Humanism and evolutionary humility.
Many detractors of humanism have long asserted that, after negating God, we humanists make ourselves gods. This seemingly ridiculous misconception is, in fact, a commonly held one. Many of us have at some time, upon referring to ourselves as humanists, heard comments like, "Oh, I see. Then you're only concerned with human beings and not with other species?"
I was, however, nonplussed recently to discover that apparently a few humanists also hold that the superiority of Homo sapiens is a, belief intrinsic to humanism. And in taking a closer look, it became clear to me that the American humanist movement's involvement in environmental and species preservation issues has been, at best, uneven, inconsistent, and inadequate. Why do we lack a strong, clear humanist position? Having experienced firsthand the strong emotions and fierce differences of opinion these issues elicit (myself not excluded), I can certainly understand the reluctance to confront them. However, in view of escalating worldwide awareness of our planet's ecological peril, it's time for the humanist movement to clarify its position on this fundamental subject.
It's certainly true that the humanist philosophy is focused on a concern for the human condition and espouses a moral system that promotes human freedom and welfare. But our purpose in calling ourselves humanists is to distinguish us from supernaturalists, not to set us apart from other species. The term humanist conveys the most germane kernel of our philosophy: that it excludes the supernatural.
Of course, individual humanists can believe (and promote) any opinions they want. But claims that humanist literature supports human superiority are in error. Though an exhaustive review of all the relevant material would take years, I can state with confidence that it's a huge leap from any definition of humanism I've ever encountered to the assertion that humans are superior to all other living things. In fact, countless examples could be cited clearly articulating the opposite.
Among those on my list of favorites is a one-sentence masterpiece by Fred Edwords, executive director of the American Humanist Association, from his January/February 1984 Humanist article, "The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective": "We base our ethical decisions and ideals upon human needs and concerns as opposed to the alleged needs and concerns of supposed deities or other transcendent entities or powers."
Corliss Lamont's definitive book, The Philosophy of Humanism, contains many references to the naturalistic and nonanthropomorphic meaning of humanism, as well as to the fact that the intent of the term is to distinguish between naturalism and supernaturalism, not between humans and other living things. Lamont always referred to himself as a naturalistic humanist. For example, he writes:
The adjective naturalistic shows that Humanism, in its
most accurate philosophical sense, implies a world-view
in which Nature is everything, in which there is no
supernatural, and in which human beings are an integral
part of Native and not separated from it by any sharp
cleavage or discontinuity... In the framework of the
Humanist world-view the ever-present glory of the
visible natural takes the place of the traditional glory of
the invisible supernatural.
Later in the book, Lamont adds that religions "teach a cosmology of conceit and a superstitious anthropomorphism that militates against humanity's true good in this one and only life."
Indeed, the belief that humans are "superior" and "set apart" and that the human race has an evolutionary destiny (for religionists, also God's permission) to survive and prosper at the expense of other species is a religious precept--not a precept of humanism. This tenet of superiority, taught by many of the world's religions (past and present), has fostered the callous and unthinking damage done to--and on--our planet.
Some religions also teach that, because all living things prey upon other living things for survival, human beings possess a "natural"--nay, God-given--right to do so as well. But other animals have no choice; they can't think or reason and decide whether just cause exists to alter their survival methods to preserve, rather than consume, other life forms. Clearly, almost all of Earth's other inhabitants are totally at our mercy. By virtue of our "superior" mental evolution, we hold the power of life and death over them. In all our planet's previous history, only natural disasters have held this sort of power. But now we Homo sapiens have become the only "natural disaster" capable of recognizing and thinking about our potential destructiveness and making conscious and informed choices about our behavior.
The incredible number and diversity of life forms on Earth resulted from billions of years of evolution. Yet humans, who have evolved through the same process, have occupied the planet a much shorter time than most other species. By what possible authority (aside from a "God-given" one) do we have the right to destroy or circumvent the evolutionary potential of any other life form?
