Friday, January 18, 2019

Reflections on being human

(Originally published on my Medium page)

We humans are a weird lot. All the other living species that we know of, subsist on, build on and die in their respective ecosystems in ways that seem absolutely ‘natural’. None of them make elaborate dwellings from materials that have undergone multiple levels of synthesis from their origins on this planet. None of them make food with multiple layers of complexity in taste, texture, aroma and nutrition. None of them wrap themselves in clothing; much less, in multi-shaped, multi-colour, multi-layered fabric derived from sources both artificial and natural blended together in what could best be described as marvels of modern manufacturing. None of them make energy beyond what their bodies produce. While we produce and consume way-way more energy than bodies strictly ‘need’ for its natural functions. All such things and more are manifestations of our humanness.

Now, many animals are territorial. They mark their territories. They do go to ‘war’ against others of their own species if they try to intrude. They go to war to expand their territories based on their need for food and sustenance of their clan. This, we have in common with the animal world. Wars. However, our wars are based more on our greed rather than our need. They are at times based on perceived moral high-grounds and moral low-grounds that our leaders choose to take up. Many animals are also extremely choosy about their mating partners. Many a war is fought just to establish the alpha identity on both sides of this divide. Ostensibly, an evolutionary trend that attempts to match the best pairs to produce the best offspring and thus the best chance to advance their clan. We humans have not lost this instinct either. But of course, over the years, we have built multiple super complex social structures in an attempt to codify this into a set of territorial rules: laws and morals and deterrents. Punishments, which fundamentally amount to banishment from this social structure into a super-restrictive and usually, a destructive one (despite their labels of being correctional).

We humans are weird because of this quirky combination where on one hand we crave to push the edge of creativity and consumption while still carrying within us some reflection of our primal animal instincts. The reason why we are what we are is because of our rather oversized spongy mound called the brain. It is designed/ has evolved to be able to make much better connections among disparate concepts based on what it learns using its senses than most other species. We also have the ability to build on past learnings by making connections among them. Most importantly, we have a sense of collective learning and are able to build upon it generation after generation. This is possible because humans have been able to preserve and pass pieces of this knowledge to other humans though speech, signs, symbols and gestures. We have even codified some of this transmission in a rather inefficient but arguably effective system called education.

It is argued that collectively, we have improved as a species. Heck, I’m recording my thoughts on a rectangular slab of carefully engineered layers of glass, silicon, lithium, plastic and metal. By swiping my fingers around. And my words are being transmitted in real time across multiple continents and oceans and being preserved as microscopic electric fields in some metal box with its own multi layer sandwich of materials, on the other side of the planet. Using energy that changes form many times from thermal to electrical to radio to light to electrical. All this, in a fraction of the time it takes to bat my eyelid! If this ain’t magic, what is? One of the many poignant manifestations of human progress.

Another simple metric that reflects this point is the average life expectancy, which has significantly improved over the recorded years.

However, one simple metric we have not adequately tracked and is unfortunately the one where we have failed as a species is sustainability. Closely linked to this metric is that of equity. It looks like what we have lost along our chosen path is the ability to think and act for the long term. It is amusing to think that our brains got the better of our thoughts on selfish self-preservation as a species by pitting us against thoughts of self gratification as individuals. Guess who’s been winning.

But this is where it gets even more interesting. The very fact that we as a species can reflect on ourselves and our actions is amazing. For instance, we know for sure now that our dependence on fossil fuels needs to end. There has been significant progress in harnessing alternate sources of energy. Evidently, such awakenings seem to happen only at the fringes of society. Most people are still comfortable in their ignorance and are gleefully oblivious of things much farther than the end of their noses. Hopefully awareness will percolate further. But will it spread fast enough and spur a collective correction of sorts in time?

It appears that we are now locked in a race against time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like reversing our technological advances to go back to a more primitive lifestyle is an option anymore. We are so firmly enmeshed in technology that it is bears some resemblance to the Matrix. So, we have no practical option but to bet on the same ingenuity to pull us out that we’d used to get ourselves into the mess in the first place. Bittersweet. The escape plan seems to be to keep moving forward. But faster, and with a keen awareness of the situation we’ve gotten into and we’re capable of deteriorating into.

Hope we can fix our future in time and preserve as much of the diverse and beautifully simpler life-forms around us. That would perhaps help our future generations to have a redemptive understanding of what being human is all about.

(I had begun writing this post about two weeks ago. It’s time now for some poignant reflection as I’m about to hit the publish button, after having spent a week surviving the #keralaFloods. Have resisted the urge to edit this post for now. More on this in a separate post, some time soon)

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