Tagorean World, Homo Sapiens?, Knowledge and Values

My overriding interest is the current climate, ecological and social crisis, how it came about, the need for a remedy which would make a real difference, and my conviction that what is needed is what I call a Tagorean World, which means relocalisation of community, economy, work and culture. We know that the crisis has been brought about by global political and economic systems which benefit a tiny, extremely wealthy, minority at the expense of everybody else and life on earth. There is no point in just blaming that minority or the systems; we need to act, to walk away, to live differently to the extent that we can. The question is, why don’t we do that?

One answer could be that some do, as I have found from my own researches and activism. I became involved in the Permaculture movement in the UK in the 1990s when it was a tiny fringe group and content to remain so, but it has since spread widely and gained respect, encouraging new approaches to meeting our needs locally in more natural and diverse ways. Permaculture gave rise in 2006 to the Transition movement to encourage local self-reliant communities and economies, which spread impressively worldwide but for complex reasons remains a minority effort.[1] Over those years, growing food in home and community gardens has become very popular in the Western world, and there has been a surge of interest in gardening during Covid lockdown.

My question: why don’t we walk away? is still valid, since the majority of us carry on more or less willingly to participate in a global economic system which is causing grievous harm to people and planet. One answer is that the systems of the modern world trap us so that we have few or no choices, perhaps due to the pervasive influence of advertising, or to poverty and lack of opportunity, and also to a host of distractions. But I am seeking something deeper than that as an answer to ‘why?’, which could come from an answer to the question: who are these ‘we’ anyway? One answer to who ‘we’ are is members of the human species Homo sapiens.[2] The answer to why we do not act in our best interests is surely that our species is misnamed, and exploring that misnaming provides some interesting leads for exploring the ‘why don’t we?’ question.

Homo sapiens?

I looked up ‘sapiens’ in my little Latin dictionary,[3] and as I expected, as an adjective it means wise, also discreet. As a noun it means wise man, philosopher and man of taste. The adverb sapienter means wisely or sensibly. Ours is the only Homo species to survive, our hominin cousins all being extinct, but does that make us the wise ones of our genus? Seeking an alternative in my dictionary, I tried the obvious: ‘stupidus’, and found that this means senseless, astounded and dull, as well as stupid. These don’t convey the whole picture, so I looked up ‘stupid’ and got ‘stultus’ (foolish, silly), ‘hebes’ (blunt, dull, sluggish, obtuse and stupid) and ‘ineptus’ (unsuitable, silly, tactless and absurd). All these nice Latin words could be applied to some aspects of our behaviour over the 200,000 years since anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa and, perhaps more importantly, over the 43,000 since we came out of Africa and spread around the Middle East and Europe and beyond, and the 10,000 since monoculture farming, the division of labour and the rise of organised states. So, yes, sometimes we have been Homo sapiens, but at other times Homo hebes etc., and the rapidly worsening current crisis suggests that the last remaining Homo species will probably have died out by the end of this century, joining our cousins in oblivion, leaving a baking and desertified planet which may never revive.

Looking into this terminology online I came across an interview with ‘world-renowned psychiatrist’ Vittorino Andreoli on the subject of his essay ‘Homo Stupidus Stupidus’.[4] Andreoli is asked to explain his idea that man has lost the ‘benefit of the neocortex’ and why – or in what sense – our species has done everything to ‘deserve’ the unflattering attribute of ‘Homo Stupidus Stupidus’. The Professor’s answer is worth quoting in full:

First of all, we must understand a basic fact: the civilization that we have laboriously achieved over thousands of years of history is based on principles and behaviours practised and learned. It means that if we do not succeed in passing on certain values and styles of behaviour to the next generation, we are destined to lose everything that we have mistakenly considered to be a definitively acquired heritage. Neuroscience is very clear about this. […] Simply because the degree of civilization that we have conquered with great effort, is not contained in our genes. It is not realised due to the instinctual practice of a mechanical behavior. It is an important result achieved by that part of the brain “plastic” that is formed on the basis of experience and that presides over learning, creativity, which is then the real engine of our intellectual activity. It means in concrete terms that the neurons of this portion of the neocortex come together in circuits, in a sophisticated structure that presides over the mnemonic touch, the idea, the so-called superior faculties. So if we no longer give importance to the dimension of values and principles, to respect for life, regression becomes, not a vague hypothesis, but a certain perspective.