Again in The Philosophy of Humanism, Lamont writes:
The universe of Nature shows no favoritism toward
humans or any other of its creatures. Nature is no more
interested in Homo sapiens than in the tiger, the rat, the
extinct dinosaur, or any other form of life.... The
revelations of biology strengthen the basis for human
kindness to animals and for a sympathetic attitude
toward all sentient life. Meanwhile the increasing
control that science has won over external Nature
makes it clear that the most serious danger at present to
us is humankind itself.
Speciesism is often justified by claims that other sentient beings don't feel pain or have emotions or intelligence or courage as we do. (Need we remind ourselves that this kind of thinking caused otherwise decent people to support slavery?) Those who ignore the many reports of intelligent, courageous, loving acts performed by animals should at least inform themselves about several ongoing studies of chimps and gorillas, which offer evidence that such animals are indeed intelligent, can use language, and have emotions much like our own.
It seems to me that Homo sapiens in general, along with a few humanists in particular, could do with a good dose of ecological and evolutionary humility. Carl Sagan, recipient of the American Humanist Association's 1981 Humanist of the Year Award, said it well: "Many have construed our clear kinship with the other animals as an affront to human dignity... But the discovery of a deep connection between human nature, all of human nature, and the other living things on Earth comes not a moment too soon."
Henry Beston was perhaps more eloquent in The Outermost House.
Remote from universal nature, and living by
complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the
creature through the glass of his own knowledge and
sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in
distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness,
for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below
ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the
animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older
and more complete than ours, they move finished and
complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have
lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never
hear. They are not
brethren, they are not underlings, they are other
nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and
time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the
It's certainly true that classifying ourselves as superior is a highly biased view (science is, after all, an invention of humans) and takes into account only one aspect of evolutionary development. While the evolution of our brain capacity has bypassed that of other animals, many examples can be found of species with traits or abilities equally superior or more advanced than those found in humans--for example, vision, smell, flight, speed, size, strength relative to size, fecundity, camouflage, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures (hot or cold), and even organizational acumen (such as that of ants, bees, and termites, among others.)
Depending on how superiority is defined, one could also point out that no other animal's brain has become superior enough to spawn hatred, prejudice, and malice or to routinely engage in the purposeful torture and mass slaughter of others of its kind. In the naturalistic world view of humanism, the annihilation of other species is a crime against life. Albert Schweitzer agreed. "Life outside a person," he said, "is an extension of the life within. This compels us to be a part of it and to accept responsibility for all creatures great and small." And again, Fred Edwords makes the point in his previously referenced article:
Human beings are neither entirely unique from other
forms of life, nor are they the final product of some
planned scheme of development. The evidence shows
that humans are made from the same building blocks
from which other life forms are made and are subject to
the same sorts of natural pressures.... Humans are the
current result of a long series of natural evolutionary
changes, but not the only result or the final one.
Continuous change can be expected to affect ourselves,
other life forms, and the cosmos as a whole. There
appears to be no ultimate beginning or end to this
Those who maintain that the evolution of the human brain renders us superior to all other life forms like to remind us of the wonders of human technology and industrialization--the impressive results of our highly evolved brains. But isn't it the by-products of these fantastic achievements which now threaten the very survival of our species? Mustn't we acknowledge that our highly evolved brains may prove to be--in the larger context of Earth history--an evolutionary "mistake"?
When I watch films on the mountain gorillas of central Africa, I find myself overwhelmed with profound thoughts and powerful emotions. These incredibly humanlike animals have nearly been destroyed--virtually eliminated from Earth--by human arrogance and beliefs of superiority. It is estimated that less than 500 individual mountain gorillas survive. When I ask myself whether I am superior to, or more important than, even one of these magnificent animals, there is no question about the answer: no. In fact, I am explicitly and uncategorically less important than, and certainly not superior to, one of them.
