Posts Tagged ‘ Evolution ’

Rewriting Morality II: Suicide and Euthanasia

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 is the second of three posts dealing with the implications of evolutionary theory for traditionalmorality (see Rewriting Morality I: Goodbye to Human Dignity). In it, we’ll be looking at the vexed and disconcerting issue of suicide and the closely-related topic of voluntary euthanasia.

Philosophers have debated the ins and outs of self-killing for thousands of years. The questions they ask are provocative. Are we obliged to stay alive if we really do not want to? Should people have the right to kill themselves? Should people have the right to stop others from killing themselves, if that’s what they really want to do?

As a general rule, philosophers and religious thinkers have been opposed to suicide. Their reasons are many and varied. Some have argued, for instance, that God has forbidden us to take our own lives, others that it’s up to God to choose the moment and the manner of our deaths, and others still that suicide is wrong because it’s unnatural. But arguably the most important argument is based on the doctrine of human dignity. As I discussed in my last post, this is the idea, implicit in traditional Western systems of morality, that the lives of human beings have infinite value whereas the lives of other animals have little value or perhaps even none at all. A natural corollary of the idea that human life is infinitely valuable is that taking a human life – including one’s own – is infinitely wicked. Thus, according to this argument, ending one’s own life is wrong for the same reason that murder is wrong: because human life is sacred.

The argument is most often applied to suicide, but it has been applied to voluntary euthanasia as well. Kant noted that when an animal is suffering we put it out of its misery, and that’s OK; but it’s not OK when it comes to human beings because of the infinite worth of human life. Similarly, the Rabbi Moshe Tendler opposed voluntary euthanasia on the grounds that ‘Human life is of infinite value’. In his view, we should not cut short a person’s life by even a few days because ‘a piece of infinity is also infinity, and a person who has but a few moments to live is no less of value than a person who has 60 years to live’. Thus, the injunction against assisted suicide – like that against unassisted suicide – is commonly underwritten by the doctrine of human dignity.

But the whole edifice starts to crumble once we bring Darwin into the picture. With the corrective lens of evolutionary theory, the view that human life is infinitely valuable suddenly seems like a vast and unjustified over-valuation of human life. This is because Darwin’s theory undermines the traditional reasons for thinking human life might have infinite value: the image-of-God thesis and the rationality thesis (see my last post). But if human life is not supremely valuable after all, then there is no longer any reason to think that suicide or voluntary euthanasia is necessarily wrong under any or all circumstances. In fact, it starts to seem decidedly odd that we have elevated human life – i.e., pure biological continuation – so far above the quality of the life in question for the person living it. Why should life be considered valuable in and of itself, independently of thehappiness of the individual living that life?

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Lost? Evidence That Sense Of Direction Is Innate

Katherine Harmon in Scientific American:

Not everyone has a perfect sense of direction, whether they would like to admit it or not. But two new studies have found that even baby rats have a basic spatial framework in their brains ready to use as soon as they leave the nest for the first time—which is much earlier than had previously been documented.

The findings reveal that not all sense of space is learned. They show that at least some of that sense is innate, “that the basic constituents of the cognitive map develop independently of spatial experience or might even precede it,” noted the authors of one of the new studies, both published online June 17 in Science.

For the two independent studies researchers record rats’ neuronal firings as soon as newborn pups opened their eyes and began to explore their surroundings. Both teams were surprised to find adult-level cell function in some of the directional regions.

At this age, “the animals would not yet have had a chance to explore the environment beyond their nest,”Francesca Cacucci, a researcher at the Institute of Behavioral Neuroscience at University College London and co-author of one of the papers, writes in an e-mail. “This suggests strongly that sense of direction is independent of spatial experience.”

And because the mammalian hippocampus is relatively consistent in its make-up across species, these lab rat–based findings likely mirror a similar developmental trajectory in humans.

Other abilities, such as face perception or language use, are thought to be innate. But “space is such a basic cognitive function, and to have it be partly innate is really interesting and groundbreaking work,” says Linda Palmer, a project scientist at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, who coauthored a perspectives essay accompanying the two studies in Science.

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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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