Naturalist Ian McCallum believes it’s time to step down from our pedestal and explore the evolutionary bonds that still connect life across our planet

WHEN we review the history of life on this planet, it is evident that death and, eventually, extinction is the fate of all species and that life, with a will of its own, will continue to find new ways of expressing itself.

This in itself is a miracle. But there is another side to this awesome process. Prior to the emergence of humans, nowhere in the evolutionary narrative does it show any one species contributing quite so dramatically to its own extinction, let alone to the extinction of other species such as birds, butterflies and marine animals, plants and beetles, as well as many species we don’t even know about.

There is hardly a place on the face of our planet that we have not explored, settled and altered in some way to satisfy our own ends, and the news is not good. The denuding of tropical forests, acid rain, air and water pollution, and diminishing wilderness areas, the introduction of alien vegetation and greenhouse warming all have one thing in common – the human factor. A sobering thought.

Even more sobering is the realisation that the natural selection process of evolution is happening right in front of our eyes, and we are the force behind it. In response to the well-intentioned use of insecticides, antibiotics and other organic chemicals, the Earth is now host to multiple new strains of “resistant” organisms, from bacteria and viruses to weeds and insects, including more than a hundred new strains of DDT-resistant mosquitoes.

Having turned a blind eye to the fact that we are a part of Nature’s great diversity, we have become ecologically unintelligent. Lopsided in favour of the angels, we have steadily distanced ourselves from our biological past. In what is sometimes referred to as the Human- Nature split, we have ignorantly, if not arrogantly, placed ourselves at the apex of creation. It is time to come down from that precarious pedestal.

The big question, of course, is: can we reverse this destructive, self-deceptive trend? Are we willing to come off that pedestal? Something in me says no. It is difficult to counter the argument that the downward spiral of human coexistence with this planet has already begun and that it is too late to make amends; but something in me says yes.

It is that something that allows me to continue my work as a psychiatrist, that affirms the belief that, when we commit ourselves, we can learn to see ourselves differently. That it is in our nature to change, to adapt, to diversify, to deal with suffering and to discover, with time, that our suffering is sometimes an important part of our healing. It is a belief that the future of human coexistence with the Earth is going to depend just as much on the creativity of its scientists and poets as it does on changes in climate and vegetation.
And so, if it is not too late, how do we begin to rediscover ourselves in Nature? How do we begin to heal or to reconcile the Human-Nature split?

First of all, we have to stop speaking about the Earth being in need of healing. The Earth doesn’t need healing. We do. Utterly indifferent to human existence, the Earth will thrive – when we are gone. We are the ones who need to redefine our relationship with it. We are the ones who have become ashamed of our wild nature, and by this I do not mean the coarse, aggressive and self-destructive sense of the word. That is savagery. Instead, we have become apologetic for being dispassionate, spontaneous, raw, territorial, protective and angry. We are the ones who need to do the reaching out, not to save the Earth, but to rediscover ourselves in it.

Healing and mending are often regarded as being the same thing but it is going to be important that we understand the distinction between the two. Healing seldom occurs, if at all, without a profound change in attitude not only to oneself and to the world, but to oneself in the world. Mending – the quick fix – on the other hand, is something else. As necessary and as convenient as it may be, it seldom makes any demand on one’s capacity to reflect or to change one’s ways.

Secondly, if we are serious about the healing of the Human-Nature split, it is essential that we become more evolutionary minded. We have to wake up to the privilege of what it means to be human: that we are part of a web of life in which everything is genetically and molecularly linked and that human psychology has deep evolutionary roots. We are naturally resistant to change, let alone to admitting our animal past. And yet the evidence is there.

With the unravelling of the human genome and the subsequent discovery that more than 90 per cent of it is shared with every other mammal, the poets and the old shamans have been proven right. The animals are our soulmates and we are the human animal.
And then there is our link to the Earth itself. I believe that our identity is intimately associated with a deep historical sense of continuity with wild places and the animals that live there – that we have an ancient, genetic memory of where we have come from. These are the places that permit us to say, sometimes unreservedly, “it is as if this place is in my blood… it is as if I have come home”.

To lose one’s sense of union with wild places is to pre-empt what I believe is one of the most overlooked conditions in modern psychiatry – homesickness. Often presenting as a restless depression, homesickness and a loss of wildness are the same thing. So is a loss of soul. Our creativity suffers and so do our relationships. Anyone who vaguely understands the significance of “walk-about” or who longs for the chilling night call of the spotted hyena, Crocus crocuta, or the shape and the shade of the Umbrella Thorn tree, Acacia tortilis, will know that restlessness. It is also likely that they will understand the unmistakable homesickness in these lines by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:
“Sometimes a man stands up during supper, and walks outdoors and keeps on walking, because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.”

To be aware of the evolutionary roots of human psychology is to deepen one’s understanding of what is loosely referred to as human nature. Without this understanding, an ecological intelligence is impossible. Unwilling to look at ourselves, we have become masters in the art of finger pointing and self-deception, and until we understand the origins and the dynamics of why we do it, any attempt to reconcile the Human-Nature split is going to be futile.

To me, psychology begins to make more sense when seen through an evolutionary eye. It comes into its own when we become aware of the universality of the various strategies of survival – the way all animals consciously and unconsciously encounter the world. Say what you wish, we are survivors – the living evidence of more than two million years of hominid existence, and with it a consciousness that has become not only self-aware, but aware of the awareness of others.

If we are serious about rediscovering ourselves in Nature, we are going to need a language that speaks for science and soul, that narrows the gap between subject and object, that slips between yes and no. We will need a language that continually reminds us of where we have come from and of what we have to do if we are to become ecologically intelligent.

For the time being, the only language I know that can begin to do this is poetry.

To rediscover ourselves in Nature does not mean turning one’s back on technology, as is often advocated. Technology is part of our nature. It is part of the evolution of a problem-solving, tool-making species. The harnessing of the molecular formulae of genes, medicinal plants, hormones and tissue extracts to enhance the quality of life of countless human and non-human beings has to be understood as being just as significant as the harnessing of fire by our ancestors, Homo erectus, less than a million years ago.

Without technology, we could not speak about DNA, there would be no photographs of Earth from space, no understanding of the AIDS virus and no long-distance calls from a daughter on her travels in a foreign land. Without technology, the monitoring and protection of many of the world’s endangered species would be impossible. Celebrate it. Learn how to say yes and no to it.

*Abridged extract from Ecological Intelligence, published by Africa Geographic