Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ethics and evolution

In my opinion, the historical facts about how the forms of life appeared on the earth are as science presents them. There was a gradual change over time in the nature of individual species, and new species appeared as the descendants of previous ones. I think the influence of God on the process was of the same sort as God's influence on history or on our individual lives: pervasive, significant, but very, very subtle. The same events can have more than one cause, but the events themselves are more or less how scientists have determined them to be.

However.

This does not give evolutionary theorists any reasonable claim to be ethical advisors to the rest of us. In the case of a few outspoken authors, I have found their understanding of religion and their ethical positions careless, one-sided, and sometimes dangerously wrong. They show an inability to think critically about these issues that makes all of their reasoning suspect. For example, consider the following passage by Richard Dawkins. He is outlining a line of research he thinks will be followed over the next fifty years and is on the whole in favor of:
"By the time the LGP (Lucy Genome Project) has been completed, embryology should have advanced to the point where the reconstructed genome could be inserted into a human egg and implanted in a woman, and a new Lucy born into the light of today. This will doubtless raise ethical worries.
Though concerned for the happiness of the individual australopithecine reconstructed (this is at least a coherent ethical issue, unlike fatuous worries about "playing God"), I can see positive ethical benefits, as well as scientific ones, emerging from the experiment..."
He then goes on to outline over several pages the benefits he sees coming out of it.
This kind of thinking is, in a literal sense, monstrous. The violation of the dignity of the woman involved in the experiment, the horrific consequences for the child (purposely mentally retarding and disfiguring a child?), the consequences for a society so ethically deranged it would permit such awful experimentation are simply incredible. He has passed all human feeling on this kind of issue. It legitimately raises the question of whether such thinking is the natural end of a belief in evolution and whether any person still capable of moral repugnance would choose to pursue that line of thinking if it leads to such a terrible end.
C.S. Lewis warned about this in The Abolition of Man. When we are capable of changing what it means to be human, we are in serious danger of losing our own humanity.

6 comments:

mike said...

What's your view on a colony mission to Mars with no return flight, where the odds are a thousand to one you'll survive on Mars for more than a year? I know that hundreds of people here at Google would do it.

Dignity is very much a cultural thing. Exposed ankles counts as nakedness in some cultures. If the culture doesn't view it as degrading, or even more, views it as admirable, how does it hurt the woman?

Given that such creatures existed before, what (other than the surety of being poked and prodded its whole life) is the harm in the existence of another? Dawkins isn't suggesting the mental retardation and disfigurement of a human child; he's proposing putting Lucy DNA into an empty egg and an environment in which it could grow.

(I'm here to play Devil's advocate, so don't think I hold any of these opinions.)

D said...

Dawkins believes what your questions imply: that morality is infinitely malleable, and simply a product of culture. I don't think that is the case. In my opininion, moral laws are something like the law of gravity: They exist objectively. They are emergent phenomena. We understand them imperfectly. We can be wrong about them.
From this point of view, slavery was always an evil, even though many cultures practiced it. They simply hadn't acknowledged that it was evil, or thought it was the lesser of two evils, or something along those lines. They were in error.
In choosing to give birth to a being that was not a child so much as it was an experiment, she would be denying herself the possibility of having lived a good life. Instead of a life of joy, her life would be distorted, perverted. By choosing to take what could have developed into a healthy, intelligent child and changing it into something else, the scientists would be doing something that is a kind of violence to the child. And violence to innocents is objectively evil, no matter what your culture says about it.
I am not opposed to the recreation of ancient forms of life. I am opposed to twisting people into those forms of life. Do you see the difference?

On the Mars mission: I think that people have a certain obligation to their loved ones not to get themselves killed if they can help it (since their death would cause pain to those loved ones, and causing others pain is objectively wrong, though it is possible to be justified in some cases). On the other hand, such exploration could have lasting benefits for humanity as a whole. So the question to whether it was worth it or not would depend on the individual and the particulars of the mission.

mike said...

> By choosing to take what could have
> developed into a healthy,
> intelligent child and changing it
> into something else, the scientists
> would be doing something that is a
> kind of violence to the child.

But in this case, the cell couldn't have become a child: it was at best half of a viable cell. Even if a cell is viable, would you say that a woman who has taken the "morning after" pill to prevent implantation is distorting and perverting her life?

One could also argue strongly that the benefits of understanding biology will have a far greater benefit for humanity than a simple Mars base.

D said...

It's not the egg cell; I don't have much objection to such a pill. It's the fact that she is bearing a child, and choosing to have that child be something less than a whole human. She doesn't have the child's interest in mind at all, only science's benefit, and society's. Taking that kind of attitude towards her own child would be an evil act that damages her own humanity.
The way Dawkin's phrased it, it wasn't even about the woman herself. She was just a tool, used by the scientists for their own ends, rather than a person herself. I get the impression that they would be happy to find a poor woman who would do it for money.
We don't allow human experimentation in this country except under strict controls in exceptional circumstances, so it's not a radical position I'm taking here. It's the natural, ethical position.

mike said...

OK, so if it were possible for a chimp to bear the creature, you'd have far fewer qualms about it.

"The Ugly Little Boy" treated some similar ethical dilemmas. Here, the little boy would be far uglier, and would involve giving birth rather than scooping out of time.

D said...

In the case of the chimp, my issues would be more similar to Dawkin's, centered around the feelings of the australopithecus, who would have a very hard life.