Is Homo sapiens sapiens a Wise Species?

© 1997 Donald E. Watson

(Reprinted from Telicom XII, 11: 22, May/Jun, 1997.)


We have named our subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens: tool-making, bipedal primate, wise, wise. But have we named ourselves wisely? Or have we merely engaged in typical human self-puffery? It turns out that our species is not wise, but we believe it is, and this is a serious failure of reality testing.

Since wisdom is often equated to intelligence, we could ask if Homo sapiens sapiens is intelligent. Humans are by far the most intelligent species on earth, as measured by IQ tests--but only because we designed these tests for ourselves. Intelligence entails the ability to learn, remember, and recall in the context of reasoning abstractly, associating concepts, and performing other cognitive skills. But it does not correlate with wisdom. Many intellectually gifted humans are unwise, and many individuals of modest intellect are wise.

The distinction between wisdom and intelligence is pivotal to assessing the wisdom of our species. Intelligence predicts the success of individuals without regard to the consequences of their success to others. Hence, sociopaths can be intelligent. But sociopaths can't be wise, because wisdom reflects the ability to make adaptive decisions in a social context. It requires altruism, balanced judgment, competent reality testing, and a consistent view of the big picture. Indeed, that's why wisdom, not intelligence, applies to the survival of species. Of course, wisdom's opposite--stupidity--also applies.

Since wisdom can't be defined in terms of specific abilities, we can define it generally. Such a definition must (a) apply to all kinds of animals, and even plants; (b) imply that wisdom entails thinking--information-processing that organizes behaviors; (c) include abstract thought as well as sensori-motor ("concrete") thought; (d) apply effective reality testing; and (e) comprehend instinctive and acquired abilities. Here's a definition that fits these criteria: Wisdom is the set of mental attributes that allows a species to adapt to changes in its environments.

Using the adaptability definition, now ask, "Is Homo sapiens sapiens wise?" Or is our species too self-centered, short-sighted, narrow-minded, reluctant to think, and fearful of change? To address these questions, it would help if we had a standardized index for species wisdom. Since we don't, we'll define such an index: the Species Wisdom Index (SWI). The SWI is not an absolute measure; it indicates deviations from a norm. Since there's no such thing as an average species, this norm can't refer to the wisdom of an average species. Instead, we can tie the SWI to a measurement that reflects the ultimate product of adaptability: the duration of time a species survives. Then we can arbitrarily pick a species survival time of one million years as our norm. Because sharks have survived 400 million years, for example, their SWI is about 400. By the same measure, the SWI of horseshoe crabs is about 350, and that of sturgeons is about 200.

Homo sapiens, including Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, its earliest known subspecies, has survived about one-tenth of a million years. Hence, the SWI of our species is a mere 0.10. We can therefore conclude that sharks, crabs, and sturgeons possess great wisdom but meager intelligence, whereas Homo sapiens possesses great intelligence but meager wisdom.

Obviously, we can't yet determine whether our species will ultimately prove to have a higher SWI because we don't know how much longer we will survive. But we can confidently predict that we won't likely survive another hundred years. This prediction is based on our well-documented failure to adapt to the classical apocalyptic horsemen: Power, War, Pestilence, and Famine.

1. Power. Given that we have failed to devise a method of self-government that prevents corrupting species-service to self-service, we are inviting our extinction by organizing our political behaviors around personal, national, ethnic, ideological, political, and religious mythologies. These artifices preclude us from conforming our collective behaviors to the requirements of species health. Moreover, because we refuse to rear our children to produce wise adults, we sabotage our future ability to participate in adaptive self-government.

2. War. It is not likely that we will survive another world war, given that we (a) exhibit instinctive xenophobia; (b) perpetually try to annihilate one another; (c) possess the technology to carry out total annihilation; and (d) ultimately use whatever technology we possess to win wars. Notice that the wisdom of individual humans is irrelevant to this species suicide. A single charismatic leader could trigger a nuclear, chemical, or biological war, and his followers would enthusiastically march to their deaths. That is, large groups of humans behave just as unwisely as the small groups we characterize as cults.

