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A Weird Species by University of Amsterdam Professor Cees Hamelink

Mother GaiaNote: Thank you to Mary Holland for connecting me with Cees Hamerlink. 

Cees Hamerlink studied moral philosophy and psychology of religion and is emeritus professor of global communication at the University of Amsterdam. He continues to teach as Athena professor of public health and human rights at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In July 2020 his 19th monograph “Communication and Pace” will be published by Palgrave MacMillan. Professor Hamelink is also a jazz musician. Among his albums are “September”” and “Sharing Shearing”.

I am pleased to share a fresh, new voice with readers. If you have a point of view to share with us, by all means, send it to me at KimRossi1111@gmail.com with SUBMISSION in the subject line. We review all submissions before publication.

By Cees J. Hamelink

Seated with the five children around the dinner table in the summer of 1957 my father presented us with a puzzling observation. He said when the Good Lord had created all the animals he decided to create one more. This one would walk upright and would be gifted with the capacity to reflect. And then our father  added, “Children that is what He should not have done because He created a weird species”. I often think of his comment in the bizarre days we presently go through.

We could have seen this coming. We could have known that one day in whatever form Mother Gaia, whom humans had made very angry, would retaliate. But we preferred to be not prepared, busy as we were running together towards our extinction. All the signs were there but we sat paralyzed as rabbits in the lights of the upcoming car. The weird species is now hastily cooking up all kinds of beautiful scenarios on how different the post-corona world will be. We offer each other generously pseudo-philosophical reflections about how beneficial this period is for us, how we turn to our inner selves, and how we focus on the here and the now. Few dare to say that what is now called the “new normal” is not normal at all. We are social animals and not made for life in isolation, we are touchers, kissers, and huggers.

It seems to me a mistake to believe that we will act in fundamentally different ways after the pandemic. In her great study on human history “The March of Folly”, Barbara Tuchman showed us that humanity does not learn from its own mistakes. We do not have the moral courage to face mistakes and change course. The international community made a solemn promise after World War II: “Never again!”. The ink of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had not yet dried up and we began again to kill each other massively. Of course, there are worldwide moving and encouraging signs of cooperative behaviour but that is always the case in moments of great catastrophes. The weird species does indeed have an altruistic side but it is a thin line that separates this from our selfish genes (Richard Dawkins).

Even if one does not expect that fundamental transformation towards a more human world is a realistic option, we may still learn from this global epidemic. It is conceivable that the virus confronts us with one of our most nasty characteristics: the weird species is an arrogant species. Arrogance is our most evil problem: white is better, male is better, rich is better, human is better than animal, private is better than public, winner is better than loser. Our obsessive arrogance seems to me to be the result of our ontological anxiety. We are the only species that knows life leads to death but we do not know when and how the sentence will be executed. In particular news media have rendered anxiety a shared perspective on life. For the first time in history millions of people can watch simultaneously stories of fear and crisis. For global audiences the media create a world that is dangerous and in which things may be getting worse. Media do not create people’s sense of risk and danger but they amplify the disposition to expect that things will work out the wrong way.

Our deepest worry may be that the human being is the most useless animal on the planet. That we are expendable and that in spite of all our achievements we do not matter. If we become extinct we will be the only species that will mourn our demise. We are morally not better or worse than non-human animals and yet we are so arrogant! Especially in our relation with the earth system. Humans are the leading force in killing other species at a rapid rate. Humans may -as the most powerful species – think of themselves as the centre of the planet but are increasingly unable to control it. It is debatable whether, as Pope Francis  states in “Laudation Si: On Care for our Common Home; encyclical Vatican, 2015) ”nature is our loving sister”. Clive Hamilton may have better cards when he writes in “Defiant Earth” “Now when Mother Earth opens her arms it is not to embrace but to crush us”. Hamilton argues that we no longer have to save nature but we should save ourselves from nature and from ourselves. The interesting conclusion is that we are not any longer free to treat the Earth as we please. Our enormous power comes with an unsettling moral responsibility: we no longer can choose between dominion or  stewardship. We must understand that the forces that were expected to bring us more freedom, more equality, and more civilization also brought disruption of the earth system, lethal arms systems, unprecedented ubiquitous surveillance and a tweeting culture that effectively erodes whatever minimal deliberative social processes we had developed.

