Our Human Predicament

Last month, at the invitation of the V.V. Raman, the president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (www.iras.org), I wrote the following piece on humanity’s predicament.  There are many other good pieces on the IRAS website.  See http://www.iras.org/predicament.html.

Our Human Predicament

Karl E. Peters

Our human predicament is threefold.  We are facing not just one crisis but a “storm of crises.” An underlying cause of these crises is that we have been too successful.  Furthermore, we are not morally equipped to deal with this twenty-first century storm.

The storm we are in includes exponential population growth and, where population is stable, an increase in material standards of living that depletes the planet’s resources; a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor; starvation and malnutrition in many societies while there is an obesity epidemic in others; economic and political instability, mass violence, genocide, war, and terrorism; an increasing rate of species extinction that may affect the foundations of food chains; and global climate change.

These are not things that are just happening to us.  They are the result of a human success story.  After millennia of living in small societies consisting primarily of kin-groups that struggled against the constraints of natural selection, in the last five centuries humanity has “broken loose.”  With the scientific discoveries of micro-organisms, sanitation, and modern medicine, we have reduced infant mortality and increased the human life span, thereby eliminating a major selection pressure on over-population.  With discoveries of how to use fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other natural resources, we have built complex industrial societies, the processes of which pollute land, waters, and sky with waste, including greenhouse gases.  With new technologies of communication (from radios and telephones invented a little more than one hundred years ago to our contemporary internet and satellite global communication systems) there is a growing awareness of the inequalities of wealth.  With the continuous inventions of new technologies and increasing knowledge of events worldwide, we are experiencing increasing rates of change that heighten stress as we try to live in the midst of the growing storm that will not go away but will only get worse.

Confounding this predicament is that we are not morally equipped through our biological evolutionary heritage to deal with a storm this size.  While we may be able to recognize the storm of crises and our role in bringing it about, we lack the capacity to be motivated to deal with it.  Millennia ago we came into being in small-scale societies whose basic task was to survive until the next generation could reproduce itself.  The motivational systems of our brains have evolved for individual self-interest, kin-group cooperation, and reciprocal interactions–all for the immediate future of those with whom we live in direct contact.  We do not have the emotional brain systems that will motivate us to act on behalf of a global human community, of multi-species ecosystems, and of the infrastructure of the entire planet. One hope for a more positive future will involve culturally evolved political, economic, and religious and other value systems that can guide and motivate human living for the good of the planet for the long-term future.  Unfortunately, our current array of most of these cultural systems are oriented to the good of a few and not the good of all.  Even religions at their best, focus on the enlightenment or salvation of individuals, or on small scale efforts for social justice and “green” communities.  At their worst, the value systems of religions, politics, education, and economics contribute to in-group/out-group competition, even to the point of war and the degradation of our planet.

Our human predicament is the storm of global crises that we are facing, created by our own scientific-technological success–a storm that we may be incapable of navigating becausewe have evolved to live in simpler, smaller scale systems of interaction among humans and between humans and the rest of the world.  Our critical challenge is to acknowledge our evolutionary heritage and to find ways to develop the motivation to act globally for the long-term well being of all.

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1 Comment

  1. There is some hope that new birth control, agriculture, and energy technologies can help us as per


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