The Arrogance of Humanism (1978/1981) David W. Ehrenfeld

With the recognition of the anthropocene in the early 21st century, we might pause to consider whether humanism unduly places human beings as a centre of the universe.

David W. Ehrenfeld published a book The Arrogance of Humanism in 1978 (with an additional foreword in the 1981 edition) that foreshadows a criticism of anthropocentrism.  (There’s a version on the Internet Archive., and a preview on Google Books). Some excerpts from the book may be enlightening.

For those who prefer to listen to a recorded interview with David Ehrenfeld, rather than reading, he was part of a series on “The Age of Ecology”, produced by David Cayley for CBC Ideas in June 1990. The audio is available at https://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts/2016/6/4/age-of-ecology-part-two (with the bigger context for the program at https://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts/category/Age+of+Ecology ).

To reduce confusion, it’s worth noting that David W. Ehrenfeld was the first editor of the journal Conservation Biology from 1986.  He was a founding member of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.  and a professor of biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

He is not John R. Ehrenfeld who was executive director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology (is4ie.org) , and has most recently been championing sustainability as flourishing.  John was director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment from 1985 to 2000.


Preface to the Galaxy Edition (1981)

[….] The text remains essentially unchanged.

[….] In the three years that have passed since I finished writing the first edition many things have happened. The tragedy of Love Canal was revealed, the rate of destruction of the Amazonian rain forest accelerated, the failure of a forty-six-cent computer component twice signaled the start of a nuclear war, China adopted more of the methods and goals of modern industrial technology, the large mammals and birds of Uganda’s parklands were nearly all destroyed, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered organic farming.  [….]  [p. vii]

Shortly after the first edition was published, the disaster at Three Mile Island occurred.  [….]  It is amusing, in a grim kind of way, to compare the Browns Ferry transcripts with the records from Three Mile Island; only the names of the engineers and administrators have changed, the rest is the same. 

As I expected, many people who read the book were distressed by my use of the word humanism. “We agree with your message,” they said, “but you have picked the wrong word as the focal point of your attack. Humanism asserts human dignity and the freedom of the human spirit; it is a kindly philosophy.”  [p. viii]

Perhaps so, but this is not to the point. When one chooses a guiding philosophy of life  — and the modern world has chosen humanism — one becomes responsible for all the consequences that flow from that choice. We have chosen to transform our original faith in a higher authority to faith in the power of reason and human capabilities. It has proven a misplaced trust. This is the other side of humanism, as I point out in the first chapter, and no amount of denial will make it go away. The economist, E. F. Schumacher, wrote in A Guide for the Perplexed: [pp. viii-ix]

Faith in modern man’s omnipotence is wearing thin. . . . More and more people are beginning to realize that “the modern experiment” has failed. …  Man closed the gates of Heaven against himself and tried, with immense energy and ingenuity, to confine himself to the Earth. He is now discovering that …  a refusal to reach for Heaven means an involuntary descent into Hell.

This book is a documentation and explanation of the failure that Schumacher described—the failure of humanism. So the word stands. [p. ix]

[….]

My first concern, and the primary aim of this book, has been to identify the consequences of humanism and to explain how they are brought about. Although I have tried to indicate the self-destructive elements of modern humanism that will eventually destroy it from within, and although I have also called attention to the sources of human strength that have remained independent of the humanist tradition, I have given no master plan for individual survival. Again, Wendell Berry (in The Unsettling of America) says it: very well: “The use of the world is finally a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forebearance and care of a multitude of persons.”  [p. xi]

Preface (1978)

[….]

My readers will find that I do not counsel a total rejection of humanism, which has its nobler parts. But we have been too gentle and uncritical of it in the past, and it has grown ugly and dangerous. Humanism itself, like the rest of our existence, must now be protected against its own excesses. Fortunately, there are humane alternatives to the arrogance of humanism.  [pp. xiii – xiv]

[….]

1. False Assumptions

When religions decay, form generally outlasts substance: rituals continue to be observed, sometimes even intensified, but they move outside the lives of the people who practice them. In these circumstances, ritual is celebrated but no longer believed; it may even become embarrassing. Vital religions are different. Although the extent of ritual observance varies from one to another, all living religions are part of daily life and their central tenets are accepted as truths that need no further verification.

Humanism is one of the vital religions, perhaps no longer growing but very much alive. It is the dominant religion of our time, a part of the lives of nearly everyone in the “developed” world and of all others who want to participate in a similar development. There is very little ritual in humanism, and most of its devout followers do not seem to be aware that they are humanists. Ask them for the name of their religion and they will deny having one, or, more commonly, name one of the traditional faiths. On the other hand, people who consider themselves humanists usually are — frequently, however, for reasons other than the ones they know and admit.

Can a person unknowingly belong to one religion while under the impression that he or she is part of another? If that person believes in the dogma of the former and only celebrates the latter, why not?  [p. 3]

[….]

Among the correlates of humanism is the belief that humankind should live for itself, because we have the power to do so, the capacity to enjoy such a life, and nothing else to live for. Another correlate is the faith in the children of pure reason: science and technology. Although shaken in recent years and the source of much confusion among humanists, this faith continues to permeate our existence and influence our behavior, like the universal assumptions that day will always follow night and water will always flow downhill. There is also a strong anti-Nature (at least raw Nature) element in humanism, although it is not always expressed and is sometimes denied.  [p. 6]

[….]

Many people like to call themselves humanists because the name has acquired pleasant connotations, like “freedom.” They probably are mostly humanists, as I have said, but this is in spite of their misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. We cannot allow the definition of humanism to become totally amorphous, even though we may still end up calling the same people humanists. Otherwise, we will never be able to see humanism clearly enough to discern the terrible thing that is wrong with it. Nor will we be able to criticize it. 

In its early years as an established philosophy, humanism was constantly at war with organized religion in the West, and this has since tended to obscure the common elements and similarities between them. It is a well-known principle in biology, first set forth by Darwin, that closely related species in frequent contact with one another tend to evolve exaggerated differences in appearance and behavior. Whether for reasons similar to those advanced by biologists or whether by chance analogy, the same thing has happened to classic religion and to humanism. One has God and the other does not—an important difference, but not enough to conceal the relationship that is there.  [p. 7]

The key to this relationship is the archaic but still enormously popular doctrine of final causes. This doctrine, whose origins go back beyond the ancient Greeks, has flourished since the rise of science in the West in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It asserts, in one formulation, that the features of the natural world—mountains, deserts, rivers, plant and animal species, climate—have all been arranged by God for certain ends, primarily the benefit of humanity. These beneficial ends can often be perceived if we look carefully: rivers provide edible fish and transportation, deserts give boundaries and limits, etc. Our responsibility is to acknowledge this gift and accept control of the planet in return, an acceptance that was urged by some Jews and Christians even in ancient times. Thus the idea of using a Nature created for us, the idea of control, and the idea of human superiority became associated early in our history.  [pp. 7-8]

[….]

To some, humanism serves to protect us from the darker side of Nature, a side that all but the most hopelessly naive and sheltered of urban pastoralists know well. Anyone who copes regularly with Nature has met the winds, frosts, droughts, floods, heat waves, pests, infertile soils, venoms, diseases, accidents, and general uncertainty that it offers in succession or simultaneously. The primitive way to confront this darker side is with toil, and the human faculty of invention has ever worked to lessen that toil. Small wonder that humanism, which elevates our inventiveness to divine levels and celebrates it as infallible, has been embraced by many of those who believe they have been released from toil.  [p. 10]

Setting aside for the moment the question of the side effects and durability of the release, what are the implications of this way of thinking about humanity and Nature? At the outset it is clear that a dichotomy has been created: people vs. Nature. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a dichotomy if a dichotomy is warranted. Situations in which two well-defined alternatives are set in opposition to one another occur all the time in ordinary existence. Digital computers operate in a binary language that glorifies the concept of dichotomy. Yet there is something about the extreme commonness of dichotomies that must make one suspicious: are clearcut alternatives with two possible, mutually exclusive choices really so frequent in life? Good-bad; socialist-capitalist; Republican-Democrat; beautiful-ugly; cowardly-brave; even pleasure-pain — who has not been hurt or fooled by dichotomies that at least part of the time are false and misleading? Evidently we set up dichotomies because our logical thoughts are more comfortable in that mode. This does not mean that the dichotomies necessarily exist, or are even useful. [pp. 10-11]

[….] Nature can be portrayed as being in opposition to us, but it also includes us; we comprise one system. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of this has been provided by Gregory Bateson, in his discussions of alcoholism and schizophrenia. Traditionally, both have been treated by forming a dichotomy—the patient on the one hand and the disease (the darker side of Nature) on the other. The two are separated conceptually, and the “disease” is treated with drugs or other therapy. Not surprisingly, the results are usually terrible; either there is no progress, or the symptoms are masked or exchanged for others. 

