We are pretty remarkable as a species, despite the fact that we are genetically 99% chimpanzees. Not only have we managed to conquer the planet but we have also unraveled many secrets of the universe (most likely multiverse but that shall be the topic of another post). It requires both a ruthlessly self-involved and humble primate to achieve those feats. Recently, though, I feel that self-involvement is on the rise.
In a capitalistic world order and the age of constant over-sharing enabled by mobile computing and social networks it is really easy to lose track of what is really important. Constant invitations to try and buy as well as unending feeds full of selfies, ostentatious material displays, and humble brags seem to bombard us from all sides. It's only natural that we cave in and drift off into the ignorant misapprehension that life revolves exclusively around our little world of superficiality and excess. This cycle of egocentricity and consumption forever continues through the constantly reaffirming nature of these platforms and the popular media. We are all in some way guilty of this (at least most likely everyone who has internet access to read this) whether we like it or not.
Of course, we are meat bags after all - minds manifested in physical bodies with primal needs, so a certain level of self-involvement is built into the machine. I am not suggesting we should all live a selfless and ascetic life but maybe taking a few steps back to put things into perspective would help us to be less egocentric or dare I say less anthropocentric. With this in mind here are ten truths that I remind myself of on a daily basis to be less flawed and a more decent human being:
1. This Universe is 13.7 Billion years old. Our planet is 4.5 Billion years old. Homo Sapiens has been around roughly 200.000 years. Civilization is roughly 50.000 years old. The average life expectancy in the developed world is around 80 years. We are but merely a fleeting blip in this cosmic symphony.
2. This Universe is pretty big. Our Sun belongs to the Milky Way. Astronomers estimate there are about 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way alone. Outside that, there are millions upon millions of other galaxies. It's hard for primate brains to visualize such numbers so lets leave it at: the universe is ridiculously big and the little speck of dust that we call home is pretty insignificant in light of this scale.
3. Billions of years of random cosmic physics has given rise to stars and planets. On these planets the elements that have been created in baking ovens of stars start reacting, thus giving us chemistry. On even fewer of these planets this chemistry through a process yet unknown to us somehow becomes so complex that is gives rise to biology in form of single celled organisms, which eventually evolve to billions of "conscious" (the relativity of this term will be topic of another post) beings. The universe through a very long chain of cosmic and biological evolution gave rise to us. This is the greatest story of all and should make us feel collectively special.
4. The fact that we are alive and exist is very very unlikely and we are extremely lucky to be here. This should by no means invoke the belief in a personal God but rather remind us that our existence is a cosmic accident. 99% of all species that have lived on mother earth have gone extinct and we are on a pretty good trajectory to meet that same fate.
5. Following from all this is that the universe is not made for us. Homo Sapiens is not the goal of this cosmic experiment. With modern civilization being around for 14.000 years we haven't really proven that we are going to stick around forever. So its quite absurd or may I say positively megalomanic to assume there has to be meaning in any human sense for anything.
6. We are living on a rocky crust that is floating on a molten core surrounded by a faint (but life preserving) atmosphere through the dark vacuum of space at around 100.000 km/h. There isn't much around us that we can easily reach that looks very inviting, so for the time being we are stuck on this wonderful blue planet. While most of the climate change debate focuses on "saving the planet" I've come to believe that if the environmental movement had better PR people they would rather brand it "saving civilization". That is what is at stake here! As a matter of fact, if we disappeared tomorrow the planet would rebound in a couple of million years and be in better shape than ever - without us. So let's thank mother nature for our existence (figuratively speaking) and understand that we can only survive with a healthy eco system that can sustain our parasitic race.
7. At this stage it's quite hard to debate the legitimacy of the theory of evolution without looking like a fundamentalist or a right wing nut. Taking into consideration the remarkable journey of life and the fact that all life on this planet, yes all life, has descended from that first magical cell which lived 3.5 billion years ago, one has to question our treatment of other species. There are numerous studies that show empathy in mammals including chicken, pigs and cattle. Yes, animals that we eat actually feel emotional equivalents of fear, aggression, pain and maybe even love. The reality is that our global industrial mass production of meat is not only environmentally prohibitive but also equates to cross species holocaust.
8. Every human being that you see in your every day life is related to you. Our most recent common female ancestor, the Mitochondrial Eve, lived just 200.000 years ago. What's even more remarkable is that every human being's DNA is 99.9% identical. A measly 0.1% of genetic difference creates the beautiful diversity of our primate race. Further, the concept of six degrees of separation suggests that you are connected to every other human being through six steps. That means you know both the street kid in Mogadishu and Hussein Obama (sounds weird doesn't it?) through 6 links. Actually, an analysis of the billion users and friend connections of Facebook estimates that it's more like 4.7 links that separate us. Given this level of connectedness no one is actually really a stranger and we should be a lot nicer to one another.
9. If you are reading this, chances are you are sitting in a house or a flat with electricity and running water. Even though you might doubt what the political leaders in your country are doing, you most likely feel safe on the streets of your city and do not fear to be persecuted for reasons related to you sex, ethnicity, skin color, denomination or sexual orientation. The sad reality is that you are among the privileged few: 2.4 Billion live on less than 2 USD a day. What's even more depressing is that 20.000 people die of hunger every day (that's about 6x the casualties of 9/11 a day), most of which are children. We are a lucky few, we should be aware of it and we should accept the responsibility that comes with it.
10. While for a bunch of primates it might really seem as if we know a lot about the world and universe we live in, this could not be further from the truth. There are many important and essential things that we still don't understand. By the way, this is the amazing thing about the scientific method, you can be honest about lack of knowledge and try to create hypotheses and models that are based on experiments to prove those (rather than quoting fairy tale books). So even though we might think we know anything about something remember it's the mark of an educated person to know the extent of one's own ignorance. That ultimately makes the pursuit of knowledge one of the most worthwhile things to dedicate ones life to.
Most of you probably knew most of these facts on some level and while I admit that reminding yourself of all this on a daily basis might be initially depressing, I assure you that after a while it actually becomes relieving. In a capitalist system that is based on creating dissatisfaction so that we buy the newest unnecessary thing to fill the empty void the rat race leaves us with, our view of reality is constantly distorted. There are some real problems that we are facing as a global tribe and we can only solve them with a lot more awareness and a lot less narcissism.
I am a flawed human being, which is why I try to un-condition my mind by taking a few big steps back from the canvas every day to hopefully raise to the full height that is demanded by our dignity and intelligence. Give it a try! And when all this gets you down once in a while then remind yourself of the most astounding fact about the universe.