The bracing premise of John Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (xi-xii) is that liberal humanism is grounded in a “superstition” that is “further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.” That superstition is a belief in progress, which outside of science “is simply a myth.” Though knowledge advances, there is no evidence, Gray thinks, for the belief that “the human animal” will keep pace. On the contrary, humans are likely to remain “a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive” (4).

Challenging the myth of progress scares liberals:

“Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope.” Traditional believers are “more freethinking” in the modern world because, pushed to the margins, they are forced to “cultivate a capacity for doubt.” But “secular believers - held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time - are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.”

These dogmas are mostly aftershocks of Christianity. Darwin convinced everyone that humans are animals, yet Darwinian humanists continue to believe “we are free to live as we choose.” This confidence in free will comes not from science but from Christianity: “the belief that humans are marked off from all other animals by having free will is a Christian inheritance.” Had he written Origin of Species in another cultural setting - Hindu India, animist Africa - Darwin would have caused barely a ripple. Only in cultures haunted by Christianity do “philosophers labor so piously to reconcile scientific determinism with a belief in the unique capacity of humans to choose the way they live.”

“Evangelical Darwinism” thus labors under the irony that “it uses science to support a view of humanity that comes from religion.”

More on: Philosophy, Science

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...