NPR logo 'Unity': Are We There Yet?

Science

'Unity': Are We There Yet?

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The documentary Unity will hit theaters nationwide on Aug. 12. By the director Shaun Monson, of Earthlings fame, the film is a wake-up call to humanity, a manifesto toward a different future, a future where humanity doesn't see itself as being in control of nature and animals but, instead, as part of it: Everything depends on everything else, every being depends on every other being. Global community extends to the whole planet, from ant to tree to the atmosphere.

In the award-winning Earthlings, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix and with music by Moby, Monson explored the horrendously inhumane treatment of animals and of other humans by humans. The film is painful to watch at times, asking the necessary question of moral right: What gives humans the right to torture and kill animals as we please? Why do we continue to do it, as we have for thousands of years?

Unity is narrated by 100 celebrities, including Joaquin Phoenix, Helen Mirren, Geoffrey Rush, Marion Cotillard, Selena Gomez, Dr. Dre, Zoe Saldana, Aaron Paul, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Kingsley. Why so many? The chorus of famous voices works as a tuning fork, looking for resonances in the public at large. In the poster for the movie we see an equation:

HUMAN + ANIMAL + TREE = UNITY

It carries the tagline: "Not the same, but equal."

The running question is essential: Why can't we get along with each other and with nature after thousands of years? How come we are able to devise such amazing technologies that propel us toward an incredible future, while morally we remain in the caves? My tentative answer, before watching the movie: tribalism. As long as we remain bound by tribal allegiances, we will remain morally stuck in the distant past. There is a difference between choosing to participate in a group (friends, school, church, baseball team) and choosing to ostracize and demonize those who aren't part of it.

Inclusion doesn't call for exclusion.

Modern science tells us of our common origins: Everything that exists came from the same primeval fireball we call the Big Bang. Every star, planet, moon, every living creature shares the same chemical elements, the same cosmic dust that fills the emptiness of space. Every living creature is animated stardust. Every living creature on this planet shares the same common ancestor, a being that existed billions of years ago.

Science tells us that there was material unity in the past, that all that exists shares a common origin. Time has split this unity, giving the diversity we see around us. As the only known creatures that have the awareness of our common origins, we have the moral duty to respect the diversity of life. More than a moral duty, we should celebrate it, knowing that each and every being carries with it the seed of who we are.


Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

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