It has never been easy to trust in the progress of our species, but Covid, war and climate change have further shaken hopes for a better future. That is why the Giordano Bruno Foundation is deliberately setting a counterpoint to the widespread doomsday scenarios of our time, focusing this year on "100 Years of Evolutionary Humanism". An outlook on the gbs central theme 2023 by Michael Schmidt-Salomon.
In 1923, two books were published that were of great importance for the development of evolutionary humanism. One of them was the last book by Russian anarchist, geologist and polymath Pyotr Kropotkin ("Ethics: Origin and Development of Morals"), and the other was the first book by British evolutionary biologist and later Director-General of UNESCO Julian Huxley ("Essays of a Biologist"). Both books illustrated that humans do not have to overcome their "animal nature" in order to embrace humanistic values, but that they can draw on behavioural patterns that have already evolved in the non-human animal world. Evolution has indeed not only produced competitive thinking, disputes over resources, or even a "war of all against all", but also compassion, love, helpfulness, and cooperation.
Kropotkin had already pointed this out at the beginning of the 20th century in his groundbreaking book "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution" (1902), in which he brilliantly anticipated the critique against so-called "Social Darwinism". In 1923, Julian Huxley took up Kropotkin's ideas on "evolutionist ethics" and elaborated them in the following years, using different terms to characterize his philosophy: Sometimes he spoke of a "scientific world humanism", sometimes of "humanistic religion", sometimes of "transhumanism" and from 1960 onwards of "evolutionary humanism" – a term that probably encapsulates this particular combination of scientific thinking and humanistic values most aptly.
"Nothing is more constant than change" (Charles Darwin)
Evolutionary humanism is "evolutionary" in a twofold sense: firstly, because it strictly views humans in the "light of evolution" (see the feature article in bruno.2020), thus recognising them as a product of natural species development that differs from other life forms on earth only in degree, not in principle. And second, given that all human knowledge is fallible and in need of correction, evolutionary humanism incorporates self-correction as a fundamental aspect of its agenda. For this reason, the evolutionary humanism of today considerably differs from evolutionary humanism of the 1960s (and the evolutionary humanism of the future will probably differ just as considerably from our current views).
This does not mean that evolutionary humanism can be changed arbitrarily, as it does have a solid core: for example, it is based on the belief that humanity can evolve ethically, intellectually, technologically and socio-culturally. Evolutionary humanists trust that humans have the potential to create better, fairer, and freer living conditions than we find today. However, they are aware of the many threats to human civilization, which is why they do not assume that the future will necessarily be better than the present, however: it will not necessarily be worse either.
Since the future is "open", evolutionary humanists see themselves neither as optimists nor pessimists, but as possibilists: They expect the worst but hope for the best, striving to do their part to allow the positive, rational, life-affirming potential of our species to flourish rather than our innate tendency towards violence, insanity, and destruction.
"Truly, I live in dark times..." (Bertolt Brecht)
No one can be blamed for feeling that this humanistic confidence in the positive potential of humanity has suffered in recent times. The problems are plain to see: are we not on the verge of destroying the natural foundations of life on which we all depend? Don't the many populist or totalitarian regimes prove that we humans are incapable of getting along with each other in a sensible way? Doesn't the war in Ukraine show in utter clarity that it is not rationality, respect, and consideration, but money, greed, and violence that rule the globe?
Focusing on the vices of the world, it is easy to fathom why some (especially younger) people believe themselves to be part of a "Last Generation". However, in order to correctly assess current dangers, we need to assess them with regard to earlier times, which puts some things into perspective. For example, let's look back 75 years, to the year 1948, when the world was still suffering from the aftermath of the devastating Second World War with its many millions that died: Back then, the horrific atrocities of the Nazi regime were only gradually starting to be recognized, and at the same time the conflict between the "capitalist West" and the "socialist East" was steadily coming to a head, which would lead human civilisation to the brink of nuclear annihilation several times over.
