Sunday, August 28, 2005

Australopithecus: an evolving threat

Richard Dawkins, the prominent defender of Darwinism, has a striking thought experiment. Imagine, he says, that you are standing in east Africa, on the shore of the Indian Ocean, facing north. In your left hand you hold the right hand of your mother, who is standing beside you. She, in turn, is holding the hand of her mother, to her left, and her mother in turn (we have to do some hanky panky with time) is holding her mother’s hand, and so on and on. This chain of women, mothers and daughters, stretches some 300 miles, or less than 500 kilometers, inland, at which point there is a mother who has turned ninety degrees to face back toward the ocean. In her right hand she holds the hand of the daughter from whom you are descended. In her left hand, she holds the hand of a second daughter, who stands facing her first daughter, sister facing sister. This second daughter holds in her left hand the hand of her daughter, who holds the hand of her daughter, and so on—a chain facing the first chain (cousins facing cousins) and stretching all the way back down to the ocean. At the end of this second chain, facing you, is your distant cousin: a modern chimpanzee.

Since Darwin, many people have been distinctly unhappy with the idea that we are descended from non-human animals—and that we in fact are apes. In a famous debate at Oxford in 1860, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce asked Thomas Henry Huxley (who became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”) whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey. Darwinian evolution threatens the doctrine of human exceptionalism, the idea that human beings stand at the pinnacle of creation. More than simply a claim about the superior mental powers of Homo sapiens, human exceptionalism holds that humans possess a unique moral worth that makes it unacceptable to treat them as mere means to the ends of others, but permits humans to use non-humans as mere means to human ends. Wesley J. Smith argues that those who reject human exceptionalism, including proponents of animal rights and many bioethicists and proponents of biotechnology, open the door to the elimination of human rights. "I mean, if we are merely another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act." This is also the claim made by Jesuit philosopher James B. Reichmann in Evolution, Animal "Rights", and the Environment.

There is no contradiction between believing in evolution and believing in God. (The great historian of science, Joseph Needham, was a Christian Marxist who believed that dialectical materialism—or dialectical naturalism, as he preferred to call it—was God’s way of working in the world.) But the theory of evolution deals a hard blow to human exceptionalism by showing that species have arisen through gradual changes, and that humans are related by descent to other forms of life that often closely resemble them. The hominid relatives of modern humans, including Australopithecus and earlier Homo species cannot easily be excluded from the moral community. Would it have been okay to eat or enslave Neanderthals—members of a hominid species with brains larger than ours, who died out about 30,000 years ago? (Perhaps our ancestors did just that; there is some speculation that the Neanderthals may have been victims of genocide.) What if tomorrow we discover some isolated community in the Alps whose living members are part Homo sapiens and part Homo neanderthalensis? Would they qualify for moral rights? Would it be a hideous crime to eat or experiment upon individuals who were 51% sapiens, but fine and dandy to eat or experiment upon their next-door neighbours who were only 49% sapiens?

Immanuel Kant claimed that humans have a special moral worth because they are rational beings. But even if we grant full moral status to Neanderthals on the basis of their reasoning powers and presumed moral agency, there’s a problem. Many humans (the very young, the severely mentally handicapped) are not rational beings, and indeed have lesser mental abilities than many non-humans. Darwinian evolution, which rejects the notion of rigid biological groupings of organisms, each with its immutable essence, implies “moral individualism”, the idea that the moral standing of beings depends on their individual characteristics rather on their membership in some class of beings (e.g., species). (See James Rachels, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism.) In other words, a pig or dog whose relevant mental capacities (reasoning powers, autonomy, emotional responses, or whatever is deemed key) exceed those of a mentally handicapped human, ought to be accorded equal or higher moral standing. Dawkins’ thought experiment above is part of a piece he wrote for The Great Ape Project, whose aim is to have the other great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) granted legal rights to life, liberty, and freedom from torture.