Bateson is a realist; he avoids the dichotomy. He sees, in many cases, the symptoms of alcoholism and schizophrenia as understandable responses to long-standing, aberrant social environments, which are so constructed as to leave the sufferer with no options for behaving in a “normal” fashion. The alcoholic or schizophrenic symptoms offer a form of escape, albeit a self-destructive one; or to put it another way, they are appropriate behaviors towards parents or others who have built a personal world in which there is punishment for either behaving or not behaving in ways that have been forbidden, (An example is a parent who cannot accept love but also blames a child for not being loving.) The singular success of Alcoholics Anonymous is, according to Bateson, the result of its recognition of alcoholic behavior as a permanent part of a person who is, in turn, part of a larger system.  [p. 11]

The dichotomy between humanity and Nature is not the only one that has been imposed or supported by a humanistic way of thought. There is also the logic vs. emotion dichotomy, which although founded in fact has been exaggerated and distorted by humanism. Both will be dealt with later.  [pp. 11-12]

The arrogance of the humanist faith in our abilities was nurtured by the late Renaissance triumphs of science and technology working in tandem.  [p. 12]

[….]

The Assumptions

[….]

The principal humanist assumption, which embraces all of our dealings with the environment, and some other issues as well, is very simple.

It says:

All problems are soluble.

In order to make its connection with humanism clear, just add the two words that are implicit; it becomes:

All problems are soluble by people.  [p. 16]

There are other humanist assumptions that are either less or more sweeping than the principal assumption, but which lack some of its force. These secondary assumptions include:

Many problems are soluble by technology.

Those problems that are not soluble by technology, or by technology alone, have solutions in the social world (of politics, economics, etc.).

When the chips are down, we will apply ourselves and work together for a solution before it is too late.

Some resources are infinite; all finite or limited resources have substitutes.

Human civilization will survive.

So far, these assumptions cut across political lines; they are humanist in the broadest social sense.

There are also, however, a group of secondary assumptions peculiar to the humanism of the Left. Probably all of the ones worth mentioning were first pointed out by George Orwell, a socialist with uncommon powers of self-analysis. [….]

“The Left, … inherited from Liberalism certain distinctly questionable beliefs, such as the belief that the truth will prevail and persecution defeats itself, or that man is naturally good and is only corrupted by his environment.”

Later, in a review of a book by Oscar Wilde, Orwell continued the theme:  [p. 17]

“If one looks more closely one sees that Wilde makes two common but unjustified assumptions. One is that the world is immensely rich and is suffering chiefly from maldistribution. …. Secondly, Wilde assumes that it is a simple matter to arrange that all the unpleasant kinds of work shall be done by machinery.” [p. 17-18, editorial paragraphing added]

Orwell himself did not entirely reject the latter two assumptions, but neither did he anticipate seeing them proven in his lifetime. Like the apolitical secondary assumptions that I listed above, Orwell’s four assumptions are derived from the prime assumption; therefore both groups can be dealt with together.

All of the modern, humanistic assumptions are optimistic— perhaps euphoric would be a better word.  [p. 18]

[….]

Throughout this book I speak of humanism and humanists, but I rarely quote from the writings of self-avowed humanist philosophers. There are several reasons for this. First, no two humanists define humanism the same way, and if I quote from one in order to illustrate a point, all the others will be able to say, with some justification, “But that is not my idea of humanism.” Second, because the assumptions are so closely interwoven in the fabric of humanism, so much a part of the daily humanist life, they are not often written about, and when they are, their manifestly religious nature causes a certain amount of confusion and covering.  [p. 19]

[….]

The third and most important reason why I have not quoted extensively from humanist writings is because I do not want to imply that this book is directed primarily towards the small group of philosophers and other intellectuals who actually call themselves humanists. You are a humanist; Joseph Stalin was a humanist; I, despite my better judgment, am at times a humanist. Humanism is at the heart of our present world culture — we share its unseen assumptions of control, and this bond makes mockery of the more superficial differences among communist, liberal, conservative, and fascist, among the managers and the managed, the exploiters and the preservers. [p. 20]

[….]

Humanism and modern society have opted, albeit unconsciously, for the assumptions of human power.  [….]

What, finally, is the point of opposing the unwholesome assumptions of humanism? The answer is that this enables us to adopt a more flexible and practical approach in a dangerous situation. If we start without bias and are capable of both realistically sifting the evidence and listening — perhaps for the first time—to the profound, irrational, and ancient voices within us, we may gain a better appreciation of what is going to happen.  [p. 21]

2. Myth

God created the world and all of its creatures in the year 4004 B.C. We have this on the assurance of the late Bishop James Ussher, who had many supporters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  [p. 25]

[….]

In 1898, a traveler was introduced to President Kruger of the Transvaal, leader of the Boer rebellion against the British Empire. Judge Beyers, who was presenting the traveler, remarked that he was voyaging around the world. President Kruger angrily interrupted, reminding the judge that the world was flat. “You don’t mean round the world,” insisted Kruger, “it is impossible! You mean in the world. Impossible! Impossible!”

[….]

We live in a unique age. Contrary to the gloomy defeatism of Ecclesiastes, there is something new under the sun. Truth has finally conquered myth, objectivity is enthroned, assump- tions are no longer validated by prejudice and faith alone—at least for the leaders of world culture. Fairy tales are now re- served for children, who evidently need them more than adults. We are part of the first great age of the world whose cultured inhabitants will never seem quaint, superstitious, or silly to their descendants.

Now that myth is gone, what kinds of things do people believe?

We believe that many children are “hyperactive,” and that this condition interferes with their learning and social development.

We believe that the world desperately needs a clean, economical, dependable, and very abundant source of concentrated power. [p. 26]

We believe that public opinion can be discovered by polls, provided that the questions are phrased objectively and that the sample group is both representative of the population and large enough to indicate its variation.  [pp. 26-27]

We believe that the prospect of thought control through the use of chemicals and other scientific methods is frightening, especially if knowledge of the techniques falls into the wrong hands.

We believe that environmental decisions are best made by people who are specially trained for the job.

We believe that a minimum daily intake of vitamins and certain minerals is necessary for maintenance of good health.

And of course we believe a great many other things that are too numerous to list. But mere listing is an inadequate way of characterizing belief. Better to take fewer subjects and examine them more carefully. Thus I describe in the following pages a mixture of science fiction, contemporary prophecy, accounts of real methodologies in science and social science, and descriptions of inventions and plans for inventions. Each item, whether true or imaginary, either reveals our beliefs and expectations or describes the modern accomplishments that have generated and confirmed them.  [p. 27]

Mind

[….]

This extract from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation concludes the first recorded lesson in psychohistory ….  [p. 28]

[….]

Many will recognize these extracts immediately as part of B. F. Skinner’s Utopian novel Walden Two. [….]

[….]

These two extracts both deal with the common belief in our potential and realized ability to control, even to restructure, the human mind: the individual mind through behavioral engineering, and mind in the aggregate through psychohistory (in the latter case, control is derived automatically from the ability to predict). Science fiction is here a reliable guide to popular belief, and many examples exist of the incorporation of this erstwhile fiction into modern life.  [p. 30]

[….]

I have indicated that the science of mind has used the events of recorded history to demonstrate the scope of its theories and to test and refine the appropriateness of its methods. I have also stated that the behavioral data essential to predictive psychohistory and behavioral engineering are now being gathered in large quantities by ever more sophisticated testing procedures. This accounts for past and present. What, then, is being done to forecast and control the future?  [pp. 35-36]

[….]

These passages are quoted from a scientific paper entitled “A Model For Institutional Disturbances,” ….  [p. 36]

[….] The paper represents one of the first attempts to apply ad- vanced mathematical theory, in this case “catastrophe theory,” to the task of predicting the behavior of groups of people. Catastrophe theory is a fairly new branch of topology, the mathematical study of geometric configurations subjected to transformations. The theory provides a way of analyzing discontinuous transitions, such as the snap that eventually occurs while an elastic band is being stretched, no matter how smoothly. The word “catastrophe,” in this context, is meant to denote a sudden change — not necessarily anything dreadful. [pp. 36-37]

[….] The prediction and therefore the prevention of prison riots is but a minuscule part of the potential use of catastrophe theory in the once-fictional fields of psychohistory and behavioral engineering. Even the act of falling in love, a markedly discontinuous process involving an abrupt change of state, is not beyond the reach of catastrophe theory, once the appropriate quantitative variables have been identified and measured.  [p. 37]

[….]

Body

In addition to mind, there is body. Here, too, we believe in the inevitability of control—control over our physical inheritance and destiny, a control that liberates us from many of the physical ills of the body and will ultimately free us from most if not all of them. More than that, a control that will erase the normal defects of form and function to which we have grown accustomed, and help us approach the perfection that was once attributed only to machines and the gods themselves.  [p. 37]

[…]

Environment

[….]

Beyond mind and body there is the world outside, and it is in this realm that our beliefs, based on scientific principles, have reached the furthest and claimed the most. New technologies for modifying the environment are developing so quickly that science fiction has become transformed into a popular academic game known as futurology.  [p. 44]

[….]

Part of this explosion involves our ability actually to design the specifications, the basic properties, of both natural and synthetic materials in a way that we never could before. Materials used to be treated as if they had a quasi-independent life of their own, a set of characteristics that were associated with them and did not change. [p. 46]

[….]

Our belief in environmental control, approaching omnipotence, is reinforced by repeated demonstrations of the enormous yet precisely directed power we can mobilize against the forces of nature, a power extracted by novel means from nature itself.  [p. 47]

[….]

The ultimate in environmental control is manifest in the deliberate synthesis of new environments, using components from the natural earth — or elsewhere — in a novel way.  [p,. 51]

[….]

