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James MacAllister

My original point was made in reference to Big History and its claim that it is science-based. That may be the intention, but it is obvious that there is a decidedly anthropocentric bias by Big Historians which is unscientific. Unlike religions, that each start with certainty in their Truth(s), science is a search for truth which acknowledges that science “facts” are not the truth. They are our explanations for things based on the current best evidence. Scientific facts remain corrigible and often change, and a scientific mind stays open to being surprised by evidence and making reappraisals. Scientists must avoid “the temptation of certainty”. The idea that humans are the pinnacle of evolution (higher, more evolved) is an expression of our anthropocentric bias and depends entirely on using measures that are also anthropocentric and “cherry picked”.
When I quoted Lynn Margulis, it was to point to out the hubris of thinking that it is we who care for the planet, rather than the planet providing for us. I would agree with Rich that “being aware of the stories we live by makes all the difference.” I would suggest that it is our anthropocentric notion of our lofty position and abilities combined with the belief by many that we have a supernatural ally that prevents us from being scientific when it comes to issues such as pollution, loss of biotic diversity, population control and global climate change. It is this idea that we are “in control” and can turn things around when we choose– that technology or a miracle will save us–that has us lulled into inaction for many decades.
I would agree with Karen that we are remarkable organisms, but not in terms of better, higher, more evolved (all anthropocentric, not scientific), but because we are different. We are part of nature’s diversity. Of course the same can be said of all organisms, all are remarkable and all, including we humans, are highly dependent on our surroundings including other organisms–we are communities living inside larger communities. Is being dependent so bad? Not at all, in fact, my point and Lynn Margulis’ is that the realization that we are dependent on the biosphere is essential if we hope to change course.
My naturalist friend, Elwood Root, likes to tell a story about pond scum which grows exponentially in its pond as long as the nutrients last and then suffers a complete collapse. Elwood then asks his audience, “ Do you know what the day before the collapse looks like to a pond scum?” Faced with quizzical looks, he provides the answer, “Like every other day.” If we are Homo sapiens (wise men), why are we acting like pond scum? Loving the Earth is good, but we need to protect ourselves from our own hubris and complacency.
If we are integral (necessary) to the planet is not the same as being a part of nature. We humans share the same common ancestry as all life on Earth, so we are natural. But it should be noted that species can be natural and still go extinct. No animal species from the Cambrian (542 may) survives today (although various descendent species do). My point is that being natural does not guarantee survival. According to Oxford Professor of Palaeobiology, Martin Brasier, extinction events appear to be cyclical and not necessarily dependent on cataclysms as triggers (a pebble can start an avalanche). Extinction would make sense as part of the Gaian regulation of the planet: a way of naturally selecting those species that make Earth hospitable for life from those that do not.
I hope that I have clarified why anthropocentric bias, which is often at odds with the reality of our place in nature and evolution, is a crucial flaw in Big History which claims to be scientific and is intended to help us to know our place in nature and history. Are you a better person because you are conscious of our tendency to be anthropocentric? You are certainly in a better position to think critically about what constitutes “green” or “environmentally conscious”.
To Karen’s question about what is the point of humility? Lynn Margulis used to have a slide in her presentations on which was written the ancient Indo-European word for Earth, “Dghem”, which is also the root for humus, human and humility. I believer her point was that humility is the awareness that we are of the Earth and dependent on it. This is distinct from a reading of humble as being weak, lacking control, incapable, deficient, ineffectual, meek, etc. Lynn often closed her talks with this Emily Dickinson poem about looking into a water well and finding humility.
What mystery pervades a well!

That water lives so far—

A neighbor from another world

Residing in a jar

Whose limit none have ever seen,

But just his lid of glass—

Like looking every time you please

In an abyss’s face!

The grass does not appear afraid,

I often wonder he

Can stand so close and look so bold

At what is awe to me.

Related somehow they may be,

The sedge stands next the sea—

Where he is floorless

And does no timidity betray

But nature is a stranger yet;

The ones that cite her most

Have never passed her haunted house,

Nor simplified her ghost.

To pity those that know her not

Is helped by the regret

[at this point Lynn would point to herself]
That those who know her , know her less

The nearer her they get.
This is another idea of humility, which is one that acknowledges and takes into account that our knowledge (what we think we know) is far outweighed by what we don’t know. The search for scientific knowledge often produces more questions than answers.