(December 2000)

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 2-6.

Animal Rights

David R. Carlin presents a believable argument in the first few paragraphs of “Rights, Animal and Human” (August/September). He seems well versed in nonscientific historical tidbits; however, he derails himself when he begins discussing Darwin, biology, and how these relate to human nature.

Professor Carlin’s essay betrays a profound and, unfortunately, widespread misconception of what evolutionary biology is and why it is useful. He claims Darwinism is the “greatest of all attempts to narrow the gap between humans and the lower animals.” As one who has studied genetics and mechanisms of evolution for most of her life—evolution by natural selection being the one with which I am most familiar—I can say with a high degree of confidence that Prof. Carlin has no clear idea of what “Darwinism” means. As a scientist, I have trouble defining a term that has been so carelessly bandied about over the last century and a half. Darwin’s theory of evolution, as understood by most of the modern scientific community, has nothing to say about the “gap” between humans and “lower” animals, because no such gap is recognized. We are animals. Specifically, we are hominids. We are swimming, along with every other vertebrate, in the sea of the Animal Kingdom.

Prof. Carlin goes on to discuss what Darwinism, or Darwin’s audience, has to say about the ontological rank of human nature. The word he should use here is ontogenetic. Ontogeny, in the realm of biology, refers to the physical developmental history of an organism. Biology has absolutely nothing to say about metaphysical matters, and this is how it should be. A misguided, 150–year–old stance taken by Darwin’s “epigones” serves no purpose in current scientific inquiry as it relates to human origins. Today, biologists are keenly aware that their tools are limited to the study of what they can physically evaluate. Good science has nothing to say about God or about humanity’s spiritual place in the universe.

All too often, that silence is mistaken for an attempt to disprove or degrade spiritual concepts. In fact, the silence is a kind of humility. We recognize that our tool kit, which includes the “scientific method,” simply should not be used for spiritual inquiry. Prof. Carlin does not appear to be acquainted with very many scientists. Most of us are too busy to demote human nature, considering our schedules are full of research, writing grant proposals, teaching, mentoring, publishing papers, and performing community service. Therefore, his assertion that we are anti–Christian attackers of all that is spiritual can be dismissed as an uninformed emotional rant.

The parallel Carlin draws between Hitler and students of evolutionary theory, however, cannot be viewed with such detached amusement. Hitler was a madman, incapable of truly understanding any complex scientific argument. Hitler used everything at his disposal to demonize Jews (and many Christians) and to fan the flames of German nationalism. Any theory promoted by the Nazis was filtered through a lens of lunacy and hate. It simply does not follow that Hitler’s warped interpretation of any scientific theory is something with which a sane human being, scientifically literate or not, would agree. Prof. Carlin’s assertion to the contrary is not only breathtakingly insulting, it is wrong. His statement that one “cannot prove that an idea is wrong simply because Hitler embraced it” is irrelevant in the face of such tortured logic.

Prof. Carlin is correct in saying he cannot prove the danger and inhumanity inherent in the concept of animal rights. He would have a doozy of a time just proving himself worthy of being published in these pages.

Mary E. Leonard
Eugene, Oregon

David R. Carlin sees the animal rights movement as anti–Christian and an attempt to promote a purely biological concept of human nature, thus linking it to Hitler and the Holocaust.

This is quite an assessment of a movement that in its Christian expression traces a concern for the rights of animals back to St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom and, in its later formulations, to John Wesley, Cardinal Newman, and John Paul II.

Rather than attempting to have animals classified as “persons,” which Professor Carlin says would “narrow the gap between humans and the lower animals,” the Christian animal rights movement wants them to be recognized as the sentient beings they are, demonstrably capable of physical and emotional suffering. Currently, animals are relegated to the category of “things” and, as such, are not entitled to the compassion and care they deserve.

Their entitlement is biblical: religious laws regulated the kind and amount of work animals could be expected to do and mandated how and when they were to be fed and cared for; they legislated the rights of animals. Yet Prof. Carlin finds the concept of animal rights to be “extraordinarily dangerous” and considers those who promote this idea to be “enemies of the human race.”

He is also concerned that efforts to upgrade the status of animals are an attempt to “degrade humans.” But in view of the fact that God entered into a covenantal relationship with animals as well as with men, this concern seems misplaced.

