Up From Humanism

One of the most striking political developments of the latter half of the twentieth century has been a surge of concern for the natural environment. It is as if the great ecological awakening of this period constitutes a permanent watershed in the development of industrial societies: No longer will be it possible for governments, of any political persuasion, to take the natural environment for granted. After at least two centuries of unregulated exploitation of nature, this is surely, to all but a few self-interested corporations and their employees, a positive development.

As concern about the environment has grown, new philosophies reevaluating the relationship between the social and natural worlds have also emerged. In search of a better balance between society and nature, some systems of environmental ethics call for human beings to treat nature with greater respect while continuing to employ it for purposes of human enjoyment. But other environmental movements and philosophies, based on more radical premises, have also gained appeal. Here I examine three of these more extreme tendencies -- animal rights, deep ecology, and Gaia theory -- in some detail. What unites them is rejection of the premise that humans occupy a privileged place in nature. And although many people may be inclined to believe that any turn toward ecological thinking can only be a good thing -- and the "stronger" the version of environmentalism, the better -- these philosophical tendencies actually contribute to an emerging anti-humanist cosmology that is profoundly different in its ethical implications from popular environmental views.

As befits any vibrant political and intellectual movement, the radical forms of environmentalism differ greatly -- sometimes, it seems, more with one another than with the engines of economic growth and natural exploitation they oppose. The animal rights movement, for example, emphasizes concern for the rights of individual members of a species, whereas the deep ecologists stress the stability of species themselves. Similarly, while these two philosophies have in common respect for the creatures inhabiting the Earth, the advocates of Gaia theory give primacy to the Earth itself. Despite these differences, however, these three perspectives are united in their antagonism to social practices and institutions that give a privileged place to human interests.

Animal Rights and Human Imagination
The movement for animal rights has probably had the biggest popular impact with its challenges to the use of animals in our diet, clothing, entertainment, and scientific experimentation. The movement's philosophers differ themselves on the basic moral foundations for justifying a higher regard for other species. Some base their worldview on utilitarianism; others on an expanded theory of rights. The justification for animal rights provided by Tom Regan belongs to the latter category.

Regan argues that most people -- except for infants, the mentally retarded, and so on -- are capable of distinguishing right from wrong and are therefore moral agents. Animals, by contrast, cannot make such distinctions and must be viewed as moral "patients." But, in Regan's view, that does not mean that humans can treat animals any way they choose. Both possess life, which has intrinsic value, regardless of whether others recognize it or not. Animals, especially of the "higher" variety, are also aware of the world and have interests. Since justice presupposes the intrinsic value of life and not fully developed moral agency, we have a direct duty not to harm animals. Regan, however, does recognize occasions when it is justifiable to inflict harm. If, for example, the rights of many innocents unavoidably conflict with those of a few innocents, we ought to respect the former. It is thus morally permissible to kill a rabid fox that is threatening human children, but not to go fox hunting for sheer sport.

Peter Singer's defense of animal rights, by contrast, is explicitly utilitarian, indeed Benthamite, in outlook (although, at one point, he finds Bentham himself insufficiently Benthamite). For Jeremy Bentham, the capacity to experience pain is necessary for any being to experience pleasure. It was as clear in Bentham's day as it is in ours that animals know pain; one can hear their cries of anguish as they are mutilated or killed. While Cartesians may be right, in the purely abstract sense, that one can never know if another being is really in pain, the evidence presented to our senses is sufficient for a common sense judgment. It is cruel to inflict pain on any sentient being. Since animals are sentient beings, being cruel to them is morally wrong. And so, Singer argues, the pain we inflict on animals must always be part of any calculus we make involving human benefits.

Both Singer's utilitarianism and Regan's modified Kantianism bear some of the hallmarks of professional philosophy, building logically upon first premises to make airtight cases for the conclusions that inevitably seem to follow. But logic is not always the best guide to everyday conduct. Humans do not generally make choices the way philosophers, or economists, suggest they should if they are to be consistently rational. And when human beings rely on common sense, compromise, detachment, humor, irony, and a recognition of human imperfection -- none of them compatible with strict logic and rationality -- the philosopher will be tempted to turn against them as insufficiently trustworthy.


