Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is humanity a rational species?

Most readers’ gut reaction to the question, above, would probably be something like: ‘Yes, of course!’ But please consider that the question is not whether humans are, on occasion, capable of rational behaviour. As it stands, the question bears on what would, if it could be answered affirmatively, be the supposed overriding quality of the human race, namely rationality. Put in terms of the occasional capability of rational behaviour, it is easy to answer in the affirmative – of course one behaves rationally if you drive on the left-hand side of the road in South Africa and in Britain, and on the right-hand side in America and Europe. Of course it is rational to suppose that, if one should jump off the side of Table Mountain when standing on the top, you would in all probability fall to your death, or sustain serious injuries, to say the least. So, too, it is rational to expect that the pilot of a passenger aircraft would follow the instructions of air traffic controllers while waiting in a ‘sky queue’ above J.F. Kennedy Airport in New York.

But are these examples of ‘rational behaviour’ decisive enough to label our species predominantly rational? What about the fact that, as my mentor and friend at Yale University in the US, Karsten Harries, once remarked over lunch, at that time (mid-1980s) there were sufficient numbers of nuclear warheads between the US and Russia to destroy life on the planet more than 50 times over? Is that the sign of a rational species? Once would be too much, let alone more than 50 times. Think about it – a species clever enough to use Einstein’s famous formula, E = MC squared, to build atomic weapons, is irrational to the point of stockpiling large enough numbers of these mind-boggling weapons (really ‘of mass destruction’) to destroy the very biological foundation on which its own evolution was based. How rational is that?

Here’s another example, prefaced by a question: if we were crucially rational, would humanity not, one and all, take evasive action in the face of a looming ecological disaster, not only because of apparently unstoppable global warming, but because of a host of accompanying processes that human economic activities are exacerbating? These include seawater acidification, pollution of such a magnitude that it seems the earth is heading towards gigantic landfill status, species extinction at a rate of (I recently read somewhere on a scientific website) 200 species going extinct daily, irreversible fresh water pollution through fracking, and much more.

Particularly egregious is the pollution of the planet’s natural environment – land and oceans – by non-bio-degradable plastic – something we could, and would, prevent if we were really rational. Did you know that a scientist recently managed to film the process when plastic is ingested by plankton, the most basic food in the oceans, on which the whole of the ocean food-chain is based, and which is fatally affected by this plastic pollution? (See ) Remember, although, since not too long ago, there has been a kind of plastic that is bio-degradable (but which is rarely used in industry, as far as I know), most of the plastics humans use are not bio-degradable, which means it sticks around in nature for the foreseeable future, with devastating effects on living creatures. Have you seen what the inside of dead albatross-chicks’ gizzards look like when they are cut open? They are full of plastic.

Oh, you may say, they are only birds. Who cares? If you do, you are displaying your lack of rationality, in fact, your irrationality, because the chain of life is so complex that, if too many of its links are removed, the chain will collapse, including the link representing humanity. If you are interested in future survival of the human race, you should be interested in the survival of other species, in other words. But most of our predominantly irrational species simply don’t give it a second thought.

Another sign of our irrationality: even if President Trump doubts it, those among us who value the insights gained from science know that carbon emissions add to climate change in the form of global warming, which has already been responsible for more powerful storms than ever before, like the typhoon that struck the Philippines two years ago, when winds of almost 400 kilometres an hour were measured. These winds flattened cities. And more are on the way because we lack the rationality to change our consumer-driven economic system fundamentally. If we were really rational, we would abandon sports like Formula One racing, or stock car racing, because of the large amounts of carbon emissions that accompany these events. But, most people would say, these are traditional sports – how can we abandon them? My counter-question would be: what if the future life of humans and other species hung in the balance? Would that motivate people to look for less harmful sports? I doubt it. Rational, us? By and large not.

Take the hullabaloo about race in this country, notably regarding the putative ‘lack of transformation’ of the PSSA (Philosophical Society of Southern Africa). The amount of energy that is spent arguing from different points of view about questions of race, is enormous, while what is beyond doubt the most important issue of our time – the fact that the economic habits of humanity are aggravating, no, DRIVING the process of undermining life on the planet – is studiously ignored. Is that rational? Don’t forget: ALL races are implicated in this process, without any privilege granted to any.

Another example, from the history of the United States: after seeing the outstanding film, Jackie, recently, we sat down one evening to view Oliver Stone’s riveting film, JFK, which is based on the only instance in history, after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, of anyone charging someone for being involved in a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. The person who opened the case in question, New Orleans district attorney, Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), did so after noticing loopholes in the official report of the Warren Commission, and advanced the case that evidence – including that of multiple shooters on the day of the assassination, instead of only one, supposedly Lee Harvey Oswald – suggested that there had been a plot inside government to get rid of Kennedy because he was perceived as being ‘soft on communism’. As the film reconstructs historical events, this was supposedly shown by, among other things, his intention to withdraw American troops from Vietnam – something that the hardliners among the military could not countenance. (In the end more than 2 million Asians died in the Vietnam War, and more than 58000 Americans.)

I know what you are thinking – it is only a film, and although it is based on historical events, there is a lot of speculation in it. True. But – a big BUT – although it proved controversial upon release, JFK’S impact was such that the American Assassination Records Review Board subsequently granted Stone’s point, that as long as official records remained sealed to the public (until 2029), the public could not trust the official conclusions made by a commission, in secret, until the evidence on the basis of which they were made, was made public.

My point is this: how rational is it for governments like that of the US to hide the grounds on which the public was informed of a commission’s conclusions, when all the relevant evidence (reconstructed by district attorney Garrison, and reconstructed in the film) points to the fact that one lone sharpshooter could not have killed President Kennedy, unless it was with a ‘magic bullet’ that did the damage of six? And the US government is not alone in this. All governments, including our own, do this kind of thing – lying to citizens (think of minister Bathabile Dlamini claiming that everything was fine concerning the imminent payout of SASSA social grants; it may still happen on time after the recent Concourt ruling, but evidently all is not fine) – in one way or another. Is this rational? I rest my case.

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