Darwinism and then genetics shocked us into appreciating that the gulf between ourselves and the rest of the animate world is not as deep as our ancestors thought it was. Nonetheless we’re still different, as the reaction against evolutionary psychology is currently reminding us. Consciousness gives human behaviour a character of its own, investing it with forethought, awareness of consequence and therefore moral choice. Animals are innocent of such things. A self-sacrificial octopus is therefore no more worthy of applause than a cat who tortures mice is worthy of blame. So why are films like One Life so determined to tell us otherwise?(An aside – surely the ‘ancients’, whoever the hell they were, would have been as like to have held animistic worldviews, investing the world and it contents with souls, as to have perceived a bridgeless ‘gulf’ between our solely-souled selves and mechanistic plants and animals. Cox, to extrapolate dangerously from a short statement, appears in thrall to the dangerous idea of progression equating automatically to progress.) It should be noted that the link Cox points to in respect of the ‘backlash against evolutionary psychology’ is, in fact, a blog posting about a paper submitted to the PLoS Biology, entitled Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology. Far from announcing the end of evolutionary psychology (again, a subject on which I will not offer my opinion) the paper merely states that:
The key concepts of [evolutionary psychology] have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable.Even the blog post Cox refers to would only go so far as to state that the paper essentially meant that ‘[e]volutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over.’ How Cox thinks he can summarise this as evidence that evolutionary psychology is experiencing an apocalypse, rather than – as all sciences should – its proper ongoing revision and refinement, is beyond me. The widespread debunking of Freud has in no way ended the science of psychology, or even psychoanalysis. So how Cox feels he can go even further and declare that the paper is evidence of the differences between humans and animals is even more difficult to fathom. The paper, as noted above, only sets out to demonstrate that certain assumptions about human psychology previously held are questionable (the wording is, I guess, the science-speak equivalent for the panicked yodel you make as you reach over from the shotgun seat and grab the wheel before the car careers into a ravine). Indeed, the removal of such assumptions as, for example, a ‘universal human nature’ may be seen as evidence against an unbridgable difference between humans and animals, if it must be seen as either. A universal human nature being a correlative argument for that nature to have a certain special status. Yet, unhappy with these musings, Cox goes further still, paddling into the murky waters of conscioussness theory:
So. The difference between humans and animals, according to Cox, appears to be that human beings exert moral choice through the freedom of the will, while animals are unthinking, ‘innocent’ automata. This is essentially Descartes’ position; as summarised by Descartes’ disciple Nicholas Malebranche:
Consciousness gives human behaviour a character of its own, investing it with forethought, awareness of consequence and therefore moral choice. Animals are innocent of such things. A self-sacrificial octopus is therefore no more worthy of applause than a cat who tortures mice is worthy of blame. So why are films like One Life so determined to tell us otherwise?
[Animals] eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.Nicholas Malebranche, August 1638–October 1715. It seems Cox is fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking. Modern philosophy, with the benefits of knowledge gifted to it by neuroscience and modern scientific inquiry, has cast a great deal of doubt on the freedom of the will. For an action to be defined as ‘free’, there are certain conditions that have to be satisfied:
- the action must be impelled willfully by its agent (so instinctively dropping a hot pan isn’t free, by this measure; it’s not intentional);
- the agent must be un-coerced in performing the action (flicking a switch because a gun’s pressed to your head is, as above, dubious); and
- the agent must have been capable of doing otherwise (if you had chocolate chip ice cream, it is nevertheless conceivable that you could’ve had banoffee pie or, indeed, sushi, you weirdo).
We’re asked to believe that we and our furred and feathered siblings are conjoined inalienably in a grand chain of being. The failure of any link is supposed to threaten our survival. Unfortunately, this is untrue. Of all the species that have ever existed, 99.9% have already become extinct. Life has gone on, and the harsh truth is that we could manage without pandas and orangutans.This is like saying it’s okay to commit murder because most people that ever lived are now dead. David, let me explain: the essential end of conservation isn’t the preservation of the planet, or even the ecosystem. These things don’t need saving. No doubt, there will be people sharpening their tongues on the edges of these statements so, again, let me explain. Were a proportion of the world’s nuclear arsenal sufficient to reduce this planet to a dust cloud to go a merry kablooey, that cloud would, after the passage of many millions of years, collapse once more into an oblate spheroid, and trundle merrily about the sun once more. Assuming temperature and gravity are right, an atmosphere may once more accrete. Rainfall. Lakes. Oceans. Life. Again, assuming the conditions are correct; assuming the bears are away on their walk. There would still remain the question as to whether or not the time was available for this to happen before the sun superheats and boils away the oceans, in about 1.1 billion years. Life emerged on the planet approximately one billion years after its formation, so it’ll be, cosmically speaking, a tight race. Maybe the first new life forms will crawl (or gloglop, perhaps, or mloop?) from the ocean in time to simply broil. Ah well. We can get by without them, can’t we, Dave? Likewise, the ecosystem doesn’t require saving. The ecosystem is simply, as dictionary.com puts it:
a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.The OED gives the earliest usage of the word thus:
There is constant interchange… within each system, not only between the organisms but between the organic and the inorganic. These ecosystems, as we may call them, are of the most various kinds and sizes. (A. G. Tansley in Ecology XVI. 299, 1935)An ecosystem is simply descriptive of a complex of interrelations between organisms, their environments, and one another. Such a thing can’t be saved, because it is essentially the sum total of, well, look out your window. That. That, and all of the rest of the that that you can’t see. It either is, or it isn’t. If it needs saving, it’s only it terms of its conditions, not its being. What conservation movements are seeking to save, and what requires saving, are ultimately ourselves. This planet exists in a extremely sensitive state of being, which just so happens to be the state of being that is capable of supporting, amongst other things, human life. (On a planetary level it’s called, colloquially, the Goldilocks effect. But this is misleading – the planet isn’t conducive to human life because it was made with careful consideration of its oat-to-milk ratio. Human life arose on this planet because its conditions entailed that human life should emerge upon it; or at least that a human-shaped space be available to occupy.) As Cox observes, quite correctly, 99.9% of all species that existed have gone extinct, and yet life itself has gone on. New forms have emerged to take advantage of those niches left vacant, as evolutionary laws (as opposed, I should say, to the theories that describe those laws) require that they do. But, you see David, were the complex web of interrelationships that constitute the current state of the ecosystem to be, as you elegantly put it, threatened, the ecosystem itself would potentially topple on as tenaciously as a gyroscope. Life goes on, David. What is, however, arguable is that we wouldn’t. In a poll conducted by the American Museum of Natural History, it was found that seven in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence; more serious a threat even than global warming. You see, David, those species you’d so willingly discard fulfill a function within the context of the ecosystem. Certain flowering plants, for example, rely on a single insect species to be pollinated. Should that insect go extinct, all the creatures that depend on the plant it pollinates will suffer when the plant itself dies. Some of those species may perish, and then… You get, I trust, the picture. Of course, you may counter that the loss of a single species poses no great threat: ‘we would manage’, as you put it. But when you consider that the current rate of extinction is calculated as being 100 times the usual background rate (some, including Edward O Wilson, have placed it as high as 1,000 to 10,000 times) you may understand why we are currently living through what is known as the sixth great extinction; the Holocene extinction event. The human extinction event. I’ll leave the last word to you, David. It’s almost the only thing in your article worth reading:
If we can be persuaded to feel kinship with our fellow creatures, we become more likely to support their protection.A suspiciously-brown-filled coal donut. With a single sprinkle.