Us and Them, Nature and Humanism

By Scott, Eugenie C. | Free Inquiry, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview
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Us and Them, Nature and Humanism


Scott, Eugenie C., Free Inquiry


Does humanism exclude the membership of Homo sapiens in a wider ecosystem? I believe it does just the opposite: it requires a recognition of our kinship with nature.

Let me explain. Anthropology shows us that human beings tend to rank other individuals in importance, value, or mode of treatment based on kinship. As the Bedouin say, "Me against my brother; me and my brother against my cousin; me, my brother and my cousin against the world."

Modern societies do not differ from tribal ones in this regard. We tend to treat other citizens differentially depending on how much they are like us, which is really just an expression of the tribal society's concern with kinship. In the big cities, we don't have complex extendedkin relationships anymore, but we do have same/different and us/them. People give neither resources nor affection randomly, without concern for the nature of the recipient, and we are more likely to give to those more similar to ourselves. When hurricanes hit, Americans give first to Florida and later to Bangladesh.

We are not alone in this tendency; it grows from our primate or even mammalian past. "Us/Them" is probably a product of natural selection: I share more genes with people who are like me, so if I aid them, I will be insuring more copies of "my" genes into the next generation. Biology can and does operate to produce altruism, but it is not generalized. Altruism is most frequently expressed towards "us," with "them," however defined, as much farther down the line.

Note, before I go on, that I am describing the situation, not praising it, nor stating that it is the only possible system that could have evolved nor that it is the best system.

Obviously, if human beings discriminate in their altruism among members of our species, members of other species will be treated with even less consideration. By definition they are even more "them" than is the most remote human being. The idea of "dominion over nature" is not restricted to Christianity; human philosophical/religious systems almost uniformly place humankind above animals. Origin myths of tribal people abound with special creation of humans apart from animals, or being created last and put in charge of the rest. As a species, we (with some exceptions) apparently feel free to exploit nature as we wish, whether as pre-contact Amerindians driving herds of horses and buffalo over cliffs, or modern Brazilians burning down the Amazon rain forest.

What might a humanist make of this? Humanists tend to look to science rather than revelation to understand the universe, and science tells us that our species does not teeter at the top of the scala natura but is instead a product of the same evolutionary processes that produce hares, hornets, and horseradish. If we look only at DNA, it is difficult to tell us from modern apes. We are part of a web of life, and from this we might infer that there is no material basis for the belief of some of us that humankind is a superior form deserving complete authority over all other living things.

Might we not, realizing this kinship, move to a more modest view of our place in nature, rather than, as under the old revelatory doctrines, believing ourselves superior and omnipotent? Evolution tells us where we came from, and describes our history as a species.

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