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This distrust is most explicit in Singer's writings. It takes many forms: the equation of "speciesism" with racism and sexism, even Nazism, as if anyone who likes chicken with broccoli or wears leather shoes harbors fascist tendencies; a lack of respect for the integrity of those who do scientific research on animals, since any such scientist is not a complex person driven by conflicting motives but a morally insensitive person who deserves exposure; a proposal to subject older children to pictures of animals being killed; a lack of appreciation for the higher prices that many will have to pay for their food if Singer's moral point of view became the law; the assurance that "anyone with the capacity to look beyond considerations of narrow self-interest" will refuse to buy or eat animal flesh produced under modern factory conditions; and an insistence that any complications or even, in some cases, poor health that might follow from vegetarianism ought to be of little concern to us. The philosophical perspectives underlying both Singer's and Regan's moral accounting imply a conception of humans as abstract rule followers incapable of appreciating things, including things in nature, for their symbolic or expressive value.

Both utilitarianism and rights-based philosophies seek to determine the moral value of various human practices. If there are, as Regan argues, occasions where causing harm is morally justified -- or if, from Singer's perspective, certain benefits to humans may outweigh the costs in cruelty to animals -- we need criteria for judging those practices.


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The human practice that has received the most attention in the animal rights controversy is scientific experimentation. For opponents of animal rights, the refusal of animal rights activists to concede the greater good growing out of medical research on animals exemplifies what is wrong about the entire philosophy. For animal rights advocates, on the other hand, opposition to animal experimentation is the hard case that proves one's adherence to the doctrine. Like most people who think about these things, I have my own position in this debate, and it is one that does not shed too many tears for the dead animals that made it possible for my children to avoid numerous deadly diseases. But rather than go over ground that has been argued, so to speak, to death, it seems preferable to raise a question that defenders of research on animals rarely address: We experiment on animals to keep humans alive, but what do we keep them alive for?

Though he does not address this issue in any detail, Singer raises it when he argues, mostly as a counter to those who do not appreciate animal life, that not all forms of human life necessarily deserve respect. Similarly, Regan, who argues that life has intrinsic value, does not believe that human life has some special and unique value. Indeed, Regan dismisses any consideration of "human, recreational, gustatory, aesthetic, social, and other interests" in judging the legitimacy of our treatment of animals. Singer and Regan fail to see or acknowledge that what makes human life special is our interpretative capacity, our ability to attribute meaning to the world around us, and it is precisely this specialness that humans will have to forego if they choose to lead their lives by the principles of animal rights.

As Emile Durkheim in particular emphasized, people use their minds to create richly endowed systems of symbolic representations, and it is the collective meaning arising out of these capacities of mind that makes our species different from all others. Civilizations throughout history have drawn their most potent symbols from nature, including those inspired by the human body. And from the distinction between nature and civilization follow a host of dichotomies that structure the way humans think about the world: purity and danger, the raw and the cooked, clean and dirty, sacred and profane.

By attaching significance to things, including things found in nature, people take themselves out of the realm of everyday life and give larger meaning to their activities. This human ability to endow meaning does not come without unfairness. Because making something a symbol involves objectifying it, treating it as something other than it is, interpretation is never innocent. Some will be treated instrumentally so that others will live in a richer and more imaginative world. Religion, art, sport, and creative cultural expression are all human interpretative practices that base themselves on the occasionally cruel treatment of other species, sometimes even their destruction.

Religion provides perhaps the clearest examples of the occasional cruelty of symbolic practices. Animal sacrifice and ritual preparation of food typify the tendency to use nonhuman species to ensure purity and differentiate between the sacred and profane realms. As they have for centuries, some contemporary religions, such as Islam and Judaism, continue to engage in the ritual slaughter of animal species in the preparation of food. Singer would prohibit such practices: "If, to preserve religious laws intact, a choice must be made between the taste for meat and the agony of millions of animals, surely it is justifiable to ask those who follow the religious laws to do without meat."

At least one country, Sweden, has taken steps toward the eventual elimination of Jewish and Moslem ritual slaughter in the name of animal rights. Some Jews and Moslems also voluntarily follow vegetarian practices because they have qualms about eating meat even if it has been ritually purified. But for the state to impose controls on religious practices is another thing. For, in doing so, the state prevents groups from practicing their rituals and traditions, thereby sacrificing the richness of human life (and depriving some human beings of their liberty) for the sake of members of other species.

