The question of “civilization”

By Thom Cuffin-Munday

Initially when I wrote this article it devolved into an angry rant about how we’re responsible for all the problems in the world etc. I’m hoping now to be a bit more constructive with the following!

The pandemic has brought up a lot of questions and changed many peoples’ perspectives. Personally, I’ve questioned the price of a cup of coffee (compared to making one at home when cafes were shut), I’ve valued the time spent with friends more than sitting round a picnic bench in a wet beer garden and calling it ‘normality’, and I’ve also had moments of introspection, trying to find my place in the world and generally venturing into the throes of existentialism. 

Lately my quest for answers has had me going round in circles, where I’ve found myself wishing that I wasn’t born a human – wouldn’t life be so much easier as, for example, a mayfly? You would be born, live and die in one day, and politics you don’t agree with, any evils in the world that turn your stomach, any people you don’t get on with, any embarrassing or sad moment would soon be forgotten; none of it would matter because within 24 hours it would all be over. If we were to have a conversation with this mayfly about their life, perhaps it would come up with some existentialist dread about how its life is meaningless or that it’s depressed because it only gets to live for one day – it would look at us, with our average life expectancy of 80-odd years and be overwhelmed, jealous, unable to comprehend a life so long. The average human in the UK lives to 81 years – which is 29,565 days… a human lives 29,565 mayfly’s lives. Of course, we are assuming a vast amount from the mayfly here – cognitive thought and self-awareness etc. but perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt, or a metaphor to be drawn.

It is agreed in most anthropological academic circles that the first humans to walk the Earth in our current evolutionary (biological) state appeared around 200,000 years ago. Since then, we have developed massively as a species, from first using tools, to developing consciousness and demonstrating dominion of our surroundings, planting ourselves firmly (and unnaturally) at the top of the global food chain. Predictably, my thoughts at this point turned to the existential – we’ve spent so long evolving that we’re the ‘most advanced’ species on our planet, and yet we still have very much man-made problems in the world: racism, sexism, homophobia, a culture of exploitation and greed. How is it that we’ve reached this point in our evolutionary journey and there is so much unhappiness and hate?

Of course, I was coming at this from the wrong angle – evolution is something that can be measured by one’s ability to survive in one’s environment, to beat off competition from other species. We’ve already done that; in fact, it could be argued that as soon as Homo Sapiens left the African savannah we had already reached our biological evolutionary peak. Therefore, we cannot use the ‘how are we “so evolved” and yet appear so primitive’ argument; there is something else at play here. The other factor to consider is what happened after we had reached our biological evolutionary peak, and that is the development of society, language, higher thought, religion and the stock exchange. A lot of human behaviours can be attributed to our former natural selves – for example binge-eating is a totally natural reaction to finding high calorie food. As hunter-gatherers if you were to come across a fig tree, the most appropriate response would be to eat all of the figs; you have no way of preserving save for a day or so and you don’t know when you will next come across another food source with such a high amount of energy that will help with your other hunter-gatherer activities. Naturally, our instinct is to gorge – but of course, our environment is no longer natural, it is manmade, and so accidentally eating an entire trifle is our instinctual reaction but not one based on reason (as I soon found out). However, due to us living in this artificial environment, we are no longer at the perils of uncertainty of food, or whether we will be subject to a lion attack – no, instead we have human problems to deal with, like paying taxes or deciding which film to watch. 

We are no longer living in a natural environment, and yet biologically our species hasn’t evolved very much at all since that change in our environment. However, that is not to say that biology has let us down, quite the opposite, we have developed to such an extent that now we can choose our evolutionary changes – we have the ability to look beyond our own 81-year existence and learn from our history as well as think about our future. In terms of proportions, a mayfly’s one-day life in comparison to our 81-year life is roughly the same fraction as our 81-year life compared to mankind’s 200,000-year existence. You wouldn’t blame a mayfly for the wrongdoings of its ancestors 81 years ago – that would seem ludicrous. And likewise, we can’t be expected to have learnt every single lesson from the dawning of the first humans. 

We cannot change our past, but we can create our future. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that yes, our individual lives will eventually not account for much of our species’ existence; however, we have been freed from the primal bonds of evolution and are now developing on our own terms. So why not take a step back, question the ‘normality’ surrounding you and make a positive step? We often fail to acknowledge our collective power as a species – we can literally do whatever we like, so why spend your 81 years focusing on the non-consequential stuff? Live a little, take things less seriously, and just be kind. I know personally it doesn’t matter in the long run if you treat people badly, but as of today, you are at the start of the next 200,000 years of our existence, why don’t we set a nice precedent?