Martin LeFevre,

A boyhood enthusiasm for America’s early space program, plus a rebellious religious nature that led to so-called mystical experiences, matured into a passion for asking the big questions. Even so, one has to ask the right questions, and persist in asking them, until the universe releases its secrets.

The question ‘where did man go wrong?’ somewhat misses the mark. It’s shorthand for how and why humans evolved to be a planetary force of disorder and devastation, when all other life unfolds in a dynamic order.

The human brain used to be called ‘the pinnacle of creation.’ But using it, humans are extinguishing half the species of animals and plants on earth. It’s called “the Sixth Extinction,” the first being brought about by a sentient species. That boggles the mind.

Life unfolds in a seamless order of creation and destruction. But on this planet at least, one species evolved separative and manipulative abilities that threaten the viability of all life besides bacteria and cockroaches.

To even consider the question of where man went wrong, one has to have a clear perception and feeling for the wholeness of nature, and of the fragmentation by man. The question doesn’t arise from misanthropy, but out of deep philosophical curiosity, and a love for the earth and humanity.

If one views nature in terms of the categories, objects, and elements that humans separate it into, then one can’t perceive the seamless order of the universe. Then again, if one has fixed beliefs about what it means to be human, one can’t explore how humans came to be such a contradiction in and of nature.

Nature (by which I’m also including the cosmos) is an unfolding order moving in undivided wholeness, and Homo sapiens evolved inextricably along the same lines and principles as all other life. So how did humans come to be such a huge factor of disorder, to the planet and ourselves?

Some thinkers see man’s increasing tendency toward disorder, destructiveness, and darkness as rooted in patriarchy, or in the Agricultural Revolution, or in the Industrial Revolution. To my mind, these and other historical or cultural developments are secondary and superficial; the root is in the evolution of ‘higher thought’ itself.

The phrase ‘higher thought’ privileges man, and reveals a tendency to idolize the human adaptive pattern of symbolic thought, rather than understand its place, or lack of place in the natural order.

Since the cognitive threshold to ‘fully modern humans’ was crossed about 100,000 years ago, the human brain and ‘human nature’ have remained essentially unchanged. Remove a Cro Magnon child from Europe and raise her in Los Angeles, and she would be indistinguishable in this culture.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that all other animals fit within and derive their sustenance from adapting to a single ecological niche. Only humans have evolved an adaptive pattern that enables us to break the bonds of niche.

That adaptation is, at bottom, the ability to intentionally remove parts of the environment from the whole, accrue knowledge about them (animals, plants, and minerals), and exploit and recombine these reified ‘things’ in as many ways as our minds can conceive.

This constellation of cognitive abilities is the source of both our success as a species, and our alienation from nature and each other. In one sense therefore, man did not go wrong, but evolution went wrong in us.

The human condition is much more complex and subtle than anyone can entirely encompass of course, but one can have insights that illuminate the broad strokes, and point toward the way out of man’s increasing spiral of fragmentation and darkness.

The actual trajectory of human history is the opposite of what the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin believed. Rather than an ascending spiral of evolution progressing to an imagined ‘Omega point’ (the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe is purportedly evolving), the cycles of history have been accelerating in the other direction, generating a deepening global crisis, requiring an evolutionary leap to resolve.

In short, evolution produced a brain capable of consciously manipulating its environments, rather than living unconsciously within ecological niches. The hardware (increased gray matter and complexity) that came with the evolution of symbolic thought gave us the capacity for self-awareness, but the software of self-centeredness threatens to destroy everything.

Egocentricity (not just in the individualistic sense, but also as ‘my family,’ ‘my religion,’ ‘my country’) is not an inherent and immutable sine qua non of human nature. But it is a very strong tendency and ancient habit in all cultures.

Humankind internalized the brain’s newfound ability to consciously separate, and turned it into the ‘me and mine,’ and the ‘us vs. them.’ That is the ‘original sin,’ or more accurately, the ongoing mistake that we now have no choice but to redress at the root within ourselves. Self-knowing is the antidote.

Darkness and evil don’t have a supernatural basis, and don’t require theological explanations. Rather, they are the inevitable and accreting byproducts of the unwise use of ‘higher thought.’

Self-made fragmentation has become a steamroller that’s fragmenting, flattening, and deadening everyone and everything in its path. But is it also ever more urgently driving a conscious transmutation in the human brain, compelling us to make the next evolutionary leap? That’s the true meaning of a revolution in consciousness.