The human tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan reveals man at his most primal. There is this throwback to the primordial past that periodically unveils itself. Digging a little deeper tells us why.
Being conscious, or having a conscience, is a prerequisite for individuals to be morally responsible for their actions. And so, to be conscious of one’s wrongdoings but nonetheless carry them out is criminal. The abandonment of the Afghan people might be viewed this way.
Likewise, the Taliban—Afghanistan’s ruthless fundamentalist Islamic group—that long-abandoned their moral obligations to human rights, especially the human rights of women.
But my interest here is not the intricacies of foreign policy failure nor the brutalities of misguided fundamentalists that cut across moral and ethical boundaries, leaving them in tatters. My interest is the human aspect of how we periodically arrive at these flashpoints of brutality and betrayal in the process of saving the planet and its people from ourselves.
Put another way, in addition to saving our flora and fauna and the ecosystems that support life on Earth, we ought to save humans as well, especially the impoverished and persecuted. Surely we can do both!
Survival of the fittest
It is, quite literally, as Darwin reasoned, the survival of the fittest. Mindful that Darwin’s associates, Herbert Spencer and Alfred Russel Wallace, supposedly persuaded Darwin to substitute his term of “natural selection” (neutral) with the term “survival of the fittest” (aggressive).
The latter, perhaps, to more manifestly justify the dark side of human behaviour: the struggle for survival in the “state of nature” was one of savagery, as described by philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes.
Mindful that contemporary laws of the state are not necessarily moral or equitable, or even practical. The impoverished and oppressed bear witness to this.
But what about the “walking, talking, and thinking human animal” that inculcates them and carries them out? What does pre-history tell us?
What exactly are we? A very brief history of pre-history
The human species descends from the primate order, which emerged some 56 million years ago. From what is currently known, the first true primate genus was Teilhardina. Teilhardina was the antecedent of all primates, including our species, Homo sapiens. It was a small creature weighing 44 to 56 grams, about the size of a mouse lemur.
Mouse lemurs are prosimian primates—of the primitive suborder Prosimii— and, as improbable as it might seem, represent the approximate genetic halfway mark between mice and the first humans.
Mouse lemurs are only found on the island of Madagascar, where they number in the millions. The pygmy mouse lemur is the smallest primate, growing to about 6.5 centimetres long, excluding its tail which is about twice that.
Notwithstanding such modest beginnings, about 350,000 to 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (wise man) brushed off the remnants of an apelike past to emerge from the African continent an upright-walking, highly mobile, ground-dweller. The rest is history.
From a philosophical perspective
From a philosophical perspective, however, the question of “what exactly are we” is acutely more complex. As contemporary philosopher and feminist theoretician Rosi Braidotti wrote in the foreword to Francesca Ferrando’s Philosophical Posthumanism (2019):
“The critique of species supremacy—the violent rule of Anthropos over this planet—opens another line of criticism of the parameters that define the human itself. ‘Man’ is called to task as the representative of a hierarchical and violent species whose greed and rapacity are enhanced by a combination of scientific advances and global domination.”
But, as we have come to know, “Man” is not always called to task for his greed and rapacity, nor his violence.
And in an age of manic consumerism, privatisation, and self-regulation, greed and rapacity are justified, and even encouraged, by the very system that inspired to create it. A system that has fostered the two greatest existential threats to humankind: the climate crisis and the nuclear peril.
The first is a case of collective ignorance of the consequences of altering the chemical composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The second is the culmination of the deep-rooted tribal warfare that has characterised human history and pre-history. Afghanistan is an archetypal case in point.
We might furthermore define Man’s hierarchy in the context of human relations that has evolved in an environment of dominance and submission: the persecution and oppression of the weak and the adoration and praise of the strong and powerful.
But if we try to explain the nature of Man’s hierarchy, how do we do this in terms of human suffering and slavery, the systematic destruction of the natural world, or the next world war that is likely to be fought over a fundamental resource like water?
Or even justify Man’s hierarchy in terms of a judicial system that pardons convicted criminals and hands down penalties to others that are far too severe for the crime they committed.
Thus, humanism—humans acting rationally and ethically with agency— devolves into anthropocentrism and is eventually devoured by it as the distance between those at the top of Man’s hierarchy and those at the bottom widens.
On this, we can reasonably pose the question: are those at the bottom still part of Man’s hierarchy? Are they still human in the sense of what constitutes a “civil society”? At least in the context of Locke’s life in a “state of nature”? In the context of females under Taliban rule, for instance?
Sadly, it seems, the inevitable conclusion to Locke’s conception of man’s evolution from a state of nature to a state of civil society—from savagery to civility and finally, to planet Earth’s ultimate nemesis—is the exploitation of people and their lands.
Which prompts the question as to what truly epitomises a civilised society. We might, for instance, conceptualise it as the antithesis of what the Afghan people are experiencing right now.
Placing things in context
The distinguished Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung wrote: “Every civilised being, however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper level of his psyche.”
To give this some context, according to a comprehensive study by evolutionary biologist José Maria Gómez and colleagues in 2016, humans are six times more likely to kill one another than the average mammal—similar to early humans and our evolutionary primate and ape ancestors.
As a point of interest, the mammal most likely to kill its own is the endearing meerkat, with almost one in five, usually youngsters, succumbing to a fatal attack by an adult.
But although lethal violence is widespread in human populations, it is infrequent and variable. And has moderated in recent times relative to our prehistoric past as a consequence of modern social structures.
Although it has taken a robust measure of law enforcement to reach our current state of civility and temper aggression that occasionally boils over.
Nonetheless, the prospect of war—organised violence as defined today— on both a small and large scale seems to hang in the balance and remain a constant throughout human existence.
One’s existence as a problem to solve
In his 2020 book Fossil Men, Journalist Kermit Pattison summed up our existence this way: “Humans are an egocentric species—the only animal that views its own existence as a problem to solve”.
And in the savage state of the Taliban, to justify their existence and feed their ego, they need an enemy to fight (the US and its Western allies) and peoples to oppress (the Afghan people). Otherwise, they simply fade into history.
Thus, the fundamental paradox of what the modern human ought to be opposed to what humans have always been—of an animalistic nature. Always threatening to override his moral integrity and devolve into a fit of sheer brutality. Imperialism to domestic violence and religious fundamentalism personifies this.
The way the world ought to be
All that said, there is another side to this story.
Throughout the brutality of the war in Afghanistan, a very determined and resourceful Afghan woman, Farkhunda Ateel, managed to transform a war-torn landscape into a lush green oasis.
Farkhunda worked tirelessly in her home province of Badakhshan against deforestation and habitat loss—as a consequence of successive long-running wars—successfully restoring and nurturing her community’s ecosystems.
In 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Equator Prize on behalf of the Rural Green Environment Organization (RGEO). An amazing achievement under a corrupt regime and against a backdrop of violence.
So, despite those who would create a world in the image of a misunderstood manifest, there endures this innate urge to preserve our world as it ought to be.
As the renowned essayist, literary critic, and philosopher William Hazlitt declared: “Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science. He has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design, teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the UDIA (Urban Development Institute of Australia) and author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.