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I often hear that people are not exceptional, that we are just like animals and that any morality we develop is merely a result of natural selection forces.

I don’t believe that.  I believe we have—to a degree, not absolutely—surmounted evolution, which is undirected, by altering our morality with intentionality.  Or to put it another way, we don’t just react to the environment in developing ethics, we think and feel our way toward the future with intentionality.

I bring this up because an expert on genocide, Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, has opined that genocide is hard wired in our natures—but still believes there is hope for us to break that cycle, a proposal with which I agree.  From the story:

Humans are pre-programmed for mass murder, a Jewish academic tells at a forum on the prevention of genocide. Nevertheless, Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes himself as a “realistic optimist”.

If that is how we evolved, then humans took intentional steps to overcome our propensity.  From the interview: You say there have been 55 cases of genocide since the Second World War, resulting in tens of millions of victims. Will it ever be possible to prevent genocide?

Yehuda Bauer: It is possible because humans have conflicting capacities. On the one hand, we are pre-programmed in a way for mass murder, which has been going on since time immemorial and before that; and on the other hand, because we live in herds – whether we call it clans, tribes, nations, ethnicities or whatever – we have developed the capacity for sympathy and love and cooperation. These two preconditions in the human make-up fight each other all the time.

So it’s possible to prevent genocide, but it’s extremely difficult because of conflicting economic and political interest. There has been progress, no doubt about it. International law has developed. Three or four hundred years ago no conference such as this could have possibly taken place because people just didn’t care when millions of people were killed. That said, there has been too little progress and if we don’t try to prevent it in the foreseeable future, there will most certainly be more genocides. [Prevention] can’t happen from one day to the other – it’s a process which will inevitably have ups and downs, but it is a possibility.

Hmmm.  We have always taken care of our own—at the expense of other tribes, clans, cities, and nations.  But under the influence of philosophy and religion, we (primarily in the West) exponentially expanded our understanding of who our neighbor is—in other word, who is us—to include all of humanity.  This belief in human exceptionalism led us to (imperfectly) embrace the intrinsic dignity of each human individual regardless of how they look, what language they speak, and what creed they espouse, culminating in the international adoption of universal human rights and the criminalizing of genocide as a crime against humanity.

And this has been only within the last several hundred years.  At the time of the Crusades, for example, few looked askance at pogroms against Jews carried out by armies on their way to liberate the Holy Land.  Today, that history sickens us, and yet it is less than a thousand years ago.

Such alterations in our thinking overrode, to a substantial degree, the hard wired darker angels of our nature, and all in the snap of a finger in evolutionary time.  Such a profound transformation in behavior is only possible in humans—or, as with dogs or other domesticated animals—under our influence and direction.  And it is the philosophical belief in human exceptionalism that made it all possible.

(Photo by WJS: Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland)

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