Thursday, August 9, 2012


In response to Edward Greisch @ 147, commenting on previous Hubble post on [list of sociobiology texts omitted]:

"Science will solve ethics. But we don’t have ethical equations yet."

Somehow I don't find this reassuring.

"Preservation of your own species has to be the primary value."

Substitute race for species and this statement sets off deadly alarms. You may not like the transposition, but people have made it in the past and will continue to do so. In every case I'm aware of when the value of human existence has been defined in biological terms, the results have been spectacularly awful.

Forcible sterilization was official policy in the United States well into the 1960s. Margaret Sanger is famous as the founder of Planned Parenthood, but she was also a committed eugenicist, and her ideas were considered normal at the time. Nazi war criminals claimed with some justification that their racial purification laws were inspired by American eugenics. The Wikipedia article on sociobiology includes a delightful photo demonstrating the resurrection of Eugenics Quarterly as Social Biology in 1969.

What makes humans special is that we aren't limited only to biologically determined values. For better or worse people have developed cultures, and eventually civilizations, which completely redefine our relationship to each other and to non-humans. Civilized people are not motivated primarily by a desire to ensure the dominance of their genetic traits. This was as true of the ancient Romans as it is of us. Most of what modern humans do is useless or visibly counterproductive from a strictly biological point of view. Climate change is an apt example: it's simply an unintended consequence of our feverish cultural activity. All around the Mediterranean, entire forests were cut down to make ships, floors, furniture, lutes, picture frames and countless other biologically indifferent but culturally essential artifacts. Much of the area became permanently arid as a result, but this was the price we paid for the Renaissance and subsequent steps toward the global civilization on which our current discussion depends.

For humans, value has to be culturally defined or we become apes. When human beings are reduced to animals or considered only in terms of their biological attributes, rather than viewed as individuals with intrinsic rights, the way is cleared to fascism, as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School rightly insisted after WWII. If the choice is between humans surviving by sacrificing their humanity, and humans not surviving at all, there's no choice: it can only be the latter, because people won't tolerate the former for long.

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