The year is 20,000,000 BC.
In a jungle somewhere in Pangaea, a green clearing on the side of a great sloping mountain is made entirely brown. Not by mud or dirt, but by the presence of thousands of apes.
Some small, some large. Some with long legs, some with stocky, short legs. Some with long snouts and faces, others with flat ones.
While fraternizing between different kinds of apes is not unknown, this kind of gathering is indeed usual and unique.
This is because the circumstances that the apes face on this day is unique.
This is a meeting of the Council of the Apes, a meeting called on only in circumstances where existential threats are looming for all apes species around the great sloping mountain. Such a meeting had last been held dozens and dozens of generations ago – so far back that some suspected it was merely a myth.
The tall, grey Elder sat in the very middle of the giant circle. As the sun rose fully over the morning horizon, he sighed heavily, put his hands on his knees, and stood up before the crowd.
“It has been discovered” said the Elder ape, “that contrary to our previous beliefs, we simians have not been created on a single day many many moons ago, but that we have come forth from the development of animals below us.”
The other apes murmur among themselves, some seeming shocked and confused. Others look around nervously that such a statement – heresy if said in the past generation – is being acknowledged frankly by the Elder as a fact.
Everyone present is well aware of the reason for the Council being brought together on this day.
The rumors have circulated slowly over 18 months and have built slowly to a state of panic among some groups. The Council has been called upon to handle the matter.
“Through the study of the small crawlers,” continued the Elder, “and the buzzing flying crawlers, it has been observed that a type of creature can be changed over time – and that the length of legs, the color of a body, the size of the teeth, the senses and organs of the body – and all other physical and mental traits – can be influenced by the traits of the parents, and the response of the creature to its environment.”
It was these exact rumors that had filled the jungle, and the meeting branches of almost all the ape tribes for well over a year. The revelation was bothersome not because the insects change, or the lower animals change, but of the very reason the Elder would now address.
“We apes are one point in an ambling path of change in living things. We are a high point, we are to be proud of what we are, but it seems that we have bubbled out of the same natural processes as the flying creatures, the swimming creatures, and possibly even the trees that we live in.”
The Elder continued: “I, for, one, still believe in our sanctity. This revelation need not take our respect, take away our pride in our position of intelligence, of our varied cultures and ways of life. We are the highest minds of the great sloping mountain, and indeed of our known world. We should not lose heart in our singular traits, in what makes us unique.”
Hearing the interruption of other members of the Council, and holding up his finger in acknowledgement, the Elder moved on to the point that everyone was anticipating – the reason that the Council was meeting for this first time in thousands and thousands of moons.
“The choice we have before us, brother and sisters, is what we do from here. If over innumerable generations, we apes have been conjured forth from the animals below us, then the question arises: What are we to become?”
“SHAME!” Shouted one of the apes many rows back – and a ruckus arose from the crowd.
“Peace, please!… peace, brother,” said the Elder, with stern certainly. “We have two paths before us, and in this Council meeting, we are to decide which path we take together.
With the first path, we continue with the path of time and nature, and we permit ourselves – over the generations ahead – to become something other than what we are. By all evidence, we are taller, smarter, more capable of cooperation and invention, than our animal predecessors were. At the same time, it has been argued that we are also more dangerous.
We are both more loving and more cunning than nearly any other creature within any known distance of the great sloping mountain.
We know not of what we would become if we continue on the path of time and nature. This path might imply something brilliant and grand, but it might also might imply giving up our position as the highest and loftiest beings in the known world.
We might walk differently, we would build entirely new cultures, and think in ways that are beyond our modes of thinking today – do things that are beyond our ability to do today – and in so doing, we might relegate apes to a lower creature, no longer the loftiest being on the great mountain.”
While the apes in the inner Council appeared somewhat unmoved, fear and anger appeared on the faces of many in the crowd.
“The second path, brothers and sisters, is to ensure that we apes – as we are now – remain forever the highest creatures under the sun.
This means that we cannot permit new variations of ourselves, as we know this now to be the creeping force of time and nature. This force has risen us apes from the mud, but its force is to rise above us still – and we have the chance to prevent this force of change – this force that could be brilliant, and could be eternally destructive.”
The Elder paused and looked slowly to his right and left, surveying the many faces and gauging their responses.
“If we choose the second path – as many from all the tribes have already suggested that we must do, then we must be prepared to do what this path requires.
In the second path, we will need an effort around the entire great slopingmountain to ensure that we put an immediate end to new variants of color, of height, of mental capabilities, or of other traits – as we now know that these traits are precursors of the creation of an entirely different being, something other than an ape, possibly beyond apes, just as we are beyond the creatures who came before us.
We must prevent intentional efforts to change our natures, we must detect variations and ensure that they do not breed – and some may have to be killed.”
After another pause, and turning 180 degrees slowly, the Elder continues: “On this day, in this rare Council of the Apes, we will vote together, and we will decide which path we choose.