What the professor is explaining is that we are ‘sapiens’ through filling the plastic parts of our brains with ‘principles and behaviours practised and learned’ over thousands of years of our history. Our wisdom is not passed on through our genes but taught, generation after generation. If we interrupt that process, cease filling everyone’s plastic brains with what Andreoli sees as good values and principles, we lose what he refers to as ‘civilization’, and the result is regression into low instincts of selfishness, blind emotions and violence, driven by the lower parts of the brain.

Andreoli attributes human descent into ‘Homo Stupidus Stupidus’ to what he calls ‘the development of the digital brain’ – with an image of hands holding aloft their smart phones and laptops. I agree with him on some of the serious effects of this technology, in particular losing our facility with numbers and words, with people being unable to make calculations and increasingly signalling to each other using a limited vocabulary, coded shorthand, images and emoticons. The result, he tells us, is that ‘[w]hat dominates is binary logic, no longer rational logic which, at least from Aristotle onwards, is the foundation of Western thought and civilization’. I part company with Andreoli at this point because I favour local community values over those of civilization. This means thinking of diverse rural localities or urban neighbourhoods around the world, not only in the West. It will not be logic – binary or rational – we will need to stuff our plastic brains with but skills and knowledge for local self-reliance. Western civilization depended on the domestication of plants and animals, systematic agriculture, division of labour and social class. We will have to look beyond that limited scenario to learn from surviving self-reliant groups and from historical records, for everything we can find out about how to meet our needs by fitting into the wide diversity of local ecological potential.

Diversity is key. When (or if) a shift or scattering into local community self-reliance takes place, it will no longer make sense to think of our species as a whole being wise or stupid, or having any other attribute, nowadays or over any period in history or prehistory or during our evolution. Until such a shift occurs, the habit of referring to humans collectively as ‘we’ and ‘our’ when referring to how we have survived and thrived, and our achievements or failings, will continue and have some validity, while also being misleading. It leads to human hubris when applied to ‘our’ inventions, discoveries and creative works when those things were achieved by a tiny minority of the human population. On the other hand, in view of the terrible crisis we are faced with, it is appropriate to refer to ‘our’ failings, since even bystanding puts us on the side of the oppressors, as Desmond Tito famously warned.

Another kind of danger arises when we make generalisations about some group or type of people, judging them as wise or stupid, compared to ourselves and others like us. One example of this was the trigger for my writing something on the subject of ‘Homo sapiens?’ It was a letter in the Guardian on 10 May 2021:

So voters don’t mind the greed or the lies. They don’t mind benefits and public services being cut or creeping NHS privatisation. They don’t mind taxpayers’ money being shovelled down the throats of ministers’ friends and families, or the highest Covid-related death toll in Europe. Serial incompetence, venality and a callous disregard of the mores of polite society do not matter, as long as it comes with a healthy dose of xenophobia. After half a century, I am finished with politics. It’s not so much the politicians that make me despair but the electorate.[5]

This letter illustrates one kind of sapiens/stupidus binary: the writer an intelligent and articulate Guardian reader, looking down on the masses of Daily Mail reading Tory voters who lack critical faculties and fall for glib phrases such as ‘levelling up’ and ‘build back better’. There is a somewhat similar binary which concerns me more: again a wise Guardian reader, one who understands the seriousness of the climate crisis, despairing of the stupid ones who are desperate to get on a plane to a beach somewhere.

I know that we really should guard against leftist intellectual snobbery and prejudice against those who seem to follow, adopt and identify with populist and nationalist slogans like ‘Take Back Control’ from the Brexit campaign in 2016, and ‘Make America Great Again’ which got Donald Trump elected. There is also the other judgement we make about stupid people who fly on foreign holidays despite the carbon cost, and who eat burgers and chicken nuggets despite the carbon cost of raising domesticated livestock and the cruelty involved. But I confess I do make such judgements. I liked the letter about the ignorant electorate. I jokingly asked my husband/partner David ‘Did you write this?’ What gives us the right to judge others? Surely not just the newspaper we read. Not even being able to make our own case persuasively, unless there are people we can persuade besides each other. So it is pointless and self-indulgent making such judgements unless we have influence. Furthermore, we have no right to the moral or intellectual high ground unless we practice what we preach, and are activists with a lifestyle to match.

