How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, February 25, 2011

What do we know? Sentience and the Errors of the Human Ego

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:26).”

I arrived home late last night from my work and play in the Turks and Caicos Islands to an unpleasant surprise. During my absence, Loco Stinky Kitty had thoughtfully prepared a dead animal sacrament for me in the bathroom (I forgot to close the cat flap on my way out of town). Stinky was obviously quite pleased with her masterpiece and rushed to the bathroom to proudly show off her little project. While the massacre of little creatures, splattered across the bathroom is not the welcome home present I was looking for, Stinky obviously missed me, and that sentiment seemed to make up marginally for the unfortunate carnage.

One of Stinky’s victims was a small bird known as a tufted titmouse. Early this morning, I was awakened by a tapping at the window. A little bird was flying around the house from window to window, tapping frantically and peeping in distress – the victim’s mate. Tufted titmice pair for life. The little bird outside my window saw his friend go into the house. Not knowing what has become of her, he anxiously pleads for her return. We placed the mauled body outside, hoping the little bird will eventually come to grips with his loss.

In the islands, one of my work chores was to lay out a road through a pristine piece of land in such a fashion as to cause the least amount of vegetative casualty. The Turks and Caicos Islands are blanketed with a terrestrial habitat known as tropical dwarf dry forest. Rainfall is seasonal and limited, and soils are thin or non-existent. The resultant vegetation is dwarfed. Ancient trees often achieve statures of less than a few meters, but each twisted, gnarled, tenacious specimen growing out of practically solid rock is an individual of magnificence. Who will live and who will die for the sake of a road?

Most “scientists” would say that trees don’t really care if they are cut down or bulldozed. Since they do not have nervous systems, they do not feel pain. Without brains, they are incapable of fear and suffering, so the theory goes. But recent advancement in botanical science has revealed sophisticated chemical mechanisms in plants that are currently beyond our understanding. For example, if a tree is cut down on one side of a forest, stress hormones become elevated in the trees on the other side of the forest. Stress hormones in distant trees will also rise if the surviving trees encounter the person who decapitated their forest cousin. In other words, the trees have a mechanism to recognize individuals whom they have never encountered through some form of communication amongst themselves.

A cat misses her human companion and takes time to prepare a thoughtful welcome home gift. A tiny bird mourns the loss of his mate. A tree experiences fear and memory. Objectivists would say such musings are the fantasy of anthropomorphism, or the projection of human characteristics onto “lesser” organisms. Humans are the only species (as far as we know) that envision themselves as created in the image of divine perfection. As such, we rate our own biological attributes as the pinnacle of superiority. In particular, we believe the relatively high proportion of sloppy, gray material between our ears gives us an almost exclusive monopoly in the world of living organisms on thoughts, love and feelings.

Humans can certainly think. At any given hour of the day, a close scrutiny of one’s passing thoughts reveals a patchwork of ramblings ranging from the profound to the mundane flitting about inside the confines of a human skull. The thoughts may illicit powerful emotions like anger, love and fear. At other times, they are reassuring and soothing.

Buddhists, psychologists and philosophers across the ages have sought to understand the nature of the myriad voices in our heads, and have pronounced them collectively as ego. The ego is a filter to the world. Stimulus from outside the body is absorbed and interpreted. Similarly, information gathered from within also passes across the filter of the ego before being shared with the outside world. Humans often confuse the ramblings of the ego with selfhood, and this confusion is understandable. As the most vocal and insistent element of consciousness, the ego rarely allows anything else time to get recognized. But consciousness beyond the ego certainly does exist because we can observe the ego in action from another vantage point inside our heads, which begs the question: “what is the nature of the observer?”

Regardless of the answers to the above philosophical questions, which will likely be pondered for the remainder of human history on this planet, one must allow that the maintenance of the ego requires an enormous quantity of neurological space. Language, interpretation of stimulus, construction of ideas and the emotional connection to all of the above involve most of the brain’s regions. One could even speculate that most of the relative abundance of brain matter in Homo sapiens could be preoccupied exclusively with the maintenance of the human ego. The other living organisms we deem to be intellectually-inferior, may just be dwelling in the blissful and enlightened state of consciousness that exists beyond the ego. Who then should we say is inferior?

Humanity looks out at the world through a subjective lens shaped by biological limitation and human egocentricity. Our perspective is woefully myopic. As we raze and plunder our way through the world, perhaps it is easier for us to justify our murderous behavior if we deny the reality of sentience to our fellow organisms.  In reality, our slavery to the ego and insistence on human supremacy denies us a conscious connection to our fellow organisms and the real wonders of the universe that most definitely exist outside the human mind. We are the stupid ones.



  1. Good post. As a gardener/estate worker I continually agonize about felling trees, or even lopping off branches. I often wonder what the trees could be feeling. Part of my job is to cut turf i.e. harvest peat for fuel from a nearby blanket bog. ( I live in Ireland ) I always thank the bog for her gift and apologize for violating her.

  2. @Tim, I think that people who live and work in the natural world are much more in touch with the fact that Homo sapiens is not the only important organism in the world. Your sensitivity to the trees and bog you work with illustrate this point. Thank you for your perspective.