Oh, the indignities suffered by poor Richard Dawkins! The latest is a rebuke by John H. Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Evans’s article in last August’s New Scientist found its way to me today (click on screenshot to get partial article; it’s not free), though for some reason its title has changed to “When human rights become human wrongs.”
The answer to Evans’s question is, according to New Scientist’s increasing goddiness, “Yes!” The point Evans makes, using experimental surveys, is that if we see humans as simple biological machines, we’re likely to go down the path of eugenics, torture, and the selling of organs.
Evans first concocts three ways to “define” humans:
Today, there are three influential and competing definitions. The first is the Christian theological view that humans are made in the image of God. The second is a more philosophical position that defines humans as possessing certain capacities, such as self-consciousness and rationality. Finally, there is the biological view, where humans are defined — and differentiated from animals — by their DNA.
Well, I’m not sure that the second definition differs materially from the third, since rationality and self-consciousness are products of our DNA, and in fact I doubt that we’re the only species that is self-conscious. (We’re certainly not the only species that is rational!) And the DNA “definition” seems a bit ambiguous. Regardless, Evans then asked 3500 Americans which of the definitions they most accepted, and then asked them questions about how to treat other humans: whether we could allow the sale of organs, suicide for the terminally ill “to save money”, torture of suspected terrorists, and so on. The results are as expected:
What came out was very striking. The more a respondent agreed with the biological definition of a human, the more likely they were to see humans as being like machines and the less likely they were to see them as special, unique or all of equal value. On the human rights questions, they were less willing to stop genocides and were more likely to accept buying kidneys, suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners.
In contrast, those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners against their will.
Shockingly, then, the critics appear to be right. People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.
This isn’t that surprising: advocates of human exceptionalism, especially those of the theological variety, are surely going to value people more, especially if they’re seen to have souls. I wonder what the results would have been had they asked questions about animal rights? After all, animals suffer, too—they just can’t articulate it like humans can. There is something to be said for Peter Singer’s view that human exceptionalism and its moral consequences are fictions: we rest on a sliding scale with other species in our ability to suffer, and of course there’s no limit to the amount of animal suffering that many people will accept in the name of medical research (after all, you can kill millions of mice to save 100 humans), of factory farming, and of entertainment in zoos and aquariums.
Evans concludes that “these findings suggest a real problem for those who subscribe to both the biological view of humanity and to human rights.” In the end, though, the proof of the pudding is in the behavior of people, not in how they answer sociology questions right after they are asked to agree with a definition. Are the “biological definitionists” really more immoral? We don’t know.
Given that humans are biological machines—albeit complex ones that can articulate physical and emotional pain—what are we supposed to do? Promote religion? Keep emphasizing human exceptionalism? Evans apparently prefers the second solution, and then high-handedly lectures Richard Dawkins on what he should do to stop this debasing of humanity (my emphasis):
The most influential person in that position today is Richard Dawkins. He is an advocate of the view that humans are DNA-based machines. He is also an honorary vice president of the British Humanist Association, which promotes human rights and recognises “the dignity of individuals”.
In light of my results, many humanities scholars would see some tension between these two positions. I do not doubt anyone’s sincerity in believing in both the biological definition of the human and in human rights, but promoting the former risks undercutting public support for the latter.
What is to be done? If Dawkins’s priority was human rights, he could switch to teaching us that we are made in the image of God. This isn’t going to happen, and it shouldn’t; nobody should change their view of what a human truly is. In any case, Christian definitions of the human have not always been a recipe for the humane treatment of others.
The answer, I think, is for influential people like Dawkins to try to sever the link the public apparently makes between definitions and treatment. The way to do this is to promote the idea that however a human is defined, humans are sacred.
This sacredness does not have to be of the religious variety: it could be based on secular ideas of dignity found in many European constitutions, treaties and human rights documents. (Incidentally, I suspect that if my study was replicated in a secular European country, it would get similar results. Fewer people would subscribe to the theological view, but attitudes to human rights would be tempered by secular notions of dignity found in those constitutions and treaties).
Therefore, whenever we talk about the biological view of humans, we must also say that it does not mean we should treat people like machines. Dawkins, to his credit, often does this in interviews, but he should redouble his efforts. Yes, the public is apparently making the mistake of mixing up an “is” (what humans are) with an “ought” (how they should consequently be treated). But academics need to be attuned to the fact that some ideas have unintended consequences.
I suppose there’s at least something to be said for Evans’s article, in that it emphasizes the values of secular humanism. But in fact most of us who subscribe to the biological view of humans as a hypercerebralized species also adhere to humanism. If you have to single out one on a questionnaire to which you most adhere, you may get the result that Evans got. But I suspect most of us can simultaneously adhere to a biological view of humans and to humanism as well. If we couldn’t, scientists would be a cold and evil lot—the worst moiety of humanity.
As for Evans’s tut-tutting of Dawkins, who constantly emphasizes humanism, it’s just patronizing and reprehensible.
h/t: Nicole Reggia