The most extraordinary aspect of the new environmental design is the way we have bypassed the tedious, haphazard, and unpredictable process of evolution, which formerly shaped our environments for us. Inspection of most cities will confirm our distrust of the disorderly evolutionary process that has generated them: a hodgepodge of growth, precarious equilibrium, and terrible decay will invariably meet our eyes. Can we not do better than this?  [p. 52]

[….]

Our destiny is in our own hands at last. As the clean white sheet of paper is to the author, so is our future to us: we can write anything we wish.  [p. 54]

3. Reality

I can remember the way in which my paternal grandmother, an autocratic and deeply religious lady, used the future tense in her speech and writing. To her the future was tentative and uncontrollable—always a mystery, but at least a mystery that was inevitably revealed on schedule. Thus she never said, “I will see you on Friday.” This would have been presumptuous. “I will see you on Friday, God willing,” is the way she would have put it. Such phrasing has largely disappeared among the younger generation. With the control that we claim to exert over our minds, bodies, and environment, one might think that it was no longer necessary to be so tentative, so submissive to fate or higher power. Nevertheless, this usage has not really diminished, merely metamorphosed into a more acceptable formula that serves the same purpose as the old one.

The new qualifier of statements about the future is the word “hopefully.”  [p. 57]

[….]

The major reason for the prevalence of hopefully = let us hope is that deep within ourselves we know that our omnipotence is a sham, our knowledge and control of the future is weak and limited, our inventions and discoveries work, if they work at all, in ways that we do not expect, our planning is meaningless, our systems are running amok — in short, that the humanistic assumptions upon which our societies are grounded lack validity. We are trying to fool ourselves, and although we keep on trying we know it nonetheless.  [p. 58]

… for real objectivity, we must increase our perspective and broaden our view, and to do this it is often necessary to ignore claims and counter-claims concerning methods, intermediate goals, and theoretical objectives, and look exclusively at the final results of a technology or a set of humanistic beliefs. 

For want of a better term, I call this process “end-product analysis,” End-product analysis is the necessarily informal study of effects that sum up many causes. [p. 59]

[….]

Some further examples of end-product analysis will help explain it more fully. In his book Energy and Equity, Ivan Illich, a pioneer of this kind of approach, examines the efficiency of the American automobile. His conclusions are both amusing and horrifying. The average American male, he finds, spends approximately four of his sixteen waking hours either driving his car, parking it and searching for it, or earning the money to make the payments on it, maintain it and replace worn parts, buy gasoline and oil, and defray the costs of a driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance. These sixteen hundred hours spent annually on behalf of the car enable the owner to drive an average of 7,500 miles, which works out to 4.7 miles per hour, regardless of individual driving speeds. The ramifications of this end-product analysis would fill a dozen books, but one thing is clear: the fast, luxurious, personal style of transportation offered by the automobile does not really liberate anyone from the true costs of travel.  [p. 60]

[….]

The second example is quite different. Before the second World War, the eminent geographer Sir Dudley Stamp completed a sweeping Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, in which he and his staff mapped the way in which the British landscape was partitioned among various categories of urban, suburban, and rural use. What this survey revealed was a sorry record of land misuse and disuse:  [….]  In consequence of these findings, Stamp helped prepare a corrective mechanism, a system of national land- use planning that was embodied in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947.  [p. 61]

[….]

We are only interested in the end result—what has happened to the land. After the end- product analysis has been performed, there may well be de- bate about its implications for the future. Some will prefer to try to modify and improve planning in the light of what we have learned from the analysis. Others, myself included, are tired of the endless promises and excuses forthcoming from the humanist camp. They always sound so plausible and reasonable — indeed they are reasonable: “Just give us a little more time; we have figured out what we were doing wrong.” What they haven’t figured out, of course, is what they will do wrong the next time.  With respect to planning, I fear that no amount or quality of it can ever compensate for the inevitable damage wrought by a self-destructive society and a diseased way of life.  [p. 63]

[….]

Mind

….  Real history is not theoretically predictable, ex- cept in the very short term and in the most trivial cases. And even then, nothing is certain. As the late economist E. F. Schumacher wrote:

The real world . . . is not a deterministic system; we may be able to talk with certainty about acts or events of the past … but we can do so about future events only on the basis of assumptions…. It must be clear that, change being a function of time, the longer term future is even less predictable than the short-term. In fact, all long-term forecasting is somewhat presumptuous and absurd, unless it is of so general a kind that it merely states the obvious.

Schumacher based his argument largely on the unpredictable quality of individual human decisions, which is equivalent to the idea of human freedom. What he said may well be correct, but human freedom — a red flag to some — need not even enter the discussion.

[….]

So far, the themes that have emerged in this section on the control of mind and behavior can be summed in a single word, arrogance. The claims of predicting the unpredictable and of knowing the unknowable, the absolute faith in procedures whose end-results can never be comprehended — these things appear repeatedly.  [p. 77]

[….]

Body

The arrogance that forms such an important part of our atti- tude towards the control of mind and behavior is manifested again, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, in the beliefs we hold concerning our power over our bodies.  [pp. 82-83]

[…]

The cold truth is that our bionic devices and spare parts can never be the equals of the organs they are meant to replace. Evolution, wasteful and haphazard as it is, has had three billion years in which to match organisms to their environ- ments. This does not mean that we are perfect as a result. It does mean, however, that it would be very difficult in practice to make fundamental changes in our bodies that would better equip us for what we consider life as a human to be. The evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once wrote in connection with the subject of macro-mutations: “Giving a thrush the wings of a falcon does not make it a better flier. Indeed, having all the other equipment of a thrush, it would probably hardly be able to fly at all.” [p. 86]

[….]

Tranquilizers also have their uses, especially in the treatment of serious mental disease.  [p. 88]

[….]

Even the name we have assigned to these compounds — tranquilizer — is both a sign of our arrogance and a proof that this arrogance is not warranted. As the cell biologist Paul Weiss has pointed out, we tend to invent names to mask our ignorance, and in doing so pretend that we understand certain “isolated” events which, in fact, are part of a vastly larger system which we do not comprehend. In other words, we give our discoveries and inventions names that have a sweeping generality and convey an aura of power in order to hide what Weiss calls “the amputations which we have allowed to be perpetrated on the organic wholeness . . . of nature and of our thinking about nature.” These names Weiss calls “anthropomorphic gremlins. . . . demigods, like those in antiquity, doing the jobs we do not understand.” Weiss was not referring to the word “tranquilizer,” but the point is the same regardless: our humanistic ears do not like the sounds of words that imply weakness, ignorance, or uncertainty. Thus the words we choose to describe our discoveries and inventions are them.  [p. 89]

[….]

It is time, perhaps, for me to set down two “laws” of my own invention. Poor sorts of laws in a scientific sense, for I cannot prove them. But I believe them to be true, because I know them to be supported by the human experience of the last few centuries, especially the twentieth.

1. Most scientific discoveries and technological inventions can be developed in such a way that they are capable of doing great damage to human beings, their cultures, and their environments.

2. If a discovery or a technology can be used for evil purposes, it will be so used.

In addition to these two laws, which I will return to in my discussion of our arrogance towards the environment, the subject of gene transfer has introduced another topic that will recur again — the irreversibility of some of our actions, a topic whose gravity can never be exaggerated, although it is too often ignored.

Finally, it should be stressed that all scientists who have ex- pressed concern about gene transfer experiments have gone beyond a narrow preoccupation with human health.  [p. 97]

[….]

In this section we have encountered contemporary ideas of conquering death and related ideas of perfecting life. A great deal has indeed been learned by humanity since the days of Bishop Ussher. That cannot be gainsaid. Yet this new knowledge, which has revealed to us vast horizons beyond horizons of unsuspected ignorance, has done little more than convince us of our cleverness. Ironically, it has also given us a new Devil to replace the old one who, in Christianity at least, could be blamed for our imperfections. For our arrogance about what we think we know and what we think we can do has made it impossible for us to accept or deal any longer with the unknowable and the undoable. Once, it was taken for granted that we were neither omniscient nor omnipotent — the old religions, whatever their faults, helped us to accept this imperfect state as a condition of earthly life. The humanist assumptions now keep us from this acceptance, for it would be a denial of them. But the assumptions are challenged by a contradictory reality every day; we all experience this. Thus the unknowable and the undoable become the Devil, something within us that we must make external, and a potent source of anxiety and terror.  [pp. 98-99]

People and Machines

… increasingly, humans are coming to value the abilities of their machines more highly than their own. This was most evident in the section “Body,” as the result of a deep dissatisfaction with our physical selves, but it is clear that even though we have a better regard for our mental abilities, there is a general feeling that potentially, if not actually, computers are faster, more efficient, more objective, and more accurate than we are in performing some of the most important functions of the mind.  [p. 99]

[….]

The final stage in the evolution of the humanistic people- machine relationship might be called “the stage of excuses.” By this time it has become perfectly obvious that machines, even sophisticated ones, are terribly inadequate to perform many tasks that humans used to do quite well, albeit in a different way. So excuses are found to explain the poor performance of the machine-idols. The most common excuse is “human error”; it is invoked most frequently, perhaps, when humans participate in complex systems that involve computers. Its object is to show that the machines in the system are no source of problems and limitations — just innocent bystanders and witnesses to the imperfections of human beings. [p. 101]

[….]