Obviously, there are limits to what an enlightened society will allow in the name of religious expression; no contemporary society condones the ritual slaughter of human beings. But in the real world of concrete cases, as opposed to the philosopher's world of hypothetical ones, banning ritual slaughter of animals would not only lead to illegal activity -- rites, as well as rights, are anything but a matter of "taste" -- but would also, if successful, result in a more homogeneous, and therefore less nuanced, culture. By their very nature, religious traditions compel their practitioners to participate in acts designed to set them apart from unbelievers. The whole point about religious traditions is that one cannot easily pick and choose among them based on utilitarian considerations. The banning of ritual slaughter is a step -- given the importance of animal symbolization, a relatively big step -- from the sacred to the profane.

Zoos and circuses offer additional instances of the use of animals for human symbolic purposes, and they, too, have come under fire from animal rights activists. The city of Denver recently stopped the practice of allowing children to ride on elephants, and not because the practice was a danger to the children. Ought we, in the name of animal rights, to abolish zoos altogether? In the utilitarian calculus he develops to answer this question affirmatively, Dale Jamieson balances the functions of zoos, including enjoyment, education, and scientific value, against the cruelty they inflict through confinement. Never once, however, does he consider that one function of zoos may be to help children make symbolic sense of the world around them. Instead, Jamieson argues:
Zoos teach us a false sense of our place in the natural order... .Morality and perhaps our very survival require that we learn to live as one species among many rather than as one over many. To do this, we must forget what we learn at zoos. Because what zoos teach us is false and dangerous, both humans and animals will be better off when they are abolished.

One could, of course, ban zoos from one's republic, just as Plato banned poets. Whether we would be a less cruel species if we did so, however, is highly debatable. Children learn to use their powers of fantasy and imagination -- to love animals -- by going to the zoo. Strip them of this rich source of their interpretive life and, as adults, they will likely be more unfeeling, not less.


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Sport provides a third illustration of the conflict between respect for animals and human symbolic and interpretive capacities. Hunting is no doubt cruel. But what is most noteworthy in the animal rightists' attack on hunting is their lack of appreciation for the symbolic meaning of human practices. As in the case of religion -- where Singer would allow only those practices that conform to his standards of humane conduct, irrespective of the history and symbolic background of those traditions -- Regan asks us to alter the very way in which sport is understood:
Standard justifications of the "sport" of hunting -- that those who engage in it get exercise, take pleasure in communion with nature, enjoy the camaraderie of their friends, or take satisfaction in a shot well aimed -- are lame, given the rights view. All these pleasures are obtainable by engaging in activities that do not result in killing any animal (walking through the woods with friends and a camera substitute nicely...)

There are obvious sensual and other pleasures inherent in cruel sport, not all of them admirable. In the name of sportsmanship, humans are equally willing to inflict considerable pain on each other -- in sports such as boxing and professional football -- as they are to inflict suffering on other species. Reformers have railed against cruelty in sport for centuries, and with some success, but the sensual pleasures of violent sport endure. No one knows exactly why, but the anthropologist Clifford Geertz -- studying what, following Bentham, he calls "deep play" -- has probably come closest to an answer. Because, in Geertz's words, "the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence," danger beyond the point of rationality creates moments of intensity so excruciating as to convey truths about self and society. It is difficult to imagine that following Regan's advice to walk through the woods with a camera would have quite the same transformational power.

Cruelty cannot, in fact, be the criterion by which we evaluate the practices of the species, for animals in nature are cruel to each other in ways that make the National Football League look tame. (Deep ecologists are fond of making this point against animal rights theorists.) The Kantian response to animal rights theorists -- humans ought not to be cruel to non-humans to such a degree that it becomes debasing -- seems appropriate in this context. Not all coats have to be mink or rabbit. Bullfighting does contribute to a machismo culture that is anything but pleasant. It does seem frivolous to kill animals to produce more attractive cosmetics at lower cost. The point is simply that the kind of cruelty expressed in sport is not all that different from eroticism: Ban it, and something fundamental about the human condition is lost.


