Three Questions for Humanity

The foremost question, the rhetorical one that we will never, never be able to answer:

What have we done?

The second question is more prosaic:

How did we get here?

Which, of course, leads to the third and lesser question:

What is going to become of us?

john Gowdy, an emeritus professor from RPI, honors the world of academic retirement with his 2021 book “Ultrasocial: The Evolution of Human Nature and the Quest for a Sustainable Future,” which provides a thrilling, brilliantly conceived and accessible answer to the second question, “How did we get here?” The “here” we got to, of course, is the on-going and progressive destruction of the natural world and human possibility.

Wasn’t there supposed to be a better destiny than this primacy of doomscrolling? Didn’t the scripted hi-jinks of the marooned boaters on Gilligan;s Island presage a happy, clappy adulthood for the suburban youth viewership? Aren’t we US and A humans endowed with the inviolable right to the”pursuit of happiness”?

No, argues Gowdy, this propaganda belies the true biophysical history of humanity:

Humans, ants, and termites all made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, a major evolutionary transition that radically changed the evolutionary trajectory of these organisms. The adoption of agriculture led each of these ultrasocial animals to dominate the earth’s ecosystems. With ultrasociality also came a degree of subjugation of individuals to meet the requirements of food production, not seen in other evolutionary lines. Domination of ecosystems and the subjugation of individuals for the benefit of the group superorganism are key characteristics of ultrasocial species.

John Gowdy, Ultrasocial: the Evolution of Human Nature and the Quest for Sustainable Future, (2021), pg. 25.

This 2022 now. We know more about the effects of the fossil fuels that go into the operation of most every facet of most every human life, yet there is not the slightest surcease in our ant-like work to employ these fossil fuels in service of our determined needs. The exhaust from our cars and our sacrifice zone factories does not magically acquire cleanliness because we choose to assign “goodness” to our cognitively impressive selves. Every mile driven, every plastic constituent element of our purchased products, every morsel of food trucked into our big box supermarkets, exemplifies the truth that humanity cannot regulate its own processes.

The villain in this drama of extinction is, in one word, agriculture:

The population size of all living organisms is limited by the available food supply. This makes agriculture a uniquely powerful evolutionary force. Once a group acquires the ability to produce its own food it is no longer dependent on the direct flows of food from nature. It can augment those flows by actively redirecting solar energy from wild plants to crop production and actively managing the inputs needed to produce the food it consumes. This sets in motion an efficiency-in-production arms race among competing agricultural groups. Economic drivers kick in and successful agricultural groups take advantage of their greater complexity, greater division of labor, and larger size, all of which drive the expansion of the new economic system.

John Gowdy, Ultrasocial, (2021), pg. 37.

Gatherers/hunterers we should have stayed, as we did for almost all of human history, but, as with our ant and termite confreres, natural selection turned us from beneficent eco-balanced non-threatening types into “large-scale highly stratified agricultural theocracies where work was harder, more regimented and more repetitious, and requiring less of the creative and executive capabilities of the human brain.” Yeah, fuck those farmers and what they’ve produced in this disgusting spectacle of the we and us of today , amirite people?

There have been a spate of recent revisionist histories of humanity that seek to portray, as does Gowdy, the earlier and temporally dominant version of humanity, those berries-and-big-game nomads, as the acme of all human potentiality. Gowdy, like Christopher Ryan, John Zerzan, David Graeber and David Wengrow, James Scott, Rutger Bregman, et al, wants us to return those halcyon days of yore – or more precisely, beyond yore, way beyond, to when humanity didn’t have a choice of streaming plans.

Before we decide to chuck it all and get fitted for a loincloth and get ready to dig some grubs for brunch, we can realize the insanity of this approach.

We cannot change overnight but we can start down a new evolutionary path compatible with basic human needs and our place in nature.

John Gowdy, Ultrasocial, pg. 15.

Are you shitting me, professor? How can you go from such insightful, deeply-researched development of the magnificent thesis that we humans are as ants and termites, to this data-free, completely non-scientific balderdash of a shape-shifting species rejecting all that it has become and all that it has, to collectively unspeciate by hitting the instant hunter-gatherer button on our destiny?

Let’s test this absurd hypothesis of transcendent recalibration of human social organization and try it out on the ant community. There’s a video of an ant colony bearing a dead frog to their abode – try shouting at them to stop. “Hey ants! Put down that frog! You are not going to survive doing this kind of unthinking extraction and production!”

See the lack of effect? The ants are programmed to self-organize into destructive, bases-wrecking armies, and they don’t hear your words. They could not change even if you had some magic ant language to get them to realize the inevitable folly of their ways. That is the same with all of us – we know what a car runs on, and it is not marshmallows. We know that the screens we type on are powered by CO2 delivery systems. We know that the food we have eaten was produced by murder of defenseless animals. We know that the politicians we love to blame are just as helpless to stop the supersystem’s drive to destruction as we are. We know how many people are victims of the condemnations of poverty and war. We may not know how long this totality continues, but we know how it ends, and we pretty much know how it is going to go from now on.

We should do what we can to keep climate change as manageable as possible.

John Gowdy, Ultrasocial, pg. 213.

