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Where Did Man Go Wrong, Revised  

Martin LeFevre:  Where did man go wrong? The question sounds almost as anachronistic as asking about original sin. It’s a right question though, even essential toward understanding what the hell is going on in the world.

Why? Because core insights into the causes of why man is destroying the earth and humanity may make the remedy clear. Indeed, to my mind insight is the remedy.

Of course, there are still a lot of progressives who maintain that humankind is progressing because science and technology are. Material progress is the best kind of denial because at one level it’s true.

Clearly, human nature hasn’t changed in the hundred thousand years or more since modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged (one ‘wise man’ is a misnomer, two in the nomenclature is a delusion).

Given that’s true, isn’t it misleading to ask where man went wrong, since it puts the emphasis on something going wrong at some point rather than how humankind is going wrong now? No, because the wrong turn is still being made, and is in reality cumulative.

But doesn’t this line of thinking sound a lot like the Christian creation myth of ‘original sin?’ Not really.

To our modern ears, mistakes and sins mean something entirely different. But it’s interesting to note that the root meaning of the word ‘sin’ is to “miss the mark, miss the target.” That’s synonymous with mistake as we generally use the word. And it carries none of the hell and brimstone baggage, or even the connotation of judgment.

So if ‘sin’ means to miss the mark, however widely (and murdering people, or perpetrating a genocide on a captive people, miss the mark about as widely as humans can), what is the mark? And why does humankind keep missing it?

Despite the attempt in the last 30 years by philosophers and scientists to blend man with nature, humans are the only creatures on the planet that consciously make separations from nature, and in doing so are fragmenting the earth all to hell.

Whether another creature would if it had the abilities we do only begs the question. How did nature evolve a species that operates at odds with nature itself?

Leaving aside the ‘man was made in the image of God’ nonsense, it’s incontrovertible that humans evolved along the same lines and through the same processes as all other creatures on earth. So was the wrong turn originally made by evolution itself? In a sense, yes.

The essence of symbolic thought is the ability to intentionally remove ‘things’ from the environment and mentally and physically modify them for our use. So in a sense, man didn’t go wrong, evolution did, since evolution gave humans this peerless ability without endowing us with the wisdom to use it correctly.

‘Original sin’ has nothing to do with a fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, and everything to do with the evolution of conscious cognitive abilities and the mistakenness of their misuse. Division, fragmentation, conflict and suffering have their roots in the evolution of ‘higher thought.’

Even so, human beings have to put our own development on the right track, without resorting to stupidities like gene modification or merging with our machines. That may be part of the cosmic plan for potentially intelligent species like Homo sapiens. Not by some separate deity, but rather by the intrinsic intelligence of the universe itself.

Conscious thought is an adaptation of immense power, making possible technology, science and culture (including the now useless and destructive mental artifacts of belief, ritual and tradition). But the evolution of thought carries with it the overwhelming tendency to live in the realm of our own separations, not only physically in cities without contact with nature, but also psychologically without self-knowing.

Most evidently at present, the evolution of symbolic thought has given rise to tribalistically identifying with particular groups willing to slaughter babies, or commit mass murder in the name of self-defense. Man is the story of unending conflict and suffering, and Homo sap is as barbaric as he has ever been.

So is it that in the evolution of complex cognition, the runaway fragmentation of the earth and war upon each other that we are seeing today was inevitable?  Without radical change in so-called human nature, yes.

Doesn’t that make it even more unlikely that humans can radically change so that humankind lives in harmony with the earth and each other? It makes it clearer and more urgent, whether a psychological revolution ignites now, or after the rubble of another world war has been cleared.

Physical separation of reified things in nature is necessary; indeed, it’s the sine qua non of the human adaptive pattern. But conscious separation is merely a useful trick of symbolic thought. And psychological separation, which is the extension of thought into a dimension where it doesn’t belong, perpetually misses the mark. That’s the original and ongoing sin/mistake.

Without psychological separation there is no ‘me,’ no feeling of separation, from which alienation, conflict and suffering flow. So can there be utilitarian cognitive separation without the pernicious and vicious psychological separation we are so painfully experiencing today?

That is the great question life is putting, with growing urgency, to the human species. Is only man-made darkness operating in this world? Is our age irredeemable? The questions stand.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.