An evolutionary perspective on human morals and their boundaries


I am an avid fan of day dreaming, and unlike many people who muse of friendships, potential meetings with celebrities or other frivolous thoughts to occupy a bus journey, I happen to love thinking about science. Yes you could say this a post about me admiting a tendancy for geeky thoughts but I want to write about an opinion/ concept I have been thinking alot about lately.

The fact of evolution, is clear to many, and I do not want to spend my time here explaining the basics and evidence for it. Instead I would like to expand on the idea of what evolution means for humans and plaintifly our moral judgements for other individuals of our species.
Ah species that interesting word, if any of you have read Dawkins The Ancestor's Tale then you may have some clue as to where I am going with this, if not then it maybe a good book for you to read.
Evolution means there is never a defineing point in which a set of organisms belong to one species or another, as travelling back in time one can view that the line of decent slowly changes gradually through mutations and natural selection into very different looking organisms. For many this a difficult concept to grasp, as ironically through our evolution we tend to think of items in forms of specific labels, a cat is a cat etc and cannot grasp that there is no internal catiness at all, just in the present day cats look like cats, but the descendants of modern cats may look competely different and indeed not be considered cats at all.

Our evolutionary past and The Great Apes

This draws me to the very stark fact that every organism at one point in time were linked, and that humans are effectively cousins with chimpazees and bonobos. Indeed as we travel back through time we will come across a point when we were all one species.

Our concept of what it is to be human, and our rights as sentient beings is shaken by the fact that through history there is a un-broken chain of decendants to every single organism on the planet. How then can we define what is right and wrong, what the difference between cannibilism and carnivory is! The discontinous mind labels humans as humans as humans, but back in time this labelling could become extremely difficult until you reach other great apes along the lineage. How then can we say it is ok to use chimpanzees for chemical testing or even food and yet you would never think to do it on another human being (I hope).

Here are some interesting excerpts from Cavalieri and Singer (1993)

Profoundly intellectually disabled Humans and the Great Apes: A comparison, C. Anstotz

"The knowledge we have today about profoundly mentally disabled humans and nonhuman primates gives strong reason to revise the tradional interpretation of the idea of equality. The time has come to see the community of equals as not longer as a closed society, but as an open one. The admission of nonhuman primates and the guarantee of certain fundamental rights in favour of all members of such a community, including profoundly mentally disabled humans, would be a first important step. These rights should include the right to life, the protection of individual liberty and the prohibition of torture."

The case for personhood of Gorillas, F. Patterson and W. Gordon

"Tests have shown that Gorillas understand spoken English as well as they understand sign. In a standardised test called the Assessment of Children's Language Comprehension, Koko's performance (Gorilla) was twice as good as statistical chance. Because the gorillas understand linguistic instructions and questions, we have been able to use standardised intelligence tests to further assess their abilities. Koko's score on different tests yielded an average IQ of 80.3
Many of those who would defend the traditional barrier between Homo Sapiens and all other species cling to language as the primary diffference. As apes have threatened this last clain to human uniqueness, it has become more apparent that there is no clear agreement as to the definition of language."

Religious morals cannot solve societies new challenges

The below cartoon is just an interesting ancedote on how clinging to religious beliefs does not help with the pressing issues our society now faces, the interesting morals issues uncovered inadvertantly through modern science can never be solved through belief systems bang out of date....">


I will end this post, as I am hungry (vegetarian so I dont seem hypocritical) and need to do some work. What I hope however is that this blog post has drawn to the attention that how we view members and treat members of our own species should be extended to some degree to other members of different but closely related species. Here species is used for convience but in evolutionary terms, remember there are no such separations, just varying degrees of how different organisms are from one another.

References and Further Reading

Cavalieri, P. and Singer, P. (1993) The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond humanity, St, Martin's Griffin, ISBN 0-312-11818-x
Dawkins, R. (2004) The Ancestor's Tale, Boston Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0618005838

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Comment by animus on November 29, 2009 at 12:17pm
Yes I've read your blog and you have a clear idea of what you need to say. I am not a vegetarian but have been one and fully understand the way you feel. Hope this doesn't make me the ogre, just yet. We are evolving still a at a snails pace. If you wouldn't mind adding a few vegetarian recipes I'd enjoy them I'm sure.



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