Thursday, April 05, 2007

Now for some Real Diversity

Tibor R. Machan

People are often seen as either not of this earth or no more than collections of atoms. Contemporary science, even psychology, tends toward the latter, while the general public sees us as endowed with something supernatural so we can do the myriads of odd things people are known to do. But there is another option that should find many friends because it just makes so much sense.

Why not see ourselves as a novel part of nature? We aren’t like ants or gorillas or rocks, that is for sure. People have capacities nothing else in nature exhibits, some welcome and some not so much. No other being on this earth writes so much about itself, frets endlessly about what kind of thing it is; worries about its future; speculates about an afterlife, composes music, writes novels, and so forth and so on. These seem to be genuinely unique to human beings.

Consider some not so welcome aspects of human life: crime, meanness, procrastination, murder, slavery and so forth. All these, too, are human. What makes them possible? We see them all around us, throughout history, and this suggests that we really are unusual.

However, take a look at anything and it will have some features other things lack. Trees are different from grass, ice is different lava, a bee is very different from an ant. Nature teams with diversity, with all kinds of stuff that differs from other stuff. And people are just like that—very different from everything else.

Now in recent months there has been a spate of discussions in the popular press about how people really aren’t that different at all. They are just an assembly of raw matter, governed by the same laws that govern the movement of billiard balls on a pool table. Mostly the target is free will—these discussions want urgently to deny it. The idea seems be to dethrone human beings,
to deny them their measure of specialness in the universe. This is the egalitarian spirit run amuck. We are like everything else and to think otherwise is specieism, an irrational chauvinism, favoring humans above all else.

How wrongheaded this impulse is can be gleaned from the fact that clearly no other being in the world engages in such self-flagellation. No animals demean themselves the way humans do (even as they again demonstrate by this that they are special). And there is really no good reason to deny it since affirming the special status of human beings in the world does not confer any superiority on any individual person. For someone to be special among human beings, one has to excel at a thing or two, it isn’t enough to have been born, nor to belong to some group like whites or men or the English. Instead to achieve human excellence a person needs to put his or her faculties to good use and that require effort; it’s not automatic.

In nature there evidently is a scale of greater and greater complexity and at different points on this continuum whatever occupies a given point will possess capacities different from those at other points. And with human beings there is such an immense range of capacities that it really is quite amazing, baffling actually, and undeniable.

And why would this be so odd? After all, as the world has developed, whatever its origins, beings have emerged that continually outdo each other for what all they are capable of, can accomplish and achieve. Among these beings the human animal appears clearly to be the most complicated, most fascinating of them all, both for good and for ill! And for this to be so, people have to have certain attributes that other beings lack. Their ability to govern their own lives, to direct themselves, to be autonomous seems to be crucial to what all they are capable of, again both for good and for ill.

So I don’t see why so many erudite folks want to deny that human beings are quite different from the rest of nature. It is too evident to deny and even its denial merely confirms it since only people have the capacity to deny the obvious!