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Finally, humans are producers of great works of art, music, and literature. When Peter Singer chastises the Renaissance for "its insistence on the value and dignity of human beings, and on man's central place in the universe," his remark ought to give one pause. The Renaissance, and the Enlightenment which followed, were indeed humanistic in the double sense of encouraging great works of human expression and putting human beings in the center of the world. Singer would like to break that link. It is not clear that he, or anyone else, can. The achievements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment lay fundamentally in their powers of expression. In neither case did the works that have now come down to us as masterpieces of aesthetic value shy away from the depiction of cruelty. Had the artists in question reined in their imaginations out of a sense of fairness to other species -- or even to members of our own -- the Quatrocento never would have taken place. Cruelty has never been far from creativity.

When such cruelty is directed against others of our own species -- in the way that the Greek polis assumed slavery or much of nineteenth-century fiction was premised on the exclusion of women -- we may (or may not) be willing to sacrifice some creativity for the sake of greater equality. Debates over the conflict between artistic expression and the offensive portrayal of other people, such as the way women are depicted in the work of de Sade, continue to this day. But the further our concern for the moral worth of other beings extends outward into nature, the more we will have to restrict our imaginative lives. It is a short step from prohibiting children from riding elephants to banning elephants from performances of Aida. At what point do these obligations stop? Ought we to consider ourselves obligated to whatever creatures may someday be found in outer space? At the extreme limit -- where these theorists have never hesitated to take us -- our moral sense may expand, but it is likely that our capacity to understand the world symbolically will disappear.

Animal rights advocates would like us to believe that if we treat other species with greater respect, we will be more likely to treat other people with more respect. Yet the opposite may well be true. To be fair to other species, we must be unfair to one important aspect of ourselves: our freedom to create a richly endowed symbolic life out of the materials provided by nature. It is appropriate that most animal rights activists rely on utilitarianism, which gives no special recognition to expressive, and thereby not necessarily useful, needs. Accepting the sensations as what define life, utilitarians are unable to rise above the sensations, to recognize that while many species experience pain, only one can transform pain into a story about the world. A society organized in accordance with animal rights might be fair, just, morally correct, and egalitarian, but it would be poor in imagination, imprisoned by logic, censorious of evil, puritanical in outlook, and populated by those as lacking in appreciation of themselves as they are sensitive to the pain of others.

Back to the Garden, Sans Adam and Eve
Animal rights activists are actually quite moderate when compared to others who have taken the side of nature against humans in recent years. Singer, after all, attributes the capacity to experience pain neither to plants nor even to animals with primitive neural development. It is, he argues, perfectly acceptable to eat creatures that have no sentient capacities. "Somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster," writes Singer, "seems as good a place to draw the line as any, and better than most." But oysters are an integral part of that complex ecosystem known as the natural world. And from the perspective of the deep ecologists, who argue that everything found in nature, down to sand and water, ought to be respected, animal rights does not go far enough.

The obvious place to turn for a way of understanding and appreciating the natural world is to the science of ecology. In 1866 Ernst Haeckel, the leading German discipline of Darwin, coined the term Oecologie, understood as the science of how living organisms related both to each other and to the environment in which they found themselves. As its similarity to the term Oeconomie implies, ecology was premised upon the ancient Greek understanding of household management. From its early origins, ecology understood the natural world with a language borrowed from the study of the social world. It would be a long time before this overlap between the social and the natural world would disappear.

Although most earlier ecologists such as Henry C. Cowles (1869-1939) and Frederic Clements (1874-1945) left man out of their models, they were nonetheless groping toward a unified understanding of ecological processes, one that would link all living species into what, in 1939, Clements called the "biotic community," or "biota." The analogy between nature and society was even more pronounced in the work of the British zoologist Charles Elton, who, in 1927, used the social structure of European feudalism to describe the functioning of nature. Animals were classified into different orders or ranks -- Elton sometimes called them "roles" or "professions" -- each with its own proper niche. (Darwin had used terms like "place" or "office" to describe the same phenomenon.)

The early ecologists described various species, within their respective niches, as essentially producers or consumers depending upon the workings of the food chain. It seemed appropriate, from Elton's perspective, to speak of a biotic "community," since nature, like the gemeinschaft societies of Ferdnand Toennies, created an order in which every organism held its proper place. As a way of understanding nature, economics had evolved into sociology.

