Richard Weikart’s new book is out today and it needs to be read by everyone because it involves everyone. It is The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, a fascinating examination of the unprecedented decline of the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical values at the foundation of Western Civilization.
In previous books, From Darwin to Hitler (2006) and Hitler’s Ethic (2009), our colleague Dr. Weikart, a historian at California State University at Stanislaus, has investigated the travesties of the modern age. Here Weikart’s focus is much broader. He seeks to assess the consequences of failed secular “isms” from the late Renaissance to the often not-so-enlightened Enlightenment and its many direct and indirect excretions — materialism, positivism, Darwinism, Marxism, Stalinism, behaviorism, existentialism, objectivism, postmodernism, and more.
Weikart’s diagnosis is stark: civilization is ceasing to be civilized as it attempts to replace the value and intrinsic worth of each and every human being — traditionally conceived as imago Dei — with assorted “humanistic” alternatives that treat people as machines, automata, objects, and utilitarian means to ends of varying values with rights bestowed “on a sliding scale rather than being inalienable” (53). The prognosis is not good: “If we continue in scientific hubris to regard humanity as an engineering project, then the future will be bleak.” The prescription: “Treat humans as the personal moral agents that they are, as individuals needing love, joy, and peace. It makes a profound difference whether we see each other as mere cosmic accidents spewed forth by an impersonal cosmos, or as immortal souls created in the image of a loving God. The future of humanity is at stake” (279).
But how and why, given their manifest inadequacies and tragic consequences, have these secular philosophies become so widely influential? The answer is complex and forms a large part of the book. The sources are historical and Weikart is well-suited to expose them. The philosophies and characters are many. Some of the more prominently discussed include the rationalistic dualism of René Descartes (1596-1650), the materialism of Julien Offrey de la Mettrie (1709-1751), the mechanistic determinism of Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771), the skepticism of David Hume (1711-1776), the scientistic positivism of Auguste Comte (1798-1857), the polygenic racism and prejudice of Karl Vogt (1817-1895), and the materialistic reductionism of Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899). More recently “contributors” to this menagerie of the misguided include Bertrand Russell, Francis Crick, Lawrence Krauss, Steven Weinberg, Peter Singer, James Rachels, Richard Dawkins, and, for Weikart, the current “epitome” of human devaluation, University of Texas evolutionary ecologist Eric Pianka.
Chapter 1, “Man the Machine,” opens with a discussion of materialism and its insidious twin, positivism. Here man is reduced to something even less than a machine, since unlike purposeful contrivances, humans under the materialist worldview are little more than accidents. They are simply the result of chance and necessity.
Although Weikart points out the many sources at work in diminishing the centrality humanity in our social and moral relations, one that recurs is Darwinism. This is for good reason. Darwin himself expressed the two foundational sources of the attack on anthropocentrism, an assault that unfortunately “is becoming mainstream in our ‘culture of death'” (4). First is the notion that regard for our special mental attributes is little more than self-centered arrogance. The second, related to the first, is that human beings are really not unique and are, in fact, just another kind of animal.
As to the first proposition, it was years before the Origin of Species, as early as spring 1838, that Darwin wrote privately “Why is thought being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves” (Darwin’s Notebooks, 291). Weikart gives another from the Notebooks, quoting Darwin, “thought, however unintelligible it may be, seems as much function of organ, as bile of liver” (55). Darwin expressed the second proposition more publicly when he suggested that the difference between man and animal was one of degree, not kind (Descent of Man ). Darwin’s materialistic view of the mind, the denial of the soul, and the conflation of human and animal attributes are covered in Chapter 2, “Created from Animals.” The absurdity of these ideas is captured in PETA spokesperson Ida Newkirk’s statement, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals” (50).
In the remaining chapters, with the precision and care of a pathologist, Weikart analyzes the source of humanity’s malignancies. Chapter 3, “My Genes Made Me Do It,” covers biological determinism and the so-called “nature/nurture” debate. As Weikart observes, this whole issue is based “on the false premise that humans have no free will. Those wanting to explain reality solely by science are forced to embrace some form of determinism, because only if human behavior is determined entirely by natural causes can science provide valid explanations for all human behavior” (92). In Chapter 4, “My Upbringing Made Me Do It,” he discusses environmental determinism. Here Weikart reviews the chilling 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb with its profound societal implications. The pair’s defense attorney, Clarence Darrow of Scopes trial fame, argued that the young men were simply victims of heredity and environment. In consigning moral and ethical responsibility to the dictates of biological and sociological “science,” Darrow drove another nail into humanity’s coffin.
Chapter 5 covers the excesses and carnage of hedonism. Here the reader sees more of La Mettrie and Helvétius. Others include the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Charles Fourier (1772-1837), to name a few. It is hard to argue against Weikart’s indictment: “the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and sexual profligacy are becoming mainstream in American culture” (156). In Chapter 6, “Superman’s Contempt for Humanity,” he covers the existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) along with Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) postmodernism.
Special attention needs to be given to Weikart’s Chapter 8, “The Future of Humanity.” Here he covers an often-neglected figure: Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Pages 266-271 include careful, thoughtful, and hard-hitting assessments of her works: Anthem (1937), Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Rand devalued human existence by making self-interest and unbridled individualism virtues, while treating love, compassion, and altruism with contempt. William F. Buckley (1925-2008), for whom she had disdain, claimed that Atlas Shrugged — in Buckley’s words “a thousand pages of ideological fabulism” — was “the biggest selling novel in the history of the world” (see here). Weikart is to be commended for putting Rand in his sites and exposing her impositions upon human goodness and decency.
I conclude by urging the reading public to get a copy of this book. Weikart’s report is not quite an autopsy, for there may be recovery yet. But we must stop giving these darlings of the “smart set” elite a pass and start holding them to some accountability. This book shows the way.