Maybe I’m foolish
Maybe I’m blind
Thinking I can see through this
And see what’s behind
Got no way to prove it
So maybe I’m blind
But I’m only human after all
I’m only human after all
Don’t put your blame on me
Don’t put your blame on me
— “Human” by Rory Charles Graham and Jamie Hartman
The first, and perhaps most important thing we need to address, if we really want to change the world for the better, is our understanding of a single phrase: “we’re only human.”
A great many of us on this planet share a complicated, and seemingly contradictory understanding of our human nature. On the one hand, we think of ourselves as the supreme creations of the galaxy and the pinnacle of cognition and rationality: there are no problems that we cannot solve, no frontiers, whether spatial or intellectual, that we cannot conquer. God made us in his image, and since he doesn’t really show himself around these parts anymore, you might as well take us for the real thing.
Curiously, given this inordinately flattering self-image, many of our modern sensibilities rely also on a second understanding of our human nature: an assumption not of supremacy but frailty. We believe that we are inherently greedy and self-interested beings. We are original sinners — weak, easily tempted, and fatally flawed. These weaknesses, upon which we place the blame for all of our major problems, are the last traces of nature we see in our human nature, a biological legacy of ‘primitive’ origins that we have long struggled to transcend.
This duality may seem contradictory — that we are so virtuous yet also so hobbled by our basal vices. In fact, they are both highly complementary and extremely dangerous.
Confidence in our inherent supremacy leads us to be reckless as we attempt our own acts of creation, remaking the world as it suits us, in our image. And when our recklessness leads us to make mistakes or act unjustly, when we collapse a fishery, pollute a river delta, extirpate thousands of species, enslave millions of our kin, and drive hundreds of millions more into poverty, it is our frailty, not our intent or vision, that is to blame. We are flawed creatures, yes, but we can be better. Eventually, we will get it right. And when we do, the age of New Eden will be upon us.
This insidious asymmetry of how we understand our nature empowers us because it absolves us of any wrongdoing. It renders irrelevant all evidence that we have that our assumptions wrong, or that our plans are flawed or aspirations inherently harmful. It censors every reason that we encounter for reconsidering the modern, supremacist, civilizing vision that is central to our western culture.
In other words, the way we understand our nature keeps us from really learning from our mistakes. And when learning is the essence of life, to stop learning is akin to death.
Ultimately, both assumptions about our human nature are wrong. Fortunately, they can both be replaced with a different understanding of who we are, one that is less dangerous and far more empowering.
First, we need to accept that we are not inherently flawed beings. We have caused countless major problems, no doubt, but the purportedly brutish and self-interested nature that we use to explain these mistakes away is a myth, one with deep roots in Judeo-Christian philosophy that was written to create a rationale for the elites to use religion and government subjugate the masses.
Like every other species on this planet, we are the product of millions of years of learning, of biological and sociocultural evolution that has played out in partnership with the rest of the beings and landscapes on this planet. Fatal flaws and self-interest simply do not make the cut when natural selection is the primary adjudicator. Our missteps — our greed, our violence, our megalomania — have only emerged in the most recent fraction of human history: a few hundred years out of hundreds of thousands. The are the product not of our nature but of a culture built on supremacy and domination.
We are an inherently social and cooperative species. We behave the way we do because we are caged by a culture that forces us to act against this better nature if we want to survive. This is evident in all the knowledge we have gained in recent years about human prehistory and the long, successful tenure of Indigenous peoples on continents around the world — knowledge that today’s Indigenous people didn’t lose in the first place (even though we tried to force them to). Hobbes and Locke were wrong. Before civilization, people lived well, with sophisticated systems of subsistence and science and stewardship and medicine and education and trade. Did they make mistakes? Sure, but they learned from them, while we do our best to explain those mistakes away.
Second, we need to recognize our limits. That we are not inherently flawed does not mean that we are all powerful. Just as we have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge of evolution and the nature of our species in the past few decades, we have learned even more about the complexity of the universe and the indomitable influence of systems and chaos in our lives. We are connected to one another in myriad ways, just as the entire system of life and death and order and disorder on this planet is connected in infinite, untraceable ways to the ever-expanding universe that we occupy.
For centuries, we have premised our civilizational aspirations on the notion that the world is mechanistic in nature: easy to understand, easy to control. Like balls on a billiard table, if we measure the angles and calculate the vectors, the game will be ours. But that’s not the way the world works. The reality we occupy is not simple and predictable. It is complex, chaotic, and emergent. It is greater than the sum of its parts.
Acknowledging complexity need not be an act of resignation or fatalism, however. That we can not dominate the world around us does not mean that we cannot succeed and thrive as members of it. It simply means that we cannot succeed via dominance. We must accept that the living universe operates with a power greater than ours. Currently, we do our best to work against it. Instead, we need to learn to work with it, to resume our place within it.
Life is a system of learning. We have come to call this system evolution, but our modern philosophy of atomistic individualism has led us to misunderstand how evolution really works. Most think of evolution as a thing that happens to individual species; that it is a process of competition: the survival of the fittest. But this wrong. A projection of our own obsession with individual success. Evolution is a process that happens to systems. It is collective problem solving through a complex interplay of organisms, niches, and biomes. In the long view, evolution arcs toward diversity and cooperation. We can be a part of this system of life, and thrive within it, but we cannot control it.
Our future, if we want to have one, must therefore be built not agendas for individual power and domination but on rebuilding relationships with the rest of the system of life around us. Relationships are how we learn, how we care, and how we build resilience. The more mutualistic our relations and the more extensive our networks — with other people, with the land and seascapes we inhabit, and with the many other species that share them with us — the better chance we have at realizing radically changed, secure and fulfilling lives.
We’re only human, but we are a part of an amazingly sophisticated and elegant system of life.
We’re only human, and we can rely on, respect, and care for one another.
We’re only human, and we can rely on, respect, and care for the other-than-human and more-than-human.
“We’re only human” is the starting point for a radically changed society.
Thanks for reading! If you like this essay, please clap AND remember that you can clap up to 50 times if you like it that much!