I had an interesting conversation the other day. It included something of a debate about who we are as human beings and the question, are we evolving or devolving? It seems to me the answer is yes — and no, depending on your perspective.
In terms of information about the world, technology, and our ability to shape the world, there is no question in my mind that we are evolving — except in those ways we aren’t, that aren’t necessary to our survival or useful to us in our current world. I will venture a guess that any hunter-gatherer has a much more “evolved” sense of their surroundings and of how other animals behave, or are likely to behave, than we do for all our technological advancement. But that’s how evolution works. Species develop those abilities that lead to higher rates of survival for their species. And as a recent experiment with silver foxes showed, those changes in behavior often result in accompanying physical changes. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763232/)
But does the same thing happen with consciousness? Do human beings evidence an evolving consciousness? At this moment in time, I believe the answer to that question is emphatically no. The same science of evolution that leads me to say we are indeed evolving in our ability to shape the world and that some physical changes accompany that — like smaller stomachs, smaller jaws, and bigger brains — also leads me to conclude that our consciousness is not evolving.
One set of facts is sufficient to make that point irrefutable in my mind, and those facts center on nonhuman animals. In an article titled, “This Is How Many Animals We Eat Each Year,” The World Economic Forum reports (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/chart-of-the-day-this-is-how-many-animals-we-eat-each-year/ ) these figures:
- 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.
- Nearly 1.5 billion pigs are killed to feed the growing appetite for pork, bacon, ham and sausages – a number that has tripled in the last 50 years.
- Half a billion sheep are taken to the abattoir every year. The number of goats slaughtered overtook the number of cows eaten during the 1990s, although the figure for cattle excludes the dairy industry.
- When it comes to seafood, the number of individual fish and shellfish is almost impossible to calculate. One hundred and fifty million tonnes of seafood were produced for human consumption in 2016 – nearly half from aquaculture (for example trout or shrimp farms) rather than caught in fisheries.
Oddly, the article leaves out the number of cows slaughtered worldwide each year for consumption. A Well Fed World (https://awellfedworld.org/factory-farms/ ) fills in this information:
- Globally, the death toll <of land animals> exceeds 70 billion.
- The number of aquatic animals killed for food is in the trillions.
The first bullet point from the Well Fed World article tells us that about 18 billion cows are slaughtered yearly (since the We Forum article indicates that 52 billion other land animals are killed yearly). The second bullet translates 150 million tons of “seafood” to trillions of sea animals. The article also points out that “In the last 50 years the number of people on the planet has doubled. But the amount of meat we eat has tripled.”
Just for a perspective on those numbers, the current population of the earth, every man, woman, child and infant, is 7.8 billion. In a meat-eating period of my life when I had a farm, I once had half a cow prepared for my freezer. In an entire year, we weren’t able to finish that meat. These numbers reflect almost three cows per person per year (including infants in that count), and almost seven other land animals per person per year. And let’s say “trillions” means maybe three trillion . . . Almost 130 whole sea animals per person per year. These quantities have little to do with meeting nutritional requirements or feeding the planet.
Despite health and environmental information that suggests we should be going the opposite direction, we choose to eat more meat. Add to that the fact that 30-40% of our food, including meat, is wasted — and we have a picture that demonstrates to me that we are slaughtering animals and eating them either gluttonously or mindlessly or a combination of the two. Evolving consciousness?
I like to hope that most human beings would not want to be part of this carnage if they were directly engaged with it. Indeed, the fact that the breeding and slaughter happens out of sight is strategic. Industry means for it to be mindless, and this suggests industry also believes most people would not want to be confronted with how we treat these living beings. Why else would it prosecute those who attempt to document what happens on factory farms?
But still . . . we are part of it, and we rationalize it in countless ways. “Some are guilty. All are responsible.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
So I’d like to take a closer look at this idea that consciousness is evolving.
THE BIBLICAL FLOOD STORY
Originally God expected that humans would be vegan. What happened? The second Torah story is one of fratricide followed by other stories of violence and lawlessness until finally God declares:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth. (Gen. 6:13)
So the earth is filled with violence and lawlessness, and God puts an “end to all flesh” with the Flood. In its aftermath, does God express the hope that human consciousness might evolve when God grants humans the permission to eat other animals?
Yes, while some interpreters this step as a concession to human nature, others regard it as a way to channel the violent impulses that led to the Flood. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935) says about the permission to eat meat, “If people were denied the right to eat meat, they might eat the flesh of human beings due to their inability to control their lust for flesh.” In this way, the permission to eat meat becomes an aid to improve human behavior, perhaps even human consciousness. Rav Kook calls it a “transitional tax” until humanity arrives at a “brighter era.” Did that work?
