Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Column on Self Deprecation

The Mystery of Human Self-deprecation

Tibor R. Machan

When parents notice their children feeling low and suspect this
may persist, signaling lack of self-respect, they naturally worry. Why?
Well, without a solid measure of confidence in oneself, one is not likely
to set off on difficult journeys, take up tasks that require skill and
perseverance. Friendship and romantic love, just to mention two vital
areas of our lives, also call upon us to do well and if we see ourselves
as inept, they are unlikely to flourish.

Yet, although children are widely understood to require the
development of self-confidence, when we become adults and do, finally,
feel up to things, this is often considered hubris. Indeed, there is now a
general movement afoot, led by the likes of Bernd Heinrich, Emeritus
Professor at the University of Vermont, to denigrate us all, to show that
we aren?t anything very special in the living world. Writing for the
International Herald Tribune on August 30, 2005, Heinrich goes to great
lengths to use the very popular recent movie, March of the Penguins, to
suggest this theme. The gist of the argument is that human beings share
98% of their DNA with some of the big apes and other animals, so there
mustn?t be much difference between them and the rest of the animal world.

Alas, this is a bad argument. A little bit can mean a lot and in
the case of the impact of that little bit on what human beings are it does
indeed mean a lot. For one, human beings are the ones who make these kinds
of discoveries about the animal world, not big apes. They are the
scientists?zoologists, biologists, physiologists and others?who bring to
light these intriguing findings, whereas chimps, orangutans, and other
apes, let alone the rest of the animals, have nothing at all to say on
these matters, nothing to show because, well, they haven?t got the
faculties with which to discover all the relevant information.

The percentage of DNA we share with other animals must be
understood in context. DNA by itself doesn?t account for a whole lot. It
is the configuration of all the biological components that make up an
organism that counts. That is what enables people to forge sciences such
as biology, to produce works of art, to build cities and write books and
all the rest that is utterly absent from the rest of the animal world.

But even more importantly, only people have the capacity to
discuss these very issues of whether they and animals do or do not share
important attributes. They are the only ones, for example, who can be
implored to act in certain ways that come from paying attention to just
what animals can and cannot do, versus what people can and cannot do.
Human beings are the only animals capable of exhibit moral concerns about,
for example, other animals or the environment or anything else for that

Now if that isn?t a vital difference between us and other animals
I don?t know what is. Clearly, having moral responsibilities makes us very
different animals from even the great apes. And all those who try to tell
us that we aren?t all that different contradict themselves in the very act
of making such a claim to us about the matter rather than addressing the
great apes about it all. They show that we are very different indeed, even
as they deny that difference.

Aristotle, 25 centuries ago, already knew well enough that anyone
who refuses to study animals fails to learn enough about human beings to
be well informed. As he said, "If there is anyone who holds that the study
of the animal is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go further and hold the
same opinion about the study of himself." This is no news. What is new is
this incessant urgency with which some folks go about trying to belittle
human beings, trying to make us feel like we don?t amount to much. Yet,
all the while they do this they demonstrate, also, that we do amount to a
lot more than other animals since they have no interest in addressing
those other animals about these issues.

Being something special in nature doesn?t give us much credit
individually, of course. Yes, we can use animals for scientific research,
even for entertainment, if this will help us flourish in our lives--all
animals do this. But that doesn?t mean we are drastically different from
the rest of the animal world, only that we do have traits and faculties
that enable us to do very different things from other animals, including
being responsible as we chose how we conduct ourselves, something other
animals cannot do.

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