If you’re looking for a pick me up message for today, I don’t recommend this contribution on the ABC website, The human race is not special. So why do we think we’re immune to mass extinction?
Geoff Dawson, whose bio says he is a psychologist and Zen Buddhist teacher, explains that human beings are no more important than any other species on the planet and that we should not over concern ourselves with our potential demise.
He asks the question, “Could we face a mass extinction of human beings in our lifetime?”
Dawson acknowledges that,
“To contemplate mass extinction is indeed a dark place to go to and a difficult conversation to have — even more difficult than global warming itself — because it is to think the unthinkable.”
However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this dark place holds any real meaning. Dawson explains that this conversation isn’t difficult because there is some overarching meaning to life or because human life is intrinsically more important than other life forms. Far from it, he would say. The extinction of people only warrants a problem for those who are facing termination.
“If one’s view of the world is based on science, we are not special, we were not placed here by a God to be the custodians of the Earth (and if we were, we have let the Almighty down big time!) and like all other species, we will have our place in the sun.
We will die out, and other, more adaptable, life forms will take our place.
The myth that we are somehow special and will continue to live forever as a dominant species is based on a deluded human-centric form of existential narcissism.
We may wring our hands and our hearts may ache at the rapid destruction of wildlife that is happening right now before our eyes, but we never seem to seriously consider that we may go the same way.”
What fantastic news! Don’t worry about the future because you are not special. Our significance is no greater than that of any other species on the planet. Your impending death may not be a particularly pleasant experience for you or for the people who have affections for you, but in real terms, you’re just preparing the ground for future species. In the grand scheme of meaningless time, we are no more special than the dinosaur, the Dodo, or the Sabre-toothed Tiger.
Feeling better now? Probably not, but our Zen Buddhist friend insists that this is science. Although, why Dawson is bothered with science remains a mystery to me, because one of the basic assumptions of Zen Buddhism is that intellect and language of ethereal and true meaning can only be found by disengaging from both.
Contradictions aside, what Dawson describes is not science, but naturalism, which is a way of interpreting scientific evidence based on the prior assumption that there is no God. In this way, both Zen Buddhism and naturalism share some common threads. The world has no overreaching design or telos, and one creature is not inherently more valuable than another. What makes human beings important is the evolutionary roll of the dice, that has resulted in cognitive, physical, and social strengths that enable us to control and use other species. Naturalism believes that people only sit at the top of the world because of power. All these conscious thoughts and beliefs about inherent dignity and greater worth than a tree or a frog are simply evolutionary mechanisms put in place to maintain the survival of our species. In fact, the very notion of human rights presupposes superiority over other things; perhaps this should be revisited!
By now, I’m sure you’re feeling the love. If you weren’t already questioning your self-worth, you probably are by now. But of course, this is the natural course when believing there is no God. Should we ignore this logic and feign belief in intrinsic human worth or do accept the world of Geoff Dawson? If the latter, why bother addressing issues of Global warming or caring for endangered species? After all, it’s all a game of power and serving self-interest.
I suspect most of us are uncomfortable with Dawson’s evaluation. We do not believe that goats and rats or even our pet dog are as important as other human beings. This raises an important question, why? Why do most of us find Dawson’s comments not only unsatisfying but even grotesque?
Why should your thoughts or feelings or relationships matter any more than those of non-Homo Sapiens? Why should my desires and plans bear any more weight than that of non-sentient objects such as the rainforest or mountain or bushland?
Surely, it is because we know that while birds and fish and kangaroos are wonderful creatures and who add beauty and wonder to this world, we are not those things. Human beings are unique. We are physical beings, but also sentient and moral beings. We have a mind, soul, and spirit. There are vast cognitive differences between a human being and every other species on the planet, and to argue otherwise is stupid and anti-science. None other, despite their astonishing habits and works, come remotely close to the glory of man and woman. But in our world of today, the obvious cannot be spoken, and the evidential is denied. People know that they are superior to animals and yet it is almost blasphemous to say so.
The answer humanity’s greater worth is not limited to this existential knowing, it is also grounded in a knowing that is more ancient than the universe itself. One might even say, that it is a Divine word that has created this knowledge of ourselves and of the world.
Rather than denigrating human beings, belief in God elevates our stature in a way that is both congruent to experience and that fills us with meaning and purpose. You were not just a clump of moving cells in flesh; you are made in the image of God. You are no mere animal with no more rights than an orangutan or cow or goldfish. At the same time, neither are we God. While I cannot speak for other religions, the Christian view pushes against both insignificance and self-absorption. Christianity repudiates the ultimate meaningless of naturalism and its companion, ultimate hopelessness, and Christianity also rebukes greed, consumerism, and abuse.
The answer to human misuse of the environment is not to relegate human beings to the place of monkeys, snakes, or the koala. Rather, it is to renew a proper understanding of what the Bible refers to as stewardship. And it is to recognise the reality of the incarnation, where at a direct point in history, God the Son took on flesh. John announced in his famous prologue,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
The fact that God became man, more than anything in history, says that every single person matters. They are not neglected by God or of no consequence to him. Indeed, God entered this space, becoming fully human without stripping his Divinity. The Gospel describes how this Jesus suffered the full gamut of human trials, and went through death that we might not be extinguished. Indeed, according to the Christian Bible extinction isn’t the end, but there is genuine hope of redemption and resurrection.
I appreciate that among my readers, you may or may not accept the Christian worldview. But my question, for now, is this – Which is better, the world of Geoff Dawson or the world explained by Jesus Christ? Should we suck it up and conclude that you and I are not special, and so treat each other accordingly? Or perhaps this Jesus has more to show us about both human worth and failing, and global trauma and reconciliation, than we perhaps realise.
Is the human race special? Are you special? Let me conclude by turning to these words of the Psalmist,
“You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain….
…For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you. (Psalm 139)
3 thoughts on “Is the human race special?”
Very interesting article, thank you.
I have been listening to Dawson’s “ordinary mind” podcast about zen meditation for years. I do practise meditation and find it useful to calm the mind. This new message he is giving us seems tailored by the fear mongering, climate obsessed ABC, born out of their vacuum of any real faith they turn to these doom filled predictions to get our attention.
I have found western interpretation of Buddhism so relentlessly left leaning, I wonder what a Japanese monk would make of Dawson’s viewpoint? He would probably say shut up and sit, you are too much “in your own head”!
I think we will always have a place in the “Chain of Being” just below the angels, God at the apex, we are not the same as animals, and anyone who practices meditation should know this. We care for them and love them and that is the responsibility we have been given.
I discovered meditation does not only belong in zen, it lives in the Christian faith and is about sitting in quiet contemplation in the glory of God and finding new hope. I found this hope inside the church, with it’s doors always open, as a place of refuge when feeling despair. This true faith of knowing we are special, safe and cherished is our future.
Thanks for commenting Paul. You may be right about some Buddhist ideas being hijacked by left leaning folk, I don’t have an answer for that.
I am no expert in Zen Buddhism but from the little I know, it is an atheistic religion (for most of its adherents), not theistic. Also, its form of meditation requires one to release themselves from knowledge & forms, whereas Christian meditation encourages us to fill the mind and to carefully think upon the truths of the faith, and from that we find tremendous encouragement and joy, etc
I agree with your comment about caring for animals. You’re right, we have a responsibility to do this, one that we too often neglect or abuse.
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