Guest Article: The Roots of our Ancestry, Need not be the Roots of Our Morality

Chris Kavanagh: The following article was submitted by my good friend Joseph Finch (a fine pianist), it touches on some sensitive issues and proposes some interesting thoughts on science, religion and morality and as such I think it’s a good fit for the blog.

All the opinions and arguments below are Joe’s and not mine (though I do find his argument quite compelling) and as such all credit (or criticism) should be directed his way. I’m sure he’ll be happy to discuss any responses in the comment section. Anyhow, without further adieu here is the article.

During the 19th century, in the new context of Darwinism, Europeans hypothesised that Africans were more closely related to earlier ancestors of human beings than they were. The hypothesis is of course incorrect as all human beings are equally related to a common ancestor which we share with chimpanzee and bonobos, however, the moral conclusions that were drawn from the false belief were considerable and abhorrent  to say the least. The belief in a racial hierarchy and the subsequent treatment of other races as ‘subhuman’ is too well chronicled to need any further explanation.

We traditionally place the blame for such behaviour on the inaccurate scientific hypothesis. ‘How could they have thought such a thing?’ we ask as though the idea that inter-special versions of homosapiens existing is a self evidently ridiculous and bigoted one. But the tendency to place the blame for the evil of the behaviour on the hypothesis is misplaced. There truly is no reason that members of homosapiens more closely related to earlier ancestors than us might not have survived, and if this had happened, would eliminating our moral consideration of them according to how closely related they were to us be morally justified?

Anyone who hypothesised today that one group of homosapiens was more closely related to earlier ancestors than another would be automatically labelled racist, rather than scientifically misinformed. While it is true to say that many racists do make scientifically inaccurate claims about other members of our species in order to justify their treatment of different races,  it is only because of the nature of our morality that they are able to use poor science to justify their opinions to the scientifically misinformed. In a more modern morality the false science would be considered irrelevant.

In short, whilst someone who tells you at a dinner party that Africans are more closely related to earlier apes than Northern Europeans is more likely to be a racist than an anthropologist out on a limb, it is the basis of the morality we share with them which is ultimately to blame for their bigotry rather than their misapprehension of the evolution of our species.

A further problem with our speciest morality is that it creates a ’no go’ area of political correctness around scientific discussion with the effect that even suggesting that characteristics such as intelligence are likely to be genetically determined or even that some people are more intelligent than others prompting appalled accusations of an advocacy of eugenics from all corners. I would argue that different levels of IQ between human beings, regardless of their origin, need not prompt a hierarchy of moral consideration. In fact, I would go so far as to say they must not prompt a hierarchy of moral consideration.

The only reason that uncomfortable scientific hypothesis are just that is because of the often conscious and sometimes unconscious prejudices that our current morality comprises, for example ‘Human beings are ultimate and superior product of evolution’, ‘Human beings are superior because of their intelligence’ Ergo ‘More intelligent human beings are superior to less intelligent human beings’.

Therefore it is the way in which we construe our moral framework and attest moral consideration according to species rather than to consciousness, sentience and the capacity to suffer, placing own species as the ultimate pinnacle of evolution in a misconceived perception of superiority, a belief deeply steeped in a religious view of the world (even amongst atheists) which is surely at fault rather than mistaken scientific hypotheses.

This essay draws heavily on the work of Peter Singer particularly his books towards animal liberation and also that of Richard Dawkins, specifically his essay ‘Gaps In The Mind’ which you can read here.

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2 comments

  1. The problem with the IQ debate is that it is very complicated (what is intelligence, what is race, can environmental factors really be excluded, is it valid to extrapolate from the general [population] to the specific [individuals]?), and there is a very large scope for abuse.

    You would expect there to be population-based genetic differences in any attribute, purely for stochastic reasons. However, for intelligence it’s unlikely we’ll every actually be able to determine what those are, and whether they are meaningful.

    That, rather than equating intelligence with value, is why people are very cautious.

    Incidentally, we routinely assign superior status to intelligent people. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing? Dawkins is intelligent, and so is accorded high status, etc…

    Like

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    Like

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