Friday, April 20, 2012

Francis Collins, creationism, and research ethics

PZ's posted about some more confused claptrap from Nick Matzke, in a post at the Panda's Thumb. As often happens, the discussion over there has devolved due to accommodationist, well, something that's either stupidity or intellectual dishonesty or a blend of the two.

Fortunately, some of the responses are smart and entertaining, including Larry Moran's. One of Moran's quotations from Francis Collins, though, caught my eye for another reason. Moran notes: "Collins believes that, 'Humans are unique in ways that defy evolutionary explanation and point to our spiritual nature. This includes the existence of the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the search for God that characterizes all human cultures throughout history' (p. 200)." He rightly asks, "Is that view really compatible with yours? Do you actually believe that evolution can’t explain why humans recognize the difference between right and wrong?"

There was concern at the time of Collins' appointment to head the NIH that this belief would affect the promotion or discouragement of research on the evolutionary origins and basis of morality. I think this issue of research priorities potentially shaped by false religious beliefs rather than science was and remains a valid concern. Even so, I assume this research area is extremely small within the NIH.

The agency, however, supports research on millions of nonhuman animals every year. If the head of the organization holds false religious beliefs about humans' qualitative "spiritual" differences from other animals, what effects could that be having on the culture of research ethics within the NIH and beyond?

There's a long history of false beliefs about human exceptionalism (religious and nonreligious) being used to justify the callous and cruel treatment of animals in scientific research. It's true, of course, that the NIH has some institutional protections for animal subjects in place - though we shouldn't be so gullible as to believe they're always honored in practice - and researchers themselves have their own beliefs and emotions about animals. But the effect of someone who believes in special creation and human uniqueness heading this research agency could be as simple as maintaining the status quo - little impetus from the top of the organization to rethink the culture and practices of animal research, or a lack of attention to findings about the capacities of nonhuman animals that might be relevant to the ethics of their treatment in a research context. This could affect the lives of millions of beings.

The situation probably involves too many variables for us to be able to determine the effects of Collins' false beliefs, especially in the present. But it would be wrong to ignore the fact that beliefs in this as in any context have serious ethical implications.

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