Human Exceptionalism

The Harm Caused by Declaring “Plant Dignity”

I sometimes despair how hard it seems to be for so many people to “get” why attempts to depersonalize some humans as we personalize nature are so harmful. But it is, and unless current trends are reversed, it will get increasingly worse.

Take the recent declaration of individual “plant dignity” in Switzerland as a minor example of the attitudes that are already impinging on experiments designed to help humankind. From the story:

For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?

That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.”Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”

Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.

“So, he had to jump through a few extra hoops,” some might say. “So what?” Well, first the needs of human beings–creating wheat that lasts longer in storage which could do much to ease human hunger–did not seem to matter in determining whether to permit the experiment to go forward. If that doesn’t raise alarms, what would? Surely, it is obvious that granting nature rights (as in Ecuador) and plants dignity leads directly to human harm and the impingement of human freedom.

Second, it reflects a wild fire of misanthropy that is flaring throughout the world, as well as a naive and irrational romanticizing of nature that tends to elevate animals and plants to the status of people, which is to say, deflate our self perception as a species. And that leads to this bitter irony: Rather than arguing that his proposed experiment could help humankind, the scientist was forced to plead that he be allowed to proceed because it could help the plant!

When applying for a larger field trial, he ran into the thorny question of plant dignity. Plants don’t have a nervous system and probably can’t feel pain, but no one knows for sure. So Dr. Keller argued that by protecting wheat from fungus he was actually helping the plant, not violating its dignity–and helping society in the process.

But behind the lost in their own brains intelligentsia–as we have seen in the animal rights fiasco–are thousands, perhaps more, zealots who have hyper romanticized nature to the point that they take actions against those seeking to use science to help humans. Thus:

One morning recently, he stood by a field near Zurich where the three-year trial with transgenic wheat is under way. His observations suggest that the transgenic wheat does well in the wild. Yet Dr. Keller’s troubles aren’t over.

In June, about 35 members of a group opposed to the genetic modification of crops, invaded the test field. Clad in white overalls and masks, they scythed and trampled the plants, causing plenty of damage. “They just cut them,” says Dr. Keller, gesturing to wheat stumps left in the field. “Where’s the dignity in that?”

But this is entirely predictable when nature becomes an object of quasi-worship! It is what happens when one has so degraded the worth of their own species that they consider us to be merely another aspect of the natural world, neither more nor less important than other fauna and flora. And so when one equally valuable (or invaluable) species impinges on the “rights” of another, action must be taken!

And the amazing part? This Wall Street Journal story being a rare exception, the media and the world are generally snoozing; not noting, and perhaps not even caring, that human exceptionalism–the moral and intellectual foundation of Western Civilization that has brought so much freedom and mitigation of suffering into the world–is tottering. The question is: What will it take to arouse people to mount a vigorous defense of their own culture and human exceptionalism, without a belief in which, universal human rights become impossible to defend?

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