What Future for Humanity
Darwin’s theory of evolution and neuroscience research on the brain have demonstrated the existence of a ‘primary’ consciousness in primates and in humans. Unlike primates, however, humans possess another type of consciousness which makes them aware of their consciousness and has been termed ‘higher-order consciousness’.
It is precisely this higher-order consciousness that confers on man the capacity to create science, technology, art, ethics and religion. This has come about through a long evolutionary process by which man has acquired language and a collective self. Mankind has learned to survive in a hostile environment, and it has created, with religion, a spiritual world parallel to the real one. Humans have developed the rational capacities (mathematics and logic) that enable them to know the universe of which they are part.
In different epochs, this unitary vision of human knowledge has been denominated ‘enlightenment’, by which is meant a project to unify knowledge for the improvement of humanity. I endorse this project, but with the specifications that will emerge in the discussion that follows.
I shall adopt the scientific point of view to answer the following questions: What is the origin of man? What is man? Where is humanity going? The type of answer is less important than the answer itself. Where do we come from? What is the origin of man? When and why did the characteristics emerge that make us what we are and unique with respect to all the other species that inhabit the Earth? Having discarded the ‘creation hypothesis’, which pertains to theology, the answer must be sought in the knowledge acquired by science, which allows a journey to be made back in time to reconstruct the evolutionary history of mankind. In this regard, there exist accredited scientific theories on the birth of life on Earth around four billion years ago, together with Darwin’s theory of evolution, introduced in 1859, to explain how all living species developed from a single-celled being. Man originated from one of these species: anthropomorphous apes.
The evolutionary history of mankind has shown the extraordinary role and importance of the brain. The brain has created higher-order consciousness (awareness of being aware), and this in turn has created the culture that has enabled man to invent science, logic, art, and religion. Man, therefore, is a thinking ape.
Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Life on Earth originated from strictly chemical phenomena which, by virtue of their nature, were bound to occur in a purely deterministic manner under the prevailing physical-chemical conditions and in the places where they obtained.
Life on Earth began with a single-celled being considered the progenitor of all living organisms: bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals, including man. We owe to Darwin and his theory of evolution our ability to explain scientifically how this happened. Where do we come from? We come from this primogenial single-celled being.
Who are we? We are the outcome of the natural evolution that has made us ‘thinking apes’; apes endowed by nature with the higher-order consciousness that has enabled us to create culture in all its manifestations from science to religion.
Where are we going? The answer is more complex because it involves predictions about the future of humanity. In outlining such predications, I shall examine the two levels that I deem fundamental: the one at the base and which is represented by evolution, and the one at the apex and which is represented by religion. I am convinced that only by searching at these levels of knowledge is it possible to dispel the fog that surrounds humanity and understand the directions of its future development.
Before scrutinizing the future, however, it is important to know where we are now. In this regard, the following question arises: does natural selection still act as the guide of evolution? The answer is ‘yes and no’ in that it depends on the point of view that is assumed.
One indubitable feature of the world in which we live is the homogeneity caused by migration and hybridization. In the recent history of humanity, there have been periods in which this process of homogenization has been particularly intense. Consider, for instance, the conquest of the New World, when African slaves were forcedly transported to the Americas, or the colonization of Australia and Africa by European countries.
The current mingling of the various races, however, is not by itself able steer the evolution of mankind systematically in one direction or the other. This is because, according to extraordinary results obtained in genetic and molecular biology, hereditary changes will soon no longer depend on natural selection but on the social choices made by governments. Because humanity possesses extremely precise scientific knowledge of the human genetic structure, it may decide, if it so wishes, to evolve in a direction different from that hitherto dictated by nature. Or humanity may decide to do nothing, leaving nature free to operate as it has done for millions of years.
The knowledge that we have of mankind allows us to predict that the former alternative is the one most likely. In this case, it is necessary to know whether man's substitution for nature will be total or partial. One thing is certain: scientists are conducting experiments in molecular engineering which will make it possible to alter genes in the direction wanted by replacing fragments of DNA. It is therefore likely that, within fifty years, mankind will be able to understand in the smallest detail not only the dynamics that determine our heredity but also the interaction between genes and the environment, and thus produce a ‘new’ human being.
