Union University
Union University Dept of Language


Of Humans, Hubris, and Humanzees

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

May 8, 2008 - In a recent issue of Touchstone, Anthony Esolen (English professor at Providence) offered these insightful reflections on one of many pitfalls facing contemporary culture – one that is illuminated by contrasting our own time to an earlier age. Esolen is worth quoting at length.

“The savage of ancient days thought the world was unintelligible – or at least there was a lot of it he didn’t understand – yet he believed it was filled with meaning. It was a world of gods: speaking in the running water, sleeping in the cave, storming over the mountains. That primitive piety kept him from a lot of invention, no doubt. He might have feared to dam up the stream. But it also kept him from a lot of destruction.”

Esolen continues, “We don’t make savages like that anymore. Modern man knows that the world, or at least much of it, is intelligible, yet he believes it has no meaning. He is not afraid to pile up the stream with stones or plug up the cave. It’s only matter, only brute ‘stuff.’ As are his breath, his brains, his whole body. He can, if he wants, make babies in newfangled ways. He may combine, polymer-like, with whichever sex he pleases, and de-couple and recombine at will. He may demand his own dissolution.”

Esolen concludes, “It’s only mud, after all. So he believes. But at least the old savage treated mud with more respect.”

Esolen’s remarks are instructive in light of recent discussion about a bill in the UK parliament that does not explicitly forbid scientists from experimenting with the creation of ape/human hybrids – what is (lamentably) called, the “humanzee”. Some scientists and ethicists in the UK view the gap in the bill as cause for concern. Others, like Professor Hugh McLachlan, professor of applied philosophy at Glasgow Caledonian University's School of Law and Applied Sciences, are more sanguine.

While McLachlan views the possibility of such research as “troublesome,” his personal discontent – unlike the fear in Esolen’s ancient savage – does not rise to the level of a serious moral objection. Says McLachlan, "If it turns out in the future there was fertilisation between a human animal and a non-human animal, it's an idea that is troublesome, but in terms of what particular ethical principle is breached it's not clear to me. I share their [other ethicists’] squeamishness and unease, but I'm not sure that unease can be expressed in terms of an ethical principle."

In such morally vacuous remarks, one can hear echoes of Esolen’s analysis: “After all, it’s only genetic ‘stuff’ – meaningless in itself, a resource for us to shape according to our own designs.”

In his classic work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis offered prophetic wisdom about the precariousness of a moment such as this in the history of modern science. Writing about the “final stage” of “Man’s conquest of Nature,” Lewis warns that when we have obtained mastery over the whole of the material world, including the “stuff” of which we are comprised, “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man . . . The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?” Lewis concludes, “Man’s final conquest [over Nature will have] proved to be the abolition of Man.”

It is, of course, futile to speculate about the likelihood that, if not legally forbidden, mad scientists will meddle with our genetic constitution through cross-species research. Even more fruitless is the effort to speculate about the kinds of “results” such research might yield, if genetic manipulation is pushed to the utmost extreme. But the cautions issued by both Lewis and Esolen should give us pause. For what is behind both is a deep truth about who we are as humans and thus, our resulting place in the cosmos. In short, we are creatures; we’re neither gods, nor God.

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament captures this deep theological reality in a practical principle. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). Although Esolen’s ancient pagan did not recognize the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he was wise. And his wisdom was displayed in his fear – an implicit, if unarticulated, recognition of his own creatureliness and of his duty to live within the normative boundaries of the fabric of creation.

By contrast, many in our contemporary culture have neither an explicit fear of God nor an implicit respect for that which God spoke into being by the power of his word. Rather than viewing the created order as alive with meaning – as the spoken word is – modern man sees nothing in the “stuff” of universe that represents a boundary that ought not to be crossed or a pattern with which one ought to conform. C.S. Lewis puts it this way. “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For [modern science] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique . . . The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible.”

Of course, none of this should be taken to imply that Christians should reject science. Nevertheless, we should be deeply concerned with scientific hubris unchecked by the wisdom of earlier ages – the root of which is wisdom that begins with awe for what God has made.