I woke up very early in the morning this Christmas day. I could not go back to sleep with all that was going through my mind. I got up and wrote this post. This story may be brilliant. It may be insane. It is a little longer than normal, but if you read it, read it all, and if you have time, leave a note, so I can know how to better sort out the deranged from the divine.
The End of Human Supremacy: A Christmas Story
“Do not have your mind on the old way of things;
Do not keep your thoughts on things of the past.
Look! I am going to do something new;
It is going to burst out suddenly!
Are you going to be aware of it?
– Isaiah 43:19-20 (my translation)
Three or four thousand generations ago, our little branch of the broader human family was just starting to make itself distinct from a whole pot full of human diversity. Exotic sounding relatives with names like Homo rhodesiensis were walking about close to our homelands, along with various descendants of various kinds of Homo erectus. There were probably hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of these Homo erectus relatives around, stretching across Asia and perhaps still into Africa.
By about two thousand generations ago, our sapiens ancestors exploded onto the scene. We were a major force to be reckoned with, stretching perhaps all the way from Africa to Australia. By then it was pretty clear that our erectus cousins, while holding their own in Asia for thousands of years, just didn’t have the intelligence, creativity, and skill to compete over the long haul. But for tens of thousands of years, the at least occasionally brutal competition must have put doubts in the minds of some of our ancestors. They were not ogres or trolls, but I bet they felt a lot like it when we were under threat. Were we really going to be able to survive in these lands? Would we learn how to live, to thrive, and to not constantly have to fear the dangers of a bunch of erectus tribes attacking us when the food runs low?
But then there were Homo neanderthalensis. Bigger brains, although not compared to body size. Stronger, if stockier. And able to hold their own in their own homelands. They were so close to us; so very close. Perhaps, for some of us, we may have ancestors from this lost branch of humanity.Given a few thousand more generations and they may have crossed that thin line in the prefrontal cortex and gained cognition as great or greater than ours.
They were real contenders for Human Supremacy. In spite of living on the borders of neanderthalensis territory for tens of thousands of years, our sapiens ancestors might have made it to Australia before they successfully encroached all the way into the heart of neanderthalensis territory. Regardless, it might have taken hundreds of generations before our sapien branch of humanity decisively achieved supremacy over neanderthalensis.
I can only imagine how this direct competition with other species, that looked so much like us, must have affected our view of the world. Did we always believe, with great certainty, that the gods, or spirits, or a greater Divinity, had guaranteed our victory? Did we pray for the extermination of our competitors, and run wild in blood rage to wipe out the strange, ogre-like demons? What did they pray for? Or did they pray at all? Was there ever a time when both sides prayed for peace, asking for unity, life, and sharing?
If we had such prayers, they failed in the end. By five hundred generations ago, not only was our species without direct competition, we even had either incorporated or extinguished (intentionally or otherwise) any last remains of neanderthalensis, denisovans, florensis, and other flickering wisps of cousin species in our genus. For the first time, humanity stretched from the tip of South America to the Arctic circle. And for the first time in our history, we were alone. It was only us. As the generations rolled on, the idea of another kind of humanity, striving for supremacy, became only an idea rooted in mythology. We were human, and we were Supreme.
We might still fear the lion at night, and the snake during the day. But we knew we could hunt down and kill the lions, and crush the head of the snake. They might kill some of us, but they would never kill all of us. The spirit of the Tiger or the Leopard was revered and feared– but in the end we would wear their skins on our backs and their teeth around our necks.
Microorganisms, however, could rightly have given us pause. A plague of some type of bacteria or virus could wipe out entire people groups. Well after the advent of agriculture, entire nations and dynasties could crumble under these invisible threats. The fear of these unknown tiny living things, who, in their own, way, were struggling to survive and thrive, deeply embedded itself into our theology. The judgment of God was never more feared by many people than when terrible, boil-infested death raged through every home and family.
We are still wiping out the remains of some of the most terrible diseases. Yet there is only a miniscule threat of existential crisis caused by natural infection. The Ebola and HIV and malaria and tuberculosis epidemics are terrible, and take away children from parents. Yet from a broader point of view, they do not even reverse population growth in their hardest-hit areas. They are more like the tigers in the dark– feared and respected, but in the end we know that we will survive and many of them will not.
Our ancestors deserve our admiration. They drove back the shadows of fear, gave life to their children, and made a way for us and our families to live and flourish. They gave us the security of being free from oppression by any other species. Billions have lived and died for this goal that is now within our reach.
Yet in the last three generations we have begun to approach another inflection point of supremacy– the ability to entirely sterilize biological life from our planet. We already, at the height of the Cold War, (arguably) had the ability to use atomic weapons to vaporize a large quantity of life, and create atmospheric effects that could lead to the extinction of large portions of medium-sized vertebrate life. Our family of life, like no other group of living things, has had the ability to intentionally create a mass extinction event not seen for hundreds of millions of years.
