On Humans, Humanism, and All Other Life

Posted by on 3 March, 2019 | 0 comments

I have just finished reading the late Douglas Adams’s Last Chance to See, his 1990 book recounting his travels around the world with the naturalist Mark Carwardine to encounter rare and endangered animal species for a BBC radio series broadcast in 1989. In it, Adams uses his abundant wit, scientific knowledge, and deeply humane ethos to show just how absurdly destructive is the human species. The book has prompted me to consider the relationship between humans and the rest of nature, and how this relates to the non-religious outlook on life known as humanism.

Adams impresses upon the reader the fact that, special though we may think we are, we are just another animal species, albeit one with some unique attributes. His account of meeting a silverback mountain gorilla in Zaire is beautiful in its evocation of the simultaneous closeness and gulf between humans and gorillas. As we are a close relative of the gorillas, Adams wittily compares his experience with them to visiting some distant family in a foreign country, without the usual embarrassment of such family affairs.

When discussing the aye-aye lemur of Madagascar, Adams refers to himself as a ‘monkey looking at a lemur’, recalling to us his previous account of how our monkey ancestors ousted the lemurs from Africa, leaving them only the monkey-free island of Madagascar as a haven. Now we, ‘the monkey’s descendants’, have found them once more and once more they find themselves in great peril.

These two parts of the book evoke our closeness to, in fact our part in, the natural world. Carwardine, in the last chapter, presents some startling statistics about how humans have massively accelerated the extinction rate of other species. Despite our responsibility for their predicament, or rather because of it, we have a duty to protect these species- and indeed we are their only hope. To prevent disasters such as the tragic extinction of the dodo we must learn these lessons- though it is already too late for far too many species.

Despite the gloom, the book introduces us to a cast of eccentric and dedicated people across the world who have spent their lives tirelessly trying to preserve endangered species, often with great difficulty, up against the forces of bureaucracy, profit, and sheer ignorance. There is hope to be found, so let us not waste it.

Because we have no special claim above the rest of nature. We are not made by any god who has put the natural world at our feet to trample all over as medieval theologians thought. We are animals, and many animals can feel pain and suffering- Adams’s account of how the Yangtze river dolphin, now sadly extinct, must have felt terribly bewildered and desperate because of the disruption wrought by motorized boat engines on their sound-based lifestyle, is tragic and deeply upsetting. We cannot anthropomorphize animals too much, but we can recognise that many of them have nervous systems and sentience and are therefore entitled to moral consideration just as much as humanity.

Thus, we come to the point. An easy mistake to make is that the humanist outlook is solely concerned with humans. Though it is true that it is human-centred, and for good reason, rather than centred on claims of the supernatural, this does not mean it excludes other animals or that it places us on a higher pedestal than them. It simply recognizes that human life, ethics, and society are better served by reason than by religion, and part of this means an awareness of our place in the natural world and the effects we are having on it. It also suggests solidarity with other animals, who, as mentioned, are as fit for moral consideration as, and on similar grounds to, humans. Humanism places a special emphasis on humans only because we are (arguably…) the brightest beings on the planet and, of course, because we are humans- it is therefore acceptable and natural to consider the needs of our branch of the ape family tree in a special light.

But that does not negate- in fact, it reinforces for the reasons given above- the plight of other species. A fully ethical and rational life must consider the full scope of life and our place within the family tree of Earth’s living things. One could do no better than following the lead of Douglas Adams, a self-proclaimed ‘radical atheist’ who was one of the warmest, wittiest, most intelligent and most humane people of recent times. Let us honour his legacy and place ourselves in the service of a fully considered and all-embracing system of ethics, taking inspiration from the likes of the philosopher Peter Singer and others who have written extensively on the issue of animal rights. Until we realize this ideal, we are falling short of our potential and failing ourselves and all life.

Daniel Sharp is a student at the University of Edinburgh and an ardent Humanist and secularist. He has his own websitewhere he posts new content and keeps an archive of his writings for various outlets.

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