The Mismeasure of All Things


Some 2500 years ago, Protagoras said that man is the measure of all things. By this he meant something like, mankind can know only that which it is capable of knowing, which in effect is a recognition that the human mind does have its limits; but Protagoras’ statement has often been taken to mean that man is the standard by which all other things are to be measured, i.e., that mankind is the standard of comparison for judging the worth of everything else. This meaning may have been colored by the Christian concept of man as the object of divine history, of man as just a little lower than the angels. The Christian concept, in its turn, derives from a common interpretation of the creation story in Genesis, in which God gives man dominion over the rest of earthly creation.

However, while both Protagoras’ saying and the Genesis story carry the concept forward through history, neither explains how the idea actually originated. It may have been Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who first recognized that it is ignorance rather than knowledge that makes man the measure of all things: “When men are ignorant of natural causes producing things, and cannot even explain them by analogy with similar things, they attribute their own nature to them.” That is, when primitive men and women surveyed the world and sought explanations of phenomena, they had nothing to go by other than what they knew about themselves, so that, for example, a terrible destructive storm could be explained as the anger of the gods, since when human beings became angry they too engaged in destructive behavior; or when a gentle rain caused plants to grow, the gods were in a good mood, perhaps pleased by some human act of worship, because when humans were in a good mood, they engaged in benevolent acts. After all, the earliest humans could not have had any knowledge of the material causes of storms, droughts, etc., nor of course of animal behavior, which they attributed to motives much like their own. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield summarize Vico’s views, in primitive mythologies people “could measure the world of Nature only by that which they already knew—namely themselves” (The Discovery of Time).

Both Protagoras and Genesis simply give more sophisticated glosses on this primitive impulse. They reflect the increasing body and complexity of knowledge developed by ancient civilizations, particularly those that had developed writing systems, which in turn enabled them to impose order on what had been a plethora of local myths and their variants. Simply by creating relatively coherent pantheons containing gods with discreet attributes, roles, and positions in a divine hierarchy, ancient civilizations were able to organize their intellectual world and provide authoritative explanations. Monotheism carried this further, by providing an even more unified world view, but it also somewhat depersonalized the concept of God, making him more abstract and less personal (e.g., no images or idols, no household god or genie of the local spring, etc.). This was an important achievement in the ongoing development of knowledge, a necessary step in the process that led to the state of knowledge we enjoy today, in large part because it put more emphasis on cerebral, intellectual rather than personal and experiential modes of understanding—in a sense, creating theory to replace myth. Thus we see the Greek philosophers creating the first science and the Jews creating the first inklings of theology and, importantly, teleology (a sense of history with a goal towards which it was moving). Nevertheless, the Judeo-Christian god retained strong anthropomorphic features, especially in the popular imagination and in visual arts, in which, for example, God the Father was usually depicted as a white-haired old man. Perhaps as long as most people were illiterate and dependent on visual media for their abstract knowledge, anthropomorphism was to be expected.

The Western European, Christian intellectual (literate) tradition combined these two strands of ancient thought, the scientific/philosophical with the historic/teleological, setting the stage for a modern world view that sees the world as making coherent sense and as operating according to consistent, universal laws, which then can be exploited by human beings for their own betterment. As scientific knowledge expanded and material explanations could be provided for phenomena that once were viewed as signs of divine intervention, God receded to the back of men’s minds as less necessary to explain the world—at best, perhaps, He became little more than the Prime Mover, the one who got it all started or the one who established the universal laws which continue to operate without His immediate intervention. But if the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment put God into retirement, it did not give up the belief in coherent laws and the quest for universal theories, nor did it give up the teleological view of history.

It is important to note that the teleological view is always a human-centered view; history, whether of cosmos, nature, or society, was still about man; very few thinkers hazarded to speculate that man might be merely one among many creatures and phenomena rather than the point of the whole enterprise. In this sense, at least, the early modern era retained the primitive impulse to both anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection did little, indeed perhaps nothing, to change that for most people. It was not difficult to switch from believing that God had created man for dominion over nature and as the center of the historical story of fall and redemption, to believing that evolution is teleological, both in the sense of inevitably leading to the emergence of homo sapiens as the crowning outcome of the evolutionary process and in the sense of evolution as a progressive process. And it was easy enough, in the context of nineteenth-century capitalism, to believe that modern industrial culture was the natural continuation of progressive evolution—indeed was its goal.

It took a generation or more for it to dawn on people that Darwinism, along with the geological discoveries regarding the great age of the earth and the astronomers’ and physicists’ discoveries of the even greater age of the universe, implied there is no god at all, not even the reticent god of the Deists. One would think that once this implication struck home, both the teleological and the anthropocentric views would fade away. But, perhaps due to human vanity, neither has done so.

In a supremely ironic twist, both teleology and anthropocentrism have been inverted. Whereas the theological age measured other creatures in human terms, the evolutionary age measures humans in animal terms. We are no longer a little lower than the angels but only a little bit higher than the other animals—or maybe not even that. We are naked apes, talking apes, singing apes. We are like social insects, we are vertebrates, we are aggressive because we are animals seeking to maximize our survival, we are merely transportation for the real biological players, selfish genes. We are not rational or conscious, we do not have free will, we operate by instinct, each of our seemingly advanced traits is hard-wired. Our morality is nothing more than an adaptation. We take a word like altruism, which originally meant a certain kind of human behavior, apply it to ants, where it becomes a description of instinctive eusocial behavior, and then re-apply that meaning back onto humans. Thus making us just like all the other animals. Therefore, we study them in order to understand ourselves. We focus on the similarities (often slim) and ignore the differences (often radical).

This continues the old habit of anthropomorphism in new guise and fails to recognize the independent existence of other creatures—their independent lines of evolution as well as their ontological separateness from us. We unthinkingly repeat that humans and chimps share 96 percent of their genes (or is it 98 percent?), as if that meant something—but then, it’s said we share 97 percent of our genes with rats. We neglect to mention that apes and humans diverged from each other some 7 to 8 million years ago and have followed independent lines of evolution ever since. We are not apes after all.

Consider the fruit fly, that ubiquitous laboratory subject which has yielded so much knowledge of how genes work. It is often cited as a model of human genetics and evolution. But consider what Michael Dickinson, a scientist (he calls himself a neuroethologist) at the University of Washington (Seattle), has to say about fruit flies: “I don’t think they’re a simple model of anything. If flies are a great model, they’re a great model for flies.” To me, this is a great insight, for it recognizes that fruit flies (and, frankly, insects in general) are so other than like us that to study them as if they were a model of anything other than themselves, as a model of us, is in a sense not to study them at all. It is rather to look into their compound eyes as if they were mirrors showing our own reflections. It is a form of narcissism, which perhaps contains our own demise.

Our demise because in continuing to look at nature as being about ourselves we continue the gross error of believing we can manipulate nature, other organisms, the entire world, to our own narrow purposes without consequences. It turns other organisms into harbingers of homo sapiens, narrows research to that which will “benefit” mankind, and misses the very strangeness of life in all its diversity and complexity. It continues the age-old world view of human dominion and fails to recognize that our “dominion” is neither a biological necessity nor a feature of the natural world. Dominion is a dangerous form of narcissism which a maturely scientific age should discard.

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