The question raised by this correspondence was not whether nature functioned by self-regulating laws; few would disagree with this proposition. Rather, the ecologists asked whether there were lessons from nature for human society. If the same language could describe the two worlds of human society and nature, then either nature could be understood in terms of human capacities or society could be explained by natural processes.

Herbert Spencer's ideas exemplify the second of these alternatives. For Spencer, all complex ecological systems evolve according to self-regulating laws. Interference in social evolution is as disastrous as interference in biological evolution. The Earth has its own economy, one in which species evolve by adopting the most efficient strategies for survival. This Spencerian understanding of how nature and society were linked eventually became highly influential both on conservative political doctrine and on the emerging science of evolutionary biology. Ecology was used to demonstrate that human society owed more to nature than the other way around.


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That Spencer's ideas were used for reactionary political purposes is an embarrassing legacy for many contemporary ecologists who place themselves on the political left. A major change in the science of ecology took place in 1935, however, under the inspiration of the Oxford botanist A. G. Tansley, who had once worked together with Spencer on the revisions of the 1899 edition of Principles of Biology. Rejecting the notion of "communities" in nature, Tansley sought a way to describe natural processes through pure quantification. His central concept, the "ecosystem," was based on the newly emerging science known as systems theory. All units within any society, he argued, co-exist by exchanging energy, and in this process the system as a whole inevitably has a tendency toward entropy, or irreplaceable energy loss. When operating at peak efficiency, an ecological system integrates all its parts so well that entropy is minimized. Economics was by no means irrelevant to Tansley's way of thinking, but the intellectual model for the new ecology became cybernetics. By viewing nature as a complex system driven by self-regulating laws, ecologists could avoid Social Darwinist conservatism in favor of a doctrine stressing harmony of interests and beneficial outcomes.

Understanding nature from the perspective of systems theory dramatically advanced the science of ecology, but it also had profound moral implications. Ecology, after all, is not simply descriptive; it contains elements of an ethical system. The general normative belief associated with ecological conceptions of nature is that the system as a whole rather than the individual parts that compose it ought to be respected. So long as biology was the dominant science associated with ecology, a holistic ethics could be reconciled with the interests of individual species. For if life is understood as the life of specific kinds of organisms, and we believe in preserving life, then we ought to preserve living species. When the information sciences became the model of an ecological system, by contrast, either life could no longer be the ultimate justification for a holistic ethic or the meaning of life would have to be redefined to include all self-regulating systems -- including those such as oceans, mountain ranges, or even computers -- that were once thought of as lifeless.

Under the influence of Erwin Schroedinger's work in the 1940s, life itself was redefined. A living being increasingly came to be understood as any entity that avoids decay by "attracting, as it were, a stream of negative entropy upon itself, to compensate the entropy increase it produces by living and thus to maintain itself on a stationary and fairly low entropy level." By shifting the scientific basis of life from biology to quantum physics, Schroedinger's definition broadened the conception of what it means to live. Later on, when information science and artificial intelligence developed, it became possible to argue that all self-reproducing things are living things. Computer hackers, for example, are familiar with LIFE, a game invented by John Horton Conway in 1970, which enables the player to use a few basic algorithms to generate systems so complex and unpredictable from the first moves that they resemble living things. Conway would come to claim that "there are LIFE patterns which behave like self-replicating animals...It's probable, given a large enough life space, initially in a random state, that after a long time, intelligent, self-replicating animals will emerge and populate some parts of space."

There is something fascinating about the notion that computers may create life, but that is not the point here. From a biological perspective, a holistic emphasis on the species could be justified out of respect for the life of individual organisms. That is no longer the case when an information science perspective becomes the basis of an ecological understanding of the world. Animal rights thinkers undervalue human interpretive capacities by defining life in sensate terms. But ecological models based on the information sciences go further. Since many cybernetic systems, including computers, have no sensations at all, even the sensate features of living species are devalued in favor of the capacity to engage in self-reproduction. From such a perspective, human interpretive capacities are at a double remove from any position of privilege: First we are equated with all other creatures that can feel pain, and then with all other creatures whose affairs can be governed algorithmically.

