I finally got around to reading The Selfish Gene. One of the themes of that book is a purely gene-centric view of natural selection. Dawkins has even spoken in later writing of the idea of "speciesism", that it is irrational to discriminate purely on the basis of species, since a species often has no sharp boundary, and in the end is nothing but a pool of genes that tends to (but doesn't always) congregate together. The analogy is, of course, to racism, which is irrational for multiple reasons -- both because the whole concept of races has been demonstrated to be on shaky biological footing, and because it would be wrong anyway even if there had turned out to be a clear delineation between races and a significant difference in their talents.
I think this analogy between speciesism and racism is completely inapt, and I respectfully disagree that it is irrational to discriminate on the basis of species alone. It is partially other insights from The Selfish Gene that leads me to this conclusion.
I am not going to make an attempt to justify omnivorousness, though I do eat meat. I try to get it only from smaller farms, better yet if I can get a look at how they keep the animals, since factory farming practices multiply the ethical and environmental issues of meat consumption a hundredfold. I simply intend to make a case that it is quite rational to apply radically different standards to an individual of a different species, extending even to putting a significantly lower value on that individual's life, irrespective of any other concerns.
The boring obvious part
The obvious problem with the idea of "speciesism" being a bad thing is that there are massive differences between species, and these do matter.
One recent debate that has continued to fascinate me is the controversy over whether lobsters feel pain -- and therefore, is it cruel to dip them headfirst into boiling water. I think the whole conversation is absurd, or at least barking up the wrong tree, because we have failed to clearly articulate what we mean by "feel pain." If we define "pain" as "the response of a nervous system to negative stimuli, causing the organism to try and avoid said stimuli", then of course lobsters feel pain. Anything with a nervous system feels pain by that definition.
But any attempt to base ethical decisions around this definition will quickly veer into the ridiculous. I could write a computer program that puts a dot on the screen, and whenever the mouse cursor comes within a certain distance of the dot, the computer says "Ouch!" and tries to move the dot away from the mouse cursor. Is this not a "negative stimulus" of sorts? After all, it provokes a reaction from the computer to try to avoid repetition of that stimulus. Does the computer feel pain?
Ah, you say, but a computer's CPU, memory, etc., are not a "nervous system" per se. Exactly right. So, it is not just that a certain thing tries to avoid a certain class of stimuli. The structure of the mechanism engaging in the avoidance response is critical in whether we would consider it to be pain.
So how close does a nervous system have to be in structure before we call it "pain" and actually give a shit? Clearly a computer loses. It seems to me that a lobster loses as well -- it clearly is experiencing something we might call "pain", but it's specific biological embodiment is not much more similar to the phenomenon we experience as "pain" than my hypothetical mouse-avoiding computer program is.
This does not apply only to pain, but in terms of any evaluation of a different organism. I do not mean to revert to the language of the past where animals were by definition viewed as mere automatons -- but in regards to very simple nervous systems, it is hard to reach any other conclusion. Without ridiculous concepts like a "soul" or "life essence", it becomes very difficult to justify the idea that a lobster's nervous system has any special properties that differentiate it from a robot's control system.
I think so far, Dawkins would agree with me. I think the idea of speciesism is meant primarily in regards to bird and mammals, particularly higher primates, where their nervous systems are so similar to ours that it is indeed meaningful to think of their experiences as being analogous to ours.
The interesting part
While I think that absolutely a more complex nervous system entitles an animal to greater protections, I will now argue that it is both rational and ethically defensible to discriminate against an organism solely because they are a member of a different species. This means that if we encountered another sapient species with nervous systems identical to ours, while we would be obliged to treat that species with the same dignity and respect with which we would expect them to treat us, it would be quite acceptable to value a human life over the lives of the organisms belonging to the other species.
In arguing this, I am going to dig into what we mean when we say that apparent "altruism" is the result of selfish genes. As Dawkins expounds on at length, any evolutionarily successful action taken by a gene must be "selfish" from the gene's point of view. But what about from the point of view of the organism? Is it always selfish from the organism's point of view, or can the action be truly "altruistic" in the sense that the organism itself gains no benefit?
At one point in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins postulates that it may be inappropriate to differentiate between symbiotic relationships among different species vs. cooperative relationships within the same species. I could not disagree more, and the reason is because the answer to the question at the end of the preceding paragraph is markedly different depending on whether the participants in the symbiotic/cooperative relationship are drawn from a compatible gene pool.
When considering interactions between two different species, any behavior that is "selfish" for the gene must also be "selfish" for the organism. (This of course excludes misfiring of "selfish" instincts, where by a parasitic species like a cuckoo capitalizes on the "selfish" impulses of another species) There is simply no way that an interaction between two organisms of different species can be, for one of the parties, good for the gene yet bad for the individual. (And thus the previous parenthetical remark is addressed -- subversion of "selfish" impulses by a parasitic species is both bad for the gene and bad for the individual) The highest form of interspecies altruism that can evolve is delayed reciprocal altruism.
Within the same species, the story is entirely different, as a result of kin selection. This is explained at length in Dawkins' book, but for those who are unfamiliar with the concept, in brief: I know that (statistically speaking) my first cousin shares 1/4 of my DNA. If I can take an action that will harm myself, but will benefit my first cousin more than four times as much as it harms me, then on average that will do more to spread my DNA than if I had failed to take that action. So natural selection will select for genes which inspire me to take such an action, even at a net loss to the individual organism in question. In other words, from the point of view of the individual, apparently "genuine" altruism.
