Sunday, July 22, 2012
At times, I feel quite disconnected from the society of which I am part, and one of the most powerful reasons for this feeling is the pervasive mythology that plagues the thinking of large swaths of the population, across ideological, political and religious groupings. These myths, whether they are held for reasons of comfort or because of misapprehension, delusion or childhood inculcation, always have been, and still remain, false. In this essay, I strive to expose the artifice behind these foundational myths, allowing us to look at the world head-on and without the hollow false comforts of wishful thinking and primitive superstition.
No myth is more widespread—bridging huge ideological chasms to connect groups that, otherwise, have enormously divergent philosophies—than that of anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism: the notion that human beings are the central, most significant form of life and are categorically different from other animals. Now, of course, the Homo sapiens sapiens subspecies has anatomical and physiological characteristics to distinguish it from other creatures, such as Ursus arctos horribilis, Phrynosoma modestum and Bison bison athabascae, and no one seeks to deny that. Divisions of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family and so forth are made because of real, true differences between forms of life, and to pretend they do not exist would be to deny biological reality. Every species is qualitatively different from every other species; that is the reason for their having been distinguished in the first place.
The myth lies in the notion that there are human beings, and then there is the rest of the animal kingdom: the idea that there is a category we may call “animals,” which does not include Homo sapiens sapiens, and then a category called “people,” in which we place ourselves. A more correct division would be to identify non-human animals and human animals because, given the truth of Darwinian evolution and universal common descent, there is but a single tree of life and we are very much a part of it, right alongside grizzly bears, the roundtail horned lizard and the wood bison. Our bodies, including the immensely complex brains we are endowed with that create the illusion of an “I” inside—the illusory ghost haunting our fleshy machine—were shaped by the same dispassionate, undirected, mindless natural forces as shaped the bodies of every other creature that does exist or ever has existed.
People often go to great lengths to explicate the incredible things of which human beings are capable—constructing giant skyscrapers, composing gorgeous symphonies, creating paintings whose beauty is breathtaking, writing novels whose power resonates generation after generation, making altruistic sacrifices for the sake of others—and then, from that, attempt to justify treating human beings as “special” or possessing a higher level of “intrinsic value” than other creatures possess. Although one could argue that all of these characteristics serve to distinguish human beings from other animals, no one has yet advanced a convincing argument as to why these characteristics, as opposed to other characteristics, should be considered value-adding ones. Hummingbirds' heart rate can reach as high as 1,260 beats per minute. The cheetah has the ability to accelerate from zero to more than 60mph in three seconds. Why are these not value-adding characteristics? What authority gets to decide which traits confer greater intrinsic value and which are intrinsic value-neutral? It should be clear that all such judgments are merely dressed-up speciesism.
Connected with the fallacy of anthropocentrism are the interconnected myths of human rights and objective, prescriptive morality. In The Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It often seems that people declare this or that to be self-evident when there is no evidence available to support the contention. Given the fact that the Darwinian tree of life birthed us exactly as it did catfish and koalas, there is no evidenced foundation to say that human beings have rights merely by virtue of being human. From whom would these mysterious rights come? How would they be known? To which species would they be bestowed, and by what standard would they be applied? A man could walk in front of a crazed person with a gun and declare, “You may not shoot me. I have a right to life.” If the person then shot the man dead, I, as an observer, would be tempted to say, “Well, so much for that.” Even if one entertains the notion of nebulous rights endowed by an imagined creator to a single evolved species among billions of evolved species (inclusive of bacteria and archaea) ever to exist, it seems a trivial pursuit when these wispy rights can be so easily transgressed.
The truth, for an evidentialist, is that there is no reason to believe human rights—or any rights at all—exist, apart from those codified by governments and applied to their citizens in a legalistic manner. There is also no reason to believe objective, prescriptive morality has any connection to actual truth about the universe we inhabit, because, if we postulate such morality, we run into the same unanswerable questions: From whom would these moral rules come? How would they be known? Which species would be yoked with these moral rules, and by what standard would the rules be applied? Consider a thought experiment: Virtually everybody would agree that murder is wrong. (And, on a subjective, personal level, I agree.) So, suppose somebody declares that, because murder is morally wrong, one should not murder. A valid question to ask is, “Why is murder wrong?” The answer might be because it harms people and deprives them of their right to life. A valid follow-up question, after dispelling the notion of a “right to life,” is, “Why is harming people wrong?” And, no matter what the answer is, the “Why?” questions could continue in perpetuity. All moral rules are built upon assumptions, and that is why objective, prescriptive morality is incompatible with evidentialism.
