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The end of humanism

Mankind doesn't fare too well in cutting-edge intellectual thinking

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

Remember humanism? That optimistic belief that human beings are the apex of the universe, the source of all values, and the measure of all things? Throughout the 20th century, many intellectuals believed that humanism would take the place of the world's religions.

And yet, even within the world of humanism, the status of "Man" has been diminishing. In the sequence of Humanist Manifestos issued over the years, what began with the exaltation of "Man" has been reduced to the exaltation of "science," by which adherents mean evolution. Today, "secular humanists" still believe in secularism, but the humanism is all but gone. They have taken the next step, deriding humanism as an outdated relic of modernism. Cutting-edge thinking is increasingly anti-human.

Consider a recent speech by University of Texas biologist Eric Pianka. He was addressing the Texas Academy of Science, which had just named him the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist.

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When people learn what is being taught in their tax-supported universities, they are often shocked. So before Mr. Pianka's talk, Academy officials threw out a TV cameraman who was videotaping the conference. Mr. Pianka explained that the public was not ready to hear what he was going to say. The old humanists used to believe in the freedom of the press and the free flow of ideas. But ordinary Texans might not approve of hearing that this Distinguished Texas Scientist wanted to kill them.

Mr. Pianka began by condemning "anthropocentrism," the idea that human beings have a privileged place in the universe. He told about a neighbor who once asked him what good are the lizards that he studies. Mr. Pianka replied, "What good are you?"

Mr. Pianka believes, in his words, "We're no better than bacteria!" and he has proposed an anti-bacterial course of hygiene. He said that, in order to save the planet, the human population should be reduced by 90 percent. War and famine are not efficient enough, he said, to kill the billions of people necessary. Disease would be the best population reducer. AIDS, though, works much too slowly.

What would be best, he said, is Ebola, a Central African virus that liquifies the internal organs. An airborne variety of Ebola, he calculated, would produce 90 percent mortality.

The Academy gave Mr. Pianka a sustained ovation. In the Q&A that followed, Mr. Pianka said, "You know, the bird flu's good, too." He also suggested we "sterilize everybody on the Earth." He praised China with its forced-abortion laws "because they got a police state and they can force people to stop reproducing."

This anti-human stance, though not always presented so blatantly, has become commonplace. Princeton professor Peter Singer, one of the world's leading ethicists, also rejects the notion that human beings have a special status over animals. While arguing for animal rights, Mr. Singer rejects intrinsic human rights, calling not only for abortion but infanticide, as well as nonvoluntary euthanasia for the handicapped.

Meanwhile, in art and literature classes, professors take on "the myth of the artist," which lauds human creativity and individual genius. Instead, according to contemporary anti-humanist criticism, the artist is just a "construction" of the culture, whose forces and power relationships completely determine what a Shakespeare or Michelangelo thinks and creates. Social scientists do the same with "the myth of the individual," asserting that self-consciousness itself is nothing more than a cultural construction. They also argue that freedom is an illusion, that the only difference between free societies and police states is that free societies force people to police themselves.

Christianity rejects humanism too, recognizing the depravity and limits inherent in fallen humanity. And yet, Christians are not anti-human. Human beings bear value as the image of God. And God Himself became a Man, in His incarnation in Jesus Christ, who offered Himself as a sacrifice for man's salvation. As the secularists spiral down into ever-greater inhumanity, Christians may be left as humanity's only defenders.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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