This is fundamentally different from what takes place between species. While two individuals of two different species might share quite a large number of genes, the fact that the two species represent separate gene pools makes the evolution of "genuine" altruism impossible. The key point is that kin selection doesn't actually work because your first cousin shares 1/4 of your DNA -- it works because, if you have the "help your first cousin" mutation, then there is a 25% chance your cousin has the mutation as well. The other shared DNA that is being propagated does not affect the selective pressure on the gene one whit.
It might be conceivable to artifically create a stable situation where several species shared the same gene for inter-species altruism only among the species who have that gene in their gene pool (I'm not even sure that could be made stable) but you could never have that in the first place because there's no way such a gene could evolve. If a mutation for it developed in one species, there would be no way for it to jump to the other species. No, "genuine" altruism -- in the sense that the individual never reaps any benefit for her altruism -- can only exist within a species.
Now, some might argue cases of "genuine" intra-species altruism are no different from the case of a parasitic species (like the cuckoo) using trickery to exploit intra-species altruism for its own benefit -- only in this case, the parasite is the gene, and the rube is the altruistic individual.
Dawkins closes The Selfish Gene with a call to escape the "tyranny of our genes". I have written in the past about how I find this to be a rather paradoxical exhortation. This to me seems no more meaningful than to say that if I were to install an after-market stereo system in the family's minivan, I would be emancipating it from the "tyranny of Toyota".
Certainly humans are in a unique position to rise above the short-sightedness of our genes. Furthermore, we can say that humans are in a position to empower the individual with respect to the gene pool -- but it would be silly to say that we could empower the individual with respect to genes in general, because what is the individual but the manifestation of a specific permutation of genes, combined with environment?
Our far-sightedness in comparison to natural selection allows us to make decisions that go against the "purposes" our genetic program in startling ways, contraception being a convenient example. But even in the case of contraception, we are not overthrowing the "tyranny of our genes" -- quite the opposite, it seems to me that we should be rather glad that our genes are configured in such a way as to afford so much pleasure.
Only if one gets sloppy with the metaphor (as Dawkins repeatedly promises he won't do, but occasionally does anyway) would one argue that we have subverted the "motives" of our genes by doing so -- genes after all do not have any motives to speak of. They just are. That their ultimate cause was different is somewhat irrelevant today.
Thus I assert: If we are to say that apparent altruism which harms the individual but benefits the genes is parasitic rather than "genuinely" altruistic, then it follows also that sex doesn't "genuinely" feel good. And I for one am not willing to say such a thing.
To restate: We must discard this silly idea of escaping the "tyranny of our genes", and realize that what Dawkins is really exhorting us to do in the final chapter of his book is to 1) rise above the short-sightedness of our genes, and 2) to empower specific permutations of genes with respect to the gene pool at large. But in terms of what is "genuinely" good, the genes -- that is, the specific permutations of genes -- are still very much running the show.
At this point I'm sure some people would say I am engaging in the naturalistic fallacy. But I believe this argument is subtly different. I am not saying that "Our genes make us want to do X, therefore doing X must be good." Rather, I am saying that if our genes make us want to do X, and X is not in conflict -- either short-term or long-term, directly or indirectly -- with anything else that our genes make us want to do, then doing X must "genuinely" be a good thing to do.
I say this because I don't see any other objective way to define what is good. As I blogged about in the post I linked to before, even the Golden Rule, the apparent foundation of higher ethical behavior, is rooted in our affinity for reciprocal altruism -- an affinity we only have because of our genes.1 (It occurs to me at this moment that if one were to really truly escape the "tyranny of our genes" then one would also have to reject reciprocal altruism, and therefore the Golden Rule as well!)
So what does all this have to do with "speciesism"? Well, as I said, "genuine" altruism, i.e. non-reciprocal altruism, can only evolve within a species. Therefore, it is not surprising that we have a strong impulse towards speciesism. In the same way that we find sex quite pleasurable, independent of the gene-selfish ultimate cause, we can also say that we find human life to be worth some apparently irrational sacrifice. We also sometimes find non-human life to be worth apparently irrational sacrifices (my rather large outstanding vet bill being a vivid demonstration of this), most likely because of a "misfiring" (from the gene pool's point of view) of our impulse to make irrational sacrifices for other humans. But it seems fairly clear to me that the impulse to sacrifice for other members of the species is far more powerful than the impulse to sacrifice for other species.
The remaining question is, does this natural impulse have any unforeseen conflict with any other imperatives we have inherited from our genes? If not, I cannot see any basis on which to pronounce this impulse "wrong". In the absence of some unforeseen conflict I am missing, it seems to me that the statement "It is fine to discriminate heavily against members of different species" is as true as the statement "It is fine to have sex for pleasure."
It's worth reiterating in closing what I am not saying: I don't mean this as a defense of eating meat. Factory farming causes so much suffering -- and to species some of whose nervous systems are strikingly similar to ours -- that it is quite rightly seen as an affront to both our impulse towards reciprocal altruism, as well as even our limited impulses towards inter-species non-reciprocal altruism. Even if not, the environmental disaster of modern factory farming is clearly in long-term conflict with a number of our other impulses, e.g. the impulse to NOT FREAKING DIE.
More humane forms of animal farming are much murkier. Our sense of reciprocal altruism may rightly see it as a raw deal for the animal -- "we feed you for a couple years, but then it's choppy-choppy time" -- but I believe this is weighted against a lot of other factors that I would prefer not to get into at this time, since this post is already way too long.
1Of course, as I also said in the previous post I linked to, it is my opinion (and I think game theory backs me up on this) that any organism we might refer to as "sapient" in the slightest must have evolved some form of reciprocal altruism. In this sense I postulate that a limited form of reciprocity may represent a gene-transcendent ethic. However, I do not think this impacts my argument here.
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