Thursday, December 13, 2012

Speciesism and the biological sciences

“The first shots revealed that despite their great differences in appearance and physiology, all complex animals…share a common ‘tool kit’ of ‘master’ genes that govern the formation and patterning of their bodies and body parts…. [I]ts discovery shattered our previous notions of animal relationships and of what made animals different, and opened up a whole new way of looking at evolution.” - Endless Forms Most Beautiful, p. 9

“The doctrine of human dignity says that humans merit a level of moral concern wholly different from that accorded to mere animals; for this to be true, there would have to be some big, morally significant difference between them. Therefore, any adequate defence of human dignity would require some conception of human beings as radically different from other animals. But that is precisely what evolutionary theory calls into question. It makes us suspicious of any doctrine that sees large gaps of any sort between humans and all other creatures. This being so, a Darwinian may conclude that a successful defence of human dignity is most unlikely.” - Created from Animals, pp. 171-2

I returned recently to Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo.

It’s another book I’d started long ago and put aside; turned out to be a good moment to finish it. The scientific content itself is of course fascinating and merits a recommendation (as do the images, especially the butterflies!). But reading more about discoveries in the science of development over the past several decades and how they’ve transformed our understanding of animal relationships also brought me back to several sociological and historical questions I’ve been considering, particularly concerning the connection between science and speciesism.

Looking at the intersections of science and speciesism, we can examine the relationship in both directions: how speciesist culture affects the advance of science, and how science in turn influences the culture of speciesism. I believe the relationship over the long term is a positive, even if not a simple or automatic, one.

I’ll divide this post into two (or more) parts. In this part, I’ll talk about how overcoming speciesism is good for science and science education; in the second (third, fourth,…), I’ll look at the positive contribution of science to overcoming speciesism. I’ve previously discussed the numerous reasons – psychological, political, ethical – that we should work against speciesism. (The most important and urgent, of course, is not a benefit to us but to nonhuman animals, but there are many largely unrecognized benefits to us as well.) One I haven’t discussed, but which is hinted at in Carroll’s and Rachels' work, is scientific: the capacity of nonspeciesist culture to promote scientific advances and remove barriers to scientific education.

While incorrect ideas about the effects of scientific discoveries on speciesism abound, the question of the effects of speciesism on the development of science has largely been neglected. Both James Rachels, in Created from Animals, and Carroll recognize that overcoming speciesism has been central to developments in human understanding of evolution (and biology more generally). Rachels notes that key to Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution was his ability to overcome speciesist biases, to think beyond notions of human dignity and specialness, and to be open to deep connections and continuities between our species and others.

Because his goal is to tell the story of scientific discovery in evolutionary biology and not to join a sociohistorical argument about speciesism, Carroll describes fairly unselfconsciously the speciesist assumptions that have constrained scientific practice in his discipline and the responses to discoveries that challenge notions of human specialness. He recognizes how presumptions of human or mammalian distinctiveness have shaped the approach to the study of evolutionary processes. “[W]hen I went off to study fruit flies after receiving my Ph.D.,” he writes,

some senior scientists offered their opinion that I was stepping off the edge of the Earth. Fruit flies? What would they teach us about humans or mammals? The common perception…was that the rules of physiology and development differed enormously between mammals and bugs or worms. So great were the differences, they believed that working on something like fruit flies was (gasp!) irrelevant.

They were in for some big surprises. (pp. 63-4)

The discovery that the same sets of genes control the formation and pattern of body regions and body parts with similar functions (but very different designs) in insects, vertebrates, and other animals has forced a complete rethinking of animal history, the origins of structures, and the nature of diversity. Comparative and evolutionary biologists had long assumed that different groups of animals, separated by vast amounts of evolutionary time, were constructed and had evolved by different means….

