The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated January 3, 2003

Why We Aren't So Special


Sigmund Freud was not a humble man. So it will probably come as no surprise that when he chose to identify three great intellectual earthquakes, each of them body blows to humanity's narcissism, his own contribution figured prominently: Freud listed, first, replacement of the Ptolemaic, earth-centered universe by its Copernican rival; second, Darwin's insights into the natural, biological origin of all living things, Homo sapiens included; and third, Freud's own suggestion that much -- indeed, most -- of our mental activity goes on "underground," in the unconscious. (It is interesting to consider that even as he recounted a history of diminished human importance, Freud wasn't shy about his own!)

In any event, many of Homo sapiens's most glorious scientific achievements, rather than expanding our self-image, have paradoxically diminished it. But despite this progression of self-administered "narcissistic injuries," a widespread feeling of centrality nonetheless persists, an insistence that the world somehow revolves around human beings, as a species and as individuals. Most of us remain narcissists in this particular sense. Whereas infantile narcissism is something predictable, and eventually outgrown, centrality remains fundamental -- dare I say "central"? -- to the way many adults think of themselves. But this doesn't make it true.

Almost by definition, we each experience our own private subjectivity, a personal relationship with the universe, in return for which it is widely assumed that the universe reciprocates, even though there is no evidence supporting this latter assumption as well as considerable logic urging that it is untrue. Moreover, even as the illusion of centrality may be useful, if not necessary, to normal day-to-day functioning (in a sense, analogous to the denial of one's eventual death), seductive centrality is also responsible for a lot of foolishness and even mischief.

I have a friend who is paraplegic because of a rare viral infection in his spine. He was afflicted as a young adult, and although he has since managed to achieve a laudable life (loving marriage, devoted children, successful career), my friend remains obsessed with his illness, specifically, with why it happened to him. For decades, he has satisfied himself with this answer: He became ill in order to reconcile his parents to his then-fiancée, now wife. My friend's parents had disliked his bride-to-be, but she stood by him throughout his terrible illness and subsequent disability; her steadfastness gradually wore down their disapproval. I hasten to add that my friend is highly intelligent, and well educated. But he remains convinced that the viruses lodged in his spine were somehow recruited as part of a cosmic conspiracy designed to ensure his personal matrimonial bliss. Thus he has made sense of his life.

Next, consider the strange case of Tycho Brahe, which, on inspection, turns out to be not so strange after all. An influential Danish star-charter of the late 16th century, Brahe served as mentor to the great German astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler. In his own right, Brahe achieved remarkable accuracy in measuring the positions of planets as well as stars. But his greatest contribution (at least for my purpose) was one that he would doubtless prefer to leave forgotten because Brahe's Blunder is one of those errors whose very wrongness can teach us quite a lot about ourselves, and about the seduction of specieswide centrality.

Deep in his heart, Brahe rejected the newly proclaimed Copernican model of the universe, the heretical system that threatened to wrench the Earth from its privileged position at the center of all creation and relegate it to just one of many planets that circle the Sun. But Brahe was also a careful scientist whose observations were undeniable, even as they made him uncomfortable: The five known planets of Brahe's day (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) circled the Sun. That much was settled. Copernicus, alas, was right, and nothing could be done about it.

But Tycho Brahe, troubled of spirit yet inventive of mind, came up with a solution, a kind of strategic intellectual retreat and regrouping. It was ingenious, allowing him to accept what was irrefutably true, while still clinging stubbornly to what he cherished even more: what he wanted to be true. And so -- like my friend, who, having no choice but to accept the fact of his illness, has also retained the illusion that it somehow arose in the service of his need -- Brahe proposed that whereas the five planets indeed circled the Sun, that same Sun and its planetary retinue obediently revolved around an immobile and central Earth!

