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“Our Idea of What a Human Being is Has Grown Oppressively Small and Dull”

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s excellent book When I Was a Child I Read Books over the course of a weekend trip to Edmonton. Amidst a wonderful collection of very stimulating essays, one in particular stood out, and I wanted to record a few of the more interesting passages here. The essay is called “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” and deals with the perennially contentious issue of human nature. What does it mean to be a human being? What, if anything is a human being for? What are our origins and our destiny? Amidst the many competing religious and secular narratives out there, and all of the possibilities these narratives open and close for us, where do we go to hear the truth about these vital questions? Which narratives do we trust to describe us to ourselves.

Of course, one of the dominant narratives out there is what Robinson labels “Darwinist or ne-Darwinist” and essentially tells us that we are just one among many of the organisms thrown up by nature’s clay—one more creature driven on by the drive to reproduce and pass on our genetic material. Whatever else we might think is going on, whatever other motivations we might be pleased to entertain as explanations for our beliefs and behaviour, whatever uniqueness we might flatter ourselves by championing, this blind biological instinct to survive is the truest story we can tell about human beings. This Darwinist narrative is Robinson’s primary target in this essay.

Robinson begins by pointing out the circular reasoning that many articulations of a reductionistic Darwinist narrative rely upon:

To put the matter another way, to begin with the assertion that we are primates after all, and on that basis to discount the vast differences between us and other primates, and to conclude on that basis that we are, when all is said and done, simply primates with a great many epiphenomenal qualities is circular reasoning to say the least….

This circularity extends to how we articulate and reinforce our conceptions of our “primitive ancestors” that so often appear in “explanations” of human nature:

I wish to suggest that there is more than coincidence at work here. Modern theories of human nature, which are essentially Darwinist and neo-Darwinist, pare us down to our instincts for asserting relative advantage in order to survive and propagate. This dictum hangs on our essential primitivity as they understand it—assuming that our remote ancestors would have been describable in these terms, and that we, therefore, are described in them also. But it seems worthwhile to remember that this is a modern theory projected onto the deep past. Then the past, seen through the lens of this theory, becomes the basis for interpreting the present. And the observed persistence of these archaic traits in modern humanity affirms the correctness of this characterization of our remote ancestors, which goes to prove that these archaic traits do in fact persist in us. The endless mutual reinforcement distracts attention from the fact that this is all hypothetical. We know precious little about those dwellers on the savannas of the Pleistocene, and… we clearly know precious little about ourselves.

Robinson moves on to argue for a more humble view of what we do and do not know about ourselves and our origins:

[H]uman intelligence is not just a compliment we pay ourselves. It is a phenomenon of deep interest in its own right. If it is as rooted as deeply in our origins as artifacts suggest, in effect preexisting us by many thousands of years, and if its artifacts suggest teaching and learning, culture and cooperation, then surely we should be less invested in the low estimate of our ancestors, therefore ourselves, on which modern anthropologies depend. We should drop the pretense that we know what we don’t know, about our origins and about our present state. Specifically, we should cease and desist from the reductionist, in effect invidious characterizations of humankind.

And then, one of my favourite quotes from the essay:

I have felt for a long time that our idea of what a human being is has grown oppressively small and dull. I am persuaded that we educate ourselves and one another in terms that are demeaning to us all… [W]e seem to be able to be persuaded of anything, about ourselves and about others, as groups and individuals.  Granting these astonishing brains we carry around with us, granting the miraculous intricacies of the nervous systems of everyone we pass on the street, we seem to find nothing that will securely anchor ourselves or our species in our estimation. The very idea of human exceptionalism is held up to scorn, as if our doings on this planet were not wildly exceptional, whatever else may be said about them.

Robinson’s solution to the confusion and arrogance masquerading as expertise on human nature is as unoriginal as it is desperately necessary to recover:

I would like to propose a solution of sorts, ancient and authoritative but for all that very sporadically attended to. What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God?

What if, indeed!

Yes, what if we were acknowledge rather than apologize for and downplay human “exceptionalism?” And what if, having acknowledged this, we began to think of ourselves in more expansive, liberating, compassionate, and creative ways? What if we were convinced that each person we encounter—marvelous nervous systems and all!—was an utterly unique treasure? Would we find it more difficult to treat one another like animals (or worse!) as we have seen so tragically frequently in recent headlines? Perhaps not. Throughout history, human beings have, after all, proven to be remarkably inventive in our capacity for dehumanizing cruelty, regardless of how exceptional we may have considered ourselves to be. Indeed, a good argument could be made that our very convictions about human exceptionalism are at the root of a good deal of abuse and injustice, from the remotest history right down to the present.

But still, I wonder. I can’t help but think that if we were to entertain the possibility of a deeper, truer, and more lovely story about who we are and what we are for than the materialist narratives that so enamour us in our educational institutions and beyond, it would surely do some good. At least it should.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love the term “wildly exceptional”; to me it means that EVERYONE has intrinsic value.

    October 16, 2012

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