3. Pestilence. Given the inability of our leaders to realistically anticipate, recognize, and prepare for new diseases, we are vulnerable at any time to extinction from a fulminating global infectious epidemic. New viruses such as HIV and ebola Zaire are appearing spontaneously, and super strains of ordinary bacteria are being developed by the promiscuous use of antibiotic technologies. Transportation technologies, especially air transport, would quickly spread such an epidemic. Moreover, it is irrelevant whether the plague originates spontaneously, as an act of war by a sovereign state, or as the mission of a small band of terrorists. Although such an epidemic would not likely kill all humans, it would destroy civilization and regress the remnants of our species into a new Stone Age.

4. Famine. Given our exponential population growth with its attendant pollution and squandering of planetary resources, we are poised to cross some still unknown threshold of environmental stability and destroy our habitat cataclysmically. We might have already crossed this threshold, but won't realize it for several years--when it's too late. To illustrate, imagine "Super Kudzu"--a potentially hardy but dormant plant that has never fostered natural enemies. Say that Super Kudzu requires levels of carbon dioxide slightly higher than current levels to proliferate. And imagine that, once turned on by carbon dioxide pollution, Super Kudzu would spread inexorably to displace worldwide agricultural crops by taking over all arable land. The seeds of Super Kudzu would become the seeds of our destruction.

In short, any one of the four horsemen, or any combination of them, is virtually certain to carry us off within the next few decades. When another species capable of abstract thought eventually inhabits Earth, its paleontologists will interpret our failure to adapt to these challenges as evidence of species stupidity. Moreover, if that species is truly wise, it will learn from our experience--something we don't do well.

Ironically, it is our intelligence, based on our rendition of abstract thought, that accounts for our relative stupidity. That is, whereas the SWI of other species relies on the instinctive wisdom provided by Nature, our wisdom attaches to our ability to learn, think, and communicate symbolically. But because we regularly abuse this ability, our version of abstract thought is too primitive to help us, but advanced enough to destroy us. That's largely because it provides us with self-awareness, which sustains self-centeredness--the root of our self-defeat.

Because we rarely look beyond our own immediate needs and wants, antecedents of our self-defeat are found in virtually every aspect of human activity. Our rudimentary abstract thought (a) allows us to invent, fabricate, and apply tools, but does not require us to use these tools wisely; (b) allows us to conceptualize healthy government and ecologically sound economies, but does not force us to apply these notions; and (c) allows us to create scientific models of high predictive value, but does not oblige us to apply these to prevent our own demise. Indeed, our political leaders resolutely culture scientific illiteracy--theirs and ours.

The fatal flaw in the human version of abstract thought is found in the conflict between our ability to use logic and symbols, and our inability to automatically think logically or distinguish the symbols from the realities they represent. This discordance is a natural consequence of our sequential development of speech and reasoning. We can speak early in life because that ability is built into our brains. On the other hand, we must learn how to reason. Thus children can speak many years before they can reason wisely. This pattern is carried into adulthood by typical members of our species, who routinely speak before reasoning. Although children can't reason, they can readily lie. This abuse of abstract thought also carries over to adulthood. Humanity's most revered social institutions--law, religion, politics--are founded on seductive lies. Significantly, these lies reinforce our grandiosity by alluding to the fictitious wisdom of juries, the Fathers, and the majority.

Optimists willing to overlook our innate stupidity imagine that our species will survive indefinitely, arguing that our ability to reason provides unlimited adaptability to any challenge. Indeed, this might be true if Homo sapiens sapiens were a reasoning animal, as the lavishly sanguine Seneca asserted. But realistically, reasoning is to humans as swimming is to cats: We are capable of it, but avoid it whenever possible. Even though exceptional humans regularly apply their ability to reason, the species can't benefit from this; the SWI of the masses dictates the dominant common level of our thought. The debasement of spiritual ideas illustrates this process. To appeal to the masses, religious leaders have replaced spiritual concepts with concrete symbols, and corrupted altruistic principles to self-serving rituals. Thus popular religions pervert any impetus humans may feel to save the species into motivation to save their own souls.

In theory, we might still learn to apply our abstract thought to develop wisdom. After all, we pride ourselves in our flexible adaptability. Or do we? In fact, we don't. We pride ourselves in our bondage to our traditions, relentlessly clinging to folklore, customs, and rituals that guarantee our extinction. For example, our honoring fighting to solve problems is especially conspicuous when we embrace scientific or technological innovations: We value these when they serve our attempts to defeat Nature--or one another. Such stupidity is a direct result of our scanty SWI.