If this progress in scientific knowledge is achieved even to an only partial extent, humanity will be able to determine its ultimate destiny. It will be able to decide not only to modify human intelligence and anatomy, but also human emotions and creativity. At that point, mankind will indeed feel itself akin to God.
The evolutionary history of mankind no longer depends on nature, but instead on mankind itself, which will be forced to make decisive intellectual and ethical choices in response to this question: to what extent is it permissible to change ourselves and our descendants? The answer resides in the type of mutation that is envisaged. If the intent is to use genetic and molecular biology to defeat all the diseases that have constantly afflicted humanity, despite some initial hesitation (I refer, for instance, to the Catholic Church’s opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells), everyone will eventually agree. The advantage of leading a life without incurable diseases will be evident to all. Moreover, this will have the consequence of prolonging life. Complex social problems will undoubtedly arise, but the desire to live longer will be satisfied.
If, however, the intention is to change human nature in order to enhance characteristics such as mathematical and logical ability, athletic talent, or sexual potency, profound and irremediable conflicts may ensue. Those with the authority to decide would be initially faced with the dilemma of deciding whether to reduce differences in order to develop compatibility or whether to increase differences in order to create fields of advanced specialization. Moreover, the development of certain traits of human nature would be to the benefit of some people and to the detriment of others. Who would have the power to decide? If opposition were raised against such decisions, how and with what means would those decisions be imposed? With persuasion or with violence? The answers to these questions will depend mainly on the form of the government that has to decide. If it is a democratic government, all citizens will have the right freely to express their ideas and beliefs, which may be different from, or opposed to, those of other citizens with the same right. In this case, conflict would begin at the base of the state’s structure. It would rise upwards until it involved the highest institutions of the state. In this case, political parties and movements would act as the interpreters of particular demands and, because they had the strength to do so, would render the conflicts even more violent. It is thus evident that the political and social institutions required to decide the direction in which to steer the change in human nature would be incapable of taking any decision. Conflict and the incapacity to take decisions find their maximum expression in a democratic state.
Whatever social and political choices are made, one thing is certain: homo sapiens is about to free itself from natural selection. Henceforth, the evolution of the human species will be decided by science, technology, ethics, and political choices. Humanity has reached a stage in its development at which, by looking within itself, it can decide what it wants to become. Whence derives the final question: towards what ends, granted that that they exist, must humanity be directed?
The ends of humanity, however, cannot be the goals of the individuals that make up society. Because of their heterogeneity, these goals will always be in conflict and will produce, in the best of circumstances, a situation of stalemate. In the absence of a valid alternative, they will inevitably lead to the destruction of the human species. Does a valid alternative exist? If it does, what is it? In the political domain, for the reasons that I explain below, the alternative is that of enlightened tyranny. In the upper domain of higher-order knowledge, the alternative is that of religion.
Religion is the only and true universal expression of human knowledge. Since around 500,000 years ago, all social aggregates, from the simplest to the most complex, have created religions and submitted to them. No other activity of the human intellect can boast such wide diffusion in all times and all regions of the Earth.
One reason for this is the capacity of religion to interpret not only the desire of human beings for immortality but also their need to escape the anguish of everyday life. We may say that religion is the ‘trump card’ of evolution that contributes strongly to the survival of the human species.
However, religion has been the cause of bloody wars and irremediable conflicts. Since the most ancient of times, violence of every kind has been unleashed in the name of a God. Humanity has been forced to live in a state of almost constant belligerence. If we consider the last ten thousand years of human history, we find that they have been mostly devoted to armed conflict and that, in times of peace, new wars have been prepared. Hence, we may define man as a ‘belligerent being’.
At this point, the following question arises: how is it possible to resolve the contradiction between the positive role (support for survival) and the negative role (war) of religion? Does such a possibility exist? Before answering these questions, let us reconsider the notion of wisdom. Generally, by ‘wisdom’ is meant the ability of man to strike a balance between his rational and emotional motivations. Consequently, when people make choices, they must consider not only reason but also the emotional, passionate and irrational bases of their life experiences. Hence, those who want to exercise wisdom must seek to achieve this balance.