The fall-back position for the exceptionalist is to claim that humans have a special moral worth just because they are human. Thus Wesley J. Smith says, “Human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.” But how does one defend such a claim, which on the surface appears to be arbitrary and no different from saying, “Men are superior to women simply and merely because they are men”? Indeed, without further backing, the claim of human exceptionalism leads to nonsensical conclusions. One way of giving the claim the backing it needs is to hold that God has intervened in nature to endow humans with unique moral worth, perhaps by giving them immortal souls or perhaps by announcing, “because I’m God and I say so.” One might try to square such divine intervention with evolution by imagining that God specially endows each human being at conception with such worth, or intervened at some moment in the past (say, 50,000 years ago) with a blanket endowment of unique worth for Homo sapiens; but any such claim must remain a matter of pure faith. On the other hand, if it can be persuasively argued on the basis of biological evidence that the species Homo sapiens was independently designed, or at least is the culmination of a designed process, then the case for human exceptionalism acquires a modicum of plausibility.

Guess what. It turns out that Wesley J. Smith, denouncer of animal rights and the prospect of genetically-engineered human-animal chimeras, is a prominent member of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based organization that is at the forefront of the campaign to get Intelligent Design accepted as a legitimate scientific theory. The belief that life on this world has in some way been designed by intelligence—God, or space aliens, or even human virtual-reality technicians in the real world of the thirty-third century—can be compatible with a belief in Darwinian evolution. So why the vehemence of the current public debate? Although Darwinism is not beyond scientific criticism, historically its rejection has been fuelled more by politics and culture than by science. Intelligent Design theory is not simply a claim about the existence of a Designer based on the alleged inadequacy of natural selection to account for the origin of species. It is a bulwark that is being constructed to defend the doctrine of human exceptionalism.

I close this post with the words of Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895):
When I reached intellectual maturity, and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; a Christian or a freethinker, I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until at last I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure that they had attained a certain “gnosis” -- had more or less successfully solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. ...

Agnosticism, in fact,
is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good”; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Wasn't Hitler a vegetarian?

A number of blogs recently let loose on the latest controversial campaign from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). In words and pictures, PETA draws parallels between the treatment of of non-human animals and oppressed human beings. The focus on black Africans has elicited outrage, just as PETA's earlier "Holocaust on Your Plate" drew strong condemnation. Critics have been particularly incensed about what they see as the implication that the suffering of cows or rabbits is comparable to the suffering of blacks or Jews. In the eyes of the critics, PETA is guilty of racism and anti-Semitism for equating these human victims with animals.

Of course, that's not how PETA sees it. PETA's point is that just as inflicting unnecessary suffering or death on groups of humans is a moral outrage and displays the ignorant bias we call "racism" or "anti-Semitism", so many of the ways we treat animals are morally outrageous and manifest an ignorant bias that can be labelled "speciesism". Alice Walker apparently agrees with PETA's parallel. And it was Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote, "for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka". The problem, however, is that PETA's tactics have had the effect of diverting attention away from the treatment of animals and toward the issue of whether PETA itself is racist or--in the case of using women like Pamela Anderson to denounce fur or promote vegetarianism by wearing nothing, or nothing but a few lettuce leaves--sexist. My conclusion has to be that these deliberately inflammatory campaigns (though certainly not all of PETA's campaigns) are dumb because they are counter-productive: they wind up antagonizing too many people instead of making them think. They give people a wonderful excuse for not taking a good look at themselves in the mirror.