J. R. Hyland
Sarasota, Florida

David R. Carlin replies:

Regarding Mary Leonard’s letter: In discussing Darwinism, a distinction needs to be made between Darwinism as a scientific theory (or a family of scientific theories) and Darwinism as metaphysics. I think my essay made it clear that my strictures were intended to apply to metaphysical Darwinism, not scientific Darwinism. Ms. Leonard’s contention that Darwinian biologists do not engage in metaphysical speculation is, therefore, beside the point, for I never said they did. But surely she knows that there have been many other Darwinians, from Thomas Henry Huxley in Darwin’s day to Richard Dawkins today, who have gone beyond the boundaries of pure science and used “Darwinism” as a metaphysical stick with which to beat theism in general and Christianity in particular.

Ms. Leonard doesn’t have a high opinion of Hitler’s scientific abilities; neither do I. But the fact remains that his thinking was influenced by metaphysical Darwinism. Does Ms. Leonard want to assert that metaphysical Darwinism contributed nothing to the formation of his genocidal thought?

Regarding J. R. Hyland’s complaint: I suggest that he reread my essay. He will then discover that my objection is to viewing animals as bearers of rights. It doesn’t follow from this that I am in favor of cruelty to animals, which of course I am not. As for the very strange contention that St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, John Wesley, Cardinal Newman, and Pope John Paul II were concerned with the “rights of animals”—I deny it. They may have favored treating animals in a kindly manner, but this is a very different thing from asserting that animals have rights.

Judaism and the Market

Thank you for presenting a Jewish perspective on the relationship between the market economy and religion (Jonathan Sacks, “Markets and Morals,” August/September). As a Jew and a subscriber to First Things since the first issue, I have looked for contributions to the debate from other than Christian and secular points of view.

The quotation from Michael Novak and his reference to Jewish worldliness and a candid orientation towards private property is interesting. Unfortunately, although we Jews in North America have been blessed by the ability to prosper within a democratic capitalistic system, not enough of us, in my experience, consider the capitalist system positively and are instead too often advocates for laws and government regulation to control the “excesses of the market place.” The argument is usually based on the Jewish requirement to do good deeds and particularly to promote “social justice” (ignoring Frederick Hayek’s masterpiece The Mirage of Social Justice). I have been forced to quote Michael Novak and others, since I could find few defenses of the market from the point of view of Judaism. This may have been my failing, but now, in any case, I have Rabbi Sacks to rely on.

Reuben Bromstein
Toronto, Ontario

Against Principalities and Powers

In While We’re At It (August/September), Richard John Neuhaus praises David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values for noting “some encouraging signs” in governmental efforts to support marriage and the family.

In response to critics of the “nanny state,” Father Neuhaus notes that politicians and their programs inevitably affect marriage and family life and that we should therefore “try to tilt them toward virtue.”

From a historical perspective, it is clear that the governments of the world have failed miserably in these and similar self–assigned tasks. In view of that, why do we continually look to government for guidance? Don’t we know the ethic of government is generated by polls? Why do we attempt alliance between light and darkness? Do we really think we can dominate government for good?

In Conscience and Obedience, William Stringfellow has it right, I think: “The principalities (governments, institutions, and even the church) are autonomous in relation to humans; they are created beings in their own right, not simply projections of human life, and their demonic character as fallen powers is no mere consequence of human sin either personal or corporate.” For believers to think or hope well of such powers seems inappropriate and juvenile.

Fr. Neuhaus might be forgiven his Luther–like pigeonholing of life into roles that often are in conflict (magistrate and clergy, to use Luther’s example) if it weren’t so pernicious. As people called to discipleship and the making of disciples of Jesus, Christians are filled with his Good News. Under his ultimate government all roles are subject to his discipline and none of us are required to bear the state’s sword (we bear the sword of the Word); we simply observe that the state has the sword and uses it with alacrity against all.

The notion that those same enslaved politicians might somehow help us “rescue” marriage is risible. We biblical people are the new creation in Christ and it is our responsibility to share that life with all humans. We make disciples and good marriages follow. We mustn’t be led astray by our desire to be accepted and influential and so feed the egos of those self–important lords and oppressors of all creation.

Rampant demonic character cannot be tilted toward virtue.