If we apply this notion of ‘wisdom’ to religion and its contradictions, what situation do we find? Is religion able to establish equilibrium among the different motivations that today characterize humanity? Given that religion is present in all the regions of the world, can it find a common core among its diverse forms? Only a universal religion can respond with authority to the challenge of defining a new ‘image’ of man now that mankind has dismissed nature and taken its place.
In regard to the possibility of creating a universal religion on common bases, let us see what the most authoritative exponents of religions have to say on the matter.
In Italy after Vatican Council II, discussion began of ‘ecumenism’, a term denoting a spiritual movement that sought the union of all the Christian churches. It was especially the pontificate of John Paul II that gave impetus to the movement. At present, however, the project for unification the Christian churches is difficult to achieve. In any case, even if it were feasible, it would be limited to only the Christian churches and would omit all the other churches, which represent the majority of humanity.
The representatives of the most important religions of the world have acknowledged that ecumenism extended to the other religions is an aspiration difficult to accomplish because individual religions, rather than participate in a unitary and harmonious project, vigorously reassert their doctrinal specificities. Consequently, the idea is gaining ground that if the evils that afflict mankind are to be remedied, it is necessary to abandon the unitary project based on religion and to pursue one based on ethics. If religions have failed to achieve the objective, then a solution must be sought in ethics, in the hope that although the project may be weaker on theological grounds, it will prove simpler to accomplish. And so it was that the Parliament of the World’s Religions assembled in Chicago in September 1993 approved the Declaration towards a Global Ethic, seeing the latter as the minimal requisite for consensus among the representatives of the world’s various religions, so that the spiritual, ethical and material healing of humanity could be planned.
The representatives of all the main religions in the world (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) acknowledged that the world is undergoing a fundamental crisis in the economy, politics, and the environment. They approved the above-mentioned Declaration, with a commentary by the theologian Hans Küng.
What characteristics should be possessed by an ethic based on what is already common to the religions of the world? The drafters of the Declaration believed that they should consist in ‘a golden rule’ and ‘four commandments’.
The golden rule expressed a principle that for millennia has been found in many of humanity’s religious traditions: “We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”. This rule, immutable and unconditional, should apply to all persons, without difference of age, gender, race, skin colour, language, religion, political conviction, national or social origin.
The four commandments were: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not commit immoral acts.
The global ethic of religions does not derive, as Küng specified in the Preamble, from an unitary world religion, nor from a syncretism of all religions. The unity (or intersection or syncretism or lowest common denominator) of all religions is a topic that has repeatedly fascinated philosophers, who see in it the possibility to establish a harmonious order among the religions themselves. Yet whilst this possibility is stimulating at theoretical level, it is difficult to realize. But if it is decided not to pursue this path, what valid alternative remains? There seem to be two possible solutions: either we resign ourselves to the current state of conflictual relations among religions, or we seek a new path, which, without relinquishing the specificities of individual religions, allows their reciprocal tolerance, with a view to an ecumenical afflatus that can perhaps be accomplished in the future. This is the path chosen and followed by Küng himself in his work Teologia in Cammino, where he addresses the problem of the relationships among religions by starting from the concept of ‘truth’.
In response to the problem of remedying the evils that afflict humanity, among them the creation of a new ‘image’ of man, religions have declared their impotence and placed their trust in a global ethic. But is that ethic achievable? Are the golden rule and the four commandments proposed in the Chicago Declaration able to overcome the difficulties inherent in the theological doctrines of religions? The answer is ‘yes’ if the ethic envisaged becomes operational. There are only two ways in which this can come about: if the ethic is shared or if it is imposed. Intentioning an ethical conception means bringing its principles, imperatives and norms into one’s consciousness and making them the reasons for one’s actions. The actions of man thus find justification in the intentioned ethic.
What is the likelihood that humanity as a whole may intention the ethical conception set out in the Declaration? The answer is unequivocally ‘zero’. From this it follows that the proposal to constitute a global ethic is in itself fascinating and of enormous ideal value, but it is a theoretical system of scant practical utility. If religion is unable to resolve the present and future challenges of humanity, then so too is ethics.
If there is very little likelihood of being able to act on the assumption of a shared ethic, what is the probability of achieving an imposed ethic? Who has the capacity to impose an ethical conception? The answer must be sought in forms of government. At present, there is an ongoing endeavour to extend the principles and rules of democracy to all the countries of the world, in the belief that only in this way can the enjoyment of subjective and social rights be guaranteed for all people.
