One of the most persistent cliches about humanists is that we are human-o-centric and egotistical. It is true that the term “humanist” sounds like a wild claim for the abilities of the human. It’s also true that humanism contained some rah-rah for human progress a century ago. But it’s good to remember that humanists accept the contemporary understanding of evolution, which tells us that we evolved on the savannah of Africa. That has implications.
Therefore, humanists assume that we humans perceive those things that are useful for survival on the savannah. Other perceptions—things such as X-rays and microwaves and other dimensions—we perceive through various applied technologies that extend our senses. Still, we are aware that human beings are one among many animals, albeit—when we try—we can sometimes be rational animals for short bursts of time.
The term “humanism,” like the word “theism,” is a product of the past and does not adequately describe current understandings. In short, humanists look at the history of humanity and—far from egotism—we take pause and often hang our heads. However, we believe that human beings create human problems and that only human beings can solve those problems in a way that is satisfactory to humanity.
Beyond the humanist refusal to be theo-centric or human-o-centric, we also—despite the name—refuse to be speciesist. We are aware that primates have a niche in the natural system, and that all species by nature do best when they exist within those niches. The human failure to do so has led to mass extinctions and irreparable damage to the planet. The survival of human beings is very much in question, therefore, and humanists see this situation as unfortunate for us . . . but our own darn fault.
While it is true that humanists revere the products of the human mind called science and the humanities, we realize that these are products of that animal that evolved on the savannah of Africa, and are therefore partial, leaving room for many future discoveries and artistic productions, so long as humanity manages to survive.
(It should be noted that we also enjoy the arts of other species, such as bird and whale songs. We recognize that other species have adjusted to their environments as have we—often less murderously.)
Humanism does not say, as we are so often accused, that “man” is the measure of all things, a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras. (That is in fact a misunderstanding of Protagoras.) Rather we say that humankind measures all things because of our limited perspective. Far from being a statements of absolute knowledge, this actually says that we are locked in the prison house of our own senses and subjectivity. Our species measures all things to our peril, and, unfortunately, we are seldom if ever able to get outside of ourselves and our opinions long enough to understand another form of measure.
For example, look at our attempts to see the television as our house pets see it. That’s a study in confusion. Protagorus taught us that we must be ever humble and questioning due to the fact that we can seldom transcend ourselves and will never know very much.
Most of humankind no longer lives in the environment for which we evolved. We have adapted somewhat, but we are, as it were, always fish out of water. Our attempts to understand the cosmos have run up against the fact that the cosmos—if it has any meaning or purpose at all—has no meaning or purpose comprehensible to human beings. Humanists are not terrified—or even worried—about this, however, and we certainly don’t have the big head about it. It is, rather, a source of awe and wonder.
As Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “Keep in mind the faculty that produces opinions. You depend upon this faculty to avoid opinions that are inconsistent with the nature of things and the thinking of a rational animal” (III.9).