William T. Hunter, Jr.
Santo Domingo
Dominican Republic

Acton Reconsidered

Regarding “Lord Acton, Cardinal Newman, and How To Be Ahead of Your Time” (Public Square, August/September): More than thirty years ago I read Acton’s electrifying inaugural lecture as Regius professor at Cambridge. Since then Acton has been a hero to me, and his writings, in the phrase he himself used of Burke, “the law and the prophets.” I revere him as one of the great Catholic English men since Tudor times—along with More, Fisher, Pope, Hopkins, Chesterton, and possibly even Newman. For me the greatness and exhilaration of Acton lay in his transcendence of the defensiveness and equivocation that characterized Catholic reaction to our past when I was growing up.

Here was a man of penetrating intelligence and formidable scholarship who told it as he saw it. He did not just detail with forensic remorselessness the connivance of Gregory XIII in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He also saw that “even in this narrow and disedifying section of history (the period since the Reformation) the action of Christ who is risen on mankind whom he redeemed fails not, but increases.” For me, Acton’s writings are a more effective reply than the Apologia to Charles Kingsley’s charge that Catholics are careless of the truth.

A century later, we are living in the closing years of a pontificate that has, above all, taught Catholics not to be afraid—afraid of those who hate the Church so that we do not honestly contemplate the failings of our own past; afraid of the progress of science so that we needed to be reminded by the Pope “that faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” More than any of his contemporaries Acton was the prophet of a spirit of fundamental confidence and fearlessness in the Church.

I read First Things because it shares this spirit. I was therefore very interested to read Richard John Neuhaus’ review of a new biography of Acton. Sadly, the review was in many places an unworthy reaction to the complexity, integrity, and intelligence of Acton. The throwaway allegation that the offer of the Regius professorship was “the Protestant establishment’s reward for services rendered” is an appalling and unsubstantiated calumny. The charge that Acton was as Erastian as the Archbishop of Canterbury will not survive the most cursory reading of his essay “The Protestant Theory of Persecution.”

Acton said of himself that he never had contemporaries. One hundred years later he still stands in need of appreciation as a great Catholic figure.

T. E. Conlon
Reading, Berkshire

RJN replies:

There is much about Lord Acton that is admirable and I could have accented that more than I did in my discussion of Roland Hill’s biography, Lord Acton. I chose to concentrate on the differences between Acton and Newman in their response to the First Vatican Council. It is amply documented, by Hill and others, that Acton took the side of the Protestant establishment in England, that the same establishment was fulsome in its expression of gratitude to Acton and, among other gifts, bestowed upon him the Regius professorship. Reward is the right word. There is no calumny involved. From the viewpoint of those who gave it, the reward was amply deserved. I should have noted that, more important than the professorship in stabilizing Acton’s worrisome financial circumstance, was the generous benefactor who purchased his sixty–thousand–volume library, which, after Acton’s death, was given to the University Library at Cambridge, where it is today housed in a special chamber in the center of the building.

Brooks and Bobos

I am in awe of Richard John Neuhaus’ monthly Public Square. Does the man never sleep? How does he have time to read and think about all that stuff? So if I’m going to write one letter defending my book Bobos in Paradise—which up to now I haven’t—I’m going to do it in response to the unfair treatment it received in While We’re At It (August/September).

Father Neuhaus has me as a defender of the spiritual life of today’s upper middle class. He quotes my argument that these burghers have a quotidian morality, which is repelled by concrete wrongs but is unconcerned with transcendent truths. He then reports that I endorse this morality and quotes me, “This is a good mo­rality for building a decent society.”

Actually, in the book there is no period at the end of that sentence. Instead, there is a comma after the word “society.” The full sentence reads, “This is a good morality for building a decent society, but maybe not one for people interested in things in the next world, like eternal salvation, for example.” If Father Neuhaus had room to quote me more fully, your readers would have seen that my point throughout that chapter is that Bobos resemble the Last Man—their spiritual lives are tepid and flat, genial but mediocre. They settle for present comforts over transcendent virtues.

Fr. Neuhaus insinuates that I am not a true conservative because I’ve gone too Bobo. I confess that I may not live up to his rigorous standards, but it is not because I am blind to the spiritual philistinism of today’s upper middle classes.

David Brooks
Washington, D.C.

RJN replies:

Mr. Brooks is right about the comma, and I should have quoted the entire sentence. At the same time, his book is written in the voice of “We Bobos,” and it is not always clear when he is distinguishing himself from the people he is describing. It is good to be reassured that he has not been blinded by the world he depicts with an incisiveness and wit that—in partial response to his question—kept me up late.