After Wisdom: Speculating on the Future of Humanity

After Wisdom: Speculating on the Future of Humanity April 24, 2019

Someday, will our descendants think of us the same way that we now think of the apes? (Photo credit: Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash)

What is the future of humanity? Will we ever evolve beyond our current identity of homo sapiens?

After all, our ancestors weren’t always homo sapiens. Go back far enough and we find homo neanderthalensis or homo erectus in our past. We’ve evolved before, so doesn’t make sense to assume that we shall evolve again?

Perhaps it’s not an entirely academic question. I’m reminded of a saying that gets attributed to Albert Einstein: “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”[1]

In other words, when we consider the challenges that the human species faces today: systemic systems of racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice; rapid consumption of the earth’s resources; the loss of biodiversity as more and more species are endangered or are becoming extinct – perhaps we human beings need to evolve, to achieve our next step of evolution, in order to reach that higher level of consciousness that will enable us not only to solve our current problems but also to address the issues that will arise in the future.

This theme came up in an interview that Encountering Silence recorded earlier this week with Sister Kathleen Deignan, former president of the International Thomas Merton Society and the editor of books like When the Trees Say Nothing: Thomas Merton’s Writings on Nature and Thomas Merton: A Book of Hours.

In addition to being a Merton scholar, Sister Kathleen is also an authority on the life and teaching of Thomas Berry, a priest known as an eco-theologian and the author of The Dream of the Earth. In our conversation (which will be released on an upcoming episode of the podcast), Sr. Kathleen repeatedly suggested that humanity will need to evolve to an entirely new species in order to address the current and future challenges that we, as a species, face.

It’s a visionary statement to make, and it gives me a sense of hope. But it also raised an obvious question: what, pray tell, does the future of humanity look like?

In other words, if we evolve beyond homo sapiens, what will become of us? What does the next rung on the evolutionary ladder look like, and what will we call ourselves?

Homo sapiens literally means “human (or humanity) the wise.” I’ve also seen it translated as “man the thinker.” The basic idea is that what sets us apart from our evolutionary forebears is our ability to think, to reason, to engage in rational/logical reflection.

But it’s not thinking in a purely rationalistic or intellectual sense. If that were the case, we would be called homo cogitans instead of homo sapiensHomo cogitans is “man the thinking” while homo sapiens means “man the wise.”

The problem is, are we, in fact, all that wise? Seems like we’ve really made a mess of things!

And if our current species is marked by “wisdom,” then what characteristic will set our future selves apart from our current selves?

I have a couple of ideas.

Beyond Homo Sapiens

It seems to me that if we want to evolve beyond homo sapiens “the thinking human” then we need to be evolving into a more heart-centered expression of wisdom or understanding. Instead of the strictly mental activity of sapiens, the future of humanity will express a more heart-centered level of consciousness, of knowing, of wisdom.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest three candidates for the future of humanity:

  • homo miseracors — “compassionate human”
  • homo clemens — “forgiving human”
  • homo benevolens — “benevolent human”

Heart-centered consciousness, it seems to me, is marked less by thinking ability or even “wisdom” and more by the capacity for compassion, for forgiveness, and for goodness, which is to say, benevolence.

Remember, evolution does not represent a repudiation of what has gone before, but rather includes the best of all previous stages of evolution, even as a new expression of life emerges for the first time ever. So homo clemens or homo miseracors or whatever we become, will include all that is truly wise and perceptive about homo sapiens, but will also embody a truly new, truly emergent capacity for love, for compassion, for clemency, for benevolence.

So who shall we become? Our children of a distant (or perhaps not so distant) future: shall they be known for their compassion, their mercy and forgiveness, their ability to bless and create goodness — or some other essential quality?

Let’s visualize an optimal future for the human family. And then let’s pray for this new creation to emerge sooner rather than later!

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[1]This is a paraphrase. Einstein’s actual words were  “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” — as quoted in the New York Times in 1946.

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