The Case for Anthropocentrism
It is often said of humanity that we are like a plague on the life of Earth. Had we never evolved, proliferated and grown to exploit natural resources on a massive scale, life would not now be experiencing its sixth mass extinction; what a tragedy that the most incredible natural phenomena we know to exist — the biosphere as a whole — is being undermined by creatures as wasteful, war-mongering, and climate-changing as we. Let us, however, re-examine the circumstances surrounding life, its value, and the value of humanity in order to properly assess the situation.
Life has been around for about as long as the earth has had a cool enough atmosphere to support it (at least 3.5 billion years). It can be loosely said to have reached its peak complexity during each of the several 100 million year periods between extinctions of undisturbed environmental equilibrium in which even the most uniquely fastidious organisms were allowed to flourish. The result was the awe-inspiring diversity of life our ancestors were fortunate enough to have been evolved from.
Earth-life’s future is undeniably tied to the future of the sun, and astronomy tells us it will not continue to support life indefinitely; about 5.4 billion years from now our star will expand and singe the entire planet’s surface before exploding as a nova. Life will have been decimated in its entirety in one marvelous, unfortunate act of indifference.
If we consider what the Drake Equation has to say about the probability of the occurrence of simple life on other planets, it’s overwhelmingly likely that millions of other biospheres have arisen, reached peak environmental complexity, maintained a state of ecological equilibrium for millions, if not billions of years, and died with their parent stars. Life can — from this perspective — be more easily described as a haphazard, wonderfully interesting, but altogether straightforward consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry acting on fortuitous mixtures of chemical soups in murky ponds on rocky worlds that orbit medium-sized stars.
That beings intelligent enough to produce abstract models of the very fabric of their existence should arise from that process adds a level of value we’re less confident exists frequently in the universe. Of the millions of biospheres that may come into existence, it could be that only a handful provide the combination of circumstances necessary for the creation of intelligent life: multicellular organisms on Earth, after all, did not evolve highly intelligent species until after 800 million years of natural selection. Although it’s difficult to argue that humanity has a greater ‘purpose’ than simpler life forms alone, it seems to me that the occurrence of intelligent life should be regarded with as many more orders of magnitude of care as it is rare.
Imagine the enormous stretch of time that life would have existed on earth undisturbed had humanity not arisen to undermine it – at least a few more billion years. The result, although wonderfully interesting and awe-inspiring, wouldn’t be all that profound. It wouldn’t be more than another of the plethora of biospheres that have arisen and died elsewhere throughout the universe. However non-intuitive and impressive the existence of low-intelligence megafauna life may be, it’s not capable on its own of producing possibilities as profound and exciting, nor as mysterious and promising as from humanity. Our universities, institutes, corporations and companies are wonderfully unique ambitions dedicated to the production of a breathtaking diversity of knowledge and tools. Those organizations together have a life of their own and are in the infancy of their tenure — they have futures that abound in potential. We become excited by the future not because we think it’s stagnant, but because we know it will continue to produce new and exciting possibilities.
Humanity currently relies on the biosphere for its existence. That may not always be the case. Environmental stewardship is important because humanity is important, not because of a special consideration for the phenomena of life. If we had the luxury to continue to proliferate our civilization without displacing any Earth life, it would be of great value for us to conserve it. That possibility notwithstanding, we shouldn’t demean the efforts of a civilization to prosper, even if it requires the sustainable cannibalization of a part of its own biosphere. Humanity may in fact act like a parasite on life, but its relative rarity and its potential to create new kinds of value should far outweigh the cost of hosting it.