The Arrogance of Humanism (1978) was written by conservation biologist David W. Ehrenfeld. The book explores humanism in reason, science, and technology.
The primary tenet of humanism parallels the tenets expressed by the Abrahamic religions: The universe is ours to be used. Humanism, like other faith-based worldviews, proudly proclaims the inevitability of our success as a species. Unlike most other religions, humanism places its faith in the ultimate value of reason, science, and technology. In short, human intelligence will save humanists from any errors we make along our uniquely inspired path.
In the end, Ehrenfeld’s conclusion matches mine: only a miracle will save us from ourselves. Our propensity for cleverness has overwhelmed, and continues to overwhelm, our propensity for wisdom. Like me, Ehrenfeld isn’t big on miracles. On the topic of miracles, I’ve quoted David Hume before, and this line is particularly relevant: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”
It’s not difficult to understand how we arrived at this self-absorbed point in history. We really, really like ourselves. We believe we’re more important than other species, as pointed out by Farley Mowat: “We’re under some gross misconception that we’re a good species, going somewhere important, and that at the last minute we’ll correct our errors and God will smile on us. It’s delusion.”
Never mind the God issue. Never mind that we left the “last minute” in the dust decades ago. Never mind those two points and let Ehrenfeld destroy the self-absorbed, humanistic perspective with a few pointed lines: “… deep within ourselves we know that our omnipotence is a sham, our knowledge and control of the future is weak and limited, our inventions and discoveries work, if they work at all in ways that we do not expect, our planning is meaningless, our systems are running amok — in short, that the humanistic assumptions upon which our societies are grounded lack validity.”
Lest we fall “under some gross misconception that we’re a good species, going somewhere important,” let’s check a couple inconvenient facts. Firstly, the universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Secondly, our favorite species — Homo sapiens, the self-proclaimed wise ape — is about 200,000 years old. In other words, we’ve occupied this universe for about 1/69,000th of its time.
Civilizations arose a few thousand years ago, likely due to a slight rise in global-average temperature along with a very stable climate. Thus was born the unique set conditions underlying human-population overshoot and myriad other predicaments in which we are embroiled.
During that blink of cosmological time, we’ve become stunningly stupid as we reflexively employ technology to destroy habitat for ourselves. As one minor example, a headline from a few weeks ago screams, “Oklahoma now more quake-prone than California.” Our obsession with petroleum, hence illusory “wealth,” has turned Oklahoma into a shakier place than the boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.
The universe waited a long time for us to make an appearance. Maybe this universe isn’t all about us, notwithstanding the arrogance of humanism.
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McPherson’s latest book is available in audio, and can be purchased here. Ms. Ladybug and Mr. Honeybee: A Love Story at the End of Time is intended for ages 11 and up.