Securing Human Survival, Instrumentally: For Darwinian Anthropocentrism

The paradox lying at the very heart of the debate between holders of anthropocentric or ecocentric world views is that it is humankind only which can be expected to think empathically about other creatures, this because of the prominence of human rationality. Indeed, wild salmon would never be accused of ‘salmon-centrism’, as the existence of non-human, more basic life forms depends on their constant focus on their own survival. Though this perspective reversal may appear absurd, it is also enlightening. If anthropocentrism is defined as “the belief that human beings are the most important entity in the [world or] universe”, but only human beings have the rational capacity to conceive of the world and/or the universe, placing the natural world above humankind seems just as unreasonable. 

It appears as though, in a Darwinian sense, all living creatures suffer from solipsism. The main thing that matters to a living creature is its own survival, and the instinct of survival often trumps any other consideration. Thought is moulded by natural impulse: when this is imbricated into the more complex rationality of humankind, able to reflect upon the implications of its own drive towards survival, it becomes the concept of anthropocentrism. The latter can be seen as a form narcissism justified by more base and material instinct. Yet, even if we can paradoxically advance a natural explanation for the concept of anthropocentrism, this does not mean that human beings should disregard their environment. The so-called ‘animal turn’ within academia, especially noticeable in the humanities, does not actually necessarily detract from an anthropocentric foundation as much as we are often led to believe. Indeed, scientific studies prove that humankind has a bigger evolutionary scope and capacity for empathy. As such, ecocentrism depends on an evolutionary mechanism that has led to empathy, which is most prominent in humankind and enables us to assert that the natural world should be regarded as just as important as humankind. Therefore, the very basis of ecocentrism points to the fact that humankind is indeed more advanced than other creatures. 

A distinction, however, can be drawn between being the most important and being the most evolved. Anthropocentrism seems to prove its limits when it undermines itself. If anthropocentrism leads to overexploitation of the environment and, subsequently, to environmental collapse, the fact that it stems from the Darwinian instinct of survival seems laughable. This notwithstanding, it seems best to avoid the hypocrisy inherent to ecocentrism which, even if founded on humankind’s more evolved rationality and capacity for empathy, inevitably turns its back on the demarcation between nature and humankind. Instead, embracing a more nuanced and self-reflexive vision of anthropocentrism is preferable. Indeed, anthropocentrism seems inevitable because of the tendency, innate in any specie, to look inwardly at ways to perpetuate its own existence (an argument which Bergson enjoys making). An ecocentric rejection of anthropocentrism seems to lead straight back into anthropocentrism, since some form of egocentrism seems innate to the natural survival instinct. Someone looking to embrace natural processes, then, should embrace anthropocentrism. 

It is important to note that anthropocentrism should be embraced in a form which considers humankind as dependent on its environment. If anthropocentrism goes against humankind’s cogent integration in their environment (circumstances have changed, and humankind is no longer lost in the wilderness!), the likelihood of human survival would be considerably undermined. Conferring instrumental value on humankind’s environment seems to be a more direct and efficient way to bring about a solution to the environmental crisis than stressing a quasi-spiritual mysticism that elevates nature and animals above humankind. It also seems as though this would be more in line with the ideological status quo, providing a better way to influence mindsets than ecocentrism. Regardless of the intrinsic value of life, ideas should also be geared towards a result and, in this day and age, getting people to recycle out of self-interest seems more efficient and universal than getting them to recycle because ‘animals and plants matter too’. Call me a cynic, but does the motivation matter all that much if the goal is saving ourselves and the planet? 

[Kevin Le Merle – he/him]

[Photo credit: Valentino Belloni/flickr.com]

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