My point is that Brahean solutions are not limited to astronomy or to my wheelchair-bound friend. They reveal a widespread human tendency: Whenever possible, and however illogical, we retain a sense that we are so important that the cosmos must have been structured with us in mind.

Some time ago, a brief newspaper article described a most improbable tragedy: A woman, driving on an interstate highway, had been instantly killed when a jar of grape jelly came crashing through her windshield. It seems that the jar, along with other supplies, had accidentally been left on the wing of a private airplane, which then took off and reached a substantial altitude before the jar slid off. The woman's family may well have wondered about the "meaning" of her death, just as my friend ponders the meaning of his illness, and so many people wonder about the meaning of their lives. There must be a reason, they are convinced, for their existence and for their most intense experiences. Just as Tycho Brahe struggled to avoid astronomical reality, they simply cannot accept this biological truth: They were "created" by the random union of their father's sperm and their mother's egg, tossed into this world quite by accident, just as someday they will be tossed out of it by a falling jelly jar or by a delegation of rampaging viruses.

Centrality may also explain much resistance to the concept of evolution. Thus, according to Francis Bacon, "Man, if we look to final causes, may be regarded as the centre of the world ... for the whole world works together in the service of man. ... All things seem to be going about man's business and not their own." Such a perspective, although deluded, is comforting, and not uncommon. It may be that most of us emphasize the wrong word in the phrase "special creation," placing particular stress on creation, whereas in fact the key concept, and the one that modern fundamentalists find so attractive -- verging on essential -- is that it is supposed to be special.

Think of the mythical, beloved grandmother, who lined up her grandchildren and hugged every one while whispering privately to each, "You are my favorite!" We long to be the favorite of God or nature, as a species no less than as individuals, and so, not surprisingly, we insist upon the notion of specialness. The center of our own subjective universe, we insist on being its objective center as well.

In his celebrated and influential book, Natural Theology (1803), William Paley wrote about cosmic beneficence and species centrality: "The hinges in the wings of an earwig, and the joints of its antennae, are as highly wrought, as if the Creator had had nothing else to finish. We see no signs of diminution of care by multiplication of objects, or of distraction of thought by variety. We have no reason to fear, therefore, our being forgotten, or overlooked, or neglected."

What my friend's delusion is to his personal tragedy and Brahe's Blunder is to the solar system, Paley's Palliative is to life on earth: the seductive vanity of selective centrality. All speak eloquently about the human yearning for a special place in the cosmos.

A few decades earlier, in 1785, Thomas Jefferson had reacted as follows to the discovery of mammoth bones: "Such is the economy of nature, that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of animals to become extinct." The moral? Don't lose heart, fellow human beings! Just as there are 30 different species of lice that make their homes in the feathers of a single species of Amazonian parrot, each of them doubtless put there with Homo sapiens in mind, we can be confident that our existence is so important that we would never be ignored or abandoned. An accomplished amateur paleontologist, Jefferson remained convinced that there must be mammoths lumbering about somewhere in the unexplored Arctic regions; similarly with the giant ground sloths whose bones had been discovered in Virginia.

At one point in Douglas Adams's hilarious Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a sperm whale plaintively wonders, "Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?" as it plummets toward the fictional planet Magrathea. This appealing but doomed creature had just been "called into existence" several miles above the planet's surface when a nuclear missile, directed at our heroes' spaceship, was inexplicably transformed into a sperm whale via an "Infinite Improbability Generator." Evolution, too, is an improbability generator, although its outcomes are considerably more finite.

Here, then, is a potentially dispiriting message for Homo sapiens: Every human being -- just as every hippo, halibut, or hemlock tree -- is similarly called into existence by that particular improbability generator called natural selection, after which each of us has no more inherent purpose, no more reason for being, no more central significance to the cosmos, than Douglas Adams's naive and ill-fated whale, whose blubber was soon to bespatter the Magrathean landscape.