In 1948, there would certainly have been far more valid reasons than today to lose faith in humanity – and yet in that very year, the United Nations (UN) adopted one of the most hopeful and groundbreaking documents in human history, the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". Stating that all human beings are "born free and equal in dignity and rights" was an outrageous, revolutionary proposition in 1948, which was difficult to reconcile with the actual conditions in the vast majority of countries around the world. But this was in fact its strength: it highlighted the deep discrepancy between the humanist utopia of a freer, more just world and the actual living conditions. The Declaration of Human Rights was an unusual, almost unreal spark of light in a dark time, a signal of hope that few took seriously at first, but which over the decades led to remarkable political changes that benefit countless people around the world today.
"But where the danger is, also grows the saving power" (Friedrich Hölderlin)
The Giordano Bruno Foundation (gbs) set out to follow the example of the UN 75 years ago and act counter-cyclically by contrasting the widespread doomsday scenarios of our day with the utopia of a "better world". This is not at all meant to downplay the problems, but to look at them in a different, solution-oriented way.
Consider climate change: We can of course be morally outraged about anthropogenic global warming, but this firstly does not solve any problems and secondly is based on a misconception, since for the moral accusation to be made we would have to counterfactually assume that in the past, given the socio-economic and technological conditions, humanity would have possessed the possibility of operating in a less resource-intensive way. Instead of falling into the moral (and ultimately conspirational) "good-and-evil" game, we should focus on understanding the systemic conditions that have led to environmental destruction and develop new approaches that enable us to establish a more intelligent exchange of resources with nature, as proposed by gbs advisory board member Michael Braungart with his "Cradle to Cradle" approach.
Consider totalitarianism: Instead of becoming paralysed like a rabbit in front of a snake at the sight of despotic figures like Putin, Trump, or Erdogan, we should direct our attention to how many people are rebelling against despots, for example, the courage with which thousands and thousands of Iranians have been standing up to the totalitarian Mullah regime for months. Their example illustrates that crises are always linked to opportunities: If the Mullah regime were to fall, this would be a decisive blow against political Islamism worldwide, which once started with the Iranian revolution. Even the criminal invasion of Ukraine could have positive consequences for world politics in the long run – which, of course, would not bring a single victim back to life and would never excuse the war crimes. Nevertheless, Putin's defeat could ultimately make wars of aggression even more impermissible than ever before.
The current ecological crisis holds opportunities as well, as it could contribute to humanity finally becoming aware of its planetary responsibility in the Anthropocene. To achieve this, we would not only need to develop a deeper understanding of ecological interrelationships and create a political framework geared towards actively preserving our "small climatic niche" (civilisationally, we are adapted to a "warm period in an ice age" that would eventually end even without human intervention). We would also need to overcome the romanticized idea that nature is "good" and humans are "evil". Unfortunately, many seem to believe that the Earth would be a "paradisiacal place" without Homo sapiens, but this corresponds neither to the biological nor the geological nor the cosmological facts. In fact, for the foreseeable future, humanity offers the only realistic chance for more complex life forms to exist on this planet in the longer term, because the next asteroid or comet impact is bound to come (unless we prevent it) and its consequences could be even more devastating for life on Earth than the impact that marked the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
"Life that wants to live, amidst life that wants to live" (Albert Schweitzer)
As Kropotkin and Huxley have shown, humans are neither above nor below nature, but part of it. Only if we become aware of this can we overcome the "sacrosanct dividing line" drawn in traditional philosophy as well as in most religions between humans and non-human animals. Only on this condition do we understand how little distinguishes us "naked apes" from other biological species and that we too are merely life "that wants to live, amidst life that wants to live". This is another topic that distinguishes evolutionary humanism from traditional forms of humanism and that the Giordano Bruno Foundation will pursue in 2023, especially as the "Great Ape Project" ("Basic Rights for Great Apes"), which we relaunched more than a decade ago, can celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.
"100 years of evolutionary humanism", "75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and "30 years of the Great Ape Project" are welcome occasions to focus on the positive sides of our species after all the dire news of recent years. And yet, this year's central theme will undoubtedly be less popular than last year's theme, "The Secular Decade". After all, good news is bad news (from the communication-theoretical perspective) because hardly anyone is interested in it. We are generally far more outraged by what is going wrong than enthusiastic about what is going well or could go even better. This tendency towards tragic oversensitivity also seems to be deeply anchored in human nature, but that does not mean that we cannot work on increasingly recognizing the opportunities that are available to us in addition to the problems that weigh us down.