Jan 182011

Photo by DerrickT

I TEACH YOU THE [ÜBERMENSCH]. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

A peculiar thing about many religions the world over is the concept of an “End of Days,” or the establishment of a new era. In the Abrahamic religions this is expressed in the coming mashiach, God’s Anointed One who will establish a new reign of God’s principles. In Greek cosmology, it was said that Zeus would be replaced by a son, just as he replaced his father, and that this would usher in a new era of the world. In contemporary Hindu eschatology, it is said that corruption and deception would increase until a new age of existence is brought about by Brahma’s regeneration of the universe. And even the New Age movement, which I dislike as a whole, has in its very title the concept of a New Age about to overtake humanity, and even the entire cosmos.

Though not all religions proclaim such an event, the idea of a new era is prominent enough that you have probably come across it before (ever heard of the Left Behind series?). This idea has even cropped up outside of religion at times, though more focused on the idea of a new humanity, as that is a much more personal issue, and one that is slightly easier to ponder, than the concept of an entirely new universe.

It is this focus on a new humanity that I want to delve into.

Before we decide whether or not humanity is being outgrown, though, shouldn’t we understand what it means to be human?

What is “human”?

It is a pretty popular notion that emotions are what make us human, a notion that tends to fill people with “warm fuzzies.” While it is true that our emotions do drive many of our actions and even are the forces behind some amazingly self-transcending behaviors (like art and love), to claim that emotions specifically are what set us apart from the rest of existence is something I disagree with wholeheartedly.

Why? I’m so glad you asked.

The emotions have been shown time and time again to be intricately related to the functioning of the digestive system (the GI tract; the gut). All of those nerve endings throughout our torso affect every feeling you have. This is why when you’re in a particularly emotional state, the idea of chocolate or a bag of potato chips might sound a lot more tempting than it otherwise would. When your gut isn’t happy, you aren’t happy. When your gut is satisfied, you are satisfied. This is true of all animals, including humans.

However, humans have a much smaller gut in relation to their body size than other animals. Just looking at chimpanzees, our genetically closest relatives, will show that humans have a gut about sixty percent as large as what we’d expect for our size.

If the gut is so intensely tied to emotions, and emotions are what make us human, shouldn’t we have a larger digestive system than other animals? If all animals (and even plants) have feelings, then how can that be what sets us apart? What really makes us human?

What humans have that does set us apart is our enormous brain. Our brain is more than three times the size of that of chimpanzees, a size which has allowed things such as the acquisition of language, the development of technology, and cooking. It has given us the ability to reason and self-organize instead of being completely driven by our emotions and our need to feed our gut.

So reason (or logos?), not emotions, is what truly make us human.

What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the [Übermensch]: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

So should we do away with emotions? By no means. What it does mean is that emotions are to be guided by our ability to reason, instead of the other way around. Sadly, our emotions tend to still drive a great portion of our actions. From needless aggression to greed to lust, we see the rash effects of emotions being our controlling force. That is not to say that there are no positives to emotions (such as familial love, sexual desire, feeding ourselves), these impulses (even the good ones) have a tendency to destroy whatever progress we try to make in our lives if we allow them total control.

Animals no more

Man is a gateway . . . Small and transitory is man. Already he is behind you.

– C.G. Jung, The Red Book

Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the [Übermensch] — a rope over an abyss.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

For a long time I was skeptical of any philosopher or prophet who spoke of a new type of humanity. Even if I claimed belief in it, I never really understood how it could even be possible since most allusions to it were so vague; thus I never fully put my trust in such an idea.

That has recently changed. Ray Kurzweil, a futurist with an amazing track record, speaks of just such a change in humanity, calling it the “Singularity.” The Singularity is a time he sees in the near future when information technology has advanced to the point where humans can transcend their biological selves, and become indistinguishable from technology. As crazy as this sounds from the outset, Kurzweil provides good reasons for believing that such a change will take place, which you can read about across the web.

Now, the point of this post is not to promote the Singularity, but to address the idea that it addresses: that of a possible new humanity. Man has conquered the globe, and even ventured into space. We have explored the oceans, classified millions of organisms, cured impossible diseases, and provided a higher standard of living for more people than at every other time in the world combined (though we still have a long way to go). However, one frontier is yet to be mastered: man himself.

However, as C.S. Lewis speaks of in The Abolition of Man, in mastering man, we change what it means to be human.

[The Conditioners] are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean.

. . .

Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.

– C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

The idea of transcending humanity, of finally being able to overcome that part of us that still acts so like an animal, is an intriguing and tempting thought. This isn’t to do away with emotions and feelings, turning humans into robots, but to control our emotions completely and use them for the most benefit. But is it really possible? If it is, is it a goal worth striving towards?

Is there a new era dawning upon us? Is humanity being outgrown, is it truly something to be surpassed? Are we surpassing man?

If we are, should we?

C Luke Mula

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Google+

  10 Responses to “Are we outgrowing humanity?”

Comments (10)
  1. Perhaps this is what Peter is referring to when he says that we may become “partakers of the divine nature”, in 2 Peter 1:4.

    There is an old story of a clockmaker named Geppetto who longs for a son. Being unmarried he takes the wood that he uses for his clocks, and he fashions a marionette. On the night that he completes his work, he makes a wish on a star that this puppet might become a real boy. Later that night The Blue Fairy descends into his humble home with a magic wand. She touches Geppetto’s wooden creation and says, “Little puppet made of pine, awake! The gift of life is thine.” The puppet awakes to the world in that moment and asks The Blue Fairy if he is real. She replies, “If you are truthful, brave, and selfless then one day you will become a real boy.” We are all familiar with the tale of Pinocchio…who after long troubles and toils finally overcomes his wooden form and becomes a real boy of flesh and blood…

    Perhaps we are like Pinocchio…

    Perhaps we are destined to move from human, to more-than-human…

    Perhaps this is what the prophets have been trying to tell us all along…

    “Christ’s isolation is not that of a prodigy but of a pioneer. He is the first of His kind; He will not be the last.”
    -C.S. Lewis, Miracles

    “I love all who are like heavy drops falling one by one out of the
    dark cloud that lowereth over man: they herald the coming of the
    lightning, and succumb as heralds.

