Why Homo sapiens needs a new name

It is high time the human species had a new name.

The case for renaming humanity is advanced in ‘How to Fix a Broken Planet’ (Cambridge University Press 2023) for all to see and share. This article is a summary.

Today’s humans have surrounded ourselves with vast existential risks: we are entering the worst emergency we have ever faced, in a million or more years on the Planet. We’ve eliminated two thirds of the world’s large animals, we’re losing water, topsoil, fish and forests at totally unsustainable rates, we’re poisoning every person (and every child) on the planet every day, we’re building weapons more capable of obliterating everyone and we’re forging a climate that will render most of the Earth uninhabitable within three or four generations. And that’s just part of it.

Humans were named Homo sapiens – wise man – by the Swedish scholar Linnaeus in 1758, but when you look at how modern humans are behaving, it’s anything but wise. Indeed, by continuing to insist we are wise – in the face of all the evidence that we are not, we are risking our own future due to self-delusion about how smart we really are.

It has become abundantly clear that one of the greatest obstacles to wise, universal action to mitigate each of the ten megathreats is our own self-admiration and the overconfidence it brings. Insisting we are a wise species in the face of mounting evidence of risks capable of bringing down civilisation is a like a dangerous drug fantasy.

The book proposes that humans should drop the title Homo sapiens – and choose another which more truthfully describes our species through a worldwide debate on the internet and social media in which anyone and everyone can take part.

There are usually five conditions for changing the scientific name of a species:

  • The discovery of new scientific attributes
  • Changes in the common understanding of the species
  • Changes found in its evolutionary descent
  • Correcting an error in its original name
  • The lack of a type specimen (or holotype) representative of the whole species.

Basically, the Homo sapiens need to be re-named on all five of these grounds. By sticking with an inaccurate, out-of-date Latin name, science is not helping humanity to face the reality of our situation as these ten huge existential threats combine to overshadow our future.

Instead of cowering behind ancient taxonomic tradition, scientists need to take the lead by running a worldwide debate that canvases the kind of creature we have truly become in the 21st Century.

It’;s true that trading in an antique Latin name for something a bit more contemporary might not seem to matter much – to some people – to the question of whether or not our civilization and our species survive in the long run.

But it does matter because a name is who you are. If you lose your name it is a special form of shaming – once that might well cause you to reflect on who you have become, and what you have to do to earn back your good name.

The book proposes that the loss of the name Homo sapiens does not need to be a permanent demotion. It can be earned back, provided humans fulfil ten criteria that would together define them as a wise species. It offers ten basic tests for how wise or unwise humans are. These include eliminating weapons of mass destruction, reversing climate change, ending our poisoning of the planet, ending the 6th Extinction, putting women into leadership roles globally, reducing human numbers, recycling all minerals, nutrients and water and taking ethical and social control of potentially devastating new technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and quantum computing.

Our progress in each of these tests will provide a clear report card on how wise or unwise humans really are – and how committed to a safer, healthier, more sustainable future and a habitable Earth, or to one that is dark, dangerous and potentially deadly for all.

Like the weather, the results of these tests should be on the nightly news, on every smartphone and computer, on the back of the cereal packet. Everyone should be able to see them – because they define humanity’s prospects for a brighter, safer future.

Humans first developed wisdom – the ability to perceive future risks and opportunities clearly and then take considered action – more than a million years ago, when we first used fire as a defence against predators. Wise foresight has saved us many times since.

Wisdom has carried us through all the different ages of humanity, alerting us to dangers and enabling us to avoid or neutralise them, usually with technology. But you need to fully understand your risks before you can solve them.

Modern humanity is no different: with wisdom we can survive and prosper together in a green flourishing Planet. Without it, we will go down in darkness together.

2 thoughts on “Why Homo sapiens needs a new name

  1. Pingback: Preparing for Catastrophic Risk | Surviving C21

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