To show evidence of wisdom, our species would be required to achieve radical transformations in our approaches to the apocalyptic categories. To visualize the obstacles created by our abuse of abstract thought, consider the likelihood that our species will accomplish the following transformations:

1. Power to servitude. We would abandon both oligarchic ("top-down") and democratic ("bottom-up") governments. Both are subject to abuse; it doesn't matter whether a minority or a majority abuses power to serve themselves at the expense of the species. We must develop a "middle-out" system of government patterned after systems that actually work: living systems. Under such a government, officials would gladly serve the species by adopting the anonymity and humility of individual neurons, immune globulins, and white blood cells.

2. War to peace. Wisdom requires that we supersede our instinctive xenophobia by choosing to love things, plants, animals, and persons we don't know. Although we could learn to love strangers who produce our food and consume our products, achieving this transformation is our most difficult task. This task would be simplified if we realized that peace is not merely the passive absence of war. It is the active, homeostatic interdependence with Earth's resources and all the species of flora and fauna. Like the economy of ants, the equilibrium of a healthy economy would depend on the unimpeded flow of accurate information. If we waged peace as exuberantly as we wage war, our instinct to compete would be used to serve Earth's eco-community, not individual competitors.

3. Pestilence to hygiene. The health of the species requires mental, not physical, fitness. Mental fitness entails the competent use of abstract thought, which would enable us to abandon superstitious beliefs in favor of demonstrable knowledge of global hygiene. Wisdom requires that we recognize species diseases as the inevitable consequences of social disintegration: products of xenophobia, narcissism, and national conceit. We must therefore discard our traditional belief that our survival depends on xenophobia, ancestral hatreds, and the means to inflict mass destruction.

4. Famine to stability. We must abandon the myth that we are free to breed indiscriminately because technology will provide what Nature does not. We are the only species on Earth that tries to make our environment adapt to us, yet we have repetitively shown that, for every problem our technologies solve, they create several more. Wisdom requires that we abandon our cherished belief that Homo sapiens sapiens is the perfect end result of evolution, and humbly acknowledge that our species can survive only as an integrated element of a global ecosystem. Only then can we manage our population to participate in a salubrious global eco-economy. The message is clear: If we don't apply our wisdom to manage our population, Nature will apply her wisdom and do it for us.

Apologists for our species might argue that I am ignoring the progress our species has made, pointing to our recently discovered ability to negotiate instead of fight, our recent attention to global ecosystems, and our nearly complete abolition of slavery and cannibalism. But these changes, as significant as they are, required centuries to accomplish. Many more centuries would be required to achieve the far more important transformations mentioned above. But we don't have time. This century, by all prudent calculations, offers our final opportunity to survive.

In sum, the probability that humanity is wise enough to forestall extinction is vanishingly small. Even if our species were to prove as successful as Australopithecus afarensis, which survived a million years, we would have an SWI of only 1.0. Compared with the requirements imposed by Nature, that's far too stupid to survive.

Does this mean that Homo sapiens sapiens is a failed species? From the human perspective, the death of our species would represent the ultimate failure. But the wisdom of Nature provides a radically different appraisal. We are a successful species if we are serving as a forerunner of the next complex species. But for this species to be realized, we must relinquish our dominant position on the planet. Otherwise, if that species tried to find a foothold, we would summarily exterminate it. Humanity is the kudzu of the animal kingdom.

To see ourselves as successful, we must adopt the perspective of Nature, which is indifferent to human puffery. We must think of ourselves as parents who are ready to step aside to make room for their progeny. Relatively few humans are humble enough to adopt the broad perspective necessary to accomplish this. The vast majority find it unacceptable to surrender their existence for a species they can't understand or appreciate. Indeed, many parents even find it unacceptable to step aside for their own children. Nevertheless, like adaptive parents, those humans who can celebrate their infinitesimal individual roles in the boundless process of life can hopefully enjoy contemplating the success of their progeny. We can hope that our progeny will be imbued with a version of abstract thought that generates wisdom as automatically as it produces speech. If so, it will undoubtedly survive longer than we have. Yet, even if the SWI of that species is 100, it won't survive forever. It must serve as a predecessor of the next species.