“It was nothing to brag about, just a sort of squishy blob…”
The mysterious squishy blob described above is a character in the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. The blob lives “half a billion years ago”. Ishmael, a story telling gorilla, relates the details of the blob’s environment.
Nothing at all stirred on the land, except the wind and the dust. Not a single
blade of grass waved in the wind, not a single cricket chirped, not a
single bird soared in the sky…Even the seas were eerily still and silent, for
the vertebrates too were tens of millions of years away in the future.
However, there is an anthropologist on the scene who questions the blob about its creation myth, to which the blob replies, “I want you to understand that…we are a strictly rational people, who accept nothing that is not based on observation, logic, and the scientific method”. The anthropologist is fine with this and desires the talking blob to proceed by telling him about its story of origins. The blob continues with something quite similar to the account we are told concerning evolution, though it is not specified where life began. The anthropologist thus stops the blob to ask whether life began on land or in the sea, to which the blob responds, “I can’t imagine what you’re gibbering about. The dirt and rocks over there are simply the lip of the vast bowl that holds the sea”, obviously revealing the blob’s mindset that the world consists not of land and sea, but rather of sea alone, at least in terms of importance. The anthropologist apologizes and prods the blob to continue.
“Very well,” the other said. “For many millions of centuries the life of the
world was merely microorganisms floating helplessly in a chemical broth. But
little by little, more complex forms appeared: single-celled creatures, slimes,
algae, polyps, and so on.
But finally,” the creature said, turning
quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of his story, “but finally
Obviously the story told by the blob parallels the current story of an evolutionary history. As I read this I thought, “Brilliant!”. Human pride is far too ambitious when it comes to defining itself as significant in the context provided by our alleged beginnings. Indeed, there is more than pride involved here, for the assignment of any value at all to living things, much less human beings, raises some serious questions as to the justification of such value assignments. Daniel Quinn has pinpointed a serious problem with the evolutionary scheme of things; the non-Christian account of origins which currently permeates our world. Essentially this problem is that we are not what we think we are. Ultimately one must accept that there is no way to account for human dignity if one has accepted the view of the world that has become so popular as of late.
The argument Quinn might make, as well as philosophers like Peter Singer (whom I will not be specifically addressing here, but perhaps another time) and religious practitioners like the Jain; is that life itself has value and should be respected. An emphasis on human dignity to the exclusion of other living things is thus really a sort of inconsistency which needs to be addressed. Some recent news articles provide examples of such a step actually being taken.
Spanish parliament recently voted as a majority to “extend” rights to apes. Under new laws, apes will be considered alongside humans as having such rights as life and freedom. It will be illegal to have apes to use in circuses and films. This strikes many as odd, yet there really seems to be nothing to separate humans out from animals as inherently possessing more value. There may be such a thing as human dignity, but this needs to be extended to cover animals as well. While it may be intuitively repulsive, the idea that apes and other animals possess the same value, dignity, and rights as humans is a pretty consistent step within the non-Christian’s view of the world.
We need not stop with apes though. As eastern religions have observed, life itself, regardless of what kind of life it is, need be understood as possessing the same value as human life. In other words, plants are just as dignified as people. Asparagus is on par with apes. As already mentioned more people seem to be taking note of this and attempting to institute change.
A team of Swiss ethicists have decided that plants are entitled to the same respect given any other entity possessing dignity.
A “clear majority” of the panel adopted what it called a “biocentric” moral
view, meaning that “living organisms should be considered morally for their own
sake because they are alive.” Thus, the panel determined that we cannot claim
“absolute ownership” over plants and, moreover, that “individual plants have an
inherent worth.” This means that “we may not use them just as we please, even if
the plant community is not in danger, or if our actions do not endanger the
species, or if we are not acting arbitrarily.”
Notice that plants, such as asparagus (mentioned in the title of the article this is from), are deemed to have an inherent worth just like human beings are. Further, this entails that plants are actually, in some sense, worthy of our moral obligation and possess rights. This appears to be nothing short of crazy, but it also appears to be rather consistent with the worldview we are looking at here.
One of the most important assumptions we as human beings make is that there is such a thing as human dignity. A plethora of crucial elements of human experience are contingent upon the reality of human dignity. For example, the time to elect a new President in the USA is fast approaching yet again, and the media will not talk about much else. Those who choose to think deeper in their political philosophy than what the media and cultural climate will allow will inevitably, whether knowing it or not, think in terms of human dignity when it comes to contemporary political issues. While much of the activity surrounding the process of getting a new President into office will inevitably consist of shallow, oft repeated sound bytes, there are those still who think a bit deeper about what it is they are actually taking a part in. This inevitably involves thinking about rights. Every discussion of “rights” in the current political discourse is reducible to a position on human dignity. In other words, human dignity is not something only philosophers squabble about in ivory towers; it is of tremendous practical bearing.
Society is necessarily permeated with the assumption of human dignity. Human life has value and hence is to be respected, which entails that there is an ethical dimension to human dignity as well. Human dignity is appealed to in matters of law, justice, politics, morality, funerals and many other important features of society. Surely there is good reason to adhere to this almost universally held belief in human dignity, but what is it?
The assumption of human dignity has led honest inquirers to search for a way to account for it. This leads one to realize that, given the non-Christian’s view of the world and the actuality of the dignity of humans, there is little reason to suppose that other living things do not likewise possess such dignity. To reject this is speciesism. We have observed several examples of attempts to avoid speciesism, but the deeper and more pressing question under all of this is how human dignity is accounted for at all in a non-Christian view of the world. Humans are not the end
goal or purpose of evolution. We are foolish to think there is much special about us. Indeed we are foolish to think that we possess a shred of dignity or value. If the world is as non-Christians would have us believe it is then we are nothing more than deluded, egocentric blobs.
The assumption of human dignity is unaccounted for and unintelligible given the wider context of unbelieving, non-Christian thought. In Part II we will examine what Scripture has to tell us with regard to human dignity and value.
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Daniel Quinn. Ishamael. Bantam. May 1, 1995. Pgs. 54-56.
Martin Roberts. Spanish parliament to extent rights to apes. http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSL256586320080625?feedType=RSS&feedName=scienceNews&rpc=22&sp=true
Wesley Smith. The Silent Scream of the Asparagus. http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/065njdoe.asp?pg=1