In his famous discourse on the different kinds of causation, Aristotle distinguished, among other things, between "final" and "efficient" causes, the former being the goal or purpose of something, and the latter, the immediate mechanism responsible. The evolutionary biologist Douglas Futuyma has accordingly referred to the "sufficiency of efficient causes." In other words, since Darwin, it is no longer useful to ask, "Why has a particular species been created?" It is not scientifically productive to assume that the huge panoply of millions of species -- including every obscure soil micro-organism and each parasite in every deep-sea fish -- exists with regard to and somehow because of human beings. Similarly, it is no longer useful to suppose that we, as individuals, are the center of the universe, either. Jelly jars abound. Efficient causes are enough.

A case can be made that whereas my friend could be left to his misconception -- which is, after all, not only harmless but genuinely consoling -- Homo sapiens as a species needs to face the truth, especially since our puffed-up sense of ourselves appears to have figured prominently in the environmental insensitivity and abuse that has characterized so much of our collective history.

In a now-classic manuscript published three decades ago in the journal Science, the historian Lynn White identified "the historical roots of our ecological crisis" as residing in the Western religious tradition of separating humanity from the rest of the natural world, claiming Old Testament sanction for the view that we have been given dominion over all other things; that, in short, nature exists for us, and thus, it is our God-given right -- even, our obligation -- to abuse and exploit it. Human centrality, in such cases, is not only a personal, biological, and astronomical absurdity, it is downright destructive.

In this regard, we might take comfort from the several ecumenical movements that have begun to espouse "faith-based stewardship," intended to counter the troublesome Western theology of human centrality. The idea, in brief, is that human beings have a responsibility to care for God's creation. But even as I applaud this development, I cannot help registering a small shudder of distrust, because even so laudable an enterprise still revolves around the stubborn, persistent idea that We Are Special. In a sense, there isn't all that much difference between claiming that nature exists for us to exploit and urging that it exists for us to protect. Either way, Homo sapiens is presumed to occupy a privileged, central place in the cosmic scheme. Even theological stewardship takes it for granted that both we and the natural world were created for a purpose, part of which happens to involve taking care of nature.

The truth, I submit, is more daunting. The natural world evolved as a result of mindless, purposeless, material events, and human beings -- not just as a species but each of us, as individuals -- are equally without intrinsic meaning or purpose. "We find no vestige of a beginning," wrote pioneering geologist James Hutton, in 1788, "no prospect of an end." For some, the prospect is bracing; for others, bleak, if not terrifying. Pascal, gazing similarly into a vastness devoid of human meaning or purpose, wrote that "the silence of these infinite spaces frightens me."

Of course, maybe I am wrong, and Hutton too, and also Darwin, and Copernicus. Maybe Tycho Brahe and my paraplegic friend are correct and our planet -- as well as our lives -- is genuinely central to some cosmic design. Many people contend that they have a personal relationship with God; for all I know, maybe God reciprocates, tailoring his grace to every such individual, orchestrating each falling sparrow and granting to every human being precisely the degree of centrality that so many crave. Maybe we have a role to play, and maybe -- as so many people in distress like to assure themselves -- they will never be given more than they are capable of bearing. Maybe we aren't Magrathean whales after all, flopping meaninglessly in a foreign atmosphere, doomed to fall. (After all, in Douglas Adams's novel, there were two nuclear missiles, one transformed into a whale and the other into a pot of petunias, which made this possibly portentous observation: "Oh no, not again!").

And maybe, even now, in some as yet undiscovered land, there are modern mastodons, joyously cavorting with giant sloths and their ilk, testimony to the unflagging concern of a deity or at minimum, a natural design, that remains devoted to all creatures. Especially, of course, ourselves.

But don't count on it.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent books are Peace and Conflict Studies (with Charles Webel; Sage Publications, 2002) and Economics as an Evolutionary Science (with Arthur E. and Anna Sachko Gandolfi; Transaction Publishers, 2002).
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 49, Issue 17, Page B11

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