Environment

The most spectacular failures of human control and negations of human omniscience have been manifested in our dealings with the many human environments. In no important instance have we been able to demonstrate comprehensive, successful management of our world, nor do we understand it well enough to be able to manage it in theory. Only in those few cases in which small, remote systems could, in effect, be treated as if they were isolated, have management and control worked at all; but one cannot run an entire world this way.  [pp. 104-105]

[….]

The examples of the Chartres windows and solar-powered pumping illustrate a new general principle, which has been called by Eugene Schwartz the principle of “quasi-solutions and residue problems.” Quasi-solutions are solutions to problems defined within an artificially restricted context, and residue problems are those that result from the application of quasi-solutions. In his book Overskill, Schwartz writes:

The dialectical process whereby a solution to one problem generates sets of new problems that eventually preclude solutions is summarized in the five steps of techno-social development.

1. Because of the interrelationships and limitations existing within a closed system, a techno-social solution is never complete and hence is a quasi-solution.

2. Each quasi-solution generates a residue of new technosocial problems arising from: (a) incompleteness, (b) augmentation, and (c) secondary effects.

3. The new problems proliferate at a faster rate than solutions can be found to meet them.

4. Each successive set of residue problems is more difficult to solve than predecessor problems because of seven factors: (a) dynamics of technology, (b) increased complexity, (c) increased cost, (d) decreased resources, (e) growth and expansion, (f) requirements for greater control, and (g) inertia of Social institutions.

5. The residue of unsolved techno-social problems converge in an. advanced technological society to a point where technosocial solutions are no longer possible.  [p. 107]

[….]

The best time for asking the important questions, for doing an end-product analysis, is before any of the quasi-solutions have been initiated.  [p. 108]

The remarkable concatenation of undesirable events that has followed large-scale agricultural irrigation provides a glimpse of the incredible complexity of residue problems that result from each technological quasi-solution. The initial “problem” to be solved is the need for large, assured supplies of water to meet the demands of modern agriculture. This water is necessary for many reasons, but especially to dissolve fertilizer and wash it into the soil, to sustain modern crops that are productive but not very hardy, and to allow drought-sensitive crops to grow in places where they could not ordinarily survive.  [pp. 108-109]

[….]

As many of my readers will realize, the original problem in this sequence — the need for irrigation water — is itself but one of many residue problems in a larger sequence that embraces all of modern agriculture and its arrogant, humanistic premises. Nevertheless, although my catalog is incomplete, this ever-growing morass of problems, solutions, and yet more problems is a typical one, and is sufficient to illustrate the process.  [p. 110]

[….]

…. In 1947, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern showed that it is mathematically impossible to maximize more than one variable in an interlinked system at a given time. Adjust one variable to its maximum con- dition and the freedom to do the same with the others is lost—in non-mathematical terms, you cannot make everything “best” simultaneously. Although the biologist Garrett Hardin wrote in 1968 about the wider implications of this theorem, they are only now beginning to be appreciated. [p. 112]

[….]

And of course Nature is anything but simple. Thus at a higher level of analysis the problem of the humanist’s restricted context and the problem of simultaneous maximization of variables can be seen to merge. The result is devastating to the myth of power and control. 

Beyond the quasi-solutions and residue problems, beyond the problems of narrowed contexts and too many variables, there are certain ecological realities that impose additional, albeit sometimes overlapping, constraints on our exercise of power. The most direct of these is that few biological systems in the world, either individual organisms or groups of organisms, have evolved any mechanisms for coping with large, surplus inputs of concentrated energy in their immediate environments, energies of the sort that man now has readily at his disposal. [p. 113]

[….]

A second ecological constraint is time. Natural plant and animal communities change their structures and species compositions over time — the process is known as succession. We can modify the process, derail it, but we can hardly ever accelerate it in a predictable way.  [p. 114]

[….]

Irreversibility is the third ecological constraint. It seems difficult for the humanist mind to grasp the significance of the many irreversible processes that we have stirred up in living systems; the tendency is to deny that anything so final, so thoroughly beyond our control, can occur. But we are causing irreversible changes all the time.  [p. 115]

[….]

The grand delusion of our “space age” is that we can escape the earthly consequences of our arrogance by leaving the mother planet either for little ersatz worlds of our own making or for distant celestial bodies, some of them as yet undiscovered. This is an immature and irresponsible idea, that having fouled this world with our inventions, we will somehow do better in other orbits. However, if one sees humanism for what it is, a religion without God, then the idea is not so strange: space with its space stations and space inhabitants is just a replacement for heaven with its angels.  [p. 120]

Limits

I have not in this chapter examined in any depth the techniques of self-deception that are in common use to support the humanistic assumptions. These techniques include: the use of mathematical models that make their own inappropriate assumptions (of linearity, of generality, of continuity, of importance values, of randomness, etc.); the clever methods of extrapolation from a poorly described present to an unknow- able future; the elaborate statistical ways of weighting or ignoring or accentuating evidence in order to preserve an appearance of objectivity while arranging the desired answer; the crediting or discrediting of certain classes of perception, and many others. They would merit an entire book and not one that I could write. Instead, I have relied on the idea of end-product analysis, which is to say that I think it is fair to judge a process by its results even when one does not understand all of the intrinsic theory, mechanisms, and defects involved. In fact, when we are dealing with our own future, it is not only fair but necessary.

On the basis of these end-product analyses I have concluded that the humanistic assumptions are wrong, that there are limits to the knowledge and power that human beings can muster for any purpose. As the references to these limits have been scattered throughout this chapter, I think it worthwhile to gather them together in one place.  [p. 125]

First, there are the limits imposed by our inability to know the future, to make accurate long-range predictions. This is a theoretical and unalterable limit based on the great complexity and uncertainty of the interacting events that will deter mine the future, and on the catalytic influence on the future of seemingly minute and trivial happenings in the present.  [pp. 125-126]

Second, there are limits imposed by the consequences of prior failures of our assumptions of control — these take the form of the expanding waves of quasi-solutions and residue problems described by Eugene Schwartz, all hastening the time of a final paralysis and collapse of further efforts to keep the situation under a facsimile of control.

Third, there is the limit, an especially frustrating one, that is described by the maximization theory of von Neumann and Morgenstern, which says in effect that in a complex world we cannot work everything out for the best simultaneously. This third limit is why evolution has proven more reliable than our substitutes for it. Evolution is slow and wasteful, but it has resulted in an infinity of working, flexible compromises, whose success is constantly tested by life itself. Evolution is in large measure cumulative, and has been running three billion years longer than our current efforts. Our most glittering improvements over Nature are too often a fool’s solution to a problem that has been isolated from context, a transient, local maximization that is bound to be followed by mostly undesirable counter-adjustments throughout the system.

Fourth is the limit inherent in what I have earlier called the uncertainty principle (because of its purely analogous but suggestive resemblance to the uncertainty principle of physics). This is the notion that our ability to seek technical solutions to certain kinds of problems grows along with our capacity to augment and multiply these kinds of problems — that we do not solve problems as we acquire new technologies because new technologies simultaneously make our problems worse.  [p. 126]

There are other limits which I have only hinted at: those imposed by vanishing resources and by the exhaustion of the capacity of ecological systems to withstand excessive interference without radical change or disintegration. Finally, there is the perversion of our control technologies to evil purposes, which I have briefly characterized in my two “laws” of science and technology, and which limits by virtue of its ultimate destructiveness.  [p. 126-127]

[….]

There has been no space devoted to praising human creativity in this chapter, and that will bother many who are accustomed to the usual humanistic habit of self-congratulation. I have no desire to present an entirely sour view of humankind or to leave the impression that I believe all of our recent works are utter failures. But the successes are isolated and run counter to the trend, and they are adequately celebrated in a myriad of other books by other authors. It is now more important to remind the world of our failures, and if we succeed in this, there will be time later for appropriate pride.  [p. 128]

[….]

4. Emotion and Reason

It is extremely difficult to trap or poison wild Norway rats. Traps, no matter how skillfully laid and attractively baited, are avoided. Poisons, even when concealed in foods that appeal to rats, may be left untasted for a week or more before receiving the first, cautious, sub-lethal nibble. This characteristic of Rattus norvegicus is just: one of many reasons why rats have fared so well as pests of men and co-inhabitants of human cities, leaving their ancestral Asiatic stream banks, or wherever they originated, and accompanying man around the world.

[….] Rats have an innate distrust of anything new in their environment. When this occurs in human beings it is called superstition or emotion, and is characterized by its lack of an immediate, rational relationship to the object of the behavior. So it is with rats.  [p. 133]

[….]

Not all rats are the same in their behavior; some are considerably bolder than their fellows. Calhoun and others have noticed that these bold rats tend to be socially low-ranking; they are the subordinate and defective members of rat society.  [….]  As might be expected, it is the socially inferior rats that are most likely to be caught in traps. Why low-ranking animals lack the usual rat suspiciousness is not known.  [….] A fit rat is an untrusting, conservative, and suspicious rat. A bold rat who makes judgments based on an individual consideration of the immediate appearances of each situation is a dead rat.

This last point is important to note, because rats do have a certain capacity to solve problems, a certain reasoning ability.  [p. 134]

[….]

… rats, in addition to possessing a problem-solving capacity, have another potent, inborn protection against many hazards, including those posed by humans, the thinking animals.  [p. 135]

This inborn protection, the behavior already described, is too complex to merit a simple name, depending as it does on many parts of the sensory, central nervous, and endocrine systems. But things that are to be written about must have names, so I have grouped these protective reactions under the heading “emotions.” This is a poor name, because emotion is in bad odor in modern society, and also because it does not indicate the services provided to the organism by the complex of reactions that it represents. Joseph Altman subdivides what I am calling the emotional level of mental activity into three classes:

First, there is the maintenance of the general activity level of the organism. This is partly rhythmic, as in the regular alternation of sleep and wakefulness. There is also the regulation of relaxation and awareness which occurs at all times during the wakeful period.

Second are the behaviors that satisfy the needs and appetites of an animal — for food, sex, and the exercise of parental care.

Third, and most important for our purposes, are the usually social activities that are “concerned with the safeguarding of the integrity of the individual.” These include defense (of one’s self, one’s territory, and one’s family), aggression, and formation of social relationships. It would be hard to exaggerate the complexity and size of this category, or its importance in daily life.

Thus the emotions keep vertebrate animals, including humans, alert or easily alerted, wary of danger, responsive to hostility or friendship, and sensitive to internal bodily needs. They are the mechanism that Nature has given us for fitting ourselves into our world. If we could voluntarily abandon them we would not survive; nor does pretending to abandon them serve us much better ….  [p. 136]

[….]

In his chilling and gloomy book Posthistoric Man, Seidenberg begins by describing the rise of the rational part of humans, a process which he believes occurred at the expense of the emotional part (he calls the latter “instincts”).  [p. 138]

[….]

[….]  Organization, to Seidenberg, is the rationally derived form and structure that we impose on our multifarious life processes. It is apparent in all spheres of life: business, sports, art, agriculture, education, transportation, and government. It is a series of formally defined, “consciously contrived relationships … dictated by the essential logic of intelligence,” a way of “marshaling means toward focused ends.” Organization “abhors chaos” and converts it into order; it is “an ever expanding trellis, along which civilization expands and develops.” The model for organization is the machine, but that is a static model—the dynamic spread of organization is better de- scribed by a different analogy, the inexorable propagation of ice crystals as water is progressively chilled below the freezing point.  [p. 139]

[….]

Seidenberg’s analysis is profound, but his prophecy will not come to pass. His basic errors are simple—he under-rates the usefulness, the durability, the necessity of emotion or “instinct” while ignoring the weaknesses of reason and the limitations of organization. As is the case whenever these mistakes are made, he has both left the environment entirely out of his calculations and has distorted what remains. These are common errors, and they generally occur in association with each other. Oddly enough, one encounters them among both the champions of reason and those who have their doubts.  [….]

[….]

What has blinded Seidenberg is the now-familiar arrogance of the humanistic assumptions.  [p. 140]

[….]

It never pays to forget, even for an instant, the interactive nature of evolution. For all its inflexibility, inefficiency, and apparent crudeness, our emotional system developed under very prolonged conditions of constant testing in real-life situations. Not so with reason, which from the beginning of the humanistic age moved too fast to be tested, and later made a boast and a virtue of this unfortunate circumstance. We have never been able to slow down long enough to see whether our rational inventions and methods of control would survive the test of long-term use in the real world.  [p. 142]

Typical of the contemporary position taken by the leaders of rational humanism is an article entitled “The Goals of Science,” by Salvador Luria, the Nobel prize-winning biologist. After dismissing much of the criticism of the genetic recombination studies as “mystical,” while admitting that science and scientists have caused many problems in the modern world, Luria offers his solution.  [….]   [p. 143]

[….]

Like many scientists, Luria is not averse to using unproven and possibly false assumptions, provided that they are not directly mentioned. There are at least three in this sentence. First is the assumption that we can create a world fit for future generations to live in—an odd conceit, considering that we have taken a world which was perfectly fit for human life (often beautiful, although frequently unpleasant and harsh) and turned it into a world that by either rational or emotional criteria is unfit (opulent for some, stressful, inhumane, and lacking peace for nearly all, and offering multiple threats of vast and terrible destruction). Second, there is the assumption that we can achieve a degree of precision in our understanding of “all interactions within our own body cells.” And third, the enigmatic assumption that this improbable understanding would make the world fit to live in.  [pp. 143-144]

[….]

… our real problems occur when emotion (both constructive and destructive) is denied, and is therefore never subjected to the selecting and sorting that rational analysis can provide, and conversely, when these selected, better parts of emotion are unavailable to help us choose which of many rational alternatives is the right one.  [pp. 145-146]

By concentrating on one part of human nature, reason, at the expense of the other, we do ourselves a disservice. It is like telling ourselves that true health can be achieved if we become voluntary cripples. Nor, I think, is it strange that this sort of advocacy, which is common enough these days, has the inevitable effect of sanctioning business as usual among the humanistic logic and power cult.  [p. 146]

[….]

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus has written a fine critique of Artificial Intelligence; his book is entitled What Computers Can’t Do, and it can serve briefly as our guide to this highly technical field.  [….]

Commenting on the characteristic optimistic expectations and exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence, Dreyfus says that “[these] predictions fall into place as just another example of the phenomenon which Bar-Hillel has called the ‘fallacy of the successful first step.'” In the case of language translation, for example, he points out that after certain crude successes there have been no real breakthroughs, nor are any to be expected.  [p. 149]

[….]

The critical element in this latest in a long list of tortures is reason, which itself is the critical element in all communist theory. Indeed, communism is at heart intensely humanistic, for it contains the central idea that rational planning can alter any pre-existing condition of man. When a nation lives with this kind of nonsense for half a century, it is only natural that its leaders should acquire a utilitarian and dissociated approach to reason.  [p. 152]

[…]

Up to this point, except for a brief discussion of rats, I have been mostly concerned with the inadequacy of reason alone, and with the persistence of emotion despite the efforts to make it go away. What of the positive side, the usefulness of emo-tion? There is a tendency to believe that whereas emotion was useful in simpler and more primitive times, it is of no value when confronted with the complexities of modern organized and technological life. That would be correct if we expected emotion to cope on organization’s terms, but this is not what we should desire. Emotion must interact with reason on its own terms: the terms of unrestricted contexts, broad integrated views, and an emphasis on overall reality rather than on methods, short-term objectives, technical details, and contrived goals for closed systems that do not exist. When employed in this fashion, emotion is an essential part of modern decision-making, inseparable from reason because it supplies what reason does not have. Dispensing with emotion because it is not rational is like rejecting one’s lungs because they do not formulate thoughts. [pp. 153-154]

The best example of the value of emotion in contemporary life concerns the debate over the safety of nuclear reactors.  [p. 154]

[….]

Not only is nuclear energy an unknown, but it is a powerful unknown: powerful in terms of the absolute magnitude of its actual and potential effects; powerful in terms of the pervasiveness of these effects; powerful in terms of the duration of its effects and its activity; and powerful in the sense of the secrecy of its action (radioactivity is not seen, srnelled, or touched, and one or two generations must pass before the cancers and genetic defects that it can cause begin to be noted). This power only enhances our fear of the unknown, and again we are right to be afraid. In the previous chapter I characterized as a new humanist Devil the fear of admitting the existence of the unknowable. But the unknowable does exist, and rather than squander our emotions on anxious denials of the obvious, it is better to put the fear to some good use. It is necessary to admit that some things are beyond our knowledge, and when fear of these things seems appropriate, we should fear them—directly and openly.  [p. 162]

[….]

Emotion is necessary and more sensitive in situations with a wider context. Emotion is an integration and summarization phenomenon: for instance, it tells us things about unemployment that are beyond the grasp of the census bureau. The example of the Rasmussen Report confirms that this is not a know-nothing attitude; there are realms beyond the realm of reason, and their proper designation is “a-rational” rather than “irrational.” Near the end of the Rasmussen Report there is a section entitled “Realism Versus Conservatism.” I think it is fair to say that what this kind of “realism” means is a restriction of the horizons of inquiry to the point where reason alone can be made to ap- pear sufficient to provide all the answers. This is neither realistic nor safe.  [p. 163]

[….]  In Africa, according to the ecologist D. F. Owen, there is often considerable reluctance among peasant farmers in the tropical zone to do much weeding of their fields or even to make an effort to remove conspicuous insect pests from their crops. This attitude persists in the face of all rational arguments to the contrary.  [pp. 163-164]

[….]

But it is well to note that if one questions an African peasant farmer about his or her reasons for not practicing pest and weed control, the answer is more likely to be a feeling that it is unnecessary — not a list of observations and their associated logical deductions.  [p. 165]

[….]

Throughout this chapter I have concentrated on the dichotomy between the two elements of mind, because of the exaggeration of the split by humanism, with its fear of emotion and crazy worship of reason. It is a real dichotomy, and conflict will always be a part of our nature, but a peaceful synthesis is also possible at times, and must be nurtured, encouraged, and practiced — if only as an act of self-preservation.

One of the greatest spokesmen for synthesis is Robert Pirsig, whose book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a profoundly moving plea to restore emotion to its rightful place in the duarchy. Although the terms he uses — the “romantic” and “classical” traditions — are different than my “emotion” and “reason,” I believe that we are referring to the same basic entities. Pirsig traces the rejection of the romantic part of human endeavor back to the early days of recorded Western thought — to Plato, who first suggested separating and elevating the classic tradition, and to Aristotle, who consolidated, entrenched, and formalized classicism while completing the rejection and discrediting of the romantic spirit.  [p. 170]

[….]

It is common in contemporary humanist writing to find that a good deal of lip service is paid to the value of “emotion,” “compassion,” “human needs,” “vision,” and the like, but somehow reason always emerges as the dominant force in any humanist world view. This is not the road to synthesis. For a working synthesis can only be achieved if we make a continuous conscious effort to purge our thoughts and behavior of all traces of condescension towards the non-rational part of our nature. Emotion is a vital part of life—anger, love, fear, happiness—part of the essence of daily existence, part of our birthright which we have paid for with countless deaths and tragedies over the course of aeons. In full partnership with emotion, reason has at least a chance to help us survive. Without it, none.  [p. 174]

[….]

5. The Conservation Dilemma

The cult of reason and the modern version of the doctrine of final causes interact within the humanist milieu to bolster one another; one result is that those parts of the natural world that are not known to be useful to us are considered worthless unless some previously unsuspected value is discovered. Nature, in Clarence Glacken’s words, is seen as “a gigantic toolshed,” and this is an accurate metaphor because it implies that everything that is not a tool or a raw material is probably refuse. This attitude, nearly universal in our time, creates a terrible dilemma for the conservationist or for anyone who believes of Nature, as Goethe did, that “each of her creations has its own being, each represents a special concept, yet together they are one.” The difficulty is that the humanistic world accepts the conservation of Nature only piecemeal and at a price: there must be a logical, practical reason for saving each and every part of the natural world that we wish to preserve. And the dilemma arises on the increasingly frequent occasions when we encounter a threatened part of Nature but can find no rational reason for keeping it.  [p. 177]

Conservation is usually identified with the preservation of natural resources. This was certainly the meaning of conservation intended by Gifford Pinchot, founder of the national forest system in the United States, who first put the word in common use. Resources can be defined very narrowly as reserves of commodities that have an appreciable money value to people, either directly or indirectly. Since the time that Pinchot first used the word, it has been seriously overworked. A steadily increasing percentage of “conservationists” has been preoccu- pied with preservation of natural features—animal and plant species, communities of species, and entire ecological systems — that are not conventional resources, although they may not admit this.  [pp. 177-178]

[….]

Economic Values for Non-resources

The values attributed to non-resources are diverse and some- times rather contrived; hence the difficulty of trying to con- dense them into a list. In my efforts I have relied, in part, on the thoughtful analyses provided by G. A. Lieberman, J. W. Humke, and other members of the U.S. Nature Conservancy. All values listed below can be assigned a monetary value and thus become commensurable with ordinary goods and services—although in some cases it would require a good deal of ingenuity to do this. All are anthropocentric values.

1. Recreational and esthetic values. This is one of the most popular types of value to assign to non-resources, because although frequently quite legitimate, it is also easily fudged.  [….] [p. 179]

[…..]

2. Undiscovered or undeveloped values. In 1975 it was reported that the oil of the jojoba bean, Simmondsia chinensis, is very similar in its special physical properties to oil from the threatened sperm whale. Overnight, this desert shrub of the American Southwest was converted from the status of a minor to that of a major resource. It can safely be assumed that many other species of hitherto obscure plants and animals have great potential value as bona fide resources once this potential is discovered or developed. Plants are probably the most numerous members of this category ….

Animals have potential resource uses that parallel those of plants, but this potential is being developed at an even slower rate. The possibilities for domestication and large-scale breeding of the South American vicuna, the source of one of the finest animal fibers in the world, were only recognized after its commercial extinction in the wild had become imminent.  [….] [p. 181]

[….]

3. Ecosystem stabilization values. This item is at the heart of a difficult controversy that has arisen over the ecological theory of conservation, a controversy based on a semi-popular scientific idea that has been well expressed by Barry Commoner:

The amount of stress which an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is also a result of its various interconnections and their relative speeds of response. The more complex the ecosystem, the more successfully it can resist a stress ….  [p. 183]

[….]

4. Value as examples of survival. Plant and animal communities, and to a lesser extent single species, can have a value as examples or models of long-term survival. J. W. Humke has observed, “Most natural systems have been working in essentially their present form for many thousands of years. On the other hand, greatly modified, man-dominated systems have not worked very reliably in the past and, in significant respects, do not do so at present.” The economic value here is indirect, consisting of problems averted (money saved) by virtue of good initial design of human-dominated systems or repair of faulty ones based on features abstracted from natural systems. This viewpoint is becoming increasingly popular as disillusionment with the results of traditional planning grows.  [p. 184]

[….]

5. Environmental baseline and monitoring values. The fluctuation of animal or plant population sizes, the status of their organs or by-products, or the mere presence or absence of a given species or group of species in a particular environment can be used to define normal or “baseline” environmental con- ditions and to determine the degree to which communities have been affected by extraordinary outside influences such as pollution or man-made habitat alteration. Biological functions such as the diversity of species in a particular location when studied over a period of years are the best possible indicators of the meaningful effects of pollution, just as the behavior of an animal is the best single indicator of the health of its nervous and musculo-skeletal systems. Species diversity is a resul- tant of all forces that impinge on ecosystems. It performs an automatic end-product analysis. It should also be noted that the traditional economic value of a species is of no significance in determining its usefulness as an environmental indicator—an important point if we are concerned with the metamorphosis of non-resources into resources.  [….] [pp. 184-185]

[….]

6. Scientific research values. Many creatures that are otherwise economically negligible have some unique or special characteristic that makes them extremely valuable to research scientists. Because of their relationship to humans, orangutans, chimpanzees, monkeys, and even the lower primates fall into this category.  [p. 186]

[….]

7. Teaching values. The teaching value of an intact ecosystem may be calculated indirectly by noting the economic value of land-use alternatives that it is allowed to displace. For example, a university administration may preserve a teaching forest on campus if the competing use is as an extra parking lot for maintenance equipment, but it may not be so disposed towards conservation if the forest land is wanted for a new administrative center. This establishes the teaching “value” of the forest to the administration.   [p. 186]

[….]

8. Habitat reconstruction values. Natural systems are far too complex for their elements and functional relationships to be fully described or recorded. Nor can we genetically reconstitute species once they have been wiped out. Consequently, if we wish to restore or rebuild an ecosystem in what was once its habitat, we need a living, unharmed ecosystem of that type to serve as both a working model and a source of living components.  [p. 187]

[….]

9. Conservative value: avoidance of irreversible change. This is a general restatement of a basic fear underlying every other item on this list; sooner or later it turns up in all discussions about saving non-resources. It expresses the conservative be- lief that man-made, irreversible change in the natural order — the loss of a species or natural community — may carry a hid- den and unknowable risk of serious damage to humans and their civilizations. Preserve the full range of natural diversity because we do not know the aspects of that diversity upon which our long-term survival depends.  [p. 187-188]

[….]

Exaggerations and Distortions

The preceding list contains most if not all of the reasons that a humanistic society has contrived to justify the piecemeal conservation of things in Nature that do not, at first, appear to be worth anything to us. As such, they are all rationalizations— often truthful rationalizations to be sure, but rationalizations nonetheless. And rationalizations being what they are, they are usually readily detected by nearly everyone and tend not to be very convincing, regardless of their truthfulness.  [pp. 188-189]

[….]

In a capitalist society, any private individual or corporation who treated non-resources as if they were resources would probably go bankrupt at about the time of receiving the first medal for outstanding public service. In a socialist society, the result would be non-fulfillment of growth quotas, which can be as unpleasant as bankruptcy from a personal standpoint. People are not ready to call something a resource because of long-term considerations or statistical probabilities that it might be.  [p. 189]

[….]

Thus the conservation dilemma is exposed: humanists will not normally be interested in saving any non-resource, any fragment of Nature that is not manifestly useful to humankind, and the various reasons advanced to demonstrate that these non-resources really are useful or potentially valuable are not likely to be convincing even when they are truthful and correct. When everything is called a resource, the word loses all meaning— at least in a humanist value system.  [p.  192]

[….]

As May and others perceived, the diversity-stability hypothesis, in the restricted sense described here, was a case of inverted cause and effect. The most diverse communities were usually those that had occupied the most stable environments for the longest periods of time. They were dependent on a stable environment — not the reverse. They did not necessarily produce the kind of short-term, internal stability that Margalef had assumed to exist. The moral of this story underscores the poignancy of the conservation dilemma. In our eagerness to demonstrate a humanistic “value” for the magnificent, diverse, “mature” ecosystems of the world—the tropical rain and cloud forests, the coral reefs, the temperate zone deserts, and so on — we stressed the role they were playing in immediate stabilization of their own environments (including their own component populations) against the pollution and other disruptive by-products of modern civilization. This was a partial distortion that not only caused less attention to be paid to the real, transcendent, long-term values of these ecosystems, but also helped to obscure, for a while, their extreme fragility in the face of human “progress.”  [pp. 196-197]

[….]

I want to emphasize here that the purpose of this chapter is a restricted one: to demonstrate how the ubiquitous humanist assumptions taint and damage the efforts even of those who are busy fighting the environmental consequences of modern humanism, and to identify the honest, the durable, the non- humanist reasons for saving Nature. This does not mean that I reject resource arguments when they are valid. The Amazonian rain forest, the green turtle, and many other forms of life are indeed resources; they contribute heavily to the maintenance of human well-being. The prospect of their loss is frightening to anyone with ecological knowledge, and it is not my aim to make it appear less so. But this is only one of the reasons for conservation, and it should not be applied carelessly, if only because of the likelihood of undermining its own effectiveness.

Additional Risks

Even when it is quite legitimate to find humanistic values for quondam non-resources, it may be risky, from a conservation viewpoint, to do so. What happens is that discovering a resource role for these once-valueless parts of Nature turns out to be a quasi-solution, and a crop of residue problems soon appears. The ecologists J. Gosselink, Eugene Odum, and their colleagues have conducted an investigation to discover the “value” of tidal marshes along the coast of the southeastern United States, which — despite its scientific elegance — can serve as an illustration of these risks.  [p. 200]

[….]

… finding a value for some part of Nature is no guarantee that it will be rational for us to preserve it—the reverse may hold. 

… the risks of even legitimate reassignment of non-resources as resources become quite plain, as do the risks of over-emphasizing the humanist cost-benefit approach in conserving even the more traditional and accepted resources. There is no true protection for Nature within the humanist system — the very idea is a contradiction in terms.

There is another risk in assigning resource value to non-resources: whenever “real” values are computed it becomes possible—even necessary—to rank the various parts of Nature for the unholy task of determining a priority of conservation. Because dollar values of the sort worked out for tidal marshes are not often available, other ranking methods have been devised. These are meant to be applied in a mechanical, objective fashion. [p. 202]

Non-economic Values

The attempt to preserve non-resources by finding economic value for them produces a double bind situation. Much of the value discovered for non-resources is indirect in the sense that it consists of avoiding costly problems that might otherwise appear if the non-resources were lost. This is the basis of the double bind. On the one hand, if the non-resource is destroyed and no disasters ensue, the conservation argument loses all capacity to inspire credence. On the other hand, if disaster does follow extinction of a supposed non-resource it may prove impossible to prove a connection between the two events.  [pp. 204-205]

[….]

The Noah Principle

The exponents of natural art have done us a great service, be- ing among the first to point out the unsatisfactory nature of some of the economic reasons advanced to support conservation. But something more is needed, something that is not dependent upon humanistic values. Charles S. Elton, one of the founders of ecology, has indicated another non-resource value, the ultimate reason for conservation and the only one that cannot be compromised:

The first [reason for conservation], which is not usually put first, is really religious. There are some millions of people in the world who think that animals have a right to exist and be left alone, or at any rate that they should not be persecuted or made extinct as species. Some people will believe this even when it is quite dangerous to themselves.  [p. 207]

This non-humanistic value of communities and species is the simplest of all to state: they should be conserved because they exist and because this existence is itself but the present expression of a continuing historical process of immense antiquity and majesty. Long-standing existence in Nature is deemed to carry with it the unimpeachable right to continued existence. Existence is the only criterion of the value of parts of Nature, and diminution of the number of existing things is the best measure of decrease of what we ought to value. This is, as mentioned, an ancient way of evaluating “conservability,” and by rights ought to be named the “Noah Principle” after the person who was one of the first to put it into practice.  [pp. 207-208]

[….]

I have tried to show in this chapter the devilish intricacy and cunning of the humanists’ trap. “Do you love Nature?” they ask. “Do you want to save it? Then tell us what it is good for.” The only way out of this kind of trap, if there is a way, is to smash it, to reject it utterly. This is the final realism; we will come to it sooner or later—if sooner, then with less pain.  [p. 210]

[….]

6. Misanthropy and the Rejection of Humanism

Criticisms of humanism are not new, although they have become uncommon in our time. Periods of human ferment and creativity have always provided opportunities for evil, which has its own inventive genius. And then a reaction occurs: “saintly and ascetic” preachers arise and flourish for a while, gaining popularity as they criticize not only the vices but also the creations of others, and as they prophesy doom. Such criticism is generally short-lived; the public cannot tolerate it for long, for this kind of self-denying reform soon becomes wearying, then boring, then irritating, and ultimately threatening. At this point, the anti-humanistic preachers are rejected, some- times with violence. But the situation does not then return to what it was before the preachers came, for society has been changed and passes into a new age, one in which the old conflicts may no longer be relevant.  [p. 215]

[….]

It is important to know when one is contaminating, to use Orwell’s word, a truthful, balanced vision of the world with an internal projection that satisfies some personal need but bears no other consistent relationship to external reality. Achieving this awareness is not an easy task, for a high level of cooperation between emotion and reason is required. The proper path is an extremely narrow one, with pitfalls on both sides.  [p. 218]

[….]

There are as many causes for contamination as there are motives for our behavior; it would be futile and tedious to attempt to catalog or even categorize them. But several examples will help to explain what the problem is.

The simplest contaminating motive is what Orwell called “wish-thinking.” In his “Notes on Nationalism” he observed that a nationalistic habit of thought, the tendency to identify with a particular group and to submerge oneself in that group, lends itself readily to a blurring of the distinction between nationalistic dreams and reality. One imagines that what one wants to happen is actually happening.  [p. 219]

[….]

Another motive for contamination results from an increasingly common feeling of baffled and impotent rage — that special rage of those who know that they are powerless to affect the forces that threaten them.  [p. 220]

[….]

A final source of contamination is suggested by Orwell’s comments in an essay entitled “Politics vs. Literature: An Examination of Gulliver’s Travels.” Probing the ultimate madness of Swift and the near-madness of Tolstoy, he finds common elements that are, to me, reminiscent of part of the anti-humanist spirit. Involving a rejection of all human society, this part comes closer to true misanthropy than any I have yet named.  [p. 221]

[…]

One of the curious facts about the great prophets of doom, often overlooked, is that they were very frequently correct.  [p. 230]

[….]

7.  Beyond Humanism

Befoer reading this final chapter, I ask the reader to set aside the matter of optimism and pessimism. I have already noted that the familiar accusations of pessimism and defeatism (which are not the same) serve to protect humanists from a reality that they do not care to face. The motive for their constant insistence on being optimistic and “positive” is simply the converse of this; optimism is necessary for those who are attempting the impossible; they could not continue to function without it. But those who are not crippled by commitment to the humanistic assumptions will need no such crutches. We do not feel defeated even when we are pessimistic, because we do not really know what the future will bring, nor do we feel constrained to put a cheerful false front on any sagging dogmas. [p. 235]

[….]

On “Engineering” the Future

As my readers know, I think there is little or no chance that the humanists will be able to “engineer” a future. The present and past are our only guides to what the future may be like, and they give scant comfort to the humanist position.  [pp. 236-237]

[….]

It is a tenet of contemporary belief that technology, organization, and planning can be integrated and controlled in a way that will let us shape a desirable future.  [….] There are other mechanisms, however.

Perhaps the most important of these can be described by the single word ego. I use this word in an unsophisticated and non-technical way to describe the internal force that prompts most people to act in a self-aggrandizing manner much of the time, regardless of whether this behavior is at the expense of other people or at the expense of society itself. It is ego that is behind my “second law of science and technology.”  [p. 238]

[….]

The next mechanism might be called the fallacy of direction. Raymond Dasmann said it much better when he titled a book chapter “Nobody Is at the Wheel.” Of course nobody is at the wheel, because there isn’t any wheel, nor can there be. Yet we persist in believing that it exists—and that certain persons are busy setting some sort of course while a host of ghostly steersmen keep us off the shoals.  [p. 240]

[….]

Also among the mechanisms that make a mockery of progress is inertia. The humanists often speak of overcoming inertia, not realizing that inertia increases in proportion to the complexity of our invented institutions. The more specialized, compartmented, and intricate we make our society, the more difficult it is to make any fundamental or sweeping changes of a humanist sort.  [p. 241]

[….]

Another mechanism is the primacy of organizational goals. It is particularly noticeable in the case of large organizations such as multi-national corporations and governments, and is one of the most troublesome features of our humanistic society. In a sense, this is just a special case of the problem just mentioned—that because of the many special interests in the modern world, the “solutions” (in the humanistic sense) to any difficulty or the plans for any “designed” future are both numerous and conflicting. In this instance the conflict is between the needs of an organization and the needs of people both inside and outside the organization.  [p. 242]

[….]

I have already mentioned the mechanism that can be called the avoidance of unpleasant reality, and there is no necessity of elaborating. Needless to say, any society that aspires to rational control but does not want to hear about the results of that control is not likely to proceed far towards its goal.

Ignorance of the causes of problems is a mechanism that goes hand in hand with the previous one, for in addition to not wanting to hear bad news, there are certain kinds of bad news that can never be traced to their causes among the humanistic roster of inventions and interventions.  [….]

Humanism postulates a world that is totally redesigned and controlled by human beings; however there will always be some people who are destructive or insane while occupying positions of power. The more interlinked and organized the world becomes, the more vulnerable it will be to such disturbed persons, the more power they will have. Yet there is little that can be done about it in any fundamental sense — organization and interlinkage are absolutely essential to the spread of humanism and our dreams of dominion, a fact which is exploited every day by revolutionaries, who occupy a different position of power.  [p. 243]

The inevitable presence of destructive people is complemented by the rapidly increasing numbers and powers of destructive forces that are available to them. Here is another paradox of humanism: it depends on invention and organization for its illusion of control, and yet it also is constantly developing new methods of destroying inventions and organizations (not to mention human beings).  [pp. 243-244]

[….]

