Sunday, September 24, 2006

Edward O.Wilson

Edward O.Wilson also makes me happy - see my article about him in The Sunday Times today. Wilson's single greatest virtue is the concept of value that underlies his love of life. He wants to save every living species. In part, this is because they may be useful to us either by providing drugs or whatever or by sustaining the environment that sustains us. But, mostly, it is because species are of absolute value in themselves, a value that lies far beyond our ephemeral concerns and categories. That, in our day, a scientist should arrive at a such a concept of supra-human value is of profound significance. Read Ed and be grateful.


  1. Good stuff again, Bryan. It seems to me, however, that all arguments which seek to establish the intrinsic value of other biological species, (as opposed to their instrumental value, their usefulness to us), commit the naturalistic fallacy. Just because the weed below your feet is a member of a species with a million-year history, and just because it possesses great complexity and intricacy, doesn't entail that it possesses intrinsic value, or any intrinsic rights.

    If the argument doesn't work logically, then people like Wilson simply won't convince people like myself, who don't possess any emotional or aesthetic appreciation for other biological systems.

    If, however, one does accept the postulate that other biological species possess intrinsic value and intrinsic rights, then this has an interesting consequence for global warming arguments. The planet itself, Gaia, is not endangered by global warming. It is the human species which is endangered. If humans are, indeed, a bane upon the surface of the planet, an incurable danger to other species and ecosystems, then because there are so many other species on the planet, and so many members of each species, their intrinsic value and rights outweigh ours. Global warming should be allowed to proceed to the point where human life is wiped out. Carbon emissions will then recede, and shortly thereafter Gaia will have established equilibrium again.

  2. Thanks, Gordon. The question of intrinsic value is, of course, complex. Wilson's own position is, in fact, unresolved, a fact that became all too apparent in his book Consilience(his worst). His problem is that his belief in reason obviously gives humanity ascendancy whereas as his belief in the intrinsic value cannot. Thus he falls into the trap you describe. Obviously, this is not to be held against him as he is not a philosopher and his practical goals are ones I endorse.
    This leaves me with the same problem. Intrinsic value, by definition, must be independent of us and yet, in the absence of God, it is unclear how there can be such a thing as a value independent of the human mind. For those, like me, who see and feel the importance of intrinsic, I'm not sure there is any possible argument from strict reason. However, the idea of the environment as a value about which we can do and say nothing does appear to accord with very deep human impulses. I think Wilson is right about this. Your human wipe-out scenario would, therefore, be avoided if people simply expressed these impulses as they would then stop destroying a planet which provided a home for humans.
    Intrinsic value is necessarilu going to appear arbitrary, but this does not seem that arbitrary to me.

  3. I take your point, Bryan, that if humans were to grant intrinsic value to the environment, then they would discontinue those activities which damage the environment, and which will otherwise lead to their own extinction. However, I don't see any evidence of a human impulse to grant intrinsic value to the environment. If humans feel at peace in nature, then that is the residue of an evolutionary instinct, borne of the human survival dependency upon the savannah environment. It is therefore an instinct which only accords instrumental value to the environment.

    I suspect that humans will rein in their damage to the environment over the next few decades, but only because they fear for their own survival. I suspect that after a few centuries of reduced growth, humans will develop the technology necessary to colonise space, and at that point they will engage in a rampaging, high-consumption diaspora through the galaxy. The human species is often compared to viruses, which consume the resources of their host cells, their homes, in order to reproduce, and then destroy those host cells. In fact, this is not quite true. Viruses always destroy their host cells, and this is a weakness which leads to the death of the viral colony when there are no more host cells. Humans, in contrast, consume and destroy their environment to survive and reproduce, in a more selective and judicious manner. The human species is an improvement upon the virus.

  4. It seems to me, Bryan, that if one follows the notion of evoutionary determinism to its logical conclusion, there can be no grounds for criticizing human activities, period. Evolution has made us as we are and we do what we do accordingly. As you say, "in the absence of God, it is unclear how there can be such a thing as a value independent of the human mind." And if there is not ...?

  5. Frank, Gordon, thank you both for raising the tone of this blog. I'm a little rusty at this kind of argument, but here are a few observations.
    1)Wilson's perspective may also said to be wrong because he is too optimistic about human affairs, assuming we shall behave as well as his ants. The reason he prizes may be interpreted as merely a way of making our evolved natures more destructive - nuclear weapons instead of clubs, for example.
    2)We must beware of using rationality to undermine reason. For example: 'I, an evolved creature, find it is in my nature to kill all the Jews in Germany and your reason denies you a reasonable response.' Or: 'It is in human nature to destroy the environment which keeps humans alive.' Do we need logic to say both of these are wrong? Logic seems to deny us that luxury and becomes, as a result, the logic of the madhouse, brilliantly parodied in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers. To say that all humans do is part of nature and, therefore, partakes of the intrