There is an interesting and adoring article about Charles Darwin in today's San Francisco Chronicle Insight section. The author, John Darnton, a New York Times journalist, celebrates Darwin's intellect and his supposed turn from theist to atheist. (I have heard otherwise, but have no idea about the nature of his personal beliefs.)
I am not involved in scientific critiques of Darwinian theory. But I do believe in human exceptionalism, whether as a result of evolution, creation, accident, planning, or alien cloning experiments (as ludicrously proposed by the science cult the Raelians).
I bring this up because the article has a key paragraph that demonstrates the paradox of materialistic thinking vis the moral worth of human life. "For ultimately, if animals and plants are the result of impersonal, immutable forces, she [Darwin's biographer Janet Browne] observes, then 'the natural world has no moral validity or purpose.' We are all of us, dogs and barnacles, pigeons and crabgrass, the same in the eyes of nature, equally remarkable and equally dispensable." (My emphasis.)
That last word of the quote is key. Human exceptionalism is the intellectual foundation of human rights. It is our unique and elevated moral status in the known universe that gives rise to both special (human) rights and unique responsibilities. If we ever come to believe we are no more morally meaningful in the world than a barnacle, then why should we act ethically human any more? Why not give in to impulses? Why not drive other species into extinction if that gives us what we want? Why worry about the care of unproductive people? Indeed, why not permit survival of the fittest in human affairs and return to social Darwinism?
And here is a great paradox in all of this: On one hand the materialists keep pounding on the drum of human unexceptionalism. Humans are nothing special, they assert. No big deal. Get over it and embrace the rationality of meaninglessness. Then, quick as a dime, some of these same folk tell us we are obligated to save the planet and sacrifice our own materialistic welfare for others, and to protect endangered species, etc.
But this is utterly illogical. They can't have it both ways. Either we are special, meaning we have unique moral duties--and special rights--or we are not. Ignoring this point, as history demonstrates, is very dangerous. How we perceive ourselves could not be more important, for it determines ultimately how we act.