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Do Peas Have Souls?
Human exceptionalism, pro and con.
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A concerned reader sent me a link to this video in which, he said, my name was taken in vain. Yes, I know, it’s an irritating imposition on readers to open a column by linking to a 31-minute video clip. I’ll be offering a concise executive summary in just a moment, with links into the video at precise points.

Titled The War on Humans, the video is put out by the Discovery Institute, whose business is the promotion of intelligent design. These folk are the rump of the old American creationist tradition, still valiantly defending the God of the Gaps against soulless Darwinism, though the gaps are now so tiny—bacterial flagella, gene mutations half a billion years ago—you need a biologist’s microscope to see them. Since it is not likely we shall ever know everythingabout the history of life, the creationists will be with us for a while yet. I’ve jousted with them a few times.

The video’s main point is to affirm human exceptionalism by contrasting it with the views of animal-rights fanatics, who have apparently now advanced into the vegetable kingdom:

12m30s. A professor named Michael Marder…said that…peas in a sense are persons, too.

Striking, but not an original thought. Pythagoras (according to Aristotle), noting that sour bean curd smells like semen, deduced that beans have souls, and forbade his acolytes from eating them.

As to whether the pea-huggers have penetrated as far into politics as the video claims, I’m skeptical.

14m09s. [The Swiss] have put into their constitution a clause that protects the individual dignity of plants.

Have they? The nearest thing I can find in the Swiss constitution is Article 120, Clause 2. Read it for yourself and see if it will bear the interpretation the video has put on it. I say it’s a stretch.

Given that the animal-rights movement has a lunatic fringe—no argument from me on that—what about human exceptionalism?

First off, it needs defining. Lots of creatures are exceptional. The blue whale is exceptional for its size; marsupials are exceptional for the pouch. There is a marine organism rather uncharitably called the warty sea cucumber that, when stressed, expels its internal organs out through its anus. Now that’s exceptional!

What are we exceptional for? As best I can figure, the notion here is one of metaphysical exceptionalism. We humans are a different kind of stuff from the rest of creation by dint of possessing immortal souls. This is an ancient and respectable line of thinking, so why don’t ID-ers just come out and say it? Why are they so mealy-mouthed? I guess it’s just a desire to sound science-y, but it comes across as shifty.

In any case, if you don’t hold to human exceptionalism, you have mental problems:

18m08s. You can trace [animal-rights extremism] all back to this, I think, neurotic desire to deny the specialness and uniqueness of human life….But where did the desire to deny human exceptionalism come from?

From Darwin, of course! And here we get to my little walk-on part in the video:

24m14s. The same dismissal of human uniqueness can be found among some on the right. John Derbyshire was a long-time writer for the conservative journal National Review. In 2012 he was dismissed after writing an article for another publication arguing that blacks are more antisocial and less intelligent than whites. Derbyshire believes that racial differences are the products of evolution. He also believes that Darwinian theory refutes the claim of traditional Western monotheism that human beings are exceptional. In his words: “The broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of human exceptionalism. To modern biologists informed by Darwin, we are merely another branch on nature’s tree.”

While I appreciate my reader’s concern for my feelings, I can’t see anything objectionable in that. It’s a truthful statement of things that happened and views I’ve expressed and shall express again when context calls for it.


I can’t even see why they put me in this video. Possibly the Discovery Institute wanted to get back at me for mocking them in last month’s American Spectator. Fair enough, but I don’t quite feel got-back-at. What I actually feel is what a certain British politician felt after a lackluster opponent criticized him in the House of Commons. It was, he said, “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”

The War on Humans is thin stuff altogether. Why don’t they mention the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement? As representatives of the War on Humans, surely VHEMT is worth ten of me.

And the core thesis is open to some obvious rejoinders. Human exceptionalism was the common belief of mankind until Darwin came along, and much good it did us. Consider just a single decade, admittedly a more than averagely gruesome one: the 1640s. Those years saw the climax of the Thirty Years’ War, the Khmelnytsky Pogroms, Cromwell’s scourging of Ireland, and the Manchu occupation of China. I’m not perfectly clear about the metaphysical inclinations of the Manchus (though they certainly weren’t animal-rights enthusiasts), but all the other participants were human exceptionalists. Tell me again why we should cherish human exceptionalism?

The much-advertised horrors of the 20th century were statistically mild by comparison with what went before, as Steven Pinker has shown; and the worst were anyway perpetrated by anti-Darwinians such as Stalin and Mao seeking to perfect human nature via nonbiological methods.

So I’ll nail my own little banner to human unexceptionalism, thanks all the same. The better we can understand human nature and human differences—both differences between individuals and between the big old inbred extended families we call races—the better we shall be able to chip away at the pains and horrors of human life and keep our society stable and free.

In giving us the conceptual tools to advance that understanding, no one did more, nor indeed one-hundredth as much, as Darwin. Happy birthday, Chuck.

(Republished from Takimag by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 
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