But wasn't Hitler a vegetarian? This silly rejoinder to Pamela Anderson and PETA (one of numerous silly rejoinders that get trotted out) raises the fascinating topic of the Nazis' attitudes toward animals and non-human nature in general. Hitler's hero, Richard Wagner, advocated abstaining from meat, and Hitler did restrict his own intake, mainly for health reasons. Nonetheless, he continued to eat meat, Bavarian sausages and stuffed pigeon being two of his favourite dishes. The Nazis had an ambivalent attitude toward animals, identifying with predators while looking upon members of other races and nations as less than fully human. Indeed, the Nazi world-view vehemently rejected the idea that humans could transcend the harsh, dog-eat-dog laws of nature. But more about Nazis and ecology in a coming post.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The USA is a bully

This will not come as news to most people. But it's interesting to see who's just woken up to the fact: the very people who negotiated the Free Trade Agreement on behalf of the Mulroney government. After the latest softwood-lumber fiasco, with the US thumbing its nose at the ruling of NAFTA's Extraordinary Challenge Committee, which, like every other tribunal of NAFTA and the WTO, has ruled in Canada's favour, Derek Burney has announced, "It's the tactic of the schoolyard bully...." Pat Carney: "I always said they were jackboot negotiators...." Gordon Ritchie: "There is a strong case to be made that when you're dealing with a bully, and the bully punches you, you should punch him back." All this on the front page of The Globe and Mail, the newspaper that has come to its senses seventeen years after it announced, falsely, on the morning after the bitter free-trade election of 1988, that Canadians had endorsed the FTA. (In fact, a majority of voters opted for either the Liberals or the New Democrats, both of whom had strongly opposed the deal.)

Bullies do not understand "Please do the right thing. Please keep your word." But will the Martin government have the guts to punch back? I'm not optimistic. The Liberal Party reneged on its anti-free trade position when Jean Chrétien replaced John Turner as leader, and Martin doesn't have the nationalist instincts of Chrétien. I'd like to see Canada seriously reduce the energy flow to the US for a few weeks. (How about in January?) Yes, we'd be hurting our own economy, but you either stand up to the bully or you don't. Although most people in the States haven't a clue, the US economy is hugely dependent on raw materials and manufactured goods from Canada. In the longer run, Canada should look to other markets to significantly reduce its dependence on the US. (I hear there's a country called China that's looking for oil.) Ideally, I'd like Canada to withdraw from NAFTA and strike a trade deal with the European Community. All this would take political backbone of a kind I doubt any Canadian government would have.

The US is a superpower whose hegemony is on the wane. I strongly suspect that a century from now historians will mark the 1990s as the apogee of US power. Circa 1989 marked the end of the Soviet empire. What few realized at the time was that it also may well have marked the beginning of the end of the American empire. It was instructive in the lead-up to the Iraq War that the US was unable to bully even some of the smallest countries on the UN Security Council into backing its war plans. With the Soviet bugaboo gone, the incentive to back the US was diminished. Even so, the US continues, with some success, to bully nations economically into promising it an exemption from International Criminal Court proceedings. And make no mistake about it, with its economic power being increasingly challenged in the coming decades, the US will be even more tempted to throw its considerable military weight around. And it will look even less favourably on countries in its backyard--particularly that great source of wealth next door to the north--that want to control their own resources. Standing up to the bully is likely to take even more courage in times to come.

Aug. 24 update: As I was saying, don't hold your breath waiting for Paul Martin and his bourgeois-revisionist running-dog lackeys of US imperialism to punch back.

Aug. 30 update: Now an interim report of the WTO has ruled against Canada. (Was it Sartre who said, "Hell is endless softwood-lumber rulings"?) None of this alters the fact that the US is a rogue state, going its own way regardless of what any tribunal or international body says, demanding that other nations live up to international law and their treaties with the US, but itself flouting international law and and its own treaties at will.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Hot enough for ya?

I'm no expert on climate change, so I'm not going to argue to what extent humans may be responsible for global warming. What intrigues me is the way that this issue, and other environmental issues, have become a political football. In particular, many on the right are convinced that environmentalism is an evil left-wing conspiracy to deprive them of their lives, liberties, and property, and, as this post at Dawg's Blawg details, these free-market anti-environmentalists are happy to play fast and loose with the truth to make their claim.

