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Intimations of Transcendence

Herman Daly

The Promethean animal, of course, is us, Anthropos, and as with other animals, it is the planet Earth that by evolution gave us life and all the non-unique attributes that we share with other living things on whom we depend. Just as with our fellow creatures, evolution has fitted us for life on Earth, not on Mars, Saturn, or even the Moon. Yet we uniquely transcend other living beings, who, however wonderful they may be in various ways, lack our capacity for thought, science, technology, art, philosophy, and goodness—as well as for evil and delusion.

This was true before the Anthropocene, and it is even more evident after. Many neo-Darwinian materialists deny transcendence, and leap from the facts of ecological interdependence and common ancestry of all species to the illusion of equality of all species—a leap that requires the denial, or at least gross understatement, of human transcendence. This denial is painted in the politically correct colors of humility and species democracy. What hubris, some say, to claim a unique transcendence denied to our fellow creatures! A bit of hubris perhaps, but wrapped in a thick blanket of false humility that insulates us from living up to the obligations of our transcendence.

True, the kinship of humans with the rest of life is strong, and we differ in our DNA by only a very small amount from our nearest cousins who do not share the Promethean exuberance that has led to the Anthropocene. For such a small material difference to explain all of language, science, technology, art, religion, mathematics, music, etc., makes one look beyond materialism in search of a transcendent spiritual explanation. Or if one is wedded to materialism, as so many are nowadays, one must at least regard the small genetic human difference to be analogous to a small material key that unlocks a large door beyond which are material possibilities so discontinuously novel as to be transcendent.

Traditionally, we have located transcendence in the spiritual realm beyond the reach of materialism. In modern secular times, belief in the spiritual dimension of existence has waned, and what remains of it is more and more smuggled into the material realm, there to be reborn (or misbegotten?) as the Singularity, Space Colonization, Infinite Growth, and Transhumanism. Rather than "rejoin our unique transcendent endowment to the planet that gave us life," we seem to want to cut ourselves completely free from any transcendent endowment, as well as from our mother planet, and go floating untethered to the cold, distant, dead, and radioactive vacuum of space. The suffering Earth is not our responsibility. Such is the "Anthropocene" of the untamed Promethean animal whose transcendence is neither recognized nor rejoined in service to the Earth.

What we now call the "Anthropocene" seems to be a merely half-baked and half-hearted use of the unique gifts bestowed on Anthropos. To deserve the term "Anthropocene" requires a more grateful and willing acceptance of our unique transcendent endowments, and of the duty to the rest of Creation that it entails.

Herman Daly
Herman Daly was Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, a former Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, and co-founder of the journal Ecological Economics.

Cite as Herman Daly, "Intimations of Transcendence," contribution to GTI Forum "Interrogating the Anthropocene: Truth and Fallacy?," Great Transition Initiative (February 2021),

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