The Arrogance of Humanism
THIS BOOK WAS WRITTEN BY: David Ehrenfeld, a professor of biology at Rutgers University who wants you to keep your logic and reason away from his emotion. Ehrenfeld feels that "the advocacy of logic at the expense of emotion can be carried to both absurd and evil extremes"(p.146), something that happens far too often in modern life. "Like a fat man in a tuxedo falling into a swimming pool, the result is often funny,"(p.148) but when we laugh, we risk overlooking some of its most grievous abuses. For example, "the Soviet dissenters are a brave and passionate group of people, and I cannot help but wonder whether they are being punished by the masters of reason for the undying and powerful quality of their emotion"(p.153).
WHAT IS IN THIS BOOK? An indictment of the creeping humanism that has infected all modern discourse. Humanism is "a supreme faith in human reason — its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper"(p.5). Humanism sounds nice until you realize that "communism is at heart intensely humanistic, for it contains the central idea that rational planning can alter any pre-existing condition of man"(p.153). Furthermore, "Most totalitarian persons and regimes, of whatever label," and we are not naming names, Hitler, but we are certainly casting disapproving glances in your direction, "are strongly humanistic in some of their most important philosophic assumptions"(p.6).
WHAT IS NOT IN THIS BOOK? Sugar-coated facts or unreasonably optimistic projections. Ehrenfeld refuses to downplay the stranglehold that humanism has on modern society. "All public communications media are permeated with humanistic preachings all of the time. Business, economic theory, politics, and technology accept the teachings of humanism, entire"(p.4). Humanists have developed terrifying devices like the "bionic laser cane" (p.42), and their ranks are augmented by "international falcon thieves"(p.180). In the face of this adversary, Ehrenfeld admits "I have given no master plan for individual survival"(p.xi).
AN ANTI-VACCINE CRUSADER? Certainly. They should identify with Ehrenfeld's argument that solving problems with applied reason only yields more problems. "Humanism to cure humanism! It is like bathing an infection in an extract of sewage"(p.252). It's time for us to stop meddling. For example, we should stop giving wheelchairs to the disabled, since they might use them to visit liquor stores and strip clubs. And AIDS patients, cancer sufferers, and parents who don't want to expose their children to diseases not seen since the Pilgrims should be ashamed of themselves for daring to imagine that their lives could be improved. Taking corrective action would only introduce problems to their lives, like planning a wedding, taking out a mortgage to buy a home, or seeing their children raise children of their own.
WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THIS BOOK TO A BURNT-OUT FACULTY MEMBER WHO SNAPPED AFTER ONE TOO MANY RUN-INS WITH MICROMANAGING ADMINISTRATORS THAT ARE COMPLETELY UNVERSED IN HIS CHOSEN FIELD OF STUDY? No, I would recommend that they read Ehrenfeld's lecture to the New Economic Institute on the explosion of management. However, this book does contain plenty of venom for administrators, the "people whose job it is to manage and direct organizations. And these administrators, whatever they are doing, are not producing what Schumacher called the goods and services necessary to a becoming existence. They are a burden upon the real producers in society"(p.247). Administrators and their obsession with control are an evil that transcends ideology or conventional labels. "Organization is organization: it is neither socialist nor reactionary, religious nor secular — just distilled humanism. It is organization, not 'communism' or 'capitalism,' that is attempting to run the world, and a very bad job it is making of it"(p.253).
WHAT WAS INTERESTING ABOUT THIS BOOK? The number of compelling, real-world examples of humanism's destructive influence that Ehrenfeld has drawn from sources such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, the E.M. Forster story "The Machine Stops," and H.G. Wells' "Food of the Gods," all highlighting ways that we have dared to tread in the domain of the almighty and toy with the powers of god.
According to Ehrenfeld, the tale of the Six Million Dollar Man is especially important. Unlike Prometheus, who was punished by the gods for attempting to improve mankind's existence, the scientists who rebuild Steve Austin suffer no divine retribution for their actions. The story reflects the fact that in our efforts to attain the powers of the gods, "now that the path to omnipotence is clear, we have discarded the superstitious guilt that was so much a part of the early days of the quest"(p.41).
These instances all highlight the "human tragedy" that is our inability to set aside things that give us power. "The first time I came across a description of this tragedy and was made to understand it was in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings"(p.248).
The main goal of "the humanistic logic and power cult"(p.146) is to have us suppress or push aside our emotions and view everything in unfeeling, rational terms. And the best way to counter humanists is with rats. "Rats have an innate distrust of anything new in their environment. When this occurs in human beings it is called superstition or emotion"(p.133). These rat emotions are the key to opposing "reason and its servant, the scientific method"(p.148).
Claiming that the evils of the world can be fixed if we act more like rats is a bold move on Ehrenfeld's part; it's not the most inspiring mental image. However, readers who feel squeamish about becoming more ratlike are themselves possessed of — and responding with — emotion. The cold automatons who willingly put their revulsion aside to consider Ehrenfeld's arguments solely on their rational merits are the ones who will benefit from them the most.
The Arrogance of Humanism by David Ehrenfeld (Oxford University Press, 1978, ISBN: 0-19-502890-2)