There's something more at work here than lunacy and bile. These people typically adhere to an ideology that may be described as technological triumphalism. And although most advocates of this view today are right-wingers, some have arrived from the left. Technological triumphalism claims that because human beings possess unique abilities to transform nature to their purposes, they have a moral right, and even a duty, to subjugate and exploit the non-human world. The ability and freedom to conquer nature is the glory and defining capacity of humans; those who refuse to acknowledge this are politically backward and morally perverse.

The ideology of technological triumphalism can be seen in the UK's Institute of Ideas and in its on-line magazine Spiked. The titles of some of Spiked's science articles will give you the flavour of its thinking: "Nuclear lethargy: Why is the government dragging its heels on building new nuclear power stations?", "Global warming...: The G8 declaration blows apart Green delusions", "Africans need DDT, not 'blah, blah, blah'", "Taking the spark out of science: Health and safety fears are squeezing practical experiments out of the classroom", "Vivisection...: Scientists who support a new centre for researching alternatives to animal experimentation have their priorities all wrong". Interestingly enough, Spiked is the reborn, free-enterprise version of a magazine called Living Marxism, and the culmination (to date) of a long, strange trip from the loony left to the rabid right.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Was she or wasn't she?

Michaëlle Jean, the Governor General designate, has issued the following statement:

I am deeply touched and wish to thank all those who have so warmly greeted the news of my recent nomination to the office of Governor General of Canada. Others have questioned my attachment to Canada and that of my husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond.

I want to tell you unequivocally that both he and I are proud to be Canadians and that we have the greatest respect for the institutions of our country. We are fully committed to Canada. I would not have accepted this position otherwise.

We are equally proud of the attachment to Quebec that we have always shown beyond any partisan considerations. Let me be clear: we have never belonged to a political party or the separatist movement.

The French version has the words "nous n’avons jamais adhéré à un parti politique ou à l’idéologie souverainiste." So in one version she's saying she didn't belong to the separatist movement, and in the other version, that she didn't adhere to the sovereigntist ideology. Does that put to rest the controversy over her loyalty to Canada? It should. Notice, though, that she doesn't say how she voted in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. But that shouldn't matter. Even if she had sovereigntist leanings in the past (without actually belonging to the movement or adhering to the "ideology"), a convert to the cause of Canadian unity is likely to be especially clear about her reasons for embracing federalism. And there's no reason to believe that she would have accepted the appointment if she were not fully committed to Canada, as she affirms in her statement today. The fact that she and her husband were well acquainted with separatists is hardly surprising. You cannot live in Quebec without doing so, especially if you are an academic, an intellectual, or an artist. Being in favour of Quebec independence is a perfectly legitimate option, as our political parties and the Supreme Court have recognized. When the Bloc Québécois formed Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in Parliament, they merited the title, for, like nearly all Quebec sovereigntists, they have adhered to the democratic principles of the Constitution in seeking their political goals. Whether Ms. Jean ever had sympathies for Quebec sovereignty should be irrelevant today with respect to her vice-regal position.

Chantal Hébert argues that separatists hoping to "out" Ms. Jean and embarrass Paul Martin may have shot themselves in the foot.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The mess in Iraq

Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq, has been camping outside George Bush's Texas ranch, demanding to see the President. She wants US troops out of Iraq now. Her protest has stirred up a hornets' nest of invective from the political right. (Dawg's Blawg has a post worth reading on the Sheehan matter.) Perhaps the right is afraid that a tipping point is being reached in US public opinion. In the Sixties it took several years before that point was reached, and casualties were far heavier than they are in Iraq. As of now, there have been some 1850 US military deaths in Iraq. Although the rate of deaths and injuries is easily sustainable militarily, it is not indefinitely sustainable politically, and time is running out on Bush's ability to keep public opinion in line. Already, most Americans believe that going to war was a mistake, even if they are not prepared to demand an immediate withdrawal of troops.

