Man as His Own Maker

By David Heyd

By allowing humanity to fashion itself, technology expresses what is truly unique about our species.

Signup for FREE ACCESS to all content
on AzureOnline

The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature.
—Giovanni Pico della Mirandola1
Both common sense and philosophical metaphysics distinguish between entities associated with “natural kinds” and entities that are artificially categorized. This categorization of natural entities is not a product of the mind or of man’s interests, but is rather rooted in the structure of reality itself. In contrast, the categorization of non-natural entities is a matter of convention and functionality, which is dictated by tradition, self-interest, effective communication, etc. As a result, elements in chemistry such as gold, or species in biology such as “cat,” are considered natural kinds; whereas tables, countries, or theories are not. Aristotle believed that biological species are not only natural, but also eternal, i.e., cypress trees were always cypress trees and will forever remain so. Or, in regard to mankind, “man breeds man.” In other words, the humanity of man is an essential part of his nature and the reason it cannot change. Although Aristotle’s considerations were metaphysical and scientific, the perception of particular species as eternal is customary in theology as well. The division of flora and fauna into species was performed at the very moment of their creation by God, who determined the overall structure and order of reality. Furthermore, the creation of man in the image of God determines his eternal and unchanging nature. Unlike other biological species, man as “lord of creation” was endowed with a soul as well as a spiritual or mental essence, as Aristotle also maintained, and this essence constitutes the source of humanity’s eternal and immutable nature.

This traditional view of the world, and especially of man’s status within it, was cast into doubt during the modern era as a result of at least two scientific revolutions: the theory of evolution in the nineteenth century, and the emergence of biotechnology in the twentieth. The evolutionary approach challenged the notion that species are eternal by reasoning that all biological species—including man—evolve and change their forms over time. In fact, when one looks at the progression of the human species over millions of years, it becomes starkly apparent that man does not breed man. The more recent innovations in genetic science and its accompanying technologies have far more challenging implications: that humans do not change so much as they modify themselves, controlling evolution itself and doing so in a very short period, perhaps even from one generation to the next. For example, on May 19 of this year, the English parliament voted down two attempts to ban the creation of hybrid embryos, which combine genetic material from human and non-human organisms. Although it is still illegal to transplant such embryos into the womb of a human or animal female, many believe the vote undermined both the metaphysical concept and the normative principle according to which “man breeds man.”2
As the above quotation by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola demonstrates, however, the modern crisis of the Aristotelian and biblical worldviews occurred long before the appearance of biotechnology and the theory of evolution; the crisis is, in fact, connected to an acute, even subversive revision that took place in the tradition of religious thought. Today we refer to this dramatic shift—which occurred as early as the fifteenth century—as “humanism,” of which Pico is considered a founder. In a deeper sense, the transformation in man’s view of himself—so dreaded and opposed by Prof. Leon Kass—is far from a late-twentieth-century development. It is, in fact, ironic that although this conceptual transformation is the root of the late-modern perspective that Prof. Kass sees as a threat to the foundations of humanity, it is customary to think of it as the essence of humanism. The detachment of man from a natural, eternal, and constant essence is manifest in Pico’s choice of wording, and although the content may seem shocking in light of the hubris that it contains, it is nonetheless presented as if it were the words of God himself: “We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.”3
There is, of course, no telling what Pico would have made of cloning or genetic-engineering practices. They are undoubtedly ethically problematic and require careful and levelheaded consideration. Yet Pico clearly voices a change in man’s metaphysical perspective on himself and his place in the world, while emphasizing the radical freedom that is an essential part of man’s self-fashioning. As a result of this change, all that remains of man’s essential nature is his ability to fashion his own form. Because of this, the nature of man ceases to be a constant and eternal truth and becomes fluid. The freedom given to man does not manifest itself in a need to fulfill a certain role in the world, as is required of other creatures, but rather in the ability to construct himself according to his own choices. To use Prof. Kass’s image, man can choose to be himself or to live as a buffalo. This is a radical understanding of humanism and anthropocentrism. Man is not the lord of creation in the sense that he occupies the highest position among the other creatures. Man, who is not tied down to an essential nature or a specified role in the cosmic alignment, is in a league of his own as he takes responsibility for his own destiny. Instead of the Aristotelian aspiration to realize his already existent nature, the modern man must instead define its characterizing features. Thus, to use Prof. Kass’s imagery, man designs not only the engine of the train, but also the engineer, and he knows not where he is headed, at least in the sense that he indeed has no predetermined destination or destiny.

David Heyd is a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Signup >>
Forgot password? >>

From the

Operation Cast Lead and the Ethics of Just WarWas Israel's conduct in its campaign against Hamas morally justified?
Orde Wingate: Friend Under FireThe new historians take aim at the father of the IDF.
Nietzsche: A MisreadingNietzsche and Zion by Jacob Golomb
The DissidentVixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger and Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture by Richard Pipes
Facts Underground 

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2018