Arnold Toynbee Excerpt Essay, Research Paper
In “Menschheit und Mutter Erde”, the author, Arnold Toynbee, describes his point of view concerning man’s relationship and interaction with the earth’s biosphere and also gives an insight on a future development of both.
Tonybee begins with a clear definition of the term biosphere. The biosphere is defined as being the layer of the earth’s crust, water and air, which surrounds our planet. After this definition, he points out that our biosphere is very small compared to the diameter of the earth or other dimensions in our solar system or the universe. Up to now, it is the only habitable place for humans in this solar system, but over the past centuries man has played the most important role in the pollution and destruction of it. Therefore the search for other suitable biospheres in our solar system or in other solar systems has become of an increasing importance, but by today’s scientific knowledge, it seems like this is the only biosphere in this solar system. Assuming that there are other habitable biospheres in the nearby solar systems or even in this one, the planets are too far away to be reached within the lifespan of a human being. And it is practically impossible to provide a ship with enough food for several generations in order to reach these planets. Therefore our possibilities to solve this problem are limited to this biosphere.
Mankind has the ability to destroy our biosphere and will inevitably do so within a certain period of time if the exploitation does not stop. But man cannot stop the natural process of decay that is due to the fact that the biosphere is not autarkic. The biosphere’s source of energy, the sun, is known to change and will eventually vanish some day as well. Therefore man has no influence on the natural process itself.
Toynbee then summarizes the three elements of the biosphere and their relationship to each other. The biosphere consists of matter that did not come to life by adopting any organic structures, living organic matter, and non-living matter that had once been alive and organic and still contains organic characteristics. The biosphere is younger than the planet itself, and life and consciousness in the biosphere can never exist as long as the matter with which it had been combined. Former organic parts make up the biggest group of all three of the above, and is know to having provided man with some of the most important means for the maintenance of life. The fact that such a large amount of the earth’s matter had in fact been organic at some point, leads Toynbee to the aspects of evolution. The diversity and variety of species and individuals had been essential for the development of life. The natural selection is therefore the natural result of this development. And in many cases the extinction of one species had been the result of an indirect fight for survival, because one species did not simply extinct another by feeding on it, but by taking up most of the essential sources of nourishment. It is also a given fact that a fight for water, food or a female between members of one species usually ends with the loser begging for mercy and the winner granting it as a response to the capitulation.
Human beings are the only life-forms who fight each other to death. Thus, the development of life was at best parasitic and at worst predator-like. Over the time, man became man’s own prey, which sometimes developed into extreme forms, such as slavery and cannibalism. Even though murder is being prosecuted in every country today, most sovereign countries have fought, or still fight, against each other in war. They expect their soldiers to kill the enemy soldiers and to risk being killed themselves. Even today, this sacrifice, the death for one’s country, is considered to be an honourable thing. Here Toynbee asks the question whether the progress of life justifies the pain and suffering, and if man can be considered to be worthier than a tree, and a tree worthier than an amoeba.
Even though man is the most powerful species of all, it still cannot survive on its own. Only man can be cruel and evil because he is the only one who is aware of his acts. The plant-animal relationship, for example, could be considered to be simply parasitic, because animals feed on plants without nourishing them in any way. But on the other hand, it can be called mutual because plants and animals work together for the same goal, that is to maintain the biosphere habitable for both of them. Therefore the progress and development have brought up both good and bad aspects. But this is an entirely human point of view. This might imply that man’s ethical and moral standards are entirely human and therefore arbitrary and that they are irrelevant for the reality of life. But since man is not simply a spectator, but is aware of his surroundings and able to make ethical decisions, he is a part of the tree of life, and therefore his decisions and standards are a part of the biosphere itself and the total reality, which the biosphere is a part of.
Toynbee here concludes that life and consciousness and good and evil are not less real than the matter with which they are combined in the biosphere.
But in the development of life consciousness did not appear until man appeared, and it took us until just recently to realize that the presence of man is an endangerment for the habitability of the biosphere. Despite this fact, the extinction of certain species and individuals does not seem to endanger the continuity of life itself. It is rather given that these extinctions make room for other species afterwards.
During the first and longest period of his history, man has left less significant traces than some of his contemporaries. Compared to the works of some microscopic life-forms, which, for example, built the coral reefs, man’s works seem small and irrelevant.
During the Christian era, people have realized that our biosphere is a limited hull, but still today, mankind seems to pretend that our biosphere supplies an unlimited amount of non-renewable resources. But obviously, there used to be some truth to this, because at the beginning of last century, it seemed impossible that man could ever have the power to destroy all this. But towards the third quarter of the century, the rapidly growing scientific sector, made it more and more likely to have an enormous influence on the biosphere. Man became the first life-form to gain such an extreme form of power that it could destroy our biosphere within a short period of time. Man is the fist life-form to be more powerful than the biosphere itself. But he cannot escape his Nemesis because the biosphere’s destruction instantly leads to his own extinction.
Toynbee now mentions earth’s first encounter with man. Since man is the only inhabitant who belongs to the spiritual world as well, he is a psychosomatic being who is involved in the material and finite world. His final goal is to rule over the non-human world, but in the spiritual world it is to rule over himself. Toynbee here suggests that these contrary goals have been mentioned in many famous texts, such as the Bible and the works of the Tao-te-king. In the last one it says that man’s technical achievements are a trap at the same time. According to Sir Thomas Brown, man is like an amphibian, he belongs to two different worlds, the biosphere as well as the spiritual world, and he strives for a distinct goal in each of the two worlds, but can never reach both of them; he has to choose.
But unfortunately, man mostly chooses the material path, the one that promises wealth and success. Toynbee here concludes that man can obviously not escape his own Nemesis unless he changes his attitude fundamentally.