Commentary Magazine


To Be Human

To the Editor:

With typical lucidity, Eric Cohen demonstrates how and why it is that modern science and some of its faith-oriented critics find it so hard to understand human things in human terms [“The Human Difference,” December 2006]. It would be comforting to think that the liberal arts and humane learning could step in and supply what is missing. But the intellectual currents that form the mainstream of the contemporary humanities—historicism, relativism, and postmodernism—start from a dogmatic position that calls into question the very notion of a human universal.

Postmodernism, for example, accepts the Baconian/Cartesian view of a world that is essentially malleable by will and desire. Thus, any discussion of the human comes to be understood as merely one “narrative,” likely infected by the race, class, or gender assumptions of its “author.” It is disheartening when what is most needed is least available, but there are grounds for hope that Mr. Cohen’s call for a “far richer portrait of man than that offered by ‘natural selection’ or [intelligent design’s] ‘irreducible complexity’” will be heard.

As his essay hints, some advocates of scientific and technological development are becoming increasingly bold in their disdain for the merely human, which they suppose to be an accidental result of blind forces. While still relatively few in number, these activists move the discussion of the uses of science and technology far beyond the broadly accepted realms of facilitating health and well being. The scientific knowledge that will give us unprecedented powers to heal will also, in their view, allow us to redesign ourselves, and they are confident that they know what improved design means. This portrait of “progress,” which openly accepts the prospect of the extinction of man as he has heretofore lived, is just the sort of thing to galvanize serious discussion of what it means to be human.

The Jewish tradition has impressive resources to provide to such a conversation. While both aggadic and halakhic discourse are emphatically “for the sake of Heaven,” they also represent clear-eyed views into our human strengths and weaknesses. Take even a relatively simple statement from the midrash: “Regard all men as if they were bandits, yet honor them as if they were like [the great sage] Rabbi Gamliel.”

Charles T. Rubin
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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