Maybe the corona epidemic manages to confront us brutally with this human arrogance.  I deeply admire the healthcare people but how little do they know! The medical profession has to admit that inspite of brilliant minds and big labs it does not know how this virus did originate, how it spreads and how it can be cured. A smart virus has beaten us on all scores! We have no medical answer, but equally no psychological, paedagogical, economic or moral-philosophical answers.  We do not really understand how to deal with the pressures that the current crisis confront people with. How to cope with a social distancing, when physical contact is a biological necessity? How to live without the flow of oxytocin that is released in our brain by direct contact with others? And, arguably the most pressing concern is about children: citizens of post-corona societies. Did we sufficiently test -against the interests of children-, all the measures that governments propose, such as lockdown strategies (a.o. the closure of schools), the social distancing (a.o. the prohibition to visit grandparents), the surveillance initiatives, the stress caused by the constant media reporting on dying people, and the belligerent public discourse that focuses on “the war against the virus”and  our people in “the front lines”? Most of the measures , however well intended, would probably not stand up against the provisions in the International Convention on the Rights of Children. This is actually a much broader issue as most of the government measures around the world amount to restrictions of fundamental human rights. Among the rights that are violated are the right to family life, the right to education, and the right to assembly. Governments have an obligation to respect the rights of individuals and groups of their societies. However, this obligation is subject to limitation clauses which means that governments may derogate from their “obligation to protect” if this is strictly required by the national situation. Among the basic conditions for a permissible limitation of  fundamental rights are an official declaration of the state of emergency and a notification of this state to the pertinent international bodies and other states party to the relevant legal instrument. It is also required that there are judicial guarantees for a regular review by national courts of law.This is somewhat problematic since courts -however critical of limiting rights they may be- tend in emergency situations to loyally follow instructions of their governments.  It is essential that restrictions of human rights must be justified by demonstrating pressing social needs. It is at this point that we need to seriously look at how governments justify their Corona prohibitions and the fines and arrests they impose for those defying these prohibitions. At present I do not see governments offering solid arguments based on scientific evidence for their measures. Justification seems to be primarily based on televised virological babbles and their echo-chambering by government officials. Subjective political preferences are taking the place of a transparent, democratic exchange of different views. Even if these get a lot of popular support they do not justify limiting people’s fundamental rights. I do think that our arrogant claim to superior knowledge stands in the way of the much needed critical inquiry and dialogue. 

A major scientific finding of the 20th century has been to discover how little we know and that most of our scientific inquiries are not driven by knowledge but by ignorance.  And yet, in all our scientific endeavours we  continued to claim that we are the single proprietors of the ultimate truth.  This allowed us to deal with other opinions in very condescending ways. It is possible that once confronted with the limits to our knowledge we may realize that criticism of those who take alternative routes (for example in medicine) and raise fundamental questions about accepted wisdom (on such issues as for example vaccination) should be based upon more certainty than we presently have. The acceptance of our failures also opens up the possibility for moral reflection. If we were perfect we would not need moral guidance. It is precisely in the weaknesses of the human condition that we need to reflect on the moral choices we make.

Our current situation can be summed up –paraphrasing Merleau Ponty- in this metaphor: Together we are in a dense fog on our way to a goal that we do not know and that may not be there. On the way we don't know what we are doing and do what we do at random. With this ignorance it would suit us to humbly and patiently listen to each other and to the confused discourse of the world. This way we can walk together towards a world where people can interact in humane ways. We will have to walk towards that world in the company of a weird species.

Maybe my father was right but the Lord, or the blind watchmaker or genetic evolution decided otherwise and so the best we can do is to walk together (holding hands as soon as this is allowed again) with the other members of our weird species. It may be, as Richard Dawkins has argued, that  we are genetically disposed to selfish behaviour. However,  early in our evolutionary history we discovered that hunting  for game and especially big game had its own specific requirements. Coordination and cooperation were absolutely essential for the fitness of the group of hunters. Even more important than cooperative hunting was sharing the meat which was a source of good feelings and positive socializing. Efficient cooperation was good for all members of the group and therefore it paid off to encourage generosity.  Although there seems -today- to be more cultural support for ego-centered competition and greed than for sharing and altruism, the global youth rebellion- with iconic figures such as Greta Thunberg, may be an important sign of changing times. The good news is that we can learn altruistic behaviour: we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth as Richard Dawkins wrote. The good news is that (as Charles Darwin proposed) we can rise above our origins and can extend positive feelings to all human beings.The good news is that this weird species is the only species on earth that can transcend its shortcomings, recognize its ignorance and defeat its arrogance! 

