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Review: Richard Weikart’s “The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life”

In a recent post, I argued that one of the tell-tale signs of whether or not a viewpoint does not correspond with reality is whether or not it results in death; one’s own death, or the death of another, or many others.  Supposedly, humans these days are smarter than any humans that have ever existed.  We are so smart!  So smart, and yet the 20th century was one of the bloodiest on record.

I, for one, fully expect to the 21st century to be as bad or worse than the 20th century.  Dr. Richard Weikart, in his book, The Death of Humanity and the case for life, does not say that. In fact, he says the opposite, and the book cover seems to acknowledge both grave cause for concerns and hope.  Still, it is hard to be optimistic after reading it.  (Granted, I have not been optimistic for a long time!)

The basic problem is this:  most of the ideologies that led to the horrors of the 20th century are still very much with us.   And since proponents of those ideologies tend to have no clue that the last time someone acted on their very own viewpoints thousands died, they march merrily along.  What could go wrong?

Weikart’s book centers on the basic theme that these various ideologies all have the net effect of dehumanizing humans.  When one dehumanizes humans, its not hard to see where things are going to go.  In contrast to many moderns who have no idea where there own ideology goes, Weikart documents how the first adherents usually had a pretty good clue.

Each chapter takes on one way in which, over the last 2-3 centuries or so, humans have embraced attitudes and ideologies that lead to death.

Chapter 1: Man the Machine

The idea that humans are ‘just’ ‘meat machines’ is one that I come across quite a bit in my own conversations with people.  In arguments about abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, etc, it often turns out that people’s support for such things turns on the low regard people have for people.  Weikart cites a proponent of the ‘man the machine’ viewpoint, Lawrence Krauss:

“We’re just a bit of pollution.  If you got rid of us, and all the stars and all the galaxies and all the planets and all the aliens and everybody, then the universe would largely be the same.  We’re completely irrelevant.”

On such a view, its hard to see why anyone would get bent out of shape by the prospect of snuffing out one’s own life–or the life of every human on the planet.

Chapter 2: Created from Animals

Chapter 2 treats the Darwinian angle, which many people see as providing the scientific basis for regarding people as, in essence, scum.  There are thousands of examples linking the acceptance of Darwinism to the acceptance of some kind of death-bringing action, attitude or behavior, if one were inclined to study the matter impartially.  Weikart helpfully reproduces some, such as this quote by Peter Singer:

“All we are doing is catching up with Darwin.  He showed in the nineteenth century that we are simply animals.  Humans had imagined we were a separate part of Creation, that there was some magical line between Us and Them.  Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.” [pg 57]

No wonder, then, that Singer has advocated for euthanasia, assisted suicide, infanticide, and defended the morality of having sex with animals.

In my opinion, the acceptance of Darwinism is one of the main reasons why some of the other ideologies are as virulent as they are.  Darwinism (in their opinion) moves matters from the realm of mere opinion to rock hard, scientific fact.  And one of those rock hard, scientific facts is “its view of death as the engine of progress.” (pg 54, 82-87)

In other words, certain ideologies would tend towards death on their own, but not necessarily by intention.  Darwinism holds that death is a good thing, in itself.  After all, thanks to Darwinism, we are all here!  All of life on the planet was produced by the death of the weak in order that the rest is better ‘adapted.’  Death, on this view, is not bad.  It is to be gloried in.  What can go wrong?

The next four chapters detail four different ideological strands that have, historically, devolved into death and self-destruction.  As I said, a lot of these ideologies had their own problems, but as many of these viewpoints were spiked with Darwinian Science, they were made even more deadly than they were on their own.

Chapter 3:  My Genes Made Me Do It: Biological Determinism

Excerpt:

This deterministic view that strips humans of all moral (and criminal) responsibility continues to gain ground among secular intellectuals.  In 2006, Richard Dawkins lampooned the “unscientific” idea of free will by recounting a spoof by Basil Fawlty, a comical British television character who got frustrated when his car would not start.  Instead of being rational and investigating the cause of the problem, Fawlty sternly warned the car.  Naturally, it did not heed his warning, so he promptly began beating it with a stick.  We laugh [because we know the car only obeys the laws of physics].  However, Dawkins, since he is a materialist, then asks–seriously, it seems–why we treat humans differently from cars!  (Maybe because we are not machines?) He asks, “Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist?  Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty? … Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component?  Or a defective upbringing?  Defective education?  Defective genes?”  Dawkins also ought to ask:  Why don’t we laugh at materialist philosophers who take credit for authoring books and making scientific discoveries (when the laws of physics did not allow them to do otherwise)?  What would Dawkins think if his foes–those who consider his ideas mistaken–pronounce that Dawkins is “a machine with a defective component”? (pg 94-95)

Actually, in point of fact, I have indeed suggested that Dawkins is ‘mentally defective’, on precisely these grounds.

It really ought to surprise no one that Dawkins is also on record stating that eugenics is not really all that bad.   But it will surprise some people, because they refuse to “show their work.”

Chapter 4:  My Upbringing Made Me Do It: Environmental Determinism

Weikart treats the fascinating Leopold and Loeb incident, where Clarence Darrow drew upon ‘science’ to save the two men from the death penalty.  Darrow says:

“Science has been at work, humanity has been at work, scholarship has been at work, and intelligent people now know that every human being is the product of the endless heredity back of him and the infinite environment around him.”

Observe, if you will, the presence of Darwinism as a factor even in ‘environmental determinism.’

Weikart correctly notes:

Some secularists recognize the dehumanizing character of biological determinism, especially in light of its unsavory associations with racism and sexism, not to mention Nazism.  They mistakenly suppose that environmental determinism is more friendlier and more humane, so they take sides with nurture in the nature-nurture debate.  As victims of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot can attest, however, belief in environmental determinism is no guarantee of kinder treatment and is no more immune to atrocities than belief in biological determinism.

Immediately following the above quote, Weikart goes on to clarify a point that I am also happy to make:

Of course, just as biological determinism does not lead inevitably to the Holocaust, neither does environmental determinism always lead to communist atrocities.

This is a fair point that we are obligated by the facts to admit plainly and directly.  The problem is that nonetheless, the 20th century is packed with horrific outcomes.  It requires explanation, and caveats aside, we can’t, and shouldn’t, shy away from what the perpetrators tended to have in common.  What is the common denominator?  Determinism?  Or the secularism that brought it?  The rejection of Christianity that led to the secularism?  The bloodletting of the 20th century indicates that these are not trivial questions, especially if we are keen to not repeat the last hundred years in the next hundred years.

Chapter 5:  The Love of Pleasure

What I liked about this chapter is the fact that Weikart recognizes that there other ways for people to turn towards ‘death’ apart from the oldies like Communism, Nazism, etc.  In this chapter, we have a nice treatment of hedonism and various related ideologies, and of course the utilitarian concepts that factor into most of them in one way or another.  But even these often end up in pain and death, even by those who have accepted that the only moral truth is “thou shalt not suffer.”  Irony!

This is my example, not Weikart’s:  our nation has fully embraced the pleasure principle, especially as it pertains to sexual behaviors–that are intrinsically dangerous.  We know they are intrinsically dangerous… for example, by the 20,000,000 new cases of STDs every year, in America alone.  Apart from cases like AIDS, these tend not to be fatal, but there are sexual behaviors that do lead to fatalities… which we call abortions.

Like I said.  If you push an unreal attitude far enough, it will often reveal itself as not corresponding to reality by virtue of the fact that someone died along the way.

Chapter Six:  Superman’s Contempt for Humanity:  Existentialism and Postmodernism

This chapter did the most to add to my own base of knowledge, as this wasn’t an area that I’ve studied as much.  I’ve tried to read Nietzsche, but find it tedious reading to the extreme.  Same with all the other existentialists.   I know I’m supposed to find their stuff exhilarating and liberating, but instead I find it dull.