Darwinian forces have shaped us to survive as a species, and it seems obvious that, given our cooperative and constructive instincts, community building is an important component of individual fitness. A hominid society plagued by widespread murder, theft, deception, rape and destruction would not long last as a society and, thus, individual members' genetic material would not be passed down and the Darwinian imperative to multiply would be unfulfilled. That is why, overall, the human conscience deplores murder, assault and the like: We have been evolutionarily trained to believe that society-building behaviors are good and society-destroying behaviors are bad. And that is likely why, on a subjective, personal level, I am appalled by murder.
However, a crudely functional moral code that has been instilled so that self-replicating instructions for self-replication—genetic material—can be passed down can hardly be considered the basis for an objective morality that seeks to say, “Behavior A is really, truly wrong, whereas Behavior B is really, truly virtuous.” The truth is, nothing is truly right or truly wrong...genuinely good or genuinely bad...righteous or wicked. The universe does not care and, in the grand scheme, as it accelerates its expansion, the universe will eventually become a cold, dark nothingness, leaving not a trace of our trials, tribulations, joys or sorrows. It will be as though nothing ever existed. On the universal scale—that is to say, objectively—it does not make a whit of difference whether one person kills another or saves his life; it matters not whether one is Adolf Hitler or Norman Borlaug. And any instinct we feel that says otherwise (including my own deeply felt instincts) can be chalked up to our fundamental nature: elaborate machines whose sole job is to preserve self-replicating instructions for self-replication.
Another myth, this one among the most insufferable of all, is American exceptionalism, which is a relation to the similarly fallacious human exceptionalism (already addressed). Largely the product of neoconservative thought, this is the idea that the United States has unique rights and responsibilities as the leader among nations and is charged with spreading liberty and democracy. This notion is predicated upon a number of mistakes, foremost among them the belief in objective good and evil (that is to say, the United States gains unique moral authority by being a righteous nation in opposition to wicked ones) and the supposition that having this or that characteristic (certain founding principles, a specific kind of national spirit, having emerged from a revolution, etc.) confers special rights.
One can cite any particular distinguishing fact about the United States, just as one can cite unique attributes of human beings, but it will not help in the slightest in connecting that distinguishing fact with the bestowal of special rights and responsibilities. Analogously to the case of Animalia, there are any number of countries, each with its own attributes and history; simply recognizing this does not make one country categorically different from all the others, nor does it cause magic “rights” suddenly to appear. Every country is on the same plane, struggling for its subjective goals and trying to execute its subjective will. The will of our country cannot be considered any more objectively righteous than that of Iran, because any attempt to demonstrate such with evidence will be poisoned by ungrounded value judgments.
The final myth with which I will concern myself is more societal in nature: that ethnicity, skin color and sex are meaningful standards by which to group people. It seems obvious that human beings are human beings, just like grizzly bears are grizzly bears, and it is a rather trivial bit of happenstance that a person is born in Venezuela as opposed to in Italy, or in the United States as opposed to in Japan. Although it is certainly true that regional and national cultures can be materially different from one another and, in some ways, it truly is meaningfully different to be an Italian than to be a Cuban, the commonalities that humans share—including those evolutionarily inculcated instincts that I referred to, which serve to ensure that genetic material can be passed down—supersede mere details of culture. Even less meaningful than ethnicity is race, which, ultimately, simply relates to the melanin in the skin and nothing more substantial than that. Homo sapiens sapiens comprises a single species, across all ethnic and racial lines, because all such differences are superficial and, ultimately, inconsequential.
With respect to the sexes, it makes sense to look at things through a Darwinian prism once again. The principal difference between the sexes is reproductive and, thus, it is sensible to approach the issue in that vein, because it informs virtually all the supposed lines of distinction, behavioral and otherwise, meant to separate male and female human beings. Given that males have an essentially unlimited supply of spermatozoa and a relatively small reproductive investment—again, bearing in mind that we, and all creatures, are merely elaborate machines whose function is to preserve self-replicating instructions for self-replication—it is in males' Darwinian interest to impregnate as many females as possible, thus ensuring prolific offspring. Given that females do not have an unlimited supply of ova and, even more importantly, have a nine-month reproductive investment, it is in females' Darwinian interest to be very choosy about who their partner is.
This truth, I believe, underlies societal behavior codes pertaining to the man courting the woman (i.e., asking her out, paying for dates, trying to woo her). In the most basic terms, men are evolutionarily programmed to be less sexually discriminating and women are programmed to be more discerning, all owing to differential gametes and reproductive investments. The question then becomes whether we allow ourselves to be slaves to inclinations inculcated by mindless Darwinian forces, or whether we choose to eschew crudely inborn instinct for something else.
Our society is utterly awash in myths...false beliefs that pervade our thinking, our ideologies, our philosophies and our lives. One wonders the kind of society we would have if people, at long last, retired their spurious beliefs, replacing them instead with mere truth.