In the working of algorithmic systems, what matters is the autonomous action of the system as a whole, not the parts that compose it. As artificial intelligence researchers have discovered, for a system to be smart, the parts have to be as dumb as possible. Suppose we base our understanding of the natural world on systems theory, following the tenets of what is now called the "new" ecology. If we include humans as part of that self-functioning system, it follows that the lives of particular individuals -- you, for example, or me -- are of no great import.


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The implications of this new holism for human beings became clear when a political movement called "deep ecology" emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the distinction first advanced in 1973 by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, "shallow" ecology, associated with traditional environmentalism, is an effort to protect nature for man's use. "Deep" ecology, by contrast, represents a vigorous effort to ensure that nature would come to be understood and appreciated in its own right, regardless of the uses man might have in mind for it.

Naess himself is relatively moderate in his application of deep ecological principles; he recognizes that whether hunting whales is justified depends upon the economic circumstances of those who hunt them. No such concession to real people can be found in the writings of George Sessions, Bill Devall, J. Baird Callicott, and other American theorists of the deep ecology movement. Like John Muir, the nineteenth-century Scottish-born American naturalist who felt little obligation to do anything about slavery but was moved to anguish by the plight of bears, these writers share the perspective of John Howard Moore, Clarence Darrow's brother-in-law, who thought of humans as "the most unchaste, the most drunken, the most selfish and conceited, the most miserly, the most hypocritical, and the most bloodthirsty of terrestrial creatures."

As part of the "new" ecology, deep ecology values wholes over parts. Aldo Leopold first expressed this ethical position as follows: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." From such a holistic perspective, deep ecology can have little respect for those parts we call human selves. Deep ecologists tend to understand the self in Heideggerian terms: The everyday, inauthentic self will be overcome and transcended as we give up any false strategies of control and mastery and just let our being be. Devotion to nature is one such way of overcoming the everyday self to achieve some higher form of self-realization. But even mere appreciation of nature will do. Standing before Lake Solitude in the High Sierras, Holmes Rolston reflects on how "neither lake nor self has independent being: both exist in dynamic inter-penetration across a surface designed for passage and exchange, as well as for delimitation and individuation." The self, says Rolston, has little permanence: "We are participants in a shared flow, of which the self is an integral but momentary instantiation." If it appears at all, the human self has receded to the background of a great landscape painting.


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Deep ecologists voice explicitly Malthusian sentiments, perhaps because human selves matter so little in their ethical scheme. Among their list of fundamental principles, as expressed by Naess and Devall, is "that the flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease." From the deep ecologists' perspective, human population has, unfortunately, been increasing over time due to what William R. Catton, Jr. has called the success of "death control." Human longevity, he laments, "aggravated the unseen precariousness of our situation by releasing the brakes; a further acceleration of population increase followed, not linked to any increment of carrying capacity." Government might have to intervene in the process, since, as Herman E. Daly puts it, "the right to reproduce must no longer be treated as a 'free good' -- it should be regarded as a scarce asset, a legal right limited in total amount at a level corresponding to replacement fertility, or less, distributed in divisible units to individuals on the basis of strict equality, and subject to reallocation by voluntary exchange."

Not even Malthus believed that, because nature tends to kill off members of a species that grows too quickly, we ought to argue for the right to life of deadly viruses. But environmental ethicists such as J. Baird Callicott reject any "psychocentric" morality that gives human subjects the benefit of the ecological doubt. "Even Aldo Leopold, whose land ethic laid the foundation of Callicotf s thought," writes historian Roderick Nash, "had not drawn such radical anti-human implications. Nor had the extreme ecologists who defended the rights of germs admitted the necessity of sacrificing a few designated human carriers so that the endangered smallpox virus could make its contribution to the integrity of the ecosystem. But this was the conclusion to which Callicotf s philosophy pointed." The value of any individual life, including a human self, is, from such a perspective, hardly a matter about which we ought to be sentimental.

With deep ecology, the suspicion of individual human selves latent in ecological faith in the ecosystem reaches the recognition that humans are, from the standpoint of nature, superfluous. "If the total, final, absolute extermination of our species (by our own hands!) should take place," Paul Taylor has written, "and if we should not carry all the others with us into oblivion, not only would the Earth's community of life continue to exist, but in all probability its well-being would be enhanced. Our presence, in short, is not needed."