The war was sold to the US public as necessary to avert an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Of course, we now know there were no such weapons. I think it's safe to say that many or most opponents of the war were surprised to find that Saddam had nothing at all in the way of, say, chemical weapons; after all, everyone agreed he was a nasty megalomaniac. But they were right to believe his regime posed no imminent threat to other countries. (One reason the French became the favourite whipping boy of the US is that France had the gall--Gaul?--not only publicly to defy the US on Iraq, but to be right.) With UN weapons inspectors crawling all over Iraq, why did the US and UK decide they had to cut the process short and go to war immediately? The likely answer: because UN weapons inspectors were crawling all over Iraq. They were in the process of blowing the cover story that had been promulgated to justify an invasion. There was a backup cover story too: Saddam is in cahoots with Al Qaeda. More than that, there was a drumbeat of innuendo from the US administration suggesting a link between Saddam and 9/11. It went something like this: "Ever since 9/11, we have become aware of the threat posed to this nation by Saddam Hussein." Notice that this statement doesn't actually claim there is any link between Saddam and 9/11. ("Ever since 9/11, I have become aware that Derek Jeter is the best shortstop in baseball." Why? Perhaps I started watching a lot of baseball to get my mind off politics.) I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who said when questioned that he had no idea where so many Americans got the idea there was a connection between Saddam and 9/11. Then there was the final fall-back justification. The US invaded Iraq to bring freedom to Iraqis, while fighting all the terrorists there. Oh, yes, and there's a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.

It's an over-simplification to say that the US invaded Iraq for oil, but there's more than a grain of truth there. "We need to accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles." The US invaded Iraq to advance its own economic, military, and political interests, by securing control of a key country in the energy-rich, strategically vital Middle East--a goal seen as all the more important given the growing influence of potential rival powers, particularly China. But remaking a country like Iraq into a pro-US bastion is no simple task, and once you're in, there's no easy way out. Arguably, the war has diminished US security and international clout. Iraq is a mess, and even if it manages to pull itself together, it's doubtful the new state will be the pro-US Iraq envisioned by those who overthrew Saddam. Meanwhile, back home, more and more mothers are asking whether it was all worth it.

Here's a useful site for keeping informed on developments in Iraq and the Middle East.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Today is the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It was followed three days later by a similar terrorist attack on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these attacks, either immediately or over time through the effects of radiation. Although both cities had installations of military value, the fact that the bombings were intended to obliterate the cities in their entirety, including their civilian populations, means that these must be counted as acts of terrorism, possibly the largest and most egregious individual instances of terrorism ever. (I discussed the definition of terrorism in an earlier post.)

Many U.S. officials and scientists were opposed to dropping the bombs on civilian populations. Among the opponents was General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower. In its extensive article on the bombings, Wikipedia quotes Leo Szilard, one of the scientists involved in the development of the atomic bomb, as writing:
If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them.
The Japanese surrendered almost immeditely after the Nagasaki bombing. Although several factors were at work, including the Soviet Union's declaration of war against Japan on August 8, there can be little doubt that the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki played the main role. It was argued by proponents that the bombings resulted in a net saving of tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, lives that would have been lost if the war had continued. Indeed, one must consider whether, were it not for the horrifying images of the two blasted cities and the "never again" peace movement that resulted, a full-scale nuclear war might have broken out at some later time between the United States and the Soviet Union. In other words, had it not been for those bombings, perhaps none of us would be here today.

Since President Harry Truman and his advisors did not drop the bombs in order to engender revulsion against nuclear terrorism, they can hardly take credit for the anti-nuclear movement that followed in the wake of August 1945. Unfortunately, that revulsion may be on the wane. A piece in last Saturday's Globe and Mail reported that the invitation of Japanese survivors to speak to an Atlanta high school in 2002 was cancelled at the last moment, with the guests being labelled opponents of George Bush; when they joined a peace march in Washington they were met with taunts of "Go home!" and "Remember Pearl Harbor!"