BUI ORIGINS: The Ethics of Erasure

October 2, 2016

In contrast to most species’ gradual shedding of traits no longer essential to their growth and reproduction, humans are peculiar in that they continue to practice a series of archaic behaviors that have survived the evolutionary process. Though these traits seem obsolete in an ideal modern world, the human’s propensity to act violently and to enforce rigid gender roles does not falter over time – a phenomenon that begs the question: Is evolution an ethical justification of our social ills? And if not, what are the implications of erasing negative traits from our genetic makeup?

 

Our cultural and genetic evolutionary process tends to explain human behavior by linking issues in modern society with the more primitive traits of our predecessors. With this, E.O. Wilson introduces the “naturalistic fallacy of ethics,” of which he warns consumers of science not to use sociobiological findings to “justify a continuing practice in present or future societies,” such as our active engagement in warfare or an unhealthy, heteronormative conception of sex – for “what is” isn’t necessarily “what should be” (93). Wilson contends that “the tendency… to conduct warfare against competing groups might well be in our genes… but it could lead to global suicide now” (93) (although George Bush may very well have tested the limits of this claim). Warfare, rooted in greed and aggression (a trait more inherent in males (Wilson 92)) has continued to be a driving force in civilizations to date; although with the developments of peacemaking and diplomacy, there is no need for war in our modern society. Moreover, while Tattersall explains bipedalism to be an evolutionary achievement, allowing for women to develop breasts and rear more children due to the “freeing of the hands” (48), Wilson reminds us that “to rear as many healthy children as possible was long the road to security… [yet] such a strategy is now the way to environmental disaster” (93). This societal emphasis on reproduction is also dangerous in that it provides a basis to criticize behaviors that are not supposedly “natural” in respect to sex, like homosexuality (Wilson 82). In our modern society, however, it is problematic to assert that lifestyles should revolve entirely around the production of other human beings, as population levels continue to rise and even become an issue in some areas of the world. These two issues of aggression and ill-contrived sexual expectations point to a greater truth: humans are not rational creatures.

 

Ultimately, Tattersall seems indifferent to the evolutionary trajectory of human characteristics. “We should probably be grateful for this fact [that humans are not entirely rational]” he says, “for although a mechanically perfected Homo sapiens would lack hate, jealousy, and greed, it would presumably also be bereft of love, generosity, and hope” (104).

 

While Tattersall lauds humans for their ability to emote and communicate on more advanced levels, E.O. Wilson dreams up a new ideal for his species. With the ultimate goal to create a “healthier and freer society,” Wilson is able to use what Tattersall describes as a “rational and objectively calculating mental layer” unique in humans, ultimately asking the question, “What if?” (101). What if sociobiologists could “trespass genetic biases,” “avert passions,” or “alter ethics” in order to “adapt to more encompassing forms of altruism and social justice” (94)? What kind of precedent would this set? The answer lies in our choice to pursue the ideal or to remain complacent.

 

In and of itself, evolution is the promise of change. So, whether humans have marked the peak of evolutionary progress, in which Tattersall warns that further development without environmental stimuli could be harmful, threatening to erase powerful emotions and thus acting as a regressive force, or if they have many miles to go before achieving Wilson’s view of ultimate freedom, it is reasonable to conclude that we must continue to undergo some change in order to survive. Previously, change was defined by the alteration, adaptation, and utilization of physical traits that were present in the species but unused by their predecessors. With the unique cognitive development of humans, though, Wilson’s proposal to use sociobiology to improve our species may not seem so outlandish after all, as science is, in a sense, a product of the human’s ability to think symbolically and can thus be viewed as an extension of the intellectual process – a sign of evolution itself.

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