May 2, 2001

Behold the Man: Three Books on What it Means to be Human

By: AFF Editors

The mapping of the human genome came upon us amidst pronouncements of its incalculable impact on, and potential
benefit to, human life. Comparisons to the manned missions
to the moon, even the quest for the Holy Grail, were quickly trotted
out in an attempt to illustrate the import of the occasion. Thus, Dr.
Michael Dexter, director of Wellcome Trust, the company that funded
the British portion of the Human Genome Project, gushed,

Mapping the human genome has been compared with putting a
man on the moon, but I believe it is more than that. This is the
outstanding achievement not only of our lifetime but perhaps in
the history of mankind;

and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins waxed poetic (for a
scientist, anyway),

Along with Bach’s music, Shakespeare’s sonnets and the Apollo
Space Program, the Human Genome Project is one of those
achievements of the human spirit that makes me proud to be

One wonders if he thought he had any choice in the matter — but we
get the point.

You can’t blame the scientific community for wanting to shout the
news of its success from the rooftops: The U.S.-funded Human
Genome Project had consumed more than 10 years of painstaking
labor by hundreds of scientists, as well as $3 billion of taxpayer
money. Nevertheless, the public greeted the news with perhaps a
touch less enthusiasm, I imagine, than the researchers would have
hoped. Coming on the heels of Dolly the cloned sheep, stem cells, and the quest of the aptly named Dr. Richard Seed to clone himself, the announcement left the average citizen underwhelmed. Predating even these
groundbreaking events was Francis Fukuyama’s suggestion, in his 10-year retrospective on The End of History
(“Second Thoughts,” National Interest, Summer 1999), that — given the advent of modern technologies and drugs
capable of shaping our behavior — humanity lies on the cusp of the “post-Human era.” The idea of humanity manipulating its own nature is, by now, old hat.

But behind the hype and hysteria of man-made man, a crucial question has been lost: what is human nature, anyway?
After all, it seems a reasonable question to ask at the brink of the post-Human era. The impression one gets from pop science gurus like Dawkins and Steven J. Gould, and from reading books like Kevin Davies’ Cracking the
Genome: Inside the Race to Unlock Human DNA
, is that human nature consists of the sum of its material components,
and the largest and most important of those components is genetic structure. Of course, Dawkins qualifies his position in his absurdly titled book, The Blind Watchmaker, with the notion that human DNA is merely a “recipe, “
not a “blueprint,” for a human being. The same idea is suggested by many of the scientists and thinkers quoted in
Davies’ history of the genome race. Qualifications aside, however, such answers to the question of human nature are
still materialistic ones, and, typically, these voices are the most prominent and the loudest in the debate.

The fruits of the materialists’ assessment of human nature have not been confined to biology or bioethics.
Seeping slowly into the public consciousness, much as Charles Darwin’s theories did more than a century ago —
regardless of their truth or falsity in whole or in part — they have taken root in our perceptions. It is only with this
in mind that one can begin to make sense of Jonathan Glover’s Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth
, for at its core lies a flawed conception of human nature.

Don’t be fooled by the title: this
book is neither about humanity,
nor is it a history of the 20th
century — though we can perhaps
say it is moral, if morality means
feeling good about not being a war
criminal. Glover’s grandiose title
masks a project of a substantially
more limited scope: a catalogue of
atrocities committed in the last century,
followed by a discussion after
each particular episode of what
went wrong and a concluding section
with suggestions as to how we
can fix it.

Glover’s purpose, he announces
at the onset, is “to bring ethics and
history together” — a promising
approach, given the predominant
tendency to ascribe the causes
of history to economic, social, or
psychological factors. And it should
have been to the book’s advantage
that Glover, as director of the Center
of Medical Law and Ethics at
King’s College, London, is enmeshed
in the discipline of bioethics. Then
again, perhaps that’s the problem.
(It would probably be a cheap shot
to mention that the notorious
Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer —
who has called for allowing parents
to destroy handicapped and
retarded children under one month
old — calls Humanity “an extraordinary achievement” on the back
cover. Too bad; I’ll mention it.)
Glover enshrines the misperceptions
and inadequacies typical of his pro-fession
in his approach to the topic
at hand. Namely, he believes ethics
“could be more empirical than it
is”– as if the discipline needed
more empiricism, not less.

