Posts Tagged ‘ Biology ’

Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity

Steve Stewart-Williams in Psychology Today:

(This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams (Cambridge University Press))

This post is the first of three looking at the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution for some of the most important topics in applied ethics, including suicide and euthanasia, and the proper treatment of nonhuman animals. These are controversial topics and you may well disagree with some of the ideas I’m going to float. I hope, though, that you’ll at least find it interesting and perhaps that you’ll find some food for thought in here.

First things first, a lot of people claim that evolutionary theory simply has no implications for any moral question. I suspect this view has been motivated in part by some of the unpopular and unpleasant conclusions that were drawn from the theory in the past. For instance, the Social Darwinists of the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century argued that giving aid to the weak, sick, and poor goes against nature – it undermines natural selection – and thus that it should be stopped. The vast majority of people reject this view now, and that includes the vast majority of evolutionists. But there have been some recent suggestions about other possible implications of evolutionary theory for ethics. One of the most important of these stems from the work of moral philosophers such as James Rachels and Peter Singer. According to these philosophers, in the wake of evolutionary theory, we must rethink or recalibrate our ethical commitments. Specifically, we must rethink the value we place on the lives of human beings vs. other animals.

Rachels identified an important trend in traditional Western moral thinking, which he dubbed the doctrine of human dignity. (Peter Singer uses the phrase sanctity of human life to refer to essentially the same thing.) Although the doctrine of human dignity is often not explicitly expressed, it is the heart and soul of the Western moral system, and provides the moorings for traditional morality.

The doctrine has two parts; the first pertains to humans, the second to nonhuman animals. The part pertaining to humans is the idea that human life has supreme worth – according to some, it has literally infinite value. A corollary of this view is that any activity that involves taking a human life (or at least an innocent human life) is utterly forbidden. This includes suicide, euthanasia, and abortion.

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Biology 2.0

A special report on the human genome in The Economist:

TEN years ago, on June 26th 2000, a race ended. The result was declared a dead heat and both runners won the prize of shaking the hand of America’s then president, Bill Clinton, at the White House. The runners were J. Craig Venter for the private sector and Francis Collins for the public. The race was to sequence the human genome, all 3 billion genetic letters of it, and thus—as headline writers put it—read the book of life.

It quite caught the public imagination at the time. There was the drama of a maverick upstart, in the form of Dr Venter and his newly created firm, Celera, taking on the medical establishment, in the form of Dr Collins’s International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium. There was the promise of a cornucopia of new drugs as genetic targets previously unknown to biologists succumbed to pharmacological investigation. There was talk of an era of “personalised medicine” in which treatments would be tailored to an individual’s genetic make-up. There was the frisson of fear that a genetic helotry would be created, doomed by its DNA to second-class health care, education and employment. And there was, in some quarters, a hope that a biotech boom based on genomics might pick up the baton that the internet boom had just dropped, and that lots and lots of money would be made.

And then it all went terribly quiet. The drugs did not appear. Nor did personalised medicine. Neither did the genetic underclass. And the money certainly did not materialise. Biotech firms proved to be just as good at consuming cash as dotcom start-ups, and with as little return. The casual observer, then, might be forgiven for thinking the whole thing a damp squib, and the $3 billion spent on the project to be so much wasted money. But the casual observer would be wrong. As The Economist observed at the time, the race Dr Venter and Dr Collins had been engaged in was a race not to the finish but to the starting line. Moreover, compared with the sprint they had been running in the closing years of the 1990s, the new race marked by that starting line was a marathon.

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