THE RATIONALIST ARGUMENT
Stephen Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, says it did. According to Pinker, we are demonstrably less violent today than at any time in the history of the world. He presents facts and figures, which I can’t and don’t dispute. In order to make his case, though, he limits his view to one instance of violence to life, intra-human.
Yet as Harari points out, the greatest crime in history is what human animals have done to nonhuman animals: “Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history. The march of human progress is strewn with dead animals.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question)
So violence has decreased only if you limit your focus to intra-human violence, that is, violence within the “community” of human animals.
And these arguments work only to the extent one can say nonhuman animals are lesser beings than human animals. I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe the Torah says it or at least doesn’t say only that.
DEPERSONALIZING & MECHANIZING MURDER
There is another dimension to this issue in a post-Holocaust era. The Holocaust is noteworthy for bringing to our consciousness an idea that we can depersonalize and mechanize murder. Something formerly unthinkable actually happened, and now it is part of our human psyche as something that exists in the realm of the possible. This event alone speaks against an evolution of consciousness. While the 20th century may not have topped other centuries in absolute numbers of violent events and lives lost, it made a reality of a horrifying concept, the industrialization of murder.
In a powerful video, Alex Hershaft (https://www.jewishveg.org/hershaft-philadelphia) expands the window on the issue of human violence as he points to the unmistakable similarity between how millions of human beings were treated under the Nazis and how we interact with 70 billion land animals and trillions of sea animals a year today.
This commercialization of life, the industrialization of murder (murder: “an act of deliberate killing of another being”), is particularly troubling in view of the increasing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates what ancient wisdom intuited, that nonhuman animals are a population of “sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions.” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/25/industrial-farming-one-worst-crimes-history-ethical-question). As the Torah repeatedly points out, God breathes the breath of life into both nonhuman and human animals, provides both with food appropriate to their needs, and gives the same first commandment to both, “p’ru u’r’vu,” be fruitful and multiply.
The unfathomable numbers of animals we breed just to murder in factory farms every year, 70 BILLION, is a powerful reminder to me that violence has not decreased, and it only took widening our anthropocentric perspective a bit to see it. For me, our factory farm culture negates the rationalist Pinker argument.
A decrease in human-generated violence? This doesn’t seem to me to be what happened. We are not evolving, just directing our greed and violence down another path. In fact, from this perspective, human violence may be on the increase. Has there ever been a century in which more living beings were killed to satisfy the desires of some?
Is there hope?
But are we capable of an “evolving consciousness?” Meaning, should we hope that human beings will change with regard to their attitude to other living beings? And again, my opinion is no. At least I don’t see it at this moment in the history of human evolution.
There are many drives that are part of our DNA, but two that stand out to me are the drive toward cooperation, even compassion, and the drive toward competition and beating out the competition — a drive toward community and problem solving — and a drive toward tribalism and warfare. Rabbinic tradition frames these drives as a “yetzer ha-ra” and a “yetzer ha-tov,” a good inclination and an “evil” inclination. Both these drives are basic to the survival of a species, and we share them with other members of the animal kingdom. If these drives are basic to survival, why would they change?
If these drives are unchanging, don’t “evolve” into something else, that suggests to me our consciousness is not evolving and won’t. We are, quite simply, human beings, and it is either naïveté or hubris to think we will become other than human beings. Is this nihilism? Is there no hope? I believe there is room for hope, and that, too, is rooted in an evolutionary story.
Yes, human beings share certain drives with the rest of the animal world. But they, like other animals, also have a distinctive characteristic. Yuval Noah Harari designates as the unique characteristic of the human animal, our ability to create fictions and persuade other to believe them. It is this ability that allows us, alone among animals, to cooperate flexibly in large groups. He demonstrates the point by comparing us to our closest relative, the chimpanzee: “Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.” (https://ideas.ted.com/why-humans-run-the-world/)
Yankee Stadium and Wall Street are what Harari calls “fictions.” I like to call them stories. Stories are what allow us to cooperate and shape our world in the ways we do, ways no other animal can imagine into existence. Only stories can help us balance and direct our evolutionary drives, use our unique ability as human beings to co-create a better world.
An aspect of the Jewish story that has been particularly meaningful to me is a long tradition, beginning in the Torah, of accepting the human being as a human being, nothing more or less, recognizing what is unique about human begins, and using that uniqueness, our ability to create pretense in the ways Harari describes, to shape a less violent world. This dance between evolutionary realities and human possibility is in evidence in both midrash aggadah (story traditions) and midrash halachah (legal traditions).
So stories are important in shaping our lives. There are individual stories and communal stories, and no story is more valid, credible, or true than another — although each story must stand the test of time and experience. Did a story, over time, improve the world for all living beings? Did it reduce violence for all living beings? Because it is those stories that have the potential to change our consciousness, to demonstrate the reality of an evolving human consciousness.