Marilynne Robinson on Jon Stewart on Human Exceptionalism07-12-2010
Marilyn Robinson has a new book, Absence of Mind, which she discusses here with Jon Stewart. Her best line:
I don't think it's scientific to proceed from the study of ants to a conclusion about the nature of the cosmos.
A number of years ago Wyatt Mason, now Senior Fellow at the Arendt Center, turned me on to Marilynne Robinson, first her spell-binding novel Gilead, and later
her essay collection, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.
"Darwinism," The first and very worthwhile essay in that collection is a thoughtful critique of the political and intellectual foundations of Darwinist thought. One of Robinson's main efforts is to reject the Darwinian rejection of human exceptionalism.
Much like Hannah Arendt, Robinson wants to insist on a distinction between humans and all other species. Where Darwinism and other social sciences imagine humans to follow rules (survival of the fittest, struggle, pursuit of self-interest), she insists that real human beings are much more complicated than that. Indeed, the very idea that mankind can put an end to life on earth is, for Robinson, persuasive reason to conclude that humanity is "exceptional among the animals." Such a human capacity, she writes surely
complicates the idea that we are biologically driven by the imperatives of genetic survival. Surely it also complicates the idea that competition and aggression serve the ends of genetic survival in our case, at least.
It is one thing to say that there is undeniable scientific evidence for evolution. It is another to say that evolution means that the "fittest" survive and that they survive by a genetic predisposition to self-interest, strength, and competition. These are ethical arguments, not scientific proofs. And they are used to delegitimate charity and to strip away humane constraints on ostensibly natural self-interested behavior.
It is unpopular to critique Darwin today, but Hannah Arendt made a similar point in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The force of Arendt's questions about Darwin is that Darwinism is one of the ideas in modern life that diminish the idea of humanity and the worth of humans. Darwinism sees humanity as one species among many. Since evolution does not stop, there will be higher species.
Darwinism thus kicks out one crutch supporting the idea of an inviolable human dignity.
What both Robinson and Arendt see is that to give up on human exceptionalism means that we lose the ethical prohibition on murdering or culling or breeding human beings. It opens the door to hierarchies of humans, whether by race, gender, intelligence, wealth, or productivity. And it leads to the worry about what will happen to the masses of humanity in an age of automation and robotic intelligence, an age when the wealthiest and most powerful simply don't need the mass of laborers to thrive.
Robinson and Arendt thus both raise the question of what it means to be human. Read about the Arendt Center's upcoming Conference: Human Being in an Inhuman Age.