AR-FAQ - #33

#33 Humans are at the pinnacle of evolution; doesn't that give them the right to use animals as they wish?

This is one of many arguments that attempt to draw ethical conclusions from scientific observations. In this case, the science is shaky, and the ethical conclusion is dubious. Let us first examine the science. The questioner's view is that evolution has created a linear ranking of general fitness, a ladder if you will, with insects and other "lower" species at the bottom, and humans (of course!) at the top. This idea originated as part of a wider, now discredited evolutionary system called Lamarckism. Charles Darwin's discovery of natural selection overturned this system. Darwin's picture, instead, is of a "radiating bush" of species, with each evolving to adapt more closely to its environment, along its own radius. Under this view, the idea of a pinnacle becomes unclear: yes, humans have adapted well to their niche (though many would dispute this, asserting the nonsustainable nature of our use of the planet's resources), but so have bacteria adapted well to their niche. Can we really say that humans are better adapted to their niche than bacteria, and would it mean anything when the niches are so different? Probably, what the questioner has in mind in using the word "pinnacle" is that humans excel in some particular trait, and that a scale can be created relative to this trait. For example, on a scale of mental capability, humans stand well above bacteria. But a different choice of traits can lead to very different results. Bacteria stand "at the pinnacle" when one looks at reproductive fecundity. Birds stand "at the pinnacle" when one looks at flight. Now let us examine the ethics. Leaving aside the dubious idea of a pinnacle of evolution, let us accept that humans are ranked at the top on a scale of intelligence. Does this give us the right to do as we please with animals, simply on account of their being less brainy? If we say yes, we open a Pandora's box of problems for ourselves. Does this mean that more intelligent humans can also exploit less intelligent humans as they wish (shall we all be slaves to the Einsteins of the world)? Considering a different trait, can the physically superior abuse the weak? Only a morally callous person would agree with this general principle. AECW

SEE ALSO: #34, #37