Learning from Extinctions . . . and Life
Biologists estimate that more than 90% of the species of organisms that have existed on the Earth have gone extinct. Linguists guess that 3000 of the world's current 6000 languages will disappear by the end of this century. The death of cultures is a prominent characteristic of human history, and continues into the present. And humans themselves? Its a pretty safe guess that very few of the readers of this essay will survive the next hundred years.
Every death is a break, a disruption in the established pattern of things for the survivors - whether they be species or languages or cultures or individual human beings. And they are no less a disruption in the established pattern of things when they go unremarked. Most species probably don't notice if another species goes extent, but they undergo evolutionary changes as a result. The same is true of languages and cultures; neither notices breaks but both are affected by them. Humans though often are not only affected by breaks but often take special notice them, are disturbed by them, made sad or frightened by them, particularly when they involve death or other losses.
Why is that? Why are we so upset by death and other breaks, by losses that produce disruptions of the established pattern of things, when so many other things around us treat them with equanimity, even indifference? And is there something we could learn from the non-human world? Have we things in common with it that might be relevant to our reactions to sudden changes in the established patterns of things, that might ease our distress at them?
One difference, of course, that might account for our unusual reaction to breaks is that we are conscious. Our discomfort is associated with things we experience inside ourselves, with feelings that are almost certainly absent in species, in languages, and in cultures (though they certainly are present in the individuals making up those cultures). But that just redefines the question of why we experience discomfort whereas things around us don't. And it’s a difference from things around us rather than a similarity that might help us.
Is distress at loss and associated disruption inherent in being conscious, in having feelings? Or is there something deeper, something changeable involved? Perhaps we could turn the question around a bit, in light of other things around us. They too are disrupted when something that has been around them disappears. Perhaps it is not actually having feelings, or even the feeling of being disturbed that causes us distress but the feeling of loss that does so? Maybe it’s not "distress at loss and associated disruption" that is the problem but rather a feeling of disruption that in turn produces a sense of loss?
If a feeling of loss is one (at least) of the important elements in our discomfort at breaking, maybe we need to examine that a little more closely. About 65 million years ago, the earth was struck by a large comet or meteor. In the ensuing cataclysm, something in the vicinity of 80% of existing species were lost. Among those that survived were some small, furry animals that had changed little over the preceding million or so years. Following the cataclysm they began to more rapidly evolve and diversify, yielding today's cats and dogs and horses and whales and ... ourselves.
Loss, in the sense of disappearance and disruption, there certainly was 65 millions years ago, on a scale exceeding anything we have ever experienced or could imagine. But in addition to the disappearance and disruption, indeed because of the disappearance and disruption, there was the new potential for creation, an opening for the exploration of new ways of being alive. Moreover, what was lost was lost only in the narrowest sense. The new ways of living, including our own, did not replace older ways but rather built on them, was made possible by them. In a very real sense, including the genetic, organisms today, ourselves included, exist not instead of but because of those that have previously existed. We are the products and contain within ourselves elements of all earlier living organisms.
How did the little fuzzy things feel 65 millions years ago? I don't know if they did. How would we feel if we were there then? Disrupted, certainly. Frightened, certainly. Sad, with a deep sense of loss? Probably, if we were as we are now. But we too evolve, and maybe there are some lessons in what happened 65 million years ago that are relevant for us today.... and tomorrow.
Perhaps a tight coupling of feelings of disruption and feelings of loss made sense in the past, for evolutionary and/or cultural reasons. But maybe we could come to loosen the coupling, in the present and future? "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am?" Maybe we could evolve so as to see disruption not as a frightening and undesirable intrusion into the way things are (and are supposed to be) but rather as an opportunity to create new ways of being? And maybe we could come to see disappearance not as loss but rather as transformation, an untragic, perhaps even joyful acknowledgement that what has lived beside us now lives inside us?
Maybe it’s time to break with what we have been, and become what we have the wherewithal to become? To recognize that we are, as we have always been, a part with other forms of life of a larger and ongoing experiment in trying out new ways of living? To live in and for the future, rather than the past and present. Then we might see that neither death nor breaking is the tragedy we tend to see it as but rather is often the door to what has not yet been.