What was once a yearning for survival and success thousands of generations ago has become an increasingly inescapable empirical reality. In the Hebrew account of creation, God speaks, to “make humanity in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the big mammals on the ground and over everything that crawls over the surface of the earth.” If ability to control and destroy are equal to rule, then we are very close to making this scripture come true. Humanity has overwhelming supremacy over other life on this planet, and that influence is only growing.
I could stop there, and that would be interesting enough. But if we can learn something from trying to glimpse five thousand generations in the past, we can also learn something from trying to peer five thousand generations in the future.
In one sense human supremacy has been our ancestors’ greatest success. We have little outside fears now from other life on this planet. Yes, we can fear asteroids and cosmic rays, and I can talk about that some other time. But our existential fear is not of other life. We do not have to greatly fear tooth and claw. Instead, our only existential fear of life comes from our own species. From within ourselves.
It is far too easy already to build up nuclear arsenals and point them at each other. As the generations roll on, we may have world-destructive nanotechnology, or biotechnology, or radiation manipulation, or sun-core disruption, or a hundred different types of extinction-threatening ideas that I cannot even imagine. The point is that our idea of supremacy is reaching its tipping point.
Supremacy. Dominion. Many of our old ways of thinking based rule upon capacity for destruction. We destroyed all of our competitors in our broader genetic family. Now we want to destroy our enemies within our genetic family. But there is no “them” left anymore. There is only “us.” Supremacy as destruction within humanity can only mean self-destruction.
We keep trying to make a “them.” Racism splits down the species into sub-categories, some more worthy than other, some given supremacy over others. Taken far enough, and race supremacy leads to genocide– the ultimate of race supremacy as destruction. But the harsh reality is that it looks like human genetic lines are just about as smart, strong, creative, and loving as the other. Race lines are artificial lines for competition. Racism is a tragedy because when we carry out its logic to its end, we create ever smaller units of competition, until we end up pressing down or murdering some category that we have to identify with ourselves. So in the end, racism or other irrational discrimination causes us to oppress and destroy ourself.
In reality, supremacy as oppression or destruction was never a good paradigm, and we knew it. We knew that other species of life wanted to live and thrive. That we were meant to cherish and care for those living things. So many value systems and religions and teachings recognize that life has a sacred nature, something that should not be sliced down into its constituent parts without reason, and that death should not be dealt out without necessity and humility. We knew we did not have to destroy a whole branch of life entirely just because they threaten us. We were supposed to be Supreme in tending to life, not Supreme in our destructive power over it.
But now it is reaching a tipping point. It is not just about humanity throwing other species into the engine of its power. It is whether we are going to start throwing ourselves in with them. That is the irony of our great success. Because that is the ultimate end of supremacy as destruction– when all your enemies are gone, the only thing left to achieve supremacy over is yourself. Unless we change our view of supremacy, we will totally destroy ourselves.
And if we survive … I shake to think about that. That future is even darker. Technology, through many ways which are already being actively pursued by technology companies, may allow us to indefinitely prolong collective human consciousness as long as we have sufficient resources. With indefinite life, and without change in our way of thinking, the cycle of destructive consumption will continue with greater and greater intensity. If it is not stopped, we could become a deathless collective Ouroboros, a snake eternally consuming its own tail, incessantly gnawing at our own flesh and wondering why we have such suffering in our soul.
We have to turn the whole God damned paradigm around. And I mean those words as literally as possible. That self-consuming violence is a reflection of hell in the short term, and if carried out without ceasing would in fact be Hell in the long term– a self-created and infinitely progressively more dark, painful, and lonely cycle of destruction. I can’t imagine that an eternal and depthless God of love would want that for us or for any other living thing.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to turn away from such a damnable view of dominion. We can get back to another model for supremacy. One in which we are supreme in our capacity for service and love. Supreme in our ability to bring healing and restoration to all living things. Supreme in our humble recognition of our mortality, finitude, and dependence on the eternal and loving grace of God.
And here my Christmas story comes full circle, with a little baby king supreme in a manger. It is, in fact, a Christmas story, if a rather strange one! Not many Christmas stories involve Homo rhodesiensis and a technologically created Ouroboros! But the Christmas story is a story of God giving a ruler with the purpose of healing life and serving it. It is a story about a divine little homo sapiens who would grow up to claim supremacy over all live, not by destruction, but by giving up his own life for the redemption of others. So Christmas is the first chapter in a story about loving our enemies as ourselves.
It is a story we need now, more than ever. Like no other time for life on this planet, our other competitors are gone or disabled. So the only way to have an existential enemy is to make enemies out of ourselves. But this is also where redemption is possible! Since our only enemies remaining are of ourselves, by loving our enemies we love ourselves. In doing so we remove that ancient fear of destruction by others, and the more modern fear of destruction by ourselves. So, by the grace of God, we can be free from that existential fear! Without that fear, we are free to enjoy all the beauty and intricacy of life in its many forms, including our own, until our life is over, and we gratefully return to the eternal arms of the God that gave rise to us, and to all other living things.
It is a good dream, I think, even if we have an incredibly long way to go. Then again, who knows? We’ve already come a long way over these thousands of years. Maybe we’ll get there, too, some day.
Merry Christmas to you all, with love, and may there be peace on earth for all living things.