Human Exceptionalism

Darwinism Unwisely Used as Cudgel Against Human Exceptionalism

For years, I have been warning people that the time has come to man (and woman) the ramparts to defend the citadel of human exceptionalism (that’s a metaphor for you literalists) against its many attackers. Indeed, the unique and intrinsic value of human life merely for being human is under concerted attack across a broad array of disciplines–bioethics, animal rights, radical environmentalism, and Darwinism.

Interestingly, the latter field of controversy was addressed specifically in a Time magazine interview with Dennis Sewell, author of The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics, which apparently deals with how Darwinism has been put to “sinister” political (ab)uses. (Funny, when Ben Stein pointed that same undeniable point in Expelled, he was called all sorts of names–even an anti-Semite!)

But that’s not why I am posting this entry.  What caught my attention was the questioner specifically raising the issue of human exceptionalism. From the interview:

You believe that Darwin should continue to be taught in schools. But how can we teach Darwin and also teach that humans are somehow exceptional in the natural world? Wasn’t his great breakthrough to show that humans, like all animals, share a common origin? I think we have to decide what status we are going to give to the human race. Most of the world’s religions hold that human life is sacred and special in some way. In teaching our common descent with animals, we also have to examine what is special about human beings, and why they deserve to be treated differently and granted certain rights.

I agree that time is here–but only the anti-human exceptionalists seem to recognize the extraordinary importance of the issue, and so too often their assaults on our unique value go unanswered.

That needs to change. Unless the forces of hunan unexceptionalism are forcefully rebuffed, we could be in for real trouble. It was the abuse of Darwin’s biological insights, for example, that convinced eugenisists, like those American villains Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, to denigrate some human beings (the so-called “unfit”)  as having lesser value than those deemed “the fit.”  The eugenics and social Darwinism movements, in turn, led or contributed intellectual support to public policies that authorized the  involuntary sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, leading ultimately to racial hygiene, the infanticide and T-4 pogroms in Germany, and indeed, the wider Holocaust itself.  When Darwinism is brought to bear to undermine human exceptionalism and reduce us to merely another animal in the forest–as opposed to explaining biological processes–it gives aid to powerful and profoundly destructive social forces.

So, no more complacency. No more pretending that the elites still generally believe that all men are created equal or that Jefferson’s insight is still considered a self-evident truth. No more blithely assuming that if one can just prove that a threatened life is human, that it will necessarily win the debate over whether the most vulnerable among us can be killed or objectified.  It really is time to defend human exceptionalism against all its foes.  I mean if being human is not what, ipso facto, gives rise to ultimate moral value, the very principle of universal human rights becomes intellectually untenable.

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