An editorial in Nature this week considers our thinking about what is "natural" and suggests it often bypasses reason.
"From an evolutionary perspective, we humans have good reason to be wary of things that seem to be 'unnatural'. Anything out of the ordinary can be dangerous. But the evolutionary origin of that response also guarantees that it will be guided more by emotion than by reason."
Two examples are supplied. The first concerns a transgendered woman who, as a man, married another woman. The wife could not bear children, so the transgendered woman ceased taking the hormone treatment and was given artificial insemination. This person is now pregnant and expecting a baby girl. The Editorial contrasts the "natural" longing for a baby with the "visceral responses [that] were common on message boards and blogs on the Internet, where the situation was often held to be disgusting and unnatural." Attention was then drawn to a news feature about bdelloid rotifers in the same issue of Nature: "Biologists have found that gender-straddling and gender-switching behaviours are not at all uncommon in the 'natural' world, either for humans or non-human animals". The inference is that there is a lesson here for us: for these rotifers, apparently unnatural behaviour is natural!
The second example concerns neuroenhancing drugs. In an online poll, "respondents were asked to report on their non-medical use of drugs such as modafinil and methylphenidate to improve their concentration."
"The claim, repeated in many responses to our survey is that using such drugs, or any performance-enhancing drug, makes accomplishments somehow less worthy because they aren't natural. But again, what is 'natural'? Devices such as glasses, hearing aids, pacemakers and artificial hips are unnatural. Yet they are widely accepted as legitimate ways to enhance the human experience. By the same token, if drugs enhance performance on a standardized test, what is so 'natural' about prep courses designed to improve scores?"
All this led up to the conclusion that our sense of "natural" is developed in a social and cultural context and owes more to emotion than to reason. Furthermore, we should get used to the idea that our sense of "natural" is evolving.
"Ultimately, our visceral concept of what is 'natural' depends on what we are used to, and will continue to evolve as technology does. But in the meantime, we should not allow it to distract us from the rational consideration of deeper and more important ethical issues."
The great divide: materialistic science reduces ethics to an evolving, utilitarian, postmodernist code
This message, that ethics is utilitarian and evolving as society changes, is shared by many with responsible positions within the science community. Last year, Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council in the UK, wrote: "Because morality is, for all but the most stubbornly impervious to practical evidence, a matter of utilitarian dialectic. Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good."
We have a curious situation developing within science: everyone is agreed that ethical frameworks are needed and conformance to ethical guidelines is a requirement of funding bodies, but those ethical guidelines are not a product of scientific research. Consequently, many scientists adopt a postmodernist stance when they refer to ethics, as was pointed out and discussed in an earlier blog.
Still in the same issue of Nature, Eugenie Scott reviewed the book Life as it is by William Loomis. This book "is a tour of the brave new biology relevant to such social issues as abortion, euthanasia, the use of embryonic stem cells, cloning, overpopulation and global warming. Loomis holds that scientific evidence should be taken into account when making socially important decisions." This approach has been tried many times before, but it always fails to convince, because it is possible to find examples of almost every conceivable practice in the natural world. As an example, Scott points out what the author says about embryos (to inform practices relating to embryo research):
"Loomis emphasizes that at the cellular level life is cheap: at any given moment, billions of bacteria in our body are dying. A human zygote is merely a single cell, so shouldn't we think of it as such rather than the multicellular, functioning, conscious and precious baby into which it might develop? If a zygote is just a cell, and cells die regularly, then the answer to whether it is ethically permissible to destroy it is yes."
The good thing about Scott's review is that she realises Loomis is expecting too much from his chosen methodology. "But [Loomis's] argument comes after the ethical question of whether a zygote is just a cell, which is one that science cannot answer. The ethical status of a human zygote or early-stage embryo turns on the issue of personhood." Furthermore:
"The idea that a realistic understanding of biology will usher in a paradise of ethical correctness is naive: the panoply of extra-scientific considerations that influence ethical decision-makings cannot be ignored or minimized. A weakness of Loomis's book is his comparative neglect of such considerations. But if his intention is less ambitious, namely that a realistic appreciation of biology ought to inform ethical decision-making, then that is incontrovertible."
Unfortunately, his intention is not "less ambitious". Consequently, this book reveals, yet again, the bankruptcy of materialistic science when it comes to issues of ethics and morality. As Scott says: "Ethics is about the oughts and the shoulds" - but this implies a realm of truth about human behaviour that scientists holding to a materialistic philosophy cannot handle. This is what pushes them into postmodernism and away from understanding ethics rationally. The "oughts and the shoulds" come from outside science. They can only be understood rationally in the context of a purposeful universe, where human beings gain their dignity, not from something intrinsic to our material bodies, but from the will and purpose of an intelligent Designer.
Editorial: Defining 'natural'
Nature 452, 665-666 (10 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/452665b
Abstract: Visceral reactions to an act should not distract from the real ethical issues.
Brave new bioethics
Nature 452, 690-691 (10 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/452690a
BOOK REVIEWED - Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere
by William F. Loomis
University of California Press: 2008. 272 pp.
First paragraph: Science's task is to explain the natural world: what it is, how it works and why it is the way it is. Ethics is about the oughts and the shoulds. Most ethicists - religious and secular - agree that knowledge of the natural world helps us make better, or at least better-informed, ethical decisions. But, as David Hume, Thomas Henry Huxley and G. E. Moore have noted, a particular understanding of nature does not dictate a unique moral stance. For every Alexander Pope declaring "Whatever is, is right," there is a Rose Sayer (from the film The African Queen) retorting, "Nature ... is what we are put in this world to rise above!"
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