11 July 2008

Being difficult

Probing into one of the darker corners of the 20th century, John Gray writes that in the mid 1920s Joseph Stalin charged Ilya Ivanov with crossbreeding apes with humans in order to create a 'new invincible human being', highly resistant to pain, that needed little food or sleep [1].

The evidence that attempts to crossbreed took place is said to be sound. But it is reported that Russian scientists now (i.e. more than 80 years later) deny that these were part of any overarching plan for the creation of a new 'super' race [2].

Whatever its intentions, Ivanov's work looks misguided, lunatic or evil today, and contemporary hopes are often informed by more careful thought about what values and protection to extend to new beings as and when they emerge. For example :
At the very least, given that it is certain types of capacities (minimally, capacities related to suffering) to which we attribute higher notions of respect, and given that these capacities are not necessarily unique to humans, nor shared by all humans, it makes more sense to speak of ‘capacity dignity’ rather than ‘human dignity’. This approach allows [one] to discuss moral worth as a matter of varying degree, rather than an all or nothing state.[3]
For Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, a life of dignity for humans requires a threshold level of provision to allow for the realization of certain basic capabilities:
Life, Bodily Health, Bodily Integrity, Senses, Imagination, Thought, Emotions, Practical Reason, Affiliation, Other Species, Play, [and] Control Over One’s Environment.
And recognition of at least some of these capabilities ('substantial freedoms') should go to both what we broadly termed disabled humans and (where appropriate and to varying extents) some non-human beings [4].

The [Sen/]Nussbaum list of human capabilities has been criticised as 'assum[ing] a very traditional intuitive theory of human nature, which may not universally satisfy' [5]:
An evolutionary psychologist, for example, might argue that human males need an outlet for their capabilities for aggression and competitiveness, capabilities which do not appear on Nussbaum’s list.
Nussbaum may respond to this critique and others in what at the time of writing is reported to be a book on the moral psychology of the capabilities approach which will 'bring together her work on the emotions with the analysis of social justice'[6].

Debate and experiment will surely continue over what in human emotion, behaviour and values can and cannot be molded in the near, medium and long term [7]. Some of those debates and experiments might even be informed by the spirit of modesty and proportion found in Lewis Thomas [8]:
With luck, our own situation might be similar [to that of symbiotic organisms that take up algae], on a larger scale. This might turn out to be a special phase in the morphogenesis of the earth when it is necessary to have something like us, for a time anyway, to fetch and carry energy, look for new symbiotic arrangements, store up information for some future season, do a certain amount of ornamenting, maybe even carry seeds around the solar system. That kind of thing. Handyman for the earth.

I would much prefer this useful role, if I had any say, to the essentially unearthly creature we seem otherwise on the way to becoming. It would mean some quite fundamental changes in our attitudes toward each other, if we were really to think of ourselves as indispensable elements of nature. We would discover in ourselves the sources of wonderment and delight that we have discerned in all other manifestations of nature. Who knows, we might even acknowledge the fragility and vulnerability that always accompany high specialization in biology, and movements might start up for the protection of ourselves as a valuable, endangered species. We couldn't lose.
Well, I wouldn't count on it [9].


[1] Black Mass (2007), p.58, citing Kirill Rossiianov, 'Beyond Species: Ilya Ivanov and his Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes', Science in Context, Cambridge, 2002

[2] Ivanov had, it seems, been toying with the idea since at least 1910. Chat on the web continues (see, for example, here, here).

[3] An Ravelingien, On the moral status of humanized chimeras and the concept of human dignity, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, August 2006. Note that chimeras are not hybrids; topics, methods and applications of research in the biological sciences today are for the most part very different from and vastly more sophisticated than in the 1920s.

[4] Broadly, 'flourishing' in a richer sense than the mere absence of pain and presence of pleasure. In a short paper titled Facing Animal Complexity (pdf, April 2007) Nussbaum identifies, for example, free movement, social interaction, and the ability to grieve or love. She recommends a new approach to human-animals relations combining 'the Kantian idea' that each individual creature be respected as an end in itself with 'the Aristotelian idea' that each creature has a set of capabilities, or capacities of functioning, distinctive of that species. P.S. 14 July: See also When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans (New York Times, 13 July) and listen to Matthew Kramer interview on Philosophy Bites (13 July).

[5] The quote is from a review by Jean Chambers of Frontiers of Justice which appeared in Philosophy Now, Issue 60, 2007. It is hard to imagine John Gray 'buying' Nussbaum's list. He writes, 'Liberal thinkers view human rights as embodying a kind of universal moral minimum that should be secured before any other goals are pursued. A worthy notion, but it passes over the fact that the components of the minimum are often at odds with one another...Above all, human beings have needs that cannot be satisfied by any ration means' -- Black Mass, pp. 280 & 283.

[6] Wikipedia entry on Martha Nussbaum section on the capability approach, accessed 11 July 2008.

[7] See, for example Joshua Greene, Jonathan Haidt and Frans de Waal.

[8] Lives of a Cell, 1974

[9] John Gray may be right when he writes (Op Cit, p. 296):
If the scientific consensus is accurate, the Earth may soon be a different place from the way it has been for millions of years, certainly since the appearance of humans. In one sense this is a genuinely apocalyptic prospect: while humans are ulikely to become extinct, the world in which they evolved is vanishing. In another sense the prospect is not apocalyptic at all. In wrecking the planetary environment humans are only doing what they have done innumerable times before on a local level. The global heating that is under way is one of several fevers the Earth has suffered, and survived during its history. Though humans have triggered this episode, they lack the power to stop it. It may mean disaster for them, and other species, but in planetary terms it is normal. This is likely to be too much reality for most people to bear, and as climate change runs its course we can expect a rash of cults in which it is interpreted as a human narrative of catastrophe and redemption. Apocalypse is, after all, an anthropocentric myth.
(The images are from Action T4 and Apollo 8)

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