Evolution & Ethics

29 04 2010

In 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley gave the second ever Romanes Lecture at Oxford University. It was entitled ‘Evolution & Ethics’. In this lecture, delivered in some of the finest of 19th century prose, Huxley presented one of the most clear rebukes given then and since against the coarse injection of evolution into ethics. Even though I’m of the belief that evolution is central to a complete understanding of morality, Huxley’s arguments still stand, and I hold them in the highest regard. Here are a few snippets with which anyone interested in the intersection of evolution and ethics should be familiar:

“But as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.”

“There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called ‘ethics of evolution.’ It is that notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Fittest’ has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour’. In cosmic nature, however, what is ‘fittest’ depends upon the conditions. long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the ‘fittest’ that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour; while, if it became hotter, the pleasant valleys of the Thames and Isis might be uninhabitable by any animated beings save those that flourish in a tropical jungle. They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive.”

“Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.”

“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as tho the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”

“Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

And one final note: Huxley was not only a great biologist, natural philosopher and defender of evolution, but he was one of the rare English thinkers of his time to give great credence to Eastern thinkers. Here is just one insightful passage from Evolution and Ethics that hints at his surprisingly nuanced view of Indian philosophy, and at his ability to weave that into a distinctly English narrative:

“The earlier forms of Indian philosophy agreed with those prevalent in our own times, in supposing the existence of a permanent reality, or ‘substance,’ beneath the shifting series of phenomena, whether of matter or of mind. The substance of the cosmos was ‘Brahma’, that of the individual man ‘Atman’; and the latter was separated from the former only, if I may so speak, but its phenomenal envelope, by the casing of sensations, thoughts and desires, pleasures and pains, which make up the illusive phantasmagoria of life. This the ignorant take for reality; their ‘Atman’ therefore remains eternally imprisoned in delusions, bound by the fetters if desire and scourged by the whip of misery. But the man who has attained enlightenment sees that the apparent reality is mere illusion, or, as was said a couple of thousand years later, that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

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The Return of Eugenics

20 04 2010

Eugenics has a bad rap. All that talk of selective breeding (or sterilising) of people in order to improve the human stock or purify races is terribly distasteful today – and for good reason. However, I wonder if we’re already bringing a kind of eugenics back with modern day genetic testing. And if so, maybe this, much more temperate, version of eugenics is acceptable, or perhaps even good.

Prenatal testing and embryo testing for hereditary genetic abnormalities and disorders is on the rise. We now have the technology to not only determine whether an embryo or a foetus carries a genetic defect that will result in a life threatening disease or disorder, or even one that will severely compromise standard of living, but we can even screen embryos before they’re implanted through IVF.

Certainly, there are broad grey areas over when and in what circumstances such testing can occur – I’m not about to debate these issues – but I am assuming that such tests, in some form, are likely to continue. And, by continuing, we will further have the ability to screen embryos that carry such disorders.

If, by doing so, we reduce the representation in the human gene pool of genes that cause certain disorders, and we do so willingly, then, in a manner of speaking, we’re engaging in a kind of eugenics. Not the kind that attempts to selectively breed (or genetically engineer) to seek out or enhance certain phenotypic traits, but the kind that ends up reducing the frequency of some undesirable traits. One needn’t even start allowing parents to select traits, like eye colour or height, for this weak form of eugenics to hold.

Put this way, my initial suspicion surrounding eugenics gives way slightly to the prospect that this might even be a good thing. But there are still issues, like that we might be inadvertently reducing our genetic diversity, and this could prove problematic down the track.

There are very few (if any) genes that affect only one thing. Genes code for proteins or RNA, and these proteins and RNA can perform multiple tasks and interact with other proteins or RNA in complex ways. Reducing the frequency of one gene in a population might have unforseen side effects. One need only observe the problems that arise when genetic diversity drops significantly – such as in so-called founder populations – to see the ill effects of a lack of diversity.

Then there’s heterozygosity, such as with sickle-cell anemia. It’s a genetic disorder that is inherited if an individual receives two copies of the mutant haemoglobin gene; if an individual possesses only one, the non-mutant is dominant, so sickle-cell anemia doesn’t develop. Furthermore, heterozygous individuals – those who have a mutant and non-mutant gene – gain some resistance against malaria. Eradicating the mutant gene from the population could have a negative effect in terms of malaria resistance. That said, if homozygotes were screened, that alone wouldn’t remove the mutant gene from the population.

I doubt this will ever be a simple black and white issue. There are likely to be plenty of cases where prenatal testing will reveal some non-inherited genetic abnormality, such as Down syndrome, which is not a heritable disorder (although individuals with Down syndrome can have children – if rarely – and they are more likely to carry the syndrome). And we can employ limits and precautions on how we treat the presence of heritable diseases or disorders – or the presence of genes that might increase the chance of a particular disease or disorder. With some cautious use, we might lower the proportion of genes in the population that cause these problems, but not eradicate them altogether.

I don’t know if you’d call that eugenics – admittedly it is a stretch – but even if it is, with some caution, it might actually be a good thing.