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The Dehumanizing Impact of Modern Thought: Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Their Followers

Richard Weikart

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Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who endured the horrors of Auschwitz, astutely commented on the way that modern European thought had helped prepare the way for Nazi atrocities (and his own misery). He stated, "If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted," Frankl continued, "with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazi liked to say, of 'Blood and Soil.' I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers."

As a Christian undergraduate in the 1970s, I was drawn to the study of modern European intellectual history in part by the realization that much modern thought had debased humanity, as Frankl suggested. My concerns were originally stimulated by reading C. S. Lewis, especially The Abolition of Man, and several of Francis Schaeffer's works, but they were reinforced by courses I took in intellectual history and the history of philosophy. In my own private studies, I was dismayed by the vision of humanity sketched out in B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which it seemed to me would lead to dystopias, such as the fictional ones in 1984 and Brave New World or the real one described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his novels and in The Gulag Archipelago.

A few modern thinkers specifically criticized the "anthropocentric" view that humans are special, made in the image of God. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the famous German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel, for example, blasted Christianity for advancing an "anthropocentric" and dualistic view of humanity. Today the famous bioethicist Peter Singer, along with the atheistic Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins, argue that based on the Darwinian understanding of human origins, we need to desanctify human life, divesting ourselves of any notion that humans are created in the image of God and thus uniquely valuable. An evolutionary ecologist at the University of Texas, Eric Pianka, fights overtly against anthropocentrism, even expressing the wish that 90% of the human population will be extinguished, perhaps by a pandemic.

Often, however, modern thinkers have masked the dehumanizing impact of their ideas by calling their philosophy "humanism" of one form or another, implying that their views exalt humanity. However, most attempts at exalting humanity have ironically resulted in diminishing humanity, demonstrating the biblical truth: "He who exalts himself will be abased."

After the waning of Romanticism in mid-nineteenth century Europe, many intellectuals embraced science as the sole arbiter of knowledge, including knowledge about humanity and society. The renowned, but quirky, French thinker Auguste Comte gained many disciples for his philosophy of positivism, which rejected any knowledge not obtained through empirical, scientific investigation (except, of course, this epistemological claim itself is not subject to empirical demonstration, so it seems to me that his epistemology is self-defeating). Comte hoped to initiate the scientific study of society, coining the term sociology for this endeavor. He was optimistic that a scientific study of humanity would lead humans to practice altruism, another term he coined. Though Comte considered all metaphysics, including religion, unknowable, he wanted to create a religion of humanity which would place humans on the highest pedestal. Most of Comte's disciples, such as John Stuart Mill, embraced his positivist epistemology but rejected his religion of humanity, especially in the ludicrous form he presented in his later writings (which involved many specific religious practices, including praying to a female that one admires).

Though not as prominent as positivism in the nineteenth century, materialism also increased in influence in the mid-nineteenth century. Though positivism rejected all metaphysical claims, including materialist ones, it shared many common features with materialism nonetheless. Both materialists and positivists idolized science as the only path to knowledge. By extending scientific investigation to humanity itself, however, they made assumptions about human nature that were not subject to scientific investigation. Effectively they dismissed body-soul dualism, thus reducing humanity to matter in motion. Also, their insistence that the scientific method could provide knowledge about all features of human life led them to embrace determinism. By the late nineteenth century some prominent thinkers were rebelling against reductionism and determinism, but in the nineteenth century, these views gained currency to such as extent that Francis Galton, the cousin of Darwin and the founder of the eugenics movement, coined the phrase, "nature versus nurture" to frame the intellectual debate over humanity. Galton's phrase is still commonly invoked in intellectual discourse about human behavior.

Read the entire article on the Discovery Institute website (new window will open).

Posted: 01-Nov-2008

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