We humans share the same "evolutionary playing field" not only with our fellow mammals but with many other life forms. It is, however, difficult to see this reality clearly. I believe a quote from Albert Einstein explains why:
A human being is part of the whole that we call the
universe. Humans experience themselves, their
thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from
the rest--a kind of optical illusion of their
consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and to affection
for only a few people. Our task is to free ourselves from
this prison by widening our circle of compassion to
embrace all living beings and all of nature.
It is my personal conviction that individual human beings are of less relative importance than the few remaining individuals of some other species. If the welfare of bears or gorillas or lions or the like must be improved in order to prevent the annihilation of their species, and those necessary measures reduce the welfare and quality of life for some humans--then, yes, I do believe that the welfare of these animals is more important than the welfare of some people.
The conservation of Earth's major ecosystems is an integral part of preserving animal species and ensuring the survival of all life forms. Preserving clean air and water is also necessary in order to preserve ourselves. As journalist Kate O'Hare asks, "Each species is a unique expression of life. And when one slips away, its like will never be seen again.... We are losing the legacy of millions of years of evolution every year. Like bricks in a wall, how many can fall out before the whole wall collapses?"
Environmental concerns are also unavoidably tied to socioeconomic issues on which there is no clear humanist consensus. Large-scale environmental degradation and elimination of species can only be addressed through long-range planning and more even distribution of resources. Many wonder if this is ever likely--or even possible--under a capitalist system.
Some humanists who support capitalism may be more likely to conclude that environmental degradation is unavoidable as a cost of doing business, and that humans have a right to use the environment and other species to human betterment. Conversely, humanists who support democratic socialism are perhaps more likely to take a populist view of our environmental responsibilities. But irrespective of one's economic philosophy, blinkered conceit and ecological arrogance should not be part of the humanist philosophy.
It was during a discussion of the following hypothetical (albeit unlikely) scenario that I encountered some humanists who agreed with our detractors regarding this issue. Imagine that your beloved family pet and a human stranger are drowning and you cannot possibly save both. It is unavoidable: you must make a choice. Since humanists rely on individual reflection and independent choice to formulate their own ethical standards and moral judgments, the decision would rest with each individual. Contrary to what I heard from a few people during this discussion, our philosophy doesn't mandate a proper humanist choice.
For the record, I adore animals and share my home with six cats. All are dearly loved. I have complex, individual relationships with each one, and it's difficult to call any one my "favorite." For purposes of this example, however, I will use Panthea, the sweetest, most adorable little cat in the world. She's perfectly beautiful, she talks to me in tiny mews, and she goes to sleep with me most nights, purring with her head against my cheek. I know I could never let that guileless little animal drown in order to save any number of thoroughly despicable humans I could name. (Perhaps I should head off the inevitable question: if I believe in animal rights, why am I holding these six animals "captive"? Since we humans have made domesticated animals dependent upon us for survival, it is now our obligation to care for all of them kindly and well--a goal far from being realized.)
Surely Kathy Kelly, executive director of the Washington State Progressive Animal Welfare Society, speaks for the vast majority of humanists when she writes the following:
Long ago, humans lived side by side with wild animals.
But our interactions were more than just passing
observations of each other. We were directly and
obviously interdependent with the other animals. Some
days we were predator. Some days we were prey. To
survive, we constructed human civilizations to insulate
ourselves from the dangers of the unpredictable wild
world. To survive the next flood or drought, we
cultivated land and domesticated animals. In the
process, our relationships with these creatures
changed. We grew to think of ourselves as separate
and superior to the other animals. We forgot that we are
interdependent with them in the complex web of life.
Whether we're eventually consumed by wolf or by
worm, we return to dust--and reap from that dust that
which sustains all life on Earth.
Barbara Dority is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. Her column, "Civil Liberties Watch," appears regularly in the Humanist.
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|Title Annotation:||Exploring the Humanist Philosophy|
|Date:||May 1, 1998|
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