Is democracy really able to define the new image of man? It is in the exercise of acquired rights that every person wants to participate, expressing their personal point of view, in decisions concerning their future. If the decision to be taken concerns the new image of man to be created with the most advanced techniques of genetics and molecular biology, the differences of opinion on the matter will be enormous. At worst, every person will have their own opinion and seek to have it prevail over the others because it is what they believe. The result would be a kind of Tower of Babel in which everyone speaks but nobody understands what the others are saying. Would it ever be possible to take a decision under such conditions, above all if it concerned the future humanity? I frankly believe that it would not.
If also democracy reveals its impotence, what is to be done? Resign ourselves to a destiny that heralds the extinction of the human species or continue to seek a valid alternative solution?
I believe in ethics and in its capacity to unite men around a future project. But if this project is to express the common good, it must be imposed if necessary. If it cannot be imposed by a democratic state, then it is necessary to consider a different source of state power. I believe that only one possibility exists, and that it is represented by the Enlightened Tyrant. The tyrant to whom I refer is not the tyrant that we have known in the history of humanity in his diverse forms, from the tyrant of Syracuse to Hitler. The Enlightened Tyrant is a man endowed with great charisma, exceptional intellectual gifts, and profound wisdom. He must know how to conjugate reason with the emotions, which are the pillars that support the integral person. He must be able to understand the material needs of humanity, but he must also know how to meld them with the highest spiritual values (the true, the good, the beautiful, the just). A man with these qualities will govern not with terror but with consent, since all will recognize and accept his enlightened guidance. A man so powerful, authoritative and wise would know in what direction to orient genetic changes for creation of the new man. Humanity would avoid the risk of self-destruction only by submitting to his enlightened guidance.
The Enlightened Tyrant, however, cannot be born from nothing, or from the mind of Jupiter like Minerva. His advent must already now be prepared for by persons of quality, without distinction of gender, skin colour, race, language, religion and culture – those whom I call the ‘Illuminati’. It is they who will create the historical and social conditions from which will emerge, at the right time, he who must act as the Supreme Leader of humanity.
It might be objected that a man such as the one that I have described does not exist. Even if he did exist, he should arise from the base level of democracy. In fact, how could a man living in a democratic state, with its tendency to reduce all to the same level, acquire the power and the authority to govern the world as an Enlightened Tyrant? In normal conditions, it would be impossible. But the conditions of humanity today are gradually degenerating, so that is easy to foresee that the point will come when social rules break down and society inevitably slides into anarchy. At that point, as Aristotle thought, it will only be possible to overcome the anarchy by creating the tyrant to whom all powers will be delegated on the condition that he brings order to society. It is only at this stage of humanity that the Enlightened Tyrant could make his appearance. Unlike all the other tyrants, given his endowment with the qualities already described, he can guide the evolution of the human species. It will be he, and only he, assisted by scientists, who decides how to create the new man. The time of his advent, however, is not close. It is therefore possible that humanity, having descended into utter anarchy, will be unable to survive.
To return to the history of man, it would seem that evolution had privileged reason over wisdom. With reason, in fact, humanity has been able to create science and the civilizations. It has not been able, unfortunately, to exercise the wisdom necessary to manage its creations.
From the discussion thus far it seems that mankind’s evolutionary line will be extinguished like those of all the other species. In biological evolution, extinction is the rule, not the exception. That also our species may become extinct is an eventuality that worries us, but it is within the natural order of things. It is probable that our brain which has generated our success will also determine our extinction.
If this should happen, it may be that evolution will start again from the beginning, but doing so under more favourable conditions. Even if homo sapiens may be irremediably lost with all its science and all its civilizations, there would still be time for evolution to re-start its adventure with a more favourable outcome. Cosmologists maintain, in fact, that the Earth will be able to host life for another two to five billion years, until the expansion of the sun makes it definitively inhospitable. The new journey could begin with a primate or a lower-order animal, which, however, could ascend above the actual human level by virtue of a more harmonious combination of genes that privileges not only intelligence but also wisdom. A prospect of this kind is of scant comfort, but it serves as a warning to our descendants to make better use of their brains than we have done. If they do not, the extinction of the human species will be inevitable.