From the issue dated January 3,
Why We Aren't So SpecialBy DAVID P. BARASH
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
Section: The Chronicle
Volume 49, Issue 17, Page B11
2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education