Part 3 in a series on Evolution and Sustainability

By Jim Harding

Humans of all cultures acknowledge interdependence with other species. This arises from the domestication of animals and, in pre-agricultural hunting and gathering societies, our greater interdependence with the wild. Our human-centric lens, however, fails to grasp that this is not just about our dependence on other creatures for sustenance, but something more encompassing: we co-evolve.


Today’s great variety of dogs comes from our co-evolution with wolves. About the time of the demise of our Hobbit ancestors, 13,000 years ago or perhaps even earlier, human groups began to adopt orphaned wolf pups. Symbiosis developed quickly in this poignant relationship between highly sociable canines and primates. Early humans cared for the wolf as a member of the clan while the wolf brought new sensibilities to the hunt.
Even when a species isn’t being domesticated, co-evolution is at play. Many New World large animals were at great risk from the skillful, migrating human hunter. Perhaps they became extinct because they hadn’t co-evolved with our early ancestors, as had the brown bear, bison and moose that migrated from Eurasia alongside humans. In Here On Earth, Tim Flannery tells of a triangle of co-evolution which involves a honey bee, a bird and our early ancestors. The bird that developed a distinct call which directed human gatherers to a nutritious beehive got rewarded with honey. And on it went!


The sense of loss from not being inside the experience of co-evolution is in the stories of most cultures. Co-evolution that is mutually beneficial and regenerates a shared habitat is so commonplace that we can say that this “inter-being” is the foundation of our ongoing survival. And now we are seeing the global consequences of going far down the path of separation and dualism. If we continue to allow powerful economic and political interests to undermine the biosphere’s biodiversity, we’ll continue to degrade our quality of life. It’s that simple.

To protect ourselves we have to protect the whole web of life; this is the new Golden Rule of the ecological age. We can’t continue to praise a creator who we believe thinks we are so special that we can do as we please; we need to see that all of creation, of which we are a part, is special and demands respect. This requires a shift in spiritual awareness towards a view of “oneness” which we can see glimmers of, among the “prophets” of the world’s religions.

Flannery puts this well, saying “…our environmental problems ultimately stem from having escaped co-evolution’s grip, for we humans have a gypsy history, and as we’ve spread across the globe we’ve broken free of environmental constraint and destroyed many co-evolutionary bonds that lie at the heart of productive ecosystems.” That is, until the big challenges of environmental health, climate change and food and water security came home to roost!


Can we get back on track?

The revolution in neuroscience can help. We are learning how “plastic” our brains are. This presents new possibilities for recovery if the right rehabilitative actions are taken soon after brain injuries from strokes, car accidents, contact sports or diseases like encephalitis, which struck a friend of mine over a year ago.

This knowledge also enables us to better understand how we become so conditioned to see “reality” in certain ways and to go on acting within this “paradigm”, including in ecologically unsustainable ways. Unintended negative consequences compound when political, economic or religious belief systems become closed, self-fulfilling systems of thought and action. Such “fundamentalism” is not evidence-based; those who commit to such systems of thought and action will carry on, regardless. We see such actions-of-denial in a startling way over the failure to address the impending climate crisis. Ecological sustainability continues to be trumped by antiquated notions of economic growth.
Perhaps we have become too enamoured with our “innovation” brain. The two frontal hemispheres so enlarged in Homo Erectus enable logical thought, complex language and other “higher” cognitive functions. This capacity, developing from our bipedal ancestors, makes us distinctively human. The potential for self-consciousness and consciousness-of-self, our self-realization as a mortal sentient being, results from such capacity. This capacity has also pushed us “forward” so that a diversity of civilizations, developing during our interglacial period, have spread quickly into an emerging but still unsustainable global civilization.

There remains much delusion in this big-brain egocentricism. For we are also still interconnected with our mammal brothers and sisters through what we call the “mid-brain” – the amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus, vital to our emotions and long-term memory. Have you ever wondered why our long-term memory, which may even outlast senility, is so tied to emotions? Or why music and song is so important in all our cultures?

We don’t just identify with other mammals because our “higher” cognitive functions enable us to intellectually comprehend our evolutionary interdependence. Rather we identify directly with the mammals of land and sea, from elephant to whale, because we share a dimension of inter-being through our common evolutionary and brain-phenomenology. Research on inter-species communication will continue to overthrow anthropocentrism.

Our inter-being doesn’t stop with our ability to think, talk, feel and remember, for we also have what’s called the “old brain”, the reptilian brain which includes our brain stem and the nearby cerebellum. Without this we wouldn’t be able to survive; it involves involuntary muscle movement, which shapes much of our action. It “oversees” our autonomous nervous system which self-regulates, in spite of our consciousness being so easily distracted.


Human awareness-in-activity is shaped by all three layers of brain function. Since the great discovery of the unconscious we have come to better understand that we can react like a reptile, emote like a mammal and rationalize our behavior, perhaps like the primates. We have all these capacities within us and finding a sustainable path for our species has a lot to do with quickly creating a better balance among them.  Such a capacity for integration, through imagination and communicative art, may have already equipped us to out-survive our Neanderthal relatives. It is starting to look like it wasn’t our tool-weapons.

Today we’re being challenged to foresee the harmful environmental and social consequences of reptilian-like economic activity, where we forge on as though our survival really depended on the pursuit of profits and jobs at any cost. Mindlessly acting out of perceived self-interest, without empathy for those affected or foresight for forthcoming outcomes, has become all too characteristic of the human condition in our economistic times. We remain capable of constructing beautiful and convincing ways to honour our false gods and cherish our mindlessness.

“Higher” cognitive functions enable us to create clever and convincing narratives that cut us off from realizing the cumulative consequences of our actions. And from realizing how the fragmentation of our “higher” and “lower” brain functions helps maintain our delusions, including our predisposition to blame the “other” for getting us into our own mess. If we over-identify with such a narrative we can muster sufficient emotion and reaction to defend our symbolic self by any means necessary. Much destructive behavior comes from a split brain defending a fixed identity.

More integrated awareness can help us to surpass human-centric notions used to justify our sense of entitlement to carry on with ecological degradation without regard for future generations.  If we saw ourselves more in terms of the processes of co-evolution that have shaped what we have become, we would start to see the natural world anew, through different eyes. Thankfully these deeper eyes, coming from the inter-being rooted in all three layers of our brain, are coming into play as we face the evolutionary challenges of our own making.

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