This is, even by deep ecology standards, a fairly extreme position. But Taylor's biocentrism and Callicott's environmental ethics are not without supporters in contemporary philosophy. And although it may well be a thought experiment, the possibility of a world without humans does pose the question of whether there would remain a world with any meaning.

Gaia: Human Beings as Mere "Fleas"
If, indeed, our presence is not needed on the Earth, the question of whether human life has any particular value is answered. What deserves respect is Earth, not the living species, human or animal, who inhabit it. The planet is also alive, and it is greater than any of its parts. Such is the conclusion reached by James Lovelock, the originator of the "Gaia" hypothesis, and his followers.

Lovelock was a space scientist visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in the 1960s when he first became aware of the beauty of the Earth as a whole. Retiring to his village in Devonshire -- also home of the novelist William Golding, whose Lord of the Flies is one of the most pessimistic accounts of human nature written in this century -- Lovelock developed the theory that all the gases, minerals, and life forms on Earth are part of a vast interrelated system, which adds up to more than the property of any single part. As Lewis Thomas wrote about our planet: "Although it seems at first glance to be made up of innumerable separate species of living things, on closer examination every one of its working parts, including us, is interdependently connected to all other working parts. It is, to put it one way, the only truly closed ecosystem any of us knows about." Imagining the earth and its environment as "an automatic, but not purposeful, goal-seeking system," Lovelock adopted ideas associated with thermodynamics, computer science, population biology, and autopoeisis (the self-creation of life) into his view that everything in this world is part of one complex, interdependent, global pattern.

The Gaia hypothesis (named for the Greek goddess of the Earth) was articulated by Lovelock in the form of a computer program that imagined the world that would be created -- he called it Daisyworld -- by an ecological competition among two species of daisies, one dark, the other light. Like the models associated with theoretical ecology, or like the infinitely recurring mathematical properties associated with Mandelbrot sets, Daisyworld took off on its own course; "no foresight, planning, or purpose was invoked." If a species tried to grow uncontrollably, it would contribute to an unfavorable environment that would reduce the population of the species, inexorably leading the system back toward stability. The model was driven purely by algorithmic rules, which, if applied firmly and consistently, would tend toward homeostasis.

By Lovelock's logic, there is no reason to stop with the Earth. Just as humankind is part of nature and nature is part of the Earth, the Earth is but one element in the Universe, which itself may be self-organizing, according to the hypothesis of Erich Jantsch. William Poundstone has suggested that the principles revealed by the computer game LIFE can explain the entire universe as the unfolding of a few relatively simple algorithms over vast amounts of time. And while Lovelock sometimes takes the entire universe and at other times only Earth as a cybernetic system, he is enthralled by the wonders of completely rule-driven worlds. "Perhaps," he concludes, "it is a metaphor for our own experience that the family and society do better when firm, but justly applied, rules exist than when they do with unrestricted freedom."


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From the perspective of the whole world -- either this one or all imaginable ones -- the affairs of humans appear trifling. Since "pain and death are normal and natural," according to Lovelock, it makes little sense to become exercised over unfairness or moved to sympathy by human tragedy. "Our humanist concerns about the poor of the inner cities or the Third World, and our near obsession with death, suffering, and pain as if these were evils in themselves -- these thoughts divert the mind from our gross and excessive domination of the natural world." Humans are merely "intelligent fleas" buzzing about and bothering, but in no way altering, the larger world. With its eyes fixed upwards toward the solar system, Gaia theory, as Lovelock correctly notes, "is as out of touch with the broader humanist world as it is with established science."

It is a characteristic of systems theory to give ethical priority to wholes rather than parts. What makes Lovelock's version of this theory so unique, however, is that the parts receiving little sympathy are not just human selves, but natural objects as well. From a universal viewpoint, the terrestrial world is not especially important. Consequently, Lovelock is unconcerned about the potential hazards of nuclear power plants. Were there a serious nuclear accident, the Earth would survive -- even if humans did not. Nor does pollution upset him. Following Garret Hardin, a key figure in contemporary natural resources economics, he believes that people are the only pollution. "The very concept of pollution," Lovelock wrote, "is anthropocentric and it may even be irrelevant in the Gaia context." The Earth avoids entropy because breathing beings take free energy from the environment and "excrete" it back to the environment in degraded form. Our excretion makes life possible; "only by pollution," he writes, "do we survive." Unlike all other environmental philosophers, who respect nature but distrust society, Lovelock expresses an attitude of indifference to both.

