CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND — The 20th Century has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of scientific knowledge. It has also seen episodes of human- rights abuse unparalleled both in magnitude and cruelty.
Even as the double-helix discovery, the quantum theory and the development of a polio vaccine have manifested some of man's most ennobling capabilities, the gulags and gas chambers have demonstrated with equal force that scientific prowess alone does not confirm the existence of civilization--if civilization is to be measured by a commitment to protecting human rights.
Indeed, in a great many places during the 20th Century, human rights have been an imperiled commodity. Yet in every situation, the protections accorded human rights have reflected what cultures and governments think about the value and dignity of man. The scientific disciplines, which have increasingly helped to define our century's view of mankind, have indirectly played an important role in the discussion of human rights, precisely because man's idea of man ultimately decides the respect such rights receive.
Human rights might be defined as the legal and political manifestation of a culture's perception of human dignity. Yet cultures do not create human dignity any more than governments create human rights; at best, societies will acknowledge dignity by preserving rights. Former Harvard law professor Harold J. Berman has detected this assumption at the heart of American constitutionalism. In the United States, he notes, "the fundamental rights of individual persons exist independently of the state." Under Soviet Marxism, by contrast, "all rights are granted by the state and are inevitably subordinate to (its) power."
But which way should it be? Do human rights have validity apart from government decree or are they merely granted by it?
In the Western tradition, human rights have been said to exist independently of the state because they have been based upon human dignity. The American Bill of Rights, for example, offers what Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. has called "a sublime oration on the dignity of man." The word dignity comes from the Latin dignitas, meaning "glory." Historically, Western society has derived its belief in the dignity of man from its Judeo-Christian belief that man is the glory of God, made in his image. According to this view, human rights depend upon the Creator who made man with dignity, not upon the state. In the American formulation, "men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."
Many educated citizens in the West, however, have abandoned the traditional view of man and replaced it with a more contemporary scientific view--one that promulgates a less exalted view of man. In purely material, scientific terms, human beings are insignificant oddities cast up by chance in an immense and impersonal universe. As British philosopher Bertrand Russell concluded, "Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving" and which, in turn, predestine him "to extinction in the vast death of the solar system." Such pessimism has persisted despite the spectacular advances that have occurred in science during the 20th Century. Though Einsteinian and quantum concepts have revolutionized accepted ideas of matter, space and time, science has discovered nothing to elevate the modern view of man. In this modern scientific view, only man's material complexity distinguishes him from the other biological structures that inhabit the universe.
This loss of what is distinctively human will in time require either promoting animals to the human estate, or more likely, relegating man to the level of animals. UC Berkeley biologist Thomas H. Jukes has declared that in a few years we will hear of "the rights of bacteria," since all that differentiates bacteria from humanity is a "disparity in the length and sequence of DNA molecules."
Such predictions are not merely theoretical. Dolphin experiments prompted John Lilly to say that "the day that communication is established the (dolphin) becomes a legal, ethical, moral and social problem." The dolphin will have qualified for "human rights." A court case in California about a great ape that learned sign language further illustrates the point. With research funds exhausted, the ape's teachers claimed that because the ape had learned language, it qualified for legal protection and that to return it to the zoo would be "dehumanizing."