…This view was entirely incorrect. (pp. 71-2)

Carroll’s narrative of discovery highlights his wonder and awe at the simple beauty and depth of the relationships, but also his recognition of their implications for our 'species honor'. The cold reception of these discoveries in a speciesist context is registered by his use of the word “humbling” in describing their potential psychological and cultural effects: “These facts and figures should be humbling to those who wish to hold humans above the animal world and not an evolved part of it” (p. 10); “More Humbling Lessons from Fruit Flies: A Tool Kit of Body-Building Genes” (p. 65). Our observations of and interactions with other primates, he reflects, “can be as unsettling as they are fascinating,” and thinking about our relationship to them has “always raised provocative and, for some, discomforting questions about the gap between man and beast” (p. 250). (His quote from Queen Victoria in response to watching an orangutan – that she [the orangutan] was “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human” (p. 250) – captures well the cultural hostility to recognizing commonalities and continuities. Carroll's speculative description of Urbilateria, the common ancestor of all animals, concludes with a gentle teasing of the reader to “Be proud of your heritage” (p. 125).

This last he undoubtedly wrote with a grin, but his word choice and his recognition of the psychological implications of this knowledge show an awareness of the way speciesist beliefs have shaped our sense of ourselves and our value. If we didn’t live in a society steeped in speciesism, scientific revelations about our deep connections to and similarities with other animals wouldn’t be greeted with a sense of loss. They wouldn’t be humbling, unsettling, discomforting, frightening. They wouldn’t even be particularly surprising, much less resisted. They might even be welcomed.

Carroll correctly notes (p. 14) that great science is about making previously unimagined connections between phenomena, and every major development in our understanding of the natural world and our place in it has involved finding these deeper connections and continuities. Speciesism, on the other hand, like the other ideologies of oppression, rests on clear distinctions, on oppositions, on hierarchies. While it’s not possible to have any certainty about counterfactual histories, the evidence suggests that the speciesist resistance to recognizing shared features and commonalities that challenge human specialness has likely delayed the progress of the evo devo revolution and biological science more generally.

So Rachels and Carroll in their narratives allude to the positive relationship between transcending our speciesist prejudices and the advance of science. It seems to me that if you’re trying to be innovative or original in any biologically-related field, a key is to question your speciesism and related biases and to cultivate inter-animal sympathy and the recognition of similarities, connections, and continuities across humans and other species. It’s not too hyperbolic, I don’t think, to say that this effort has become almost integral to the advance of science. This is true not only strictly for the study of evolution, but also in understanding, for example, consciousness, ecology, epidemiology, and so on.

Whether or not this relationship holds for all scientific endeavors and all forms of social justice (Rachels’ discussion of the negative influence of Aristotle’s ideas is interesting and suggestive), it is the arc of biology. At every, or virtually every, turn in our quest to understand our evolution, beliefs in clear demarcations amongst animals and between humans and other animals have taken a hit. We should expect that challenging our species egocentricity and the essentialism, oppositions, and hierarchies that form part of it is necessary if we want to best advance our knowledge and understanding of the natural world and where we fit in it.

This means recognizing creationism, in all its forms, as a political movement with speciesism at its center, but also appreciating that creationism is only one very extreme expression of speciesism, which isn’t exclusive to religion. I’ll discuss the speciesism of many humanist – including radical – traditions in great detail in future posts. But generally what needs to be faced is that speciesism is not free-floating or linked exclusively to specific belief systems, but in fact the ideology at the heart of a global system and project of animal exploitation.

Carroll asks of zoo encounters: “What do the apes see when they glance toward their hairless, bipedal visitors? What is going on behind the long stare of a gorilla? What rolls of the ecological and genetic dice put us on the outside of those enclosures looking in, and not the other way around?” (p. 250). This experience wouldn’t be unsettling if our culture weren’t saturated with speciesism and if we didn’t have to try to rationalize and justify our exploitative and often cruel treatment of nonhuman animals. Gorillas aren’t imprisoned in those enclosures by nature or their genes, but by humans, based on a cultural belief that they’re separate, distinct, and inferior.