What enables Lovelock to be so unmoved by worldly concerns is his deterministic outlook, a sense that everything in the universe unfolds inexorably. The belief that firm rules will always produce stable outcomes contributes to a quality of unforgiving judgment in Lovelock's outlook:
Gaia, as I see her, is no doting mother tolerant of misdemeanors, nor is she some fragile and delicate damsel in danger from brutal mankind. She is stern and tough, always keeping the world warm and comfortable for those who obey the rules, but ruthless in her destruction of those who transgress. Her unconscious goal is a planet fit for life. If humans stand in the way of this, we shall be eliminated with as little pity as would be shown by the micro-brain of an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile in full flight to its target.

Humans, poor creatures, have broken the rules; we have not treated the Earth well, and now she is reciprocating. "So long as we continue to change the global environment against her preferences," writes Lovelock, "we encourage our replacement with a more environmentally seemly species." Our disappearance from the world will never even be noticed, a sure indication of how misplaced has been our pride in ourselves.

It would not seem possible to develop a theory more hostile to the human self than deep ecology, but Gaia's exponents try. At least the deep ecologists recognize a self, albeit one that is so thoroughly merged into the natural environment that human autonomy is lost. Lovelock, however, blends the human self, not into the natural environment, but into the universe: 'To me Gaia is alive and part of the ineffable Universe and I am part of her," he says. Quoting Gregory Bateson to the effect that "there is a larger mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system," Lovelock imagines people, rocks, mountains, oxygen, and carbon dioxide as having two, and only two, states. Either they function properly so that the larger universe can avoid entropy, or they are "noise" clogging the channels of an otherwise perfectly self-reproducing information chain. Lovelock is too much the information scientist to believe that the whole system is inspired by mysticism and spiritualism, yet he cannot help but flirt with the notion. "What if Mary is another name for Gaia?"

Paradoxically, Gaia has attracted a lot of followers because of the depth of the ecological crisis now facing Western societies. But while preserving the natural environment ought to be one of the highest priorities of contemporary liberal democracies, it is impossible to do so if one sees no distinction between the laws that govern nature and those that drive human affairs. For if our affairs occur algorithmically, then the very processes that led us to take so little care of our natural environment can only continue.

Precisely because humans do have such a profound, and often devastating, effect on the natural environment, their actions can be altered only by understanding that our species is capable of making choices, of righting wrongs, of setting off on a new, unprogrammed course. If we extend ecological reasoning from nature to society, we cannot allow for course corrections. Ultimately, as the case of James Lovelock seems to indicate, the more we allow our understanding of human affairs to be guided by a systems theoretical model that works on the basis of automatic, self-regulating rules, the more we will have to reconcile ourselves to being passive observers of nature's destruction.


* * *

Humanism, these days, has a bad reputation. In what are still called "the humanities," the humanistic tradition is decried as Eurocentric, imposing Western, white, male ideas upon other cultural perspectives. And from yet other directions, humanism now stands accused of being a colonial ideology in another sense -- an effort by one species, our own, to have dominion over all others. Intellectual developments as diverse as sociobiology, artificial intelligence, and literary postmodernism join with animal rights, deep ecology, and Gaia in imagining a world in which human privilege is abolished.

But if we dispense with human distinctiveness, we also throw out the distinctive human discovery which is civilization. Alone among the species, we create out of nature the practical and symbolic tools that enable us to imagine worlds other than those given to us by nature. Possessing the capacity to interpret the world around us, we are able also to govern ourselves, rather than being governed by automatic rules. What makes us poor subjects for self-reproducing systems is exactly what makes our life worth living and our civilization worth preserving. The space we make for ourselves, however, can become crowded, even claustrophobic. As we become conscious of the impact of civilization on nature, we must learn that its expansion comes at price. While we can try to control that price, there will be no redemption of nature from denying the unique value of human life and civilization. Not only our appreciation of ourselves, but also our appreciation of other species and the natural world itself, depends on recognizing our differences from those with whom we share the planet.

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