Old paradigm: The human penchant for altruism, beneficence, caring for others, and moral sensibility could not have evolved via a brute mechanical process of natural selection; hence, it is evidence for god.
New paradigm: There are many plausible biological explanations for these traits, which are not uniquely human, and which do not require—or even suggest—divine intervention.
- Who’s in charge?
This is discussion of free will. Author refer to multitude of living non-human DNA mixed with human DNA in every human body, which selfish genes are trying replicate by impacting functions of this body, sometime benignly, but sometimes lethally. This is not unique to humans and author provides some interesting examples of this. However the general conclusion is:
Old paradigm: Aside from obvious constraints, each of us is in control of his or her life, if not an “army of one,” at least the chief operating officer of our own central intelligence agency.
New paradigm: Everyone is shot through with a diverse array of other organisms as well as other entities, each exercising influence on the levers of “control,” such that either no one is in control or everyone is . . . whatever that means!
- The paradox of power
Here author restates the key message of this book: anthrodiminution, recognition of human non-uniqueness and then moves to lament non-trivial and unique impact of humans of everything around. He then discusses biological vs. cultural evolution and sometime dangerous tensions between them, such as biologically beneficial craving of hunter-gatherers for fat combined with abundance of fat for humans in our age leads to very fat humans with very negative effects for their health. Nevertheless author clearly supports contemporary culture of industrial society and understands that its benefits overweight negatives by far:
Old paradigm: By virtue of our uniquely human cultural and technological achievements, we have raised ourselves above mere animals and even above natural limitations.
New paradigm: We are the products of biological and cultural evolution, a combination that has endowed us with extraordinary power; at the same time, however, these two processes are often out of synch, a disparity that confronts us with extraordinary difficulties as well as challenges.
Conclusion: Optdare aude
The conclusion is a bit of pontificating on awfulness of Donald Trump, loss of paradigms that put humans in the center of everything, sad fate of Don Quixote who was brought back to reality by a cruel Carrasco, and finally hope that all this would eventually lead to the better place.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I find it quite funny how many a product of contemporary academia manage simultaneously write tracts diminishing humanity overall, while kind of aggrandizing themselves. It is also funny how they consider their duty to say something bad about the Donald. Other then these funny things, it is a nice catalogue of old ideas that nobody seriously consider operational any more. Obviously humanity is not in the center of everything, so what? It still has lots of knowledge and power to do what it had been doing for the last few hundred thousands years – change environment to fit its own needs. Actually humanity is not unique in this either: every ant and every bird do it by building anthill or a nest. It is just that human capability are much higher, especially cognitive abilities, resulting in the new environment where humans’ concerns include ants, birds, and a lot more that makes it better for humans, even if it is quite different from original environment.