Broadening the Conversation

Catholics of a conservative bent are concerned about everything from how the philosophical trajectory since the Enlightenment has produced the modern and post-modern mindsets, to how Vatican II has played out in catechesis and liturgy, to the departures from natural law and the failures of pluralism in the American polity.  These and associated dangers are assuredly the right concerns.

But I worry sometimes that we can, in thinking carefully about these questions, isolate ourselves unnecessarily. We may come to descending into the catacombs sooner rather than later, and several of us have already come to thinking about small communities that, like Benedictine monasteries, seek to preserve order and even advance truth in a chaotic world of failed philosophies and politics.

Still, we should make sure that those communities are not self-limiting, exclusive ghettos. There are sources outside our usual range that have much to offer.

A great example is Robert Zubrin’s recently published book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism

Zubrin is best known for his support of space exploration and sending people to Mars. He founded and still heads the Mars Society and has written extensively on the whys and hows of terraforming, or altering other planets to make them habitable for colonization. But he is not an idle dreamer. His feet are on the ground, and he has been an engineer with Lockheed for much of his career.

Merchants of Despair, though, is about humanity on Earth. And he writes about humanity, in the abstract, without ever losing sight of the concrete individual person.   Zubrin’s probing cast of mind, willingness to question conventional truths of some supposedly scientific movements, and engineer’s capacity for testing propositions give him formidable reach.

Zubrin opens with contrasting quotations. First, Shakespeare, around 1600, in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…”

This Shakespearean passage always reminds me of Psalm 8: 

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and stars which thou hast established;
What is man that thou art mindful of him,
And the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.
Thou hast given him dominion over the work of thy hands…

Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair

Over against man’s noble reason and faculties, Zubrin points to the words of the Club of Rome, the famous anti-growth organization whose predictions from the 1960s and 70s have proven spectacularly wrong: “The World Has Cancer and the Cancer is Man.”

From these radically different views of man and his place in creation, Zubrin proceeds to demolish many of the most popular pseudo-scientific creeds of the last two centuries. He shows the catastrophic human results of Malthusian thinking, the belief that populations would inevitably outgrow the resources needed to sustain them. He takes the British treatment of Ireland and India in the nineteenth century as tragic case studies (noting that government policy in those cases ran contrary to the general sentiments of the British people).

He describes “Darwin’s Moral Inversion.” Zubrin assures us, “Evolution is a fact.” But he points out that Darwin did not discover evolution but rather presented a plausible explanation of it in the form of natural selection. Darwin’s extension of his new view of nature’s means of evolution into the idea that “civilized nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations” would prove as utterly awful as any theory in all of history.

Darwin (and Malthus) laid the groundwork, in turn, for the infamous eugenics movement, with its belief that the elimination of inferior peoples and nations would lead to paradise on Earth. Here, the United States comes into play. The American Museum of Natural History turns out to have had a facilitating role in bringing together early supporters of eugenics.

Zubrin draws the causal line between British, American, and German support for Malthusian and Darwinian eugenics, and the Holocaust and the post-World War II variant of eugenics called “population control.” From there, the same intellectual tradition extends into the green movement and radical environmentalism.

Zubrin believes unapologetically and enthusiastically in man’s creative capacity in all domains from agriculture on this planet to agriculture on Mars. Some may see in his writing a hint of materialist pretension to the same god-human status that the Darwinians and their successors presumed.

I think, rather, that he is attempting to restore the view of man’s place on Earth and in the universe that the Psalmist and Shakespeare gave us, and that such a view represents the culture of life versus the culture of death. 

I do not know Zubrin’s religious views. But I know that he wrote this:

We must reject antihumanism and embrace instead an ethic based on faith in the human capacity for creativity and invention. For in doing so, we make a statement that we are living not at the end of history, but at the beginning of history; that we believe in freedom and not regimentation; in progress and not stasis; in love rather than hate; in life rather than death; in hope rather than despair.

There is much in that paragraph that is strikingly similar to the writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. 

In an age when Catholics find few congenial fellow travelers, we should look carefully at this book and others like it for what they can add to our understanding of our current predicament.

Dr. Joseph R. Wood serves in the School of Philosophy and Theology of the University of Notre Dame Australia, and is a Fellow at Cana Academy.