By Wesley J. Smith
Well, I'll be cornswaggled! Richard Dawkins disdains the moral implications of human exceptionalism-for example, he yearns for the discovery of a human/chimp hybrid species that could interbreed with us to "break the species barrier."But even though he might prefer to tear it down-probably because HE can be seen as supporting religion-Dawkins clearly believes that human exceptionalism is an existential reality.
In 2007, Dawkins strongly asserted in a debate that we are unique and unprecidented in the history of life on the planet, indeed, that we have moral duties and imperatives to escape selfish Darwinian impulses and act in an explicitly "anti Darwinian" fashion as "earth's last best hope." From Dawkins' opening statement in the New Scientist/Greenpeace Science debate of 2007 (statement full at the YouTube video above):
Far from being the most selfish, exploitative species, Homo sapiens is the only species that has at least the possibility of rebelling against the otherwise universally selfish Darwinian impulse...If any species in the history of life has the possibility of breaking away from short term selfishness and of long term planning for the distant future, it's our species. We are earth's last best hope even if we are simultaneously, the species most capable of destroying life on the planet. But when it comes to taking the long view, we are literally unique. Because the long view is not a view that has ever been taken before in whole history of life. If we don't plan for the future, no other species will...
Wow. That's pretty darn exceptional. Indeed, I could have said it! In fact, I have, in other words, said precisely that.
But why would we do that? Why would we care? Because we are the earth's only moral agents. And that means, Dawkins is saying, that we should act morally:
There's a tension between short term individual welfare and long term group welfare or world welfare. If it were left to the forces of Darwinism alone, in one sense there could be no hope because short term greed is bound to win. There is a hope that lies in the unique human capacity to use our big brains with our massive communal data base...all the knowledge that has built up over the generations, and our forward simulating imaginations. This is what things like the Kyoto Accord and similar initiatives are all about. But to a Darwinist, it is not surprising that it is so hard to get agreement in support of such political initiatives. Darwinism is, unfortunately, not friendly to the value of sustainability, the long term value of life as a whole.
Let us note that only we, the exceptional humans, care about the "long term value of life as a whole." Only we are capable of so caring and it is our duty, Dawkins seems to be saying, to do so because of our uniqueness:
How can I on the one hand say that we are the product of Darwinian selection, which is incorrigibly short sighted and selfish, yet at the same time say that salvation lies in humanities capacity for looking far ahead? And the answer lies in the fact that brains-although they are themselves the natural product of natural selection-follow their own rules, which can rise above the rules of natural selection. This is obvious in the case of...contraception. Contraception is clearly anti Darwinian. It would be hard to imagine anything more anti Darwinian than deliberately limiting your own reproductive success, yet we do it. The brain is big enough to override the imperative of the selfish genes...
The human brain has been equipped by the natural selection of genes with the power to take its own decision that can override the ultimate goal which were originally used to program it. We can take decisions which are not based on the ultimate Darwinian value of gene survival, but upon other proximate values, such as hedonistic pleasure, or, such as something more noble-something such as sitting down together with the peoples of the world and trying to plan what would be the best future for the whole of the planet. Totally unique. Totally foreign to our evolutionary past...
I have said that although I am a passionate Darwinian, in the academic sense that I believe that Darwinism is the main ingredient in our understanding of our own existence and that of all life...yet, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to human, social, and political affairs and political planning for the world. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Nature really is ruthless, selfish, greedy. Nature in its Darwinian role of natural selection is not something we should wish to emulate.
I have repeatedly stated that religion is unnecessary to support human exceptionalism. I have repeatedly stated that by whatever means we got here, we alone have at least partially surmounted the Darwinian struggle of tooth and claw, taking us out of-and above-the natural world. I have repeatedly stated that human life is a moral life, a life of difference, a life that matters, a life of unique value, a life that has the greatest value on the planet. Indeed, humans belong on the pedestal precisely because we are the last best hope of earth. And whaddya know: Of all people, Richard Dawkins agrees.
And here's the bottom line: Dawkins believes human beings are no longer bound by Darwinian imperatives, the consequence of which is to impose moral duties upon us. It seems to me that once our uniquely human duties are accepted, it becomes very hard to deny that we also possess uniquely human rights.