That bold claim all to often is accompanied by the even bolder claim that it isn’t just humankind, but our kind of humankind that are chosen of God. Tribalism and religion have divided humans into Us and Them for as long as we have had history, and surely long before that as well.
I bring this up for two seemingly disparate reasons. First, ancient Palestine is once again aflame with what appears to be a sibling rivalry gone mad. It is a sad, old story of brothers who can’t seem to get along. In its murderous aspects, it echoes Cain and Abel; in its claims of stolen birthright (a claim made by both sides), it echoes Jacob and Esau. But for those without a dog in the hunt (as we say here in the mountains of Appalachia where the battles are more often between cousins), it is hard to tell one side from the other.
In this irrational territoriality, it is hard to see how humans are superior to any other species. This defect in human nature, if that’s what it is, seems drawn right out of Robert Ardrey’s classic work The Territorial Imperative, and it leads me to the conclusion that humans as a species are not only no better than beasts, we may not be as noble as insects. More on that in a moment.
In the past, human’s supposed superiority has been based not only on religious belief, but on scientific claims that have become more and more tenuous as scientific discoveries paint a clearer picture of other species. Dolphins may equal or exceed us in brainpower, many other species including whales use language, primates and other species use tools – the distinctions that supposedly make humans different – and superior – are disappearing one by one.
Religion and human ego are left to cling desperately to one distinction, that of altruistic behavior. But an article in the December 2008 Smithsonian calls even that into question:
“Scientists in Brazil have observed and unusual act of selflessness. When Forelius ants retire for the night, one or more workers remain outside the colony, kicking sands to seal the entrance. If that protects those within from predators or rain, it also dooms the outside ants to die overnight of exposure. It’s the first known case of “pre-emptive self-sacrifice” among insects.”
Humans pride themselves on the self-sacrifice called war, but perhaps that pride is not altogether justified. That is not to question the sincerity of that sacrifice, but to question whether war resolves conflicts or exacerbates them – a question brought to the fore yet again with America's continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Certainly, that’s a fair question to ask about the ongoing war between brothers that soaks the already blood-drenched ground in Palestine/Israel. After all the dying, no one can see a way out of this conflict, let alone a way to end it . Perhaps that is because the supposedly god-directed imperative of an eye for an eye has left both sides blind.
The altruism of terrorism is even more questionable, regardless of whether a terrorist cause is deemed just. Leaving aside the morality of slaughtering innocents, blowing oneself up on a crowded bus, or flying an airplane into a skyscraper, or committing other such atrocities with the hope of gaining a special reward in the hereafter can hardly be deemed a selfless act.
No, a true selfless act is that of the ant that barricades itself outside the nest and expects nothing for its sacrifice but death. For at least as far as we know, there is no Paradise in the metaphysics of ants.
©2009 Tom Cordle