We can choose to become something beyond us, something we don’t know, something potentially dangerous – or we can strive for a future of eternal ape predominance.
The Absurdity of Eternal Ape Predominance
Of course, apes – baboons, lemurs, chimpanzees – have absolutely no ability to communicate or think in the ways that the story conveys. It is safe to presume that apes have never entertained such thoughts. Apes, as with all species before them – simply lived and died without an understanding Darwin, never mind entertaining the pre-Darwinian hunches of a Lucretius.
As humans, we should be glad that apes never had a chance to “decide” whether they should evolve into something beyond themselves or not.
The arguments we make for why apes should have allowed us to evolve might have had counter-arguments from the perspective of the apes. Obviously, apes aren’t capable of this kind of cognition, but as a thought experiment let’s think through some of the more straight-forward arguments:
Argument 1: The Benefits of Invention and Scientific Progress
Argument of ancient apes, against: “We have discovered how to use some stones and sticks, and we use technologies in ways that benefit us, and suit our lives well. There is no reason to create dangerous tools beyond our understanding and our purposes. We have lived for thousands of generations, just fine, without these unneeded dangers.”
Argument of today’s humans, for: “Apes, as they were in 20,000,000 BC, wouldn’t have discovered the cause of disease, the origin of species, the shape of the globe, the principles of computing, or any of the bodies of knowledge that make human life rich. These breakthroughs required bigger brains – and with out bigger, human brains we have reaped the rich benefits of invention.”
Argument 2: Rich, Conscious Experience
Argument of ancient apes, against: “As apes, we are the very height of sentience and intelligence. Nature has bubbled us forth from the insects and the rodents and we stand atop an incredible peak. We can use tools, we can communicate with sounds in a language of our own, we can love and teach our offspring far more than the fish or the ants or any other creature. We have access to all the richness of life that we need. What more could there possibly be than what we can presently experience and imagine? Evolving beyond those experiences – if such a crazy thing were even possible – may drive us mad, or may bring with it as much harm than good. If we have never tasted those goods, then we don’t need them, and won’t miss them if they never come into existence.”
Argument of today’s humans, for: “Apes can’t understand the beauty of Jerome’s oil painting Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, nor than they appreciate the nuanced humor of Francis Bacon, the tenets of Confucius, irony, the pride of creative expression – or any wide range of rich experiences that humans can experiences. As humans, we can vary so widely sexual expression, our uses and combinations of foods, and the thousands of unique joys we derive from playing chess, or serving a higher purpose (religion, government, moral causes). Without having evolved from apes, this rich and varied tapestry of homo sapien splendor would never have opened up, and sentience itself would be shamefully fettered.”
Argument 3: Hope for a Greater Beyond
Argument of ancient apes, against: “What more is there to hope for than the beauty and richness of ape life – the very pinnacle of nature?! A billion years from now, we don’t want a world filled with creatures different from us, creatures alien to our values and way of life – we want a world with more and happier apes! Why turn into something that values anything other than what we value? Our hope is our continuation – the good of apes-as-they-are – not evolving some new kind of future with new life. That could never be ‘progress’ anyway.”
Argument of today’s humans, for: “Thank goodness the apes weren’t able to stop our evolution. What would be the purpose of a world, a billion years from now – with no art, no space travel, no rich set of global languages and cultures, no books, no movies, no modern medicine, no science? Apes bloomed into humanity – and thank goodness, because from us bloomed all these new and higher goods that the apes couldn’t have ever imagined.”
The list could easily be ten times as long. The wonders, brilliance, and possibilities of humans seem to most humans to be easily worth the cost of the dangers or humanity.
Most of us humans would agree – blessed is the fact that over millennia we lost most of our hair, grew our craniums, and started walking upright. We have reason to believe as much.
We have so much to be grateful for that sentience and intelligence was not halted, and that evolution was not held back:
- Thank goodness that with a strong society and such big brain we can become an astronaut, or a clothing designer, or a doctor, or a teacher of Greek history, or a writer of books on any topic whatsoever, or someone who makes a living making videos about ants on YouTube, or a Jiu-Jitsu instructor, or a philosopher, etc… and that we are not relegated to the comparatively limited, functional roles of an ape in a tribe in the state of nature.
- We have our problems – from global warming to nuclear weapons – but thank goodness for medicine, for science, for the development of societies that live in relative peace and unprecedented prosperity.
- Thank goodness that – as much as we respect their sentience and their uniqueness – the fettered, lesser minds of lemurs and chimpanzees didn’t halt the blooming potential for future, richer, greater life that we humans now experience.
- Thank goodness that evolution was not stunted by a Council of the Apes.
The Absurdity of Eternal Human Predominance
A billion years of orangutan society – with no progression beyond in art, science, language, technology, or richer intelligence – would seem to us to be a screaming shame. All the missed experience, all the discovery, all the richness of consciousness and creative power… all the progress that would go unrealized.
