Rethinking Anthropocentrism Essay

1709 words - 7 pages

Although man had experienced difficulty swallowing the conclusions of the Copernican revolution, he nonetheless could cling to the belief that his spirit represented the most refined product of creation. His body may not reside at the focal point of the physical universe, but certainly his soul occupied the center of a greater, spiritual existence. At least until 1859.With the publication of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin questioned the extent of man's distinction from the rest of creation. The ensuing tremors shook the tenets of anthropocentrism; man could no longer claim to be the apple of God's eye (especially if, as Nietzsche had insisted, "God is Dead" (Nietzsche 203)). Displaced ...view middle of the document...

Not so fast, warns Stephen Jay Gould.Gould, author of Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, takes man's cosmic demotion a notch lower. Gould states (more emphatically so than Darwin) that the development of the human species is a peripheral phenomenon, a mere bud on a "complexly wandering and ramifying bush" (249). Not only does Gould further dislocate man on the map of natural selection, he argues as well for the immutability of man's ultimate fate: extinction.According to Gould, all lineages inevitably suffer extinction; even man will one day be just another fossilized curiosity in what Darwin called the "vast museum" (Darwin 80) of the earth's crust. Man, formerly the measure of all things, is powerless to change the mortality of his species. His environment controls him, rather than vice versa. So negligible is man's power compared to nature's, that he need not be ashamed of his failure to fend off extinction, since, as Gould claims, many, if not most, extinctions are reactions to environmental challenges so severe and unpredictable that we have no right to expect a successful response and, therefore, no reason to "blame" a species for its disappearance. (344) It is worth noting that Gould makes his grim predictions in an age possessing considerably more scientific knowledge than that of Darwin, who, unlike Gould, makes no attempt to forecast humanity's fate in light of his own theory. This disparity in outlook would have come as no surprise to Joseph Wood Krutch, author of The Modern Temper. Krutch characterizes man's dilemma as a peculiar paradox: With increasing knowledge his [man's] power to manipulate his physical environment increases, but in gaining the knowledge which enables him to do so he surrenders insensibly the power which in his ignorance he had to mold the universe. (6) So Gould, knowing more about nature (about mass extinctions in particular) than Darwin, succumbs to a sense of disempowerment as an inescapable side effect of his increased knowledge. Krutch considers man's struggle to come to terms with both Copernicus's revelation that man's "world was a mere detail in the universe" (Krutch 8) and Darwin's suggestion that man is "merely one of the innumerable species of living things" (Krutch 8). In each case man is dispossessed of his myths, and consequently disempowered.The story of man's evolution parallels the story of society's evolution.Just as man suffers disempowerment in conjunction with his developing intellect, he likewise experiences a similar oppression in exchange for his commitment to civilization. In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud explores that particular brand of disempowerment inflicted by civilization upon the individual. Rather than enhancing the natural liberties of man, civilization instead binds him further. In fact, the attenuation of the individual's freedom is what characterizes civilization in the first place. Freud says as much: "This replacement of the power of the individual by the...

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