People Matter: A Review of Merchants of Despair

People Matter
Robert Zubrin’s powerful critique of antihumanism
reviewed by Bruce S. Thornton

Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, by Robert Zubrin (Encounter, 328 pp., $25.95)

A ruling idea of the last two centuries has been materialism: the notion, as arch-materialist Daniel Dennett asserts, that “there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter—the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology—and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon.” One consequence of this belief has been the rise of antihumanism—the stripping from people of their transcendent value and a reduction of them to mere things in the world to be studied, understood, reshaped—and ultimately controlled.

As Robert Zubrin shows in his valuable survey Merchants of Despair, antihumanism’s reductive view of human nature has underpinned movements like eugenics, population control, and radical environmentalism, all of which have been eager to sacrifice human life and well-being to achieve their dubious utopias. Zubrin, a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering and fellow of the Center for Security Policy, has previously authored popular books on energy and space exploration. He shows an engineer’s sharp eye for things as they are and a scientist’s respect for the limits of knowledge, especially as regards various pseudoscientific fads.

Zubrin begins with Thomas Malthus, “the founding prophet of modern antihumanism,” who claimed in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population that any population always geometrically grows larger than the food supply. Malthus’s argument ignored humans’ creative ingenuity, but his theories had catastrophic consequences when applied to the real world. Believing that Ireland was overpopulated, for example, the British government allowed this food-exporting island to spiral downward into famine partly because, as Malthus himself urged, “a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” Over 1 million Irish died of starvation and disease caused by malnutrition. Thirty years later, the same policy of neglect contributed to a famine that killed as many as 10 million people in India, again because of the Malthusian fallacy that, as Sir Evelyn Baring told Parliament, “every benevolent attempt made to mitigate the effects of famine and defective sanitation serves but to enhance the evils resulting from overpopulation.”

Charles Darwin embraced Malthus’s apocalyptic theories, too. Overpopulation, he believed, would eventually be cured by natural selection, the “weeding out of ‘unfit’ individuals and races.” As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man: “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Like Malthus, Darwin had no patience with sentimental Christian or Enlightenment ethics that sought to alleviate suffering and improve human life with medical advances such as vaccinations, or with asylums and other social-welfare institutions that cared for the sick, insane, or poor. Because of this effort “to check the process of elimination,” Darwin maintained, “the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” As Zubrin summarizes Darwin’s argument: “Peace, plenty, care, and compassion were interferences in the course of nature. All progress was based on death.”

The mixture of Malthusian and Darwinian theory soon conjured up racist eugenics. At the forefront of the early eugenics movement was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who also decried humanist sentimentalism. The “unfit” must be kept from procreating, he argued, for “if these continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.” By the turn of the twentieth century, these ideas had become articles of faith among many liberals and socialists.

Such cruel pseudoscientific theories took a fatal turn in Germany, where eugenics found its deadliest champion in biologist Ernst Haeckel, “an extreme racist, virulent anti-Catholic bigot, anti-Semite, anti-Pole, pro-imperialist, Pan-German fanatic” as well as a “militant atheist.” Haeckel and his followers sought to replace Christian ethics with “Monism,” the aim of which was to further human evolution through Germany’s conquest of inferior races and the elimination of abnormal children and invalids. The ideas also took hold in America, championed by men like General Francis Amasa Walker, president of M.I.T. In 1896, Walker wrote in the Atlantic that Hungarian, Bohemian, Polish, Italian, and Russian-Jewish immigrants were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.” Theodore Roosevelt would later agree, expressing his disdain for “the prevalent loose and sloppy talk about the general progress of humanity, the equality and identity of races, and the like” as the product of “well-meaning and feeble-minded sentimentalists.” These widespread prejudices, buttressed by biased I.Q. tests, ultimately led in 1924 to the discriminatory U.S. law that shut down immigration from countries considered inferior and provided a pseudoscientific justification for race-based segregation.

The Holocaust would discredit at least the public expression of eugenics. Zubrin shows that the ideas lived on, though, repackaged as “population control” and concern for the environment. Prewar eugenicists found a home in organizations like the postwar Population Council, whose founding roster, Zubrin writes, “reads like a eugenics movement reunion.” The same continuity exists between eugenics groups and environmental organizations, such as the British Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund. Particularly valuable is Zubrin’s examination of the eugenic roots of Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, wrote in 1919: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control.” These movements, Zubrin writes, soon made up “the imposing and influential population control establishment,” which became entrenched at the United Nations and in U.S. government agencies. The efforts of these groups were suspiciously concentrated in the developing world.

As Zubrin meticulously documents, the obsession with overpopulation has led to attacks on the economic and technological development that represents the best hope for improving human life around the globe. The alliance of radical environmentalism, population-control advocacy, and anticapitalist leftism continues to prolong the misery of the Third World. Rachel Carson’s scientifically challenged campaign against DDT led to the deaths of millions. Paul Ehrlich’s spectacularly wrong Malthusian predictions helped legitimize cruel policies, such as Lyndon Johnson’s withholding of food aid to India during the 1966 famine. Ehrlich wanted food aid tied to sterilization and birth-control programs and suggested adding “temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food,” with antidotes given only when the population reached the desired size. He also wanted “luxury taxes” imposed on cribs, diapers, and children’s toys. These neo-Malthusian theories ultimately led to the 1968 creation of the Club of Rome, whose influential study The Limits to Growth shapes attitudes to the present day—for example, in the animus against genetically modified foods. Now institutionalized in E.U. policy, the refusal to allow genetically modified food denies vital crops (containing nutrients and organic pesticides engineered into them) to the Third World.

The anti-global-warming crusade against carbon-based energy is the latest assault on progress and improvement. Zubrin is correct to call the climate-change movement a “global antihuman cult.” Its assaults against dissent, embrace of messianic leaders, and apocalyptic scenarios reveal a debased religious sensibility rather than scientific rigor: “Right thinking will be rewarded,” Zubrin writes of global-warming thought police like Al Gore and economist Paul Krugman. “Wrong thinking will be punished. Many will be sacrificed. All will be controlled. The gods will take back their fire.” The warmists’ growth-killing programs, if implemented, would lead to mass immiseration.

As Zubrin concludes, antihumanist ideas and programs represent a war against human freedom and global solidarity: “If the world’s resources are fixed with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation. The ultimate outcome of such a worldview can only be enforced stagnation, tyranny, war, and genocide.” Contrary to the arguments of the “terrible simplifiers,” as historian Jacob Burckhardt called those who reduce people to mere matter, humans are capable of freedom, creativity, compassion, and love. We should cherish these unique qualities rather than succumbing to antihumanism and self-hatred.

Bruce Thornton is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of classics and humanities at California State University Fresno. His most recent book is The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America.

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