But these arguments, this rationale, has a downside: It implies that a billion years of homo sapiens society – with no progression beyond – would be just as much of a shame.
Let’s examine the arguments we made as to why the apes should have allowed us to evolve, but with a twist: This time we’ll address the reasons for and against fettering the evolution of future intelligence beyond humanity.
Argument 1: The Benefits of Invention and Scientific Progress
Argument against: “We have discovered modern medicine, engaged in space travel, and invented everything from the wheel to the iPhone. There is no reason to create dangerous tools beyond our understanding and our purposes. Any ‘invention’ beyond the human mind couldn’t really benefit us, anyway.”
Argument for: “If a 2% genetic difference from chimpanzees to homo sapiens has taken us from throwing dung and eating bananas to the internet and space travel, imagine what rich and worthwhile futures could be opened up by another great ‘unlocking’ of intelligence. We might cure all known diseases, we might travel close to the speed of light, we might harness the energy of distant suns… but most importantly, we’d open up new realms of nature’s secrets that present, limited humans can’t even comprehend – much like chimpanzees can’t comprehend astrophysics.”
Would we really argue for the development of intelligence from ape to man, but hypocritically not carry those arguments forward?
Argument 2: Rich, Conscious Experience
Arguments against: “As humans, we are the very height of sentience and intelligence. We have the rich pleasures of creating art, reading a poem, teaching a child, anticipating a wedding, and the endless variety all between. We don’t need any more rich, sentience experience – we have the whole rainbow of possibilities before us. Any qualia we can’t now experience is not worth experiencing anyway.”
Arguments for: “The sentient richness of apes is nothing compared to the richness of our appreciation of art, literature – and our dynamic array of pleasures and experiences – including creative pursuits, different kinds of love, and so on. We can’t even imagine the blooming, transcendent varieties of pleasures that would await post-human intelligence. If it is anything close to the order of magnitude of richness from chimp to human, it would undeniably be worth striving for. Nature ‘bloomed’ sentience in lower animals, then higher into us, and we should not stunt it from blooming further.”
Would we argue that apes should have allowed sentient richness to expand beyond chimpanzee limitations, but hypocritically make the argument that that beautiful progress should stop with us?
Argument 3: Hope for a Greater Beyond
Arguments against: “What more is there to hope for than the beauty and richness of human life – the very pinnacle of nature?! The hope for humanity should be more, happier humans. Maybe populating Mars. Certainly healing our planet and staving off climate change as well – to help sustain human life. A billion years from now, humans-as-they-are should reign supreme as they do now.”
Arguments for: “At some point earth had no humans, and while there was sentience, and here was intelligence… it wasn’t anything like the rich, glorious expanse of creativity and expression and experience that exist now thanks to the billion human minds on this planet. Our highest hope is to continue this great trajectory of intelligence and become more – to allow nature to blossom into myriad forms of intelligence and goodness that we can’t understand… to steward sentience forward like the apes (albeit without knowing it) did for us.”
From a human vantage point we would hope that all apes would hold out hope for something greater or higher than themselves – but would be hypocritically
We have so many reasons to not hold evolution back – to not stifle the trajectory of sentience and intelligence:
- We should hope with all our might that just as the experience of humans is vastly more varied and interesting than those of apes, the experience of post-human intelligences should be vastly greater still – bringing forth an untold amount of new value to the world as far beyond what we (humans) can imagine as today’s human life is from the imagination of chimpanzees.
- Modern human life has its charms – from vernacular architecture to the joy of sports to a warm bath – but we should hope with all our might for an end to unnecessary suffering, for a proliferation in the variety and intensity of bliss, and for the ability to reap the lofty rewards of unlocking nature’s secrets beyond what humans can comprehend – for the extents of and conditions for life to be astronomically better than they are today.
- We should hope with all our might that – as much as we respect the tremendous value of homo sapiens – the fettered present minds of humans won’t be the highest “blooming” of intelligence that nature is capable of producing.
- We should hope with all our might that there was will be no stunting decision made by our own Council of the Apes.
We should, that is, if we could hold the same tenets of value in mind when thinking about the ape-to-human transition as we do when we consider the humans-to-posthuman transition.
Of course, we are hypocrites.
Ultimately our motive is the same as apes: Self-interest. We’re disinterested in considering the good, and only in behooving ourselves – which manifests in a low and dull form as speciesist self-protection.
We can expect a human Council of the Apes to occur – and we can expect self-interested speciesism to attempt to fetter the trajectory of intelligence.
Lucretius’ torch will be handed off regardless of the conclusions of this council.
Thus the sum of things is ever being reviewed, and mortals dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.
The question is whether or not we want to have a hand in influencing the trajectory or not. Maybe if we do, it’ll be more likely to be handed forward rather than backward.
Header image credit: IMDB