Cees J. Hamelink, studied moral philosophy and psychology of religion and is emeritus professor of global communication at the University of Amsterdam. He continues to teach as Athena professor of public health and human rights at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. In July 2020 his 19th monograph “Communication and Pace” will be published by Palgrave MacMillan. Professor Hamelink is also a jazz musician. Among his albums are “September”” and “Sharing Shearing”.

Comments

Huib

Cees has been a dear friend of me for a long time and we had many adventures together. A suggestion to the reader: 'listen' to his words as you would listen to music.

It is not in the notes that you will find meaning, but in the melodies, rhythms and the stillness in-between that will give meaning - unique to you alone as the listener.

Cia

Bob,

There are cultural assumptions made here which are not applicable to most Americans. I had a Dutch friend in Delft, Koos Slurink, who had gotten a Ph.D. In philosophy, who said very similar things. It springs from a very common European worldview. I remember asking Koos where I could go to Mass: he directed me to a Catholic church, but I was surprised that there were only a handful of elderly people there. In Stockholm a Catholic Church downtown was filled, but mostly with Filipinos living there. I attended a Lutheran church in Zurich with Michel Lansel and some of his house mates, there were many in attendance, and we also went to a gymkhana in the Alps with a Christian orientation and a thousand in attendance. I was amazed: the leader arbitrarily marked out four groups to sing in harmony to sing modern religious songs (Gott liebt diese Welt, und wir sind sein’ eignen, Wohin Er uns stellt, Werden wir es zeigen, Gott liebt diese Welt), and everyone immediately sang in beautiful harmony.

Lots of cultural influences here. Koos said that there were very very few young Christians in the Netherlands. He was an atheist, as were his friends. I think it is of concern since to some degree pagan thought or the ideology of different religions, tends to fill the God-shaped hole in the heart which is vacated, as Pascal said. No species created by God is weird (I think there’s an inadequate grasp of English language and culture here), including humans, made in God’s image.

Cia

Mother Gaia is an anthropomorphic misconception. The Pope said something a few weeks ago about global warming in which he seemed to be saying that a pagan spirit had been angered by the way humans had treated the earth, especially ironic since most of these problems are caused by overpopulation.

There have been arrogant claims to superior knowledge. The medical establishment decided that it would promote dangerous, questionably effective remdesivir at a thousand dollars a dose and trash inexpensive, safe, effective HCQ, zinc, and azithromycin. Study after study after study, dozens of results by search engines, all using the same phrases in order to trash this treatment. But yesterday the results of a WHO study were leaked which said remdesivir was of no benefit in treating coronavirus. And a Brazilian study from Prevent Elders Institute in São Paulo, by Rodrigo Barbosa Esper, et al, reported that in a group of 636 subjects, with 224 not wanting to take HCQ, in those who did not take it, 5.4% had to eventually go to the hospital. In those who took it, only 1.9% had to be hospitalized. And they did better the earlier in the disease they took it. In those who started in the first week of symptoms, 1.7% eventually went to the hospital, while 3.2 % of those who started after day 7 did. So is this remarkable news of a cheap, safe, effective treatment for Covid being widely hailed?

Many medical professionals have been parroting the meme that HCQ causes heart failure. Yet many reports and lists of side effects from before Covid stated that it was nearly always very safe, and hundreds of millions of doses had been taken over seventy years with few or no problems. No reports of a single person taking it dying of sudden heart failure. Yet now nearly all medical professionals and journalists are mindlessly repeating the same inaccurate information and people are dying for this reason.

This pandemic was not caused by human arrogance. Similar pandemics have always happened from time to time. Many microbes have always accidentally mutated, the result being improved ability to replicate and spread. This happens in both the (other) animal and human worlds.

Bob Moffit

Cees J. Hamelink' opening paragraph:

"He said when the Good Lord had created all the animals he decided to create one more. This one would walk upright and would be gifted with the capacity to reflect. And then our father added, “Children that is what He should not have done because He created a weird species”. I often think of his comment in the bizarre days we presently go through."

What am I to interpret from this … that mankind is of itself a "weird species" .. and therefore was a MISTAKE made by God? Am I missing true meaning?

In any event .. I truly do appreciate the time and great effort in writing this column … but I have to admit … the column far exceeds my admittedly limited intelligence capacity to fully understand and comprehend it .. though it was encouraging to read the conclusion …. "The good news is that this weird species is the only species on earth that can transcend its shortcomings, recognize its ignorance and defeat its arrogance!"

To that ending I say AMEN.

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