I am glad that Weikart included this angle, as it reveals just how diverse humanity’s love for death-inducing dehumanizing is, and how such strange, seemingly unrelated ideologies can marry and beget atrocities:

Thus, in Heidegger’s view, humans are radically free to make their own decisions–including the decision to follow the German Fuhrer.  In 1933 Heidegger told the students at his university:  “Let not propositions and ‘ideas’ be the rules of your Being [Sein].  The Fuhrer alone is the present and future German reality and its law.  Learn to know ever more deeply:  from now on every single thing demands decision, and every action responsibility.  Heil Hitler!” [pg 196, emphasis in original]

Chapter 7: A Matter of Life and Death.

This chapter deals more directly with some of the elements that many people tend to think of first when considering the toxic side effects of secularism, namely abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide.  Joseph Fletcher is treated, and of course Peter Singer resurfaces.  Not to fear!  Singer isn’t a professor of bioethics churning out hundreds of disciples each year, or anything!  Oh, wait.

Chapter 8: The Future of Humanity: Utopias, Dystopias, and Transhumanism

This is another inclusion that helpfully shows how various diverse ideologies nonetheless have Death in common.

Malthus makes an appearance in this chapter, along with those who wrestled with such matters, like William Godwin, who Weikart quotes:

Neither do I regard a new-born child with any superstitious reverence. If the alternative were complete, I had rather such a child perish in the first hour of its existence, than that a man should spend seventy years of life in a state of misery and vice.  I know that the globe of earth affords room for only a certain number of human beings to be trained to any degree of perfection; and I had rather witness the existence of a thousand such beings, than a million of millions of creatures, burdensome to themselves, and contemptible to each other. [pg 257]

Gee, what could go wrong with that line of thought?

Conclusion

The book closes with some chapters that essentially make the case that ideas have consequences, and one of the chief consequences of the ideas of the last two centuries is death and more death, and death piled upon death.

One of my reactions to Weikart’s book, which I doubt he intended, was how it confirmed for me once again how ridiculously absurd and asinine to adopt the high view of experts that liberals and progressives would have us take, merely because they are experts.  His book is a tour through all the supposedly great thinkers, philosophers, scholars and academics over the last couple of centuries.  When one sees, page by page, how most of these ‘Brights’ were complicit in various degrees with murderous outcomes, one is tempted to suspect that perhaps the smartest among us are actually idiots.  Why would we defer to them, exactly?

But they aren’t idiots.  It would be better if they were.  It is their intelligence that makes them dangerous.  Blind deference to experts is a bad, bad, BAD idea.  Don’t do it.

I’m sure that Weikart would agree:  check out his sources, quotes, etc, too.  Don’t just take his word for these things.

One complaint that I have with the book is that it promised to be a “case for life.” The ‘case for life” turns out to consist of the last few pages of book that was nearly 300 pages long.  I agree with Weikart’s assertion:

Other religions besides Christianity might be able to make sense of our valuing of human life, too.  I recognize that there are other options besides secularism and Christianity.  However, I am convinced that there are sound philosophical, historical, scientific, emotional, and spiritual reasons to prefer monotheism and specifically Christianity to other religions.  Our intuition that human life has value, purpose, and meaning is just one of many reasons I find Christianity superior to a wide variety of secular worldviews.  Thus I consider Christianity the proper antidote for the death of humanity.  Jesus told his disciples, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” [pg 287]

Yes, but to make a ‘case’ means delving into the ” sound philosophical, historical, scientific, emotional, and spiritual reasons to prefer monotheism and specifically Christianity to other religions.”  It wouldn’t surprise me if the publisher insisted on that subtitle, because Weikart himself acknowledges the limitations of the book (pg 20).  The ‘case for life’ is made by contrast, which is valuable in its own right, but for it to be in the title I think might raise expectations about the book, and therefore risk disappointments.

If I had published the book, I would have went simply with The Death of Humanity.

I would also recommend this book in conjunction with some others.   This one is a (much) more in depth treatment of Wesley Smith’s Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America.  If you’re just starting, I would go with Smith’s book, first.  But I wouldn’t by any means stop there.  I would definitely follow up with Weikart’s book, and then from there move on to the books I have listed for ‘further reading’ on my eugenics website.

Which will soon be updated to include Weikart’s well-written, well-researched, well-presented, The Death of Humanity.

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