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22.7.06

Chimaeras and Environmentalism

David Barash thinks that creating human-ape hybrids would be a great way to strike a blow for truth and reason. His main motivation is to disprove creationism -- though how designing a new creature will prove evolution escapes me. More interesting to me was his secondary claim that such hybrids would also promote a stronger environmental ethic:

Moreover, the benefits of such a physical demonstration of human-nonhuman unity would go beyond simply discomfiting the naysayers, beyond merely bolstering a "reality based" as opposed to a bogus "faith based" worldview. I am thinking of the powerful payoff that would come from puncturing the most hurtful myth of all time, that of discontinuity between human beings and other life forms. This myth is at the root of our environmental destruction — and our possible self-destruction.

Four decades ago, historian Lynn White wrote a now-classic article in the journal Science making the point that much of the damaging disconnect derives from the Judeo-Christian proclamation of radical discontinuity between people and the rest of "creation." White argued that the Western world took its marching orders from a literal reading of Genesis: not only to go forth and multiply but also to dominate and, whenever inclined, to destroy the animate world, which, lacking our unique spiritual essence, existed only for human use and abuse. Whereas "we" are special, chips off the old divine block, "they" (all other life forms) are wholly different, made merely of matter. Hence, they don't really matter.


I think Barash is making a confusion between two senses in which there can be "discontinuity" between humans and other life. There can be discontinuity due to a lack of sameness, or discontinuity based on a lack of interdependence. The question of sameness is the territory of animal rights philosophy, while the question of interdependence is addressed in environmental ethics. A "proof" in the case of one type of sameness doesn't necessarily entail anything about the other.

The ability to create a human-animal hybrid speaks to the question of sameness. It would show that humans and apes aren't all that different from each other. (I don't think it would be an especially powerful "proof" -- believers in the existence of souls could easily invoke some sort of "one drop rule" to classify the hybrids, just as creationists dismiss "missing link" fossils as all either obviously ape or obviously human.) So perhaps having a bunch of hybrids running around would motivate people to give more moral consideration to apes.

But our environmental crisis is not, at root, a result of not caring enough about apes. It's not even just about not caring about any individual life form. After all, environmental problems put humans (including even rich white male humans) at risk. Insofar as our environmental crisis has a philosophical basis -- and I think it's as much a result of technology and of social structure as of philosophy -- the problem is that we don't recognize the interdependence of humans and other life forms, as well as nonliving elements of the ecosystem. (Note that the mere mystical recognition that everything is connected is not enough -- we also have to understand how the connections work.)

Environmentalism demands that we see how the fortunes of each member of the ecological community (including humans) are dependent on each other and on the community, and how the actions of each member (especially humans) can affect the community. This has nothing to do with whether one of those species is genetically related to another. An alien species who evolved on a completely different planet, or a group of angels created from scratch by God, could quite justifiably see themselves as "wholly different" from Earth's life forms. But they would, upon settling on the Earth, have just as much need for an environmental ethic as humans do.

If anything, creating human-ape hybrids would reinforce the environmentally damaging ideology of separateness-as-lack-of-interdependence. It would be one more encouragement to see nature, including human biology, as something we can manipulate at will. Human and animal genes (and the lives created with them) become just resources and tools for proving points in ideological disputes.

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