Post #92: Two Cheers for Humanity

In the last few days the notion of a common humanity, a cornerstone of human-interest thinking, has received strong support from two very different but highly visible sources: Pope Francis’ encyclical ( and the Rising Star expedition’s discovery in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind of a new hominin species (  These two events are not going to get the constant attention that the media reserves for tragedies such as the refugee crisis in Europe and wars in the Middle East.  Yet the encyclical, titled On Care for Our Common Home, and the discovery of Homo naledi are of deeper significance in the sense that they remind us—and we do need constant reminding—of our interconnectedness, as well as of the fact that we—Homo sapiens Americans, Chinese, French, Africans—are merely transients in millions of years of evolution.  As passengers on Lifeboat Earth, we have a clear duty, as the Pope’s encyclical emphasizes, to conserve and preserve the planet’s delicate ecological and environmental balance.  On that lifeboat, there is no first class.

The evolutionary chain is long, and each generation—each species—has precious little time to make its mark—as well as clean up its predecessor’s mess.  While it is often said that spiritual leaders and scientists are worlds apart when it comes to social issues, the great majority of them share common ground when it comes to the fate of the earth, the most urgent issue of our time.  Both see the certainty of climate change and its human causes; both identify the forces of environmental destruction in greed, consumerism, and erroneous notions of “development”; and both agree that we have very little time in which to reverse course. Our species is at great risk.

Pope Francis has shown himself to be a common man with an uncommon vision.  His encyclical traces a long history of the Catholic Church’s concern for the global environment and humankind’s “misuse of creation.” The encyclical can be read as an indictment of capitalism and economic globalization, as the Pope cites his predecessor Pope Benedict’s critique of “dysfunctions of the world economy” and “models of growth.” Reciting the many facets of environmental destruction, Francis underlines its particular impact on the poor, and writes that any solution must address “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”  His message incorporates both good science and deep morality when he says that “we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms.”  I think most climatologists would agree.

The finding of Homo naledi may also show, as many anthropologists and scientists now insist, that the evolutionary line leading to us isn’t as straight as we might think, nor that we humans are as uniquely capable of thought and action as we have been led to believe. One of them, Frans Waal (, proposes that we “overcome our anthropocentrism” and see ourselves as “one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally.”  To Waal, that means embracing our larger hominoid family, which Rising Star’s discovery in fact supports.  By extension, we should also embrace people in our more immediate neighborhoods.  Plenty of “mosaics” there.  Welcoming refugees and migrant workers into our neighborhoods—people who are fleeing incomprehensibly horrific conditions—would be equally meaningful.

Thus, what I take from Pope Francis and Rising Star is simply this: It’s time to celebrate the unique diversity of life on our planet.  The Rising Star expedition was a great success owing to collaboration by younger and older paleoanthropologists.  Likewise, Pope Francis writes that humanity must work together and start a “new dialogue” that “includes everyone” if we are to save the planet.

(Thanks to Michael Marien for his thoughts on the encyclical, and to my daughter Alia Gurtov, one of the six spelunkers in the Rising Star expedition, for hers.)

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  1. Mel,
    Thanks for emphasizing the mosaic of evolution. The BBC article quotes Berger
    “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of human-like creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa. Only one line eventually survived to give rise to us,” he told BBC News.

    We should not read into his remarks that evolution has a direction or has a goal of producing humans. Stehpen J Gould among others, emphasized that evolution is opportunistic and local. Mutations survive because they are better adapted to local conditions and if they replicate in successive generations they can become new species. As conditions change, successive mutants become more successful, replacing older, less well adapted species. We see evolution of microbes takes place in minutes in petri dishes and on a longer time scale in human evolution as well. The mosaic idea applies to social as well as biological changes.

    Thinking about climate change, this puts tremendous adaptive stress on most species and mutations that are more successful in the warmer, wetter, dryer, new atmospheric environments, will in the future replace the species that occupy those ecological niches today.

    Congratulations to Alia for her work on these discoveries. Best wishes to you.


  2. Mel,

    Such a small world! I correspond regularly with John Hawkes, one of the Rising Star expedition principal scientists. Last year I saw Alia’s name on a list of tiny people 🙂 chosen to crawl in and investigate the cave system and meant to ask if you were related.

    I’m hoping for a break in the security protocols here so that I can gather a broad sampling of the DNA of indigenous people in western China. John has expressed support for such a project. Wouldn’t it be great if a sunlit opening in the typically overcast/opaque Chinese research firmament were to result from the upcoming political summit in Washington?

    Dream on, Macduff, my father used to say, quoting Hamlet. Why not?


  3. Hope always springs. Faith, with good reason, is often lacking and destructive. But charity, in the context of non-competitive co-operation, hinted at in the Rising Star Nova special and made specific in the Pope’s encyclical, may be our only human option for survival. Thank you, Mel, for your always hopeful and charitable insights.

  4. Mel. Contrasting China’s global strategy with the US and Russian bickering at the UN today….:) A great vision of China’s role in the world? Just PR or The Real Pramatist…?

    ROBERT WISE, Associate Principal
    503.278.3454 |

    1. Most of Xi’s speech contains themes he (and previous leaders) have used before. What is new is the financial commitments. But of course these are pledges, and how they are actually fulfilled remains to be seen.

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