Might as well ask the ants what “we” can do in that “manageability” department of anything as grandiose as climate change . We have become ultrasocial, and that is all to the bad. Entropy gets its last word. On the other hand, 2022 is going to be amazing – three of the same number, for the last time in human history!

5 Comments

  1. I’ve been struggling how to think of this. No problem with someone who sees clearly one thing but is completely skewed with respect to another. That’s pretty much all of us. The comparison of humans with ants and termites as ultrasocial agricultural species requiring rigid labor hierarchies is a new one idea for me. My suspicion is that if I knew more about evolutionary biology, exceptions and hybrids would leap to mind.

    Where I really stumble, however, is the deployment of a just-so story that traps humans within biology, deep culture, or genetic programming in such a way that robs everyone of autonomy, agency, and even consciousness. While the macrofutilism of our shared fate is plain enough, I nonetheless chafe at the idea that humans never had any choice but to enact a world-destroying perpetual growth paradigm because, say, we’re agriculturists. There were (formerly) lots of exits off the self-constructed highway to hell, none taken. I still want to aim the bony finger of blame at incompetent, corrupt leadership willing to sell out the future repeatedly for some temporary lucre.

  2. Hopium has been a cultural meme for eons, but that does not mean it has to go unchallenged, and it has been heartening to see its blindnesses being revealed in places like r/collapse and who knows where else among the younger set. I excuse no one in any religion, especially the professoriate, for not examining their own words.
    Gowdy is painstaking in putting forth his argument about the common ultrasociality of these three species. This trio is no trifling matter – as Gowdy writes, “ants and termites make up over 50% of the world’s insect biomass, and humans and their farm animals make up over 95% of terrestrial vertebrate humans.” These are stunning numbers, and represent “victories” of conquest that have to be reckoned with, accounted for, with more than the “just-so” stories that you rightly deride. To me, Gowdy does so with absolute command, though there a lot of ant-haters out there.
    Are we willing to indict the ant and termite leadership for their “corruption” of their societies? I think ultrasociality is a much more likely explanation for the root cause of our common predicaments, what keeps us humans locked into this living/ working/driving/ watching social reality.
    If agency, autonomy, and consciousness are such valued elements of our lives, why are the idiots, psychopaths, malingerers, fiendishly corrupt poltroons so ascendant in positions of institutional power?
    If you can find a way to eliminate them, I’ll march in line with all the other ants right behind you, but I don’t see it.

  3. I’m with you right up until the explicit demand in the final sentence that I solve the problem of pathological power. Suspect you’re merely being glib.

    I wonder if Gowdy cites E.O. Wilson (an entomologist), the latter having coined the term “eusociality” to describe/explain human success racing past all other species for total world dominance. Mention of biomass changes over time also put me in mind of Vaclav Smil, whose book Harvesting the Biosphere I reviewed six years ago at my blog. Lots of interlocking pieces to the puzzle of understanding ourselves and our impacts on the planet. Can’t say I’ve been comprehensive in gathering them up; simply too much out there. But like you, I’ve paid attention and find the big picture and end trajectory are pretty clear, convincing, and inevitable by now. Where we differ, perhaps, is assessing whether it had to be this way despite numerous Cassandras through the decades (as far back as the 18th century if I understand correctly) stuffed down the memory hole and purposely ignored. Fateful decisions were made, and I hold the decision-makers accountable.

  4. Yes, Gowdy does cite E.O. Wilson extensively in his book, along with the “eusociality” term. Smil might be in the book, too, though I don’t read with the purpose of having total recall, but for the larger purpose of, as you said, of “understanding ourselves and the impact on the planet.” There is so much fog and fury to move through to get to some solid ground, which I think Gowdy has provided for me and the world, but the readership and recognition for the book seems to be a unread blog level.
    I am sure we differ on some points large and small. There’s a planet-load of fellow humans I want to hold “accountable,” but I don’t seem to have the right equipment to do so. I habitually make no explicit demands upon anyone, except unintentionally out of whatever material glibness is made out of, which I probably received an over-supply of somewhere along the line.

  5. Without having read either author’s relevant books (I’ve read other E.O. Wilson tomes), it appears Gowdy is borrowing Wilson’s thesis wholesale, much like how people build on and repurpose Karl Marx in ways both good and bad. Can’t judge if the main thrust of either author is to excuse humanity, though your blog post suggested that to me.

    The primary example of holding a decision-maker accountable, at least for me, is Allan Savory, who in his hubris participated in a decision to destroy 40,000 elephants based on a misunderstanding of their effect as a keystone species on the savannas and grasslands of Africa. What authority did he have for such an action? It’s flatly unforgivable, but he has sorta been rehabilitated after that “oopsie daisy.” Similarly, lots of discussion these days about how the outgoing NYC mayor has almost single-handedly destroyed the city in a boneheaded response to the Covid pandemic, part of a larger mass formation psychosis that has not yet dissipated. Then there are all the war criminals and profiteers. The list goes on and on. Who possesses the authority to bring any of them to justice? Not the World Court, not any of our internal checks on abuse of power, not anyone so far as I can see. Fail, fail, fail, and fail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s