We humans do seem to be unique in that we are among the few lifeforms on this planet that make tools. Yet our tools have the power to decimate life on the entire planet, whether slowly through environmental devastation and climate change, or quickly with thermonuclear war. As such, we can almost be forgiven for being so self-centered. Crows and octopuses are remarkably intelligent, but they aren’t competing with us for fossil fuels or launching ballistic missiles or cyber-attacks on our governments. That would get our attention!
I have always considered myself to be a humanist. It is an intuitive thought really- how could one not be a humanist? Afterall, we all are human. My intuitive definition has been one of believing that all humans are inherently equal. This viewpoint is necessarily from within the human sphere and revolves around compassion for the human condition and our fellow humans. Without this, we would fail as a species. In terms of survival, this is another possible reason why we are so self-absorbed as a species. However, we have developed an unsustainable arrogance stemming from the notion of humanity being apart from the natural world.
I am inclined to see Descartes' dictum and the inferences commonly associated with it as the main culprit in Western thinking for this binary mind vs body and human vs nature perspective. It is quite combative as well- why must there be a versus at all? Both our separateness from nature and our combative streak is likely tied to our inherited tendency for tribalism. Since Descartes' dictum coincided with the great paradigm shift of the scientific enlightenment, which Steven Pinker has demonstrated so thoroughly is indeed working well for most humans, the inference of the separateness of mind and body became almost an unimpeachable truth by association.
“Science advances by the way of funerals” to paraphrase Max Planck and so it is true for all human advances. Several centuries on, we now are slowly realizing we are a part of the natural world, not outside, not separate. But the current power structures in place have much momentum and must diminish for true change to occur. The art world was no match for combat (since there must be a versus) with the powerful capitalist system that came to rise since the industrial revolution. Instead of being a counterbalance, a critic, it quickly fell under its sway and became synonymous. Sadly, art has now become largely irrelevant and meaningless to the majority of human beings. That art became the trophy of capitalism meant that the market would establish the fashions of aesthetics, which really means few are actually looking at the art. Hence form lost meaning in a way that can be identified by any human being, not just those accepted into the club. The way back will take place as artists recognize they are holding the keys to the main commodity of the future: meaning.