There are, and have always been monsters on this planet. 800 pound tigers, 1200 pound Grisly bears, 4200 pound Great White sharks and 5 ton Killer whales come immediately to mind. We have many smaller monsters as well, some only barely perceptible with special tools like microscopes and chemical testing. They are armed with fang and claw, rows of razor sharp teeth, a cornucopia of deadly poisons, bad attitudes and all too often hideous strength.
As if this weren’t enough, as we grow up we hear stories of mythical monsters as well, vampires, giants, were-wolves and the like. However, past a certain age the myths fade and most of us come to realize that the real monsters of Earth look back at us out of our own mirrors everyday. How did that happen?
We are those monsters chiefly because of the terrible super-weapon we carry, a roughly 3 pound complex mass of cells armored in bone that stands a few inches above and between our shoulders. The weapon conveys destructive abilities unmatched by any poison, claw or tooth. It has brought the entire planet under our control, and presses endlessly for more worlds to conquer. The human brain is the most sophisticated and effective weapons system developed in the last 4.5 billion years of life on Earth.
The most basic advantage of this weapon is it’s ability to decide to not only kill, but annihilate, instantly without warning, reason, need or actual threat. The youngest of human children will step on a bug without a single thought. That’s a true differentiator between us and the rest of the monsters. We kill simply because we can. What other life-form would have a phrase as common as “Shoot first, ask questions later” in their linguistic lexicon? It is a reflection of our most basic instinctual response to the world we inhabit and ourselves.
The rest of the life-forms on this planet rarely fight to the death unless one intends to consume the other. This inhibition removes the danger that a particular species will cause it’s own extinction through competition. However, it is quite common among humans to fight to the death, in fact we are the only species on Earth that hunts and kills itself regularly, and we do it to a vast extent. This is because of an impressive facility of the human mind, its ability to selectively ignore actual reality and create it’s own instead.
In practice, we each have a facility that acts as a “reality filter,” screening out, transforming and preparing all our input from the real world to conform to our own expectations. Essentially we see, hear, taste touch and feel what we want to, consciously or unconsciously. This lets humans experience the world but perceive it as if it is quite different from what it actually is. Therefore it allows us to believe, with all our hearts, in that which has no real evidence whatsoever. In other words, humans are the final monsters because our imaginations are in complete control.
We look across a street and see a dog who we “know” wants to bite us. We navigate through darkened parking lots and give wide berth to the “muggers and rapists” who doubtless lurk just beyond the light. We see the “obvious” guilt in murders and terrorists on television and hear the larceny in the voices of our own representatives. All of these are “as plain as day” to those who see.
The ability to actively edit perception in turn allows us to fabricate and support with “evidence” compelling reasons for any action we choose. It puts terror in dark corners, makes dedicated enemies of strangers, and feeds every petty worry and fear with a constant barrage of unassailable “proof.” We see the work of dastardly deeds with our own eyes, hear the derision of our “enemies” with our own ears, smell their foul rankness with our own noses and can tell that chickens are dirty and don’t have much of a life anyway, so eat up! Is there anything so dangerous as the human who is firmly convinced by their own “Understanding?” However, this amazing innovation in perception also means that we essentially bear responsiblity for how we experience our world.
Not only does it make humans unpredictable, dangerous and world conquering, it also makes us empathetic, sympathetic and hopeful for lasting peace. All of these often without reasonable evidence or any discernible reasons whatsoever.
The same child who crushed an insect without thought one day, may well come back later and have an entirely different experience. This time their perceptual editing may include more knowledge, experience and different attitudes. Instead of an offensive crawling blot on the floor, they may well see a particular species of known traits, form and habits and be caught up in wonder, suffering an epiphany of “empathetic understanding” for this artfully designed creature.
Evolution, or Nature if you prefer, innovates. Sometimes creating a more successful form but all too often dooming one to failure. Survival is the strict ruler life-forms are measured by. For life, to merely continue is to succeed. Connecting perception to imagination, instead of a simple reactive-learning system, allows us to not only see but visualize. However, it also colors those visualizations with home-made preconceptions. For the child who burned their hand the stove is always hot and lying in wait for a second chance. Bears and sharks are never cut by their own teeth or claws, but we are often injured by our own imaginative perceptions.
It’s a bold innovation, a subtle but giant change and it has worked out well for humans, if not so much for the rest of life on Earth. It’s probably not the result of a single change but more likely thousands of tiny adjustments over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years. Life’s super-weapon, crafted and honed to perfection by hard experience and long survival. With the evident proof, a far better solution to species continuance than a simple inhibition against not fighting to the death.
Innovations going forward may well focus on this facility, the days of better claws, stronger teeth and instinctual reactions are certainly gone. It’s likely that there are those among us already who visualize better, more clearly than most. Those who see some glimmer of truth through the fog of everyday life beyond their own realities. We might be tempted to think that greater accuracy in our perceptional visualizations would be an improvement. It has always made me wonder if the mental processes of doubt and hesitation are subtle beneficial innovations as well. Isn’t it more advantageous to know we might be wrong rather than have more confidence in our own “rightness?” If that’s true, doesn’t that make doubt a kind of evolutionary advance or gift, and surety a backward trait?
It takes too long with too many possibilities to really know the next advantage in evolution, but we can certainly use our wonderful facility to project some possibilities. After all the same facility that makes us the fiercest of all Earth’s monsters also made us able to mold an entire world to our needs and has taken us out into space and the rest of the universe. Perhaps there are clues out there in the world that if lighted with sufficient understanding can show us where this leads. What do you think?
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2012