One of the principal mechanisms working against our control of ourselves and the environment is, paradoxically, one of humanism’s proudest discoveries, the idea of efficiency. Originally a manufacturing concept, it has now spread into every realm of modern life, and is doing great damage. Being so intimately related to the ideal of mechanical perfection, efficiency comes as close as possible to humanism’s notion of “the good.” And a sorry good it is.  [p. 244]

[….]

The humanist mind loves efficiency because it appears to be completely defined, completely logical and analytical. This appearance, however, has been achieved at the sacrifice of context, until in many cases there is no context left at all. When only efficiency is considered important, end-product analysis becomes impossible.  [p. 245]

[….]

The last of the mechanisms that I have seen working to prevent a humanist future from happening stems from the structure of organization itself. Organization, as I have said, is the humanists’ main tool for controlling the world. The more things there are that we want to be managed, designed, produced, or corrected, the more organization is needed to direct these operations. This, inevitably, leads to a proliferation of administrators, people whose job it is to manage and direct organizations. And these administrators, whatever they are doing, are not producing what Schumacher called the goods and services necessary to a becoming existence. They are a burden upon the real producers in society ….  [p. 247]

[….]

Here at the conclusion of this catalog of anti-humanist mechanisms that humanism itself has created or enhanced, I come back again to the most important item, ego. I have tried to show why the humanist approach to life must break down, and have set forth the mechanisms for this reason, but while considering them something else has become plain. Not only do the mechanisms explain why the modern humanist promises must fail, but one of them explains why humanists, even knowing these things, will be unable to give up the assumptions, the dreams of power. We will not give them up because we cannot — our egos prevent us.  [p. 248]

[….[

The Politics of Anti-humanism

… certain political philosophies are so excessively humanistic in outlook that they deserve comment.

The most openly and avowedly humanistic philosophies are the liberal group, which includes all forms of communism, socialism, and moderate liberalism.  [p. 249]

[….]

The most conspicuous case is the welfare system, which has unintentionally played its part in depopulating the rural countryside, destroying the cities, increasing racism and violence, and in general lowering the welfare of nearly everybody. Now a new welfare plan will come along, with its humanistically conceived methods of solving these terrible problems in one grand scheme according to one imagined future, and we can only wait to see what unexpected and probably awful results will follow next.  [pp. 250-251]

[….]

The opponent of humanism is also opposed to modern conservative economics, which is the ne plus ultra of humanist arrogance, operating as it does in an artificially defined context which excludes as trivial or beneath contempt any consideration that cannot be translated into the crude and simplistic language of economics. The opponent of humanism is not ensnared by or subject to the dream of power. The opponent of humanism believes in limiting the pretensions of reason by first using it without prejudice to evaluate the consequences of our own actions. The opponent of humanism knows that when evil results from human discovery it is usually because of unforeseen circumstances rather than wicked intent. The opponent of humanism dislikes and fears large organizations whose purpose is control. The opponent of humanism deplores any form of lack of consideration for the environment. Thus if we are not political allies of the liberal group, neither are we congenial associates of the political right wing, nor for that matter of the orthodox center. We have not found a popular political philosophy which has the answer.  [pp. 252-253]

[….]

All major political philosophies are humanistic, and with the abrupt and terrifying breakdown of humanism that we are experiencing, all are now outmoded. New cleavages and new alliances are coming. Our parents’ conflicts will be moot and forgotten. The new lines of political battle will array clerics against clerics, Marxists against Marxists, and capitalists against capitalists. Old ideas, reawakened by new circumstances, will return to shake the earth.  [p. 254]

[….]

Expectations and Options

… one does not have to be a futurologist to see into the immediate future, and one can abandon long-range strategy without giving up tactics.

…. The main difficulty that we are now facing is not the emergence of a few monolithic superstates; it is the spectacle of global waste and destruction that are occurring in the last great selfish denial of human limitations. We are all participants in a horrible race between destruction and preservation. Destruction has the power of death, which is final and irrevocable. Preservation has the power of life, which is evanescent and fragile, but which can grow and spread under favorable circumstances. The circumstances do not appear to be favorable right now, so the balance has swung in favor of destruction. What is being lost?

First is wilderness, which is not any particular species or habitat type, but a higher class of life form with its own nobility derived from its complete independence of human beings.  [p. 255]

Second are species and communities, the former of which are now being lost at a rate that is probably a thousand times greater than the rate of the extinction that occurred during the last ice age.

Cultured landscapes are third: British hedges and small fields, European farms and vineyards, Central American small fincas, North American urban and suburban parks and farms, and gardens everywhere are either being destroyed or altered and degraded in the name of efficiency, with the latter bringing increasing uniformity and decreasing Quality.  [p. 256]

Closely allied to the previous loss is the fourth — the loss of human skills, one of which is caring for the cultured land- scapes that are disappearing. There are still fine stonemasons, master carpenters, inspired gardeners, great mechanics, and a few celebrated violin-makers among us, but their numbers are declining rapidly in proportion to the whole population.  [pp. 256-257]

The fifth loss is resources — one that everyone appreciates and will come to appreciate better as the destruction continues.

The sixth and final loss that I will mention is environmental and human health and human sanity. I have discussed this extensively in the third and fourth chapters, and therefore need say no more about it. The reader will think of additional losses —true freedom, perhaps, and many others—but I have listed enough to show the gravity of our situation.

Once we know what is being lost, the critical question is: by the time the machinery of humanism has broken down sufficiently so that it is no longer capable of doing widespread destruction, how much will be left of what we value? To answer this we must first know how and when the breakdown will occur.  [….] For the “how” of the breakdown we can expect the agent to be a senseless malfunctioning part of the mechanism itself, rather than some conscious force external to humanism. But what part? There is no way of knowing. And this is only the “how” — the “when” is also utterly beyond our power to predict. Thus the critical question cannot be answered; we cannot even know whether the commitment to the humanist assumptions and the damage will stop gradually, giving us at least a chance to adapt realistically to the world that remains, or whether it will stop abruptly, crash, possibly after the wilderness, the animals and plants, the cultured landscapes, the human skills, environmental and human health, and the remaining resources are gone or ruined, leaving no alternative for us but chaos.  [p. 258]

If any mechanism, economic or otherwise, stops us short of the brink, what parts of humanism might be saved? First, it should be made clear that what we want to save and what will be saved are unlikely to be the same thing. This may be fortunate, because we will all want to cling to things the world cannot afford to keep.  [p. 260]

[….]

The Human Spirit

Are people ready to move beyond humanism, should the times favor such a change? We don’t seem to be able to give up by ourselves the Marxist dreams, the dependence on technology, or the eternal quest for progress—will we be willing to accept the sacrifice with grace and even enthusiasm if it is made easy for us by circumstances? It isn’t enough to say that we will have to accept it because there won’t be any alternative. There are plenty of alternatives, all of them unpleasant. But if chance breaks in our favor I think that there are many people who will do the right things, not a majority but perhaps enough to start and lead a transition to a new life.

There are elements of the human spirit that might help us to gain a new earth. Not themselves new, these elements have been forgotten in our quest for knowledge and power. I will conclude this book by recalling some of them to mind.  [p. 263]

The capacity to take pleasure in simple things, both natural and man-made, has not been destroyed permanently by our culture: it recurs with every human birth, no matter how elaborate our plans to analyze it, define it, control it, and profit from it, and no matter how successful we are in stamping it out during childhood.  [….] Pleasure and humor will always be available to our descendants if they have the opportunity to cultivate them.  [pp. 263-264]

The human spirit is capable of abjuring power without feeling or being enslaved, and in so doing gains a sort of peace and fulfillment that is utterly foreign to humanism.  [p. 264]

[….]

We have also the capacity to acknowledge and cope with death and the darker side of life, even to extract from it a necessary meaning. This is sometimes hard to remember in the humanist world, where so much effort and money are spent in the twin futilities of trying to make these frightening things go away and denying that they exist even now. We combine an unwholesome desire to discard our essential biology with the pitiful notion that it can be done at will. All this has succeeded in doing is robbing us of our strength and will to meet death with courage when we must, and to fight it on our own best terms when we can.  [p. 266]

[….]

Another part of the human spirit that might again stand us in good stead is the capacity to love. Not unique to human beings, it is nevertheless of tremendous importance to us, for it is the source of the cohesion of the family and the small community, the only viable inheritors of a post-humanist world. Love, like the other qualities, is under heavy attack, and the family and small community have weakened perceptibly. Unable to survive the inconsistencies and conflicting demands of a humanistic life, they suffer doubly — especially the family — for they are also scapegoats for the humanist failure to supplant them with something better, or even with something that functions at all.

Last of all, different from the capacityzo to love but not alien to it, is the capacity of men and women to stand alone, triumphant, in simplicity, independent of the constructions and devices of society and the plans of other people.  [p. 267]

[….]

Will the things that are being lost — the wilderness, the plants and animals, the skills, and all the others — leave too vast a gap in the continuity of life to be bridged even by the human spirit? This is the unanswerable question.  [p. 269]

Reference

Ehrenfeld, David W. 1981. The Arrogance of Humanism. Oxford University Press.

#humanism