Humanism and Evolutionary Humility

By Dority, Barbara | The Humanist, May-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Humanism and Evolutionary Humility


Dority, Barbara, The Humanist


As Homo sapiens, are we superior to other life forms? we more deserving to live than they are? Can we justify their exploitation in order to improve our own lives?

Many detractors of humanism have long asserted that, after negating God, we humanists make ourselves gods. This seemingly ridiculous misconception is, in fact, a commonly held one. Many of us have at some time, upon referring to ourselves as humanists, heard comments like, "Oh, I see. Then you're only concerned with human beings and not with other species?"

I was, however, nonplussed recently to discover that apparently a few humanists also hold that the superiority of Homo sapiens is a, belief intrinsic to humanism. And in taking a closer look, it became clear to me that the American humanist movement's involvement in environmental and species preservation issues has been, at best, uneven, inconsistent, and inadequate. Why do we lack a strong, clear humanist position? Having experienced firsthand the strong emotions and fierce differences of opinion these issues elicit (myself not excluded), I can certainly understand the reluctance to confront them. However, in view of escalating worldwide awareness of our planet's ecological peril, it's time for the humanist movement to clarify its position on this fundamental subject.

It's certainly true that the humanist philosophy is focused on a concern for the human condition and espouses a moral system that promotes human freedom and welfare. But our purpose in calling ourselves humanists is to distinguish us from supernaturalists, not to set us apart from other species. The term humanist conveys the most germane kernel of our philosophy: that it excludes the supernatural.

Of course, individual humanists can believe (and promote) any opinions they want. But claims that humanist literature supports human superiority are in error. Though an exhaustive review of all the relevant material would take years, I can state with confidence that it's a huge leap from any definition of humanism I've ever encountered to the assertion that humans are superior to all other living things. In fact, countless examples could be cited clearly articulating the opposite.

Among those on my list of favorites is a one-sentence masterpiece by Fred Edwords, executive director of the American Humanist Association, from his January/February 1984 Humanist article, "The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective": "We base our ethical decisions and ideals upon human needs and concerns as opposed to the alleged needs and concerns of supposed deities or other transcendent entities or powers."

Corliss Lamont's definitive book, The Philosophy of Humanism, contains many references to the naturalistic and nonanthropomorphic meaning of humanism, as well as to the fact that the intent of the term is to distinguish between naturalism and supernaturalism, not between humans and other living things. Lamont always referred to himself as a naturalistic humanist. For example, he writes:

The adjective naturalistic shows that Humanism, in its

most accurate philosophical sense, implies a world-view

in which Nature is everything, in which there is no

supernatural, and in which human beings are an integral

part of Native and not separated from it by any sharp

cleavage or discontinuity... In the framework of the

Humanist world-view the ever-present glory of the

visible natural takes the place of the traditional glory of

the invisible supernatural.

Later in the book, Lamont adds that religions "teach a cosmology of conceit and a superstitious anthropomorphism that militates against humanity's true good in this one and only life."

Indeed, the belief that humans are "superior" and "set apart" and that the human race has an evolutionary destiny (for religionists, also God's permission) to survive and prosper at the expense of other species is a religious precept--not a precept of humanism. …

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