Rachels draws the larger picture in his discussion of our assessment of other animals’ intelligence and sensitivity:

It has always been difficult for humans to think objectively about the nature of nonhuman animals. …[E]ven as we try to think objectively about what animals are like, we are burdened with the need to justify our moral relations with them. We kill animals for food; we use them as experimental subjects in laboratories; we exploit them as sources of raw materials such as leather and wool; we keep them as work animals – the list goes on and on. These practices are to our advantage, and we intend to continue them. Thus, when we think about what animals are like, we are motivated to conceive of them in ways that are compatible with treating them in these ways. If animals are conceived as intelligent, sensitive beings, these ways of treating them might seem monstrous. So humans have reason to resist thinking of them as intelligent or sensitive. (p. 129)

I’ll continue to disagree with the superficially uncontroversial claim that “these practices are to our advantage” in general, that the harms caused by exploiting our fellow animals fall solely on them and not on us. But in the case of science specifically, even leaving aside the other indirect but related benefits I’ve discussed previously, I think any balance of the benefits and harms of speciesist culture tips heavily toward the harms side of the scale. The benefits of abandoning speciesism to the advance of knowledge of ourselves, evolution, and nature in general are shown very clearly in the character and context of discoveries in biological fields.

(It could be argued, I suppose, that while it’s true that this has been the pattern until now, with the discoveries of the past few decades we’ve reached a level of scientific knowledge at which speciesism has less practical effect on the development of science. I think this is mistaken, not only in terms of the continuing advance of knowledge in areas like embryonic development but even more so in areas like the study of consciousness, morality, emotions, and other characteristics often regarded as exclusive to humans.)

Carroll argues in his last chapter that the best way to encourage understanding and acceptance of evolution is to continue to promote better scientific education - a position shared, of course, by many others. While of course we need to promote basic education in scientific thinking and knowledge (including vocal challenges to faith, which Carroll doesn’t seem to recognize as particularly important), this approach fails to address the specific problem Carroll himself points to: speciesism and its important role in our system of animal exploitation. If we want to promote a full acceptance of evolution, we have to take on speciesism itself; we can’t work around it or try to accommodate or paper over it.

But what does this mean in practice? In both Rachels’ and Carroll’s narratives the appearance of this scientifically productive capacity, this ability to think beyond our culture’s prejudices, is left unexplained or presented as a happy idiosyncratic characteristic of individual scientists. And that might be true in the individual cases they discuss (though I doubt it). But given the evident relationship between transcending species chauvinism and scientific insight, should we simply wait and hope for the rare appearance of special individuals with the happy combination of scientific competence, subversive thinking, and the opportunity to pursue science, or for conventional thinkers to make fortuitous discoveries so compelling that they and others will have to accept these connections? This would not only be terribly inefficient, but fails to address the larger forces holding science back.

We need as a society to cultivate a nonspeciesist perspective. We need not only to encourage challenges to speciesism in ourselves and others in our vicinity, as well as promote a nonspeciesist vision in our educational system, but also to develop practices and systems founded on respectful, nonspeciesist principles. Most importantly, we need to fight the system of exploitation that requires speciesism for its justification and perpetuation. Scientists as professionals can become involved in this cause as they have in activism surrounding pollution, nuclear weapons, etc. Individual scientists and groups of scientists will of course continue to overcome their speciesist indoctrination through various paths or make important findings that change people’s understanding of our nature and our relationships with other animals, but there’s no reason to rely on this rather than to promote fundamental societal changes that make it far more likely.*

* Erich Fromm confronted a similar issue in his advocacy of love and the being mode of existence. Rightly fearing that To Have or to Be? would be read as voluntarist “self-help” literature rather than part of a call for radical social change, Fromm intentionally avoided the inclusion of a section offering personal-level advice. (This is described in Annette Thomson’s 2009 Erich Fromm: Explorer of the Human Condition.) It wasn’t that he didn’t think there was anything individuals and communities could do in the absence of systemic changes, or that he didn’t appreciate the rare individuals who exemplified his ideals, but he argued that to promote these goals most fundamentally and efficiently we have to change society.

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