Darwin, Descartes, and Dealin’ with it

Many people view some scientific advances as unnatural. But why should this be so? So many beneficial outcomes have arisen from unnatural things: paintings, vaccines, and artificial hearts. While on the other hand so many natural things are undesirable: pestilence, pain, and death. This social perception of science’s opposition to nature is based in evolution and culture.

Naturally we are apprehensive about novel objects and concepts. This cautious nature would have no doubt shielded our ancestors from potentially harmful new occurrences in their environment. Hence, it is evolutionarily advantageous to fear, or at least be wary of, new objects/concepts. Many people are reluctant to seek change for the fear of losing what makes them feel safe (what they have grown accustomed to). As a more concrete example: humans display an almost illogical behavior known as the endowment effect which is being investigated by Dr. Owen Jones right here at Vanderbilt1. Apes, like humans, value goods more highly once they posses them than when they worked to acquire them. Think of this as similar to, “I bought this teddy bear long ago for $5 but I wouldn’t trade it for the world because it means so much to me”. Illogical actions like this drive economists crazy because it makes predicting market behavior difficult. We are reluctant to exchange new items for old in the trading of goods, experiences, and concepts.

n    Another evolutionary reason for humans fearing science, especially in the realm of genetic engineering, is the threat of a new dominant class/species. It is this notion of a superhuman race or even a half-man, half-beast that would threaten our dominance and existence that people fear most of all. From a pure survival standpoint, it is only natural that humans would guard against relinquishing a position devoid of absolute power.

    The cultural reason most people fear science is because we are children of Cartesian thought. Descartes of cogito ergo sum fame concretely separated human consciousness from the natural realm of things. Because of him we are subject to thinking that our intellectual conceits are more than animalistic and thus transcend nature2. Ideally, science is a process of pure human logic and as such its outcomes are subject to our mainstream cultural dichotomy of natural vs. unnatural. Essentially, most people think we are so different because we are think we are the only beings to think.

     Just about all humans perceive our kind to be superior to ALL other species. In a more simplified way of looking at it, we want to see our species survive more than any other. This is not evolutionarily surprising at all. It is the selfish gene that has sustained our species and all others for the extent of their existence. We recognize a greater similarity of genes between individual organisms of those of our own species and thus want to see those genes thrive.

     In all fairness I, myself perceive human life as more valuable than other species’, to an extent. I condone the use of animals for medical experiments that prolong and save human lives, but by no means should we completely eradicate any species. I feel this way not because we are philosophically different in so much as humans can paint or write a novel, it is because I instinctively view the survival of my species paramount to the survival of any other.

     So how does this factor into the debate over humanity’s difference from so called beasts? Let’s look at it this way, ethics boil down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you. We seek to stop suffering in other beings we view to be similar to ourselves in the hopes that they will do the same for us. Social living among animals is actually a rare behavior but is one that seems to have been beneficial for our particular species (think of this as collaboration that leads to a whole greater than the sum of its parts). However, this idea of altruism has evolutionary advantages and is common in other animals that practice sociality3 . So, ethical action by this standard is observed in other social species.

     Even though we scholastically ponder why we should act ethically, we come to the conclusion that acting in the best interest of the community at large by treating others as we expect them to treat us is optimal/ethical. Whether you lie to yourself and say this is a truly human feature, the fact remains that other social animals act in the same “ethical” manner (we cannot really tell what they are thinking). So, if humans practicing ethics is a deciding characteristic in the “humanity” debate, I’m not buying it. Get off your high horse, you ARE an animal, deal with it.


1. Jones O.D., Goldsmith T.H. Law and Behavioral Biology. Columbia Law Review. (2005) Vol 105. p. 405-502. http://www.iced.org.br/artigos/law_behavioral_biology_jones_goldsmith.pdf

2. Pollan, Michael. “The Omnivore’s Next Dilemma.” Ted Conference. Monterey, CA. 8 Mar 2007.

3. Alcock, John. Animal Behavior: Eighth Edition. Sinauer Associates. Sunderland, MA. 2005

Ben Hefner


~ by Mismatched Sox on February 23, 2008.

2 Responses to “Darwin, Descartes, and Dealin’ with it”

  1. I just wanted to say that we need to be careful about what we say is “undesirable.” For example, we may think that pain is an unnecessary evil and that we would do well without it; but in reality, pain is very important to survival. Without it, we wouldn’t know if we had injured ourselves or realize that certain actions are deleterious to our health and well-being. There are people who are genetically born with a disorder that makes them unable to feel pain. This is a serious condition because you could injure yourself and not even know it, which could turn out to be fatal. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Dr. Moreau says that the more intelligent men become, the better they will be able to look out for themselves and so they won’t need pain to keep them out of danger and pain will become “needless.” The thing is, though, that pain doesn’t just serve to keep us out of danger, but also to let us know that something is wrong with our body. Maybe we’ll be able to take care of ourselves better and be able to notice external injuries without needing pain. But what about internal damage? You can’t see inside yourself, so you need pain to tell you if something is not right. Thus, what may seem undesirable may not necessarily be so.
    I completely agree with you, though, that we are animals no matter what we may like to think. Wells definitely shows the animal inside of us and makes a point about how similar we are to other animals. There are multiple references tying human characteristics and animalistic qualities. Prendick falls off of his hammock and is deposited “on all fours” upon the floor. He feels a “sense of animal comfort” after eating. His ears are “vigilant” after hearing a strange cry. The souls of beasts are described as full of anger and the “lusts to live and gratify themselves.” They seem to have an “upward striving,” “part vanity, part waste sexual emotion,” and “part waste curiosity.” These traits can characterize humans, as well. The idea that the female beasts exhibited a regard for decency and “decorum of external costume” parallels the behavior of most human females. Prendick sees the mark of a beast in other people with various remarks he makes when he returns to society in the last chapter. There are many instances throughout the book where the animal inside humans is clearly brought out. So I agree that we are animals. We just like to think of ourselves as more special than we are. It makes us feel good.

    ~ B2

  2. The difference between humans and animals has lurked beneath the surface throughout our discussion of chimeras, and now with Oryx and Crake, it is back again in full force. You and B2 both raise important points for us to consider.

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