Saturday, August 1, 2009

Evolution Revisited, Ethics Considered (plus Cranshaw, the Anniversary Ape)


As mentioned in my July 28 entry, Diana Fleischman is soon off to London and India, studying hygiene practices — but she’s also an evolutionary psychology expert, so it seems to me that this month is the perfect time for her to make the trek to the annual Burning Man art festival, while she’s still in nearby Texas, not simply because Burning Man always attracts people fascinated by sexual strategies but because “Evolution” (last I heard) was intended to be the explicit theme this year.

Of course, you just know the wackos (much as we love them) of Burning Man will interpret “evolution” in some bizarre, quasi-mystical way more akin to theosophy (a roughly century-old religion involving Progress and UFOs) than to Darwinian theory — and maybe all those people should also attend our debate next week on extraterrestrials, come to think of it.

But for a dose of more science-based evolutionary thinking — with no shortage of moral and social theorizing (not all of which I necessarily endorse) — you might take note of this mass-e-mailed recommendation from Diana:

This is a really fascinating conversation between Singer and Dawkins about what it means to be human, the definition of sentience, the ethical considerations involved in suffering, the evolution of moral feelings, and how Darwin paved the way for breaking down the distinction between human and animal — touching on animal research, slavery, and disgust and morality.  They even talk about cannibalism (one of my favorite topics).

From the religious in this country to even some people who are merely “spiritual,” there is a distrust of atheists because they see no moral guidelines that we follow and do not understand how moral guidelines are derived from rationality.  That’s why I think Singer (and others, like Austin Dacey) are on the right track in asking the secular community, “How are we to live?”

Me, I’m inclined to think evolution is only relevant to ethics in the way that economics is — which is to say, very, but it only tells us what is possible and likely, not in the end what we should do.  For that, you need utilitarianism, of course, but that’s a whole different topic (and not necessarily one on which Peter Singer should be assumed to have the final word, utilitarian though he is).

P.S. Helen reminds me it has been almost exactly twenty years since then-Harvard-undergrad Eric Kaplan was a Spy intern, around which time, along with Brown’s Andrew Clateman, he co-wrote Harvard Lampoon’s Time parody, which included one piece I particularly loved, the almost proto-Onion photospread depicting a man-on-the-street q & a with the very wise Cranshaw the Anniversary Ape, a chimpanzee with the accumulated wisdom of all of time, who cannot be stymied even if asked how he would survive being the leader of an ancient empire that worships the bee, beset by external enemies and internal dissent.

I believe the chimp, clad in sci-fi-esque silver shorts, at one point utters the sentence “These compounded difficulties suggest a felicitous solution,” which always brings a touch of class to even the most unevolved proceedings and somehow sticks with me years later.

1 comment:

none said...

As Frosty The Snowman (the animated TV version we are all acquainted with also turns 40 this year) might say… “Happy Birthday”.