Glover’s “more empirical” approach
to ethics takes on a veneer very much
like the psychological approach he
professes at the same time to disfavor.
Worse still, Glover uses his own
peculiar brand of pop psychology
for the majority of his analyses.
Episodes of atrocities ranging in
scale from the My Lai massacre,
to the bombings of Dresden and
Hiroshima, to the Holocaust and
the gulag are subjected to analysis
according to terms of Glover’s own
devising. The standard explanation
for an atrocity is the failure of one
or more of the “moral resources,”
human nature’s psychological defense
mechanisms against barbarism.
Thus, at My Lai, U.S. soldiers went
berserk because of the Vietnam
War’s gradual erosion of their
” moral identity,” or moral self-concept;
Allied bombers of
Germany and Japan in World
War II suffered from moral
obtuseness caused by the great distances
from which they rained
destruction; unfamiliar landscapes
and “the trap of Hobbesian fear “
tricked soldiers into fighting in the
trenches of World War I; and ” tribalism”
explains the killing fields
of Rwanda and the Balkans.

In their application, none of these
clumsy terms or concepts proves
particularly rewarding or especially
original. Further, the ideas that are
original are not useful, and what is
useful is unoriginal. Given the vision
of “humanity” he assumes at the
outset — that is, a qualified materialist
one — it is not hard to understand
why. Glover claims to replace the
“thin, mechanical psychology of the
Enlightenment with something more
complex . . . a darker account” of human
nature, which at first glance seems
suspiciously like an understanding of
Original Sin. However, he basically
sticks to the Enlightenment model
of man and to its “hope of a world
that is more peaceful and more
humane.” In Glover’s world, humans
a re little more than stimulus-response
machines: input the correct “moral
resources” and the correct behavioral output will emerge soon after.
What is more, this view of man
places Glover squarely in the same
trap experienced by humanity time
and again in the last grim century.
For example, in the concluding
chapter, which lays down a plan of
action for improving the human
condition, he writes the following
lines without a hint of irony:
“The causes of these [20th century ]
catastrophes are partly political
and social. Solutions to them
cannot be purely in the realm of
psychology or ethics: the political
dimension has to be central.
There is a need for proper policing
of the world, with a legitimate
and properly backed international
authority to keep the peace and
to protect human rights. There is
a need for independent sources of
information as alternatives to
propaganda. There is a need to
avoid large-scale utopian political
[emphasis added]”

Thus, in one concise paragraph,
Glover’s “solution” identifies
itself with the primary cause of
the largest-scale and most horrid
atrocities of the last century. For
what are “proper policing of the
world” and the establishment of
an “international authority to keep
the peace” if not examples of the
very kind of “large-scale utopian
political projects” he condemns?

There are many other niggling features of the book that grate upon the reader. Glover writes, if you
will, in the manner of USA Today,
with short, choppy sentences.
Redundancy abounds, lest his
Internet-age audience forget a point
made mere sentences earlier. And
the dizzying organization is enough
to give the reader whiplash, with
sections and sub-sections that often
take up less than a single page.
However, there is one element to
Humanity for which Glover
should not be criticized: communist
atrocities, while not receiving
quite as much attention as the
depravities of National Socialism,
nevertheless receive adequate treatment.

Humanity received rave reviews in
Britain and is likely to be loved in
all the wrong places in the United
States. It is not difficult to fathom
why. Its voice is amplified by the
sensational nature of its topic, and,
further, it represents the collective
thoughts and perceptions of the
loudest side of the debate over
human nature. Unfortunately, it is
often only still, small voices that
stand against those who would
demystify the human person. John
Polkinghorne’s Faith, Science &
is one such voice.

Trained first as a physicist and only
later as a theologian, Polkinghorne,
a fellow at Queen’s College,
Cambridge, brings a unique and
refreshing perspective to questions
ranging from human nature to
divine nature to the role of revelation
in an age of scientific inquiry,
and he does so with less than a
tenth part of the noisy sensationalism
of Glover. In several of the
chapters (which are based on various
lectures), a picture of human
nature emerges that focuses on
the experience of “personhood,”
or man’s unique capacity for self-awareness. Polkinghorne asks, is the
experience of personhood “of prime
significance for the understanding of
what is going on,” or “just a curious
byproduct of the physiology of
certain kinds of animals,” no more
significant than differences between
species in digestion, mating rituals,
or sleeping cycles? His answer is
direct and profound :
“I cannot conceive of an occurrence
in the universe’s evolutionary
development that is more astonishing
and fraught with signs of
fruitful significance than that it
should have become aware of
itself through the coming to be
of humanity.”

Through no fault of its own, this
is not the kind of question scientific
discipline is best equipped to tackle.
But what could be an opportunity
for scientists to affirm a sublime
limitation of their discipline’s
capacity to understand the nature
of things (human nature in particular)
becomes just another opportunity
to ignore the question altogether. Glover’s mechanical, rationalist
portrait of man is but one of
the fruits of such ignorance. There
are far too many philosophers, ethicists,
and scientists who seem content
to put aside the question, waiting
instead to cross the next “line in
the sand” — whether it takes the
form of a controversy over stem
cells, the human genome, or
cloning — at which point the great
debate over human nature can
finally begin, never realizing, of
course, that we already may have
crossed the last one.