I have been an activist all my life, brought up to be a socialist, pacifist and environmentalist, and involved in various campaigns over the years, but no longer able to go on demos, or even attend meetings or take on responsibilities. David and I are now in our seventies, which is not old according to my GP daughter, who says senescence generally kicks in on one’s mid-eighties. For almost fifteen years we have been running Plants For A Future (PFAF), a charitable company which maintains and continuously develops an internationally important database with details of 8,000 plants with edible, medicinal and other uses. PFAF publishes books, the latest one being Plants for your Food Forest, featuring 500 edible species, with an introduction which David and I and another PFAF trustee wrote about how local community food forests could be a major part of the solution to the world ecological and climate crisis. The founders of PFAF, Ken and Addy Fern, who grew and researched thousands of these unusual plants, were ethical vegans and cultivated the native species and specimens on their experimental site strictly vegan-organically, with no livestock allowed and no animal-derived fertilisers, apart from droppings from wild creatures. David and I are ethical vegans too, not so much following PFAF traditions but more due to awareness of the urgency of a widespread shift away from animal foods, and wanting to be part of that change on principle.

This is all very well, but there is also the matter of being a Guardian reader, which does have some significance, particularly if we come back to Andreoli’s argument about our species failing to pass on certain values and styles of behaviour to the next generation, due to what he refers to with the unfortunate phrase ‘digital autism’. He is using ‘autism’ to mean social ineptitude, difficulties with communication, a ‘tendency to schematization’ such as social media ‘likes’ and emoticons. This is part of a digitisation process which has taken place over the past half century to my knowledge, as I was part of it from my first job in 1963 as a computer programmer writing ‘applications software’ (the origin of the current term ‘app’) for sales analysis to run on an early mainframe. Later I was a systems analyst, involved in studying various laborious manual systems, and designing and specifying how they could be run more efficiently on computers. The clerical staff who used to run the manual systems were generally not sacked, but disappeared by ‘natural wastage’, and over the decades whole classes of manual, clerical and management roles have gone to waste. It is not easy to see whether or how those kinds of economic and societal changes led to the digital stupidity which concerns Andreoli, which came later, accelerating over the past ten years with Twitter, smart phones, apps and so on. But looking across that half century of change, one can see the Guardian as a surviving relic of communication as it used to be, when we got our news from newspapers, when we looked things up in encyclopaedias and books from the reference sections of local libraries. But that is not all the Guardian is today. It is also a portal, an important provider of online information, with its collection of material on the environment being a resource which David and I have found particularly valuable, its authority enhanced through citations of sources in academic research and publications.[6]

I will stop at this point, despite having touched on several topics on which I have much more to say. It has been a while since I wrote anything for my blog due to physical and mental problems I struggle to overcome, due to not having fully recovered from a car crash in 2019 when Covid came along and I spent a year shielding. Next time, I want to explore how we can reconcile the harm caused by the digital revolution and its benefits in terms of knowledge and values which may help with a transition to a Tagorean World.

[1] Transition Network carries out surveys of its relevance: https://transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/evaluation-survey/ [accessed 30/5/21]

[2] Or, in anthropology and paleontology, Homo sapiens sapiens, the subspecies of Homo sapiens, the only living members of genus Homo, modern human beings. (John P. Rafferty, ‘Homo sapiens sapiens: hominid subspecies’, https://britannica.com/topic/Homo-sapiens-sapiens [accessed 12/5/21])

[3] D.A. Kidd, ed., Collins Latin Gem Dictionary (London: Collins, 1974) – a reprint from 1974 so not the one from my schooldays, maybe from one of my daughters – intriguing!

[4] ‘From “sapiens” to “stupidus”: if we neglect values, technological civilization risks plunging into barbarity – VIP interview with Vittorino Andreoli’, https://cybersecuritytrends.uk/2019/07/08/rom-sapiens-to-stupidus-if-we-neglect-values-technological-civilization-risks-plunging-into-barbarity-vip-interview-with-vittorino-andreoli/ [accessed 11/5/21]

[5] Letters, Journal, The Guardian, 10 May 2021, p. 5.

[6] www.theguardian.com/uk/environment [last accessed 12/6/21]

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