On Misanthropy

Human Development by Eleanor Litz

My buddy the engineer clings to the nobility of man, presumably because we invented mathematics. He accuses me of misanthropy.

But I am not a misanthrope. A misanthrope hates mankind, which I do not. Neither do I hate bobbit worms, tornadoes, or cellular slime molds.

I see mankind no differently than I see the chimpanzees with which we share almost all of our DNA. Or perhaps alligators might be a less inflammatory example.

When an alligator takes a child, or a mountain lion the family pet, it is a tragedy. We might, for reasons of safety, put the animal down. But we have no expectation that they could’ve acted differently. To hate them, one may as well hate the weather, or bad teeth, or the river in your way.

Across the entire length of recorded history, only a handful of our kind are worthy of being called something more than ape. I suspect they would all fit comfortably on a single cruise ship — with room to spare.

The rest of us are no different than any other large social mammal. Our behaviors are near-completely explicable on just two variables: food and reproductive success. I’m not convinced the remainder isn’t due entirely to chance.

We are wild animals — irrational and unpredictable. We’ve simply radically expanded the boundary of the herd inside of which the same social rules govern now as always.

Even restricting ourselves to the last century, on any objective measure, we are no more domesticated than a herd of wildebeest. In fact, I suspect we killed far more of each other in the 20th century than they did. And on the numbers, we rutted no less.

Orine and I watched the Netflix documentary “Don’t F**K With Cats” recently. It’s a wonderful and subtly complete catalog of human behavior. I suspect most people who watch it won’t see past the titular horrors. But then, it’s a bit like trying to explain water to a fish.

There is no participant in that entire mess who did not behave atrociously — the police, the media, the “regular people” on the internet, the audience, even the filmmakers, who at least acknowledged their participation in the tragedy, however impotently, at the end.

I don’t hate humans, not any more than I hate fish. Both are a natural function of this planet. I’m not optimistic about our long-term chances, but then, I’m not pessimistic either. I suspect we will suffer the same fate as 99.99% of all species that ever lived: namely, go extinct — but probably not anytime soon.

However, before we do, we will likely create the first conscious, intelligent beings in history who are not animals and who therefore have a chance at becoming what we like to pretend we are.

The future belongs to them.


For those who want an appreciation of just how “bad” it really is, take this Stanford course on Human Behavioral Biology:

cover image: Human Development by Eleanor Litz