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Uniquely Human?

UNIQUELY HUMAN? James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1990.

Darwin's theory of evolution and the descent of man understandably threatened his readers. In presenting the idea that humans are descended from apes, the remarkable theory of random variation and natural selection abruptly demolished the long and securely held human belief that we occupy the starring role in creation. In his book on the moral implications of Darwinism, James Rachels makes the case that this belief has not been demolished thoroughly enough.

Created from Animals argues that even though the theory of evolution is now largely accepted, most Darwinists mistakenly continue to think that humans have some uniquely special value; that even though we differ from the other animals in degree but not in kind, we are still, somehow, in an elevated category as a result of our 'human dignity'. Rachels maintains that such a view is incompatible with a true understanding of Darwin's theory, and that the proper abandonment of such a position has profound implications for much of our traditional morality. In such circumstances humans can no longer be thought of as 'a great work' compared to which the rest of the animal world has little or no value.

Rachels examines the main reasons humans give for distinguishing ourselves from animals, then shows how these reasons are seriously undermined by Darwin's theory of evolution. Human dignity is usually justified by recourse to the notion that we are created in the image of God, or by assertions that we alone are rational animals. Either of these reasons are thought sufficient to prop up the view that we are in a special moral category; but Rachels asserts that such a notion is nothing more than 'the moral effluvium of a discredited metaphysics'. (5)

In contradiction to the notion that humans are special because we are made in the image of God, Rachels shows how Darwin uniquely contributed towards the atheist cause by offering a credible alternative to God. Prior to Darwin, the best explanation of the complexities of nature was an intelligent creator. After Darwin, there was a better hypothesis: random variation and natural selection. Evolution fits the facts of the world better. It explains the poor design of humans (such as 'muscles that can no longer move ears, useless body-hair, a vermiform appendix that serves no purpose, the remnants of a tail, and so on' (121) and other animals, as well as the presence of evil in the world, neither of which is easily compatible with a benevolent creator God. Evolution makes the belief that humans are created in the image of God unlikely.

To counter the argument that humans are special because we are uniquely rational, Darwin wrote that 'there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties'. (57) We are part of a continuum rather than in separate categories, and thus rationality cannot be thought of as something uniquely human. This is readily apparent in the higher mammals, but Darwin carefully argues that even the lowly earthworm possesses some level of rationality. While there is of course a difference in degree between human rationality and that of other animals (perhaps humans are to minds what elephants are to noses), this does not put us on a completely different level. For Darwin, thought is just another product of natural selection, a 'secretion of the brain' (30) which many species possess to different degrees. It does nothing to make humans morally special.

In the final chapter, Rachels gives his account of a post-Darwinian morality, which is a morality of dethroned humanity. When determining how an individual ought to be treated, species membership should not provide an ethical trump card. What is relevant are the particular characteristics of the being under consideration. Rachels calls this 'moral individualism', and it entails that 'if we think it is wrong to treat a human in a certain way, because the human has certain characteristics, and a particular non-human animal also has those characteristics, then consistency requires that we also object to treating the non-human in that way'. (175)

So we can discriminate between humans and rats, for instance, when it comes to university admission, because admission to university is based upon ability to pass tests; but we cannot discriminate when it comes to performing painful medical experiments or inflicting any sort of unnecessary pain. If we think it is wrong to experiment on humans because they will suffer, it is also wrong, for the same reason, to experiment on rats. What matters are the similarities and differences between the species, not ill-conceived notions of human supremacy.

Overall, Created from Animals is an engaging account of Darwin's thought and its moral implications, which have largely been ignored in the philosophical world. Rachels calls for a radical rethinking of our relationship to non-human animals and the multitude of ways in which we wantonly use and abuse them. In the process, he provides a compelling argument that Darwin's revolution has made most of our old moral systems look outdated.


Department of Philosophy

University of Melbourne
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Title Annotation:Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism
Author:Hannibal, Noah
Publication:Traffic (Parkville)
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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