    Lo, I am a herald of the lightning, and a heavy drop out of the
    cloud: the lightning, however, is the Superman.”

    -Frederich Neitzche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

  2. “Perhaps this is what the prophets have been trying to tell us all along…”

    I’m of the opinion that the words of the prophets only make sense in retrospect, and that they, like dreamers trying to relate their own images and feelings, are not even sure what they are saying much of the time.

    So many biblical scholars think they understand exactly what Daniel and Ezekiel were talking about, when not even Daniel or Ezekiel offer an explanation for their images.

  3. I think what sets us apart as humans is our ability to trancend instinct (using our ability to reason and self organize). I wouldn’t say humanity is becoming obsolete, but is merely evolving to a further (possibly better) stage. A new era is most certainly dawning before us – if Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of our technological progression is correct that we are approximately at the “knee” of an exponential curve.

    In the past, we had to rely on our environment. In a sense, this is still true, but we’ve been able to manipulate the environment to suite our needs and desires, rather than merely react to it. Which is how biological evolution occurs – a necessary reaction to the environment in order to continue surviving (also depending, of course, on natural random mutation and competition). All life that previously evolved had to react to its environment until our arrival. What have we done since we evolved? We started creating tools to help us change our environment or better react to it. I think that biological evolution is becoming obsolete because it is much too slow.

    If we are at the aforementioned “knee” of the exponential curve of technology, we may, in our lifetimes, observe things that are currently unimaginable. Research is underway to seriously reduce or reverse bodily aging. There is also research in the specifics of our conciousness so that (possibly), if it can be preserved or stored, then bodily aging is moot.

    We are constantly surpassing our previous limitations. The question of “Should we change?” never really comes up in biological evolution. It just kind of happens. I think the same may apply to technological evolution (or at least in most cases). Biological evolution is a product of a species’ survivability. The evolution of technology, I think, is the same.

  4. To say that it’s not a matter of “should we” or “shouldn’t we” seems to contradict your point about our control over our environment. While it may be inevitable that we develop such technology, it is not inevitable how we utilize such technology.

  5. Also, your statement that you don’t think that humanity is becoming obsolete seems like a statement that apes didn’t become obsolete once we became human. “Evolving to a further stage” means moving to something new, even if it has a lot of the features of previous stages.

  6. A valid point. Never, before humans, has biological life had the ability to consider “should” or “shouldn’t.” We are the first see our ability to adapt and with this power does come a responsibility. So, indeed, we should consider the implications of our technology and our abilities. And perhaps instill limitations?

  7. There’s a difference between what we’re suggesting though. We are still biologically classified as apes. Considering this it seems like what you’re saying is like: because birds that can fly are evolved further than birds that can’t fly, birds are obsolete. You might be able to argue that flightless birds are obsolete (but even they have other specific evolutionary advantages). Similarly, apes with higher cognitive functions (humans) are evolved futher than apes without it (what I assume you originally meant by “apes” – gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans). And while we may become “more than human,” I don’t think that “what makes us human” will be lost.

  8. @Brandon

    It seems that you feel that whatever next stage(if indeed there be a “next stage”) we are headed towards must be some type of physical(biological, technological, etc…) stage.

    Even before Nietzsche, and since, many thinkers, philosophers, and prophets (Jung, Lewis, St. John, St. Peter, Laszlo, Grof, ect…)have proposed that that “next stage” is a step (forward?) in consciousness. They seem to believe that like Mr. A Square from Abbot’s Flatland, we are about to undergo a radical change in perspective and awareness. Whatever physical changes that are coming will certainly come, but they focus on the matter of our consciousness(and awareness of our consciousness) being what marks humanity as separate from all other life on Earth. Thus when Nietzsche speaks of the Übermensch(Superman/More-Than-Man) he is not so much referring to a step in some sort of physical direction, but a step in a direction of consciousness.

    “…no philosopher denies that a mystery still attaches to the two great transitions: the origin of the universes itself and the origin of the principal of life itself. Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what we call will. Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution. That he has a backbone or other parts upon a similar pattern to birds and fishes is an obvious fact, whatever be the meaning of the fact. But if we attempt to regard him, as it were, as a quadruped standing on his hind legs, we shall find what follows more fantastic and subversive than if he were standing on his head…It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”

    -G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

    I would suggest that what makes us human is not the notion that we simply use tools better than the chimpanzees; rather I would agree with Luke when he says that our logos, our reason, our sense of Purpose, is what sets us apart from all of the other life we have observed on Earth…though we really don’t know enough to say that we are unique in all the universe for this.

  9. Transhumanism, rather than the singularity which is tech becoming more human, not humanity becoming more tech.


    #7 the idea of personhood instead of common humanity. – the most striking thought in my eyes.

  10. I’m having a hard time seeing anything but a semantic distinction between transhumanism and the Singularity. From what I can remember (it’s been a while since I’ve read up on the Singularity), Kurzweil considers the Singularity a shift towards transhumanism.

    And I do like the idea of personhood vs humanity being the deciding factor of rights, but I think considering dolphins on par with human toddlers might be much, since it ignores a human toddler’s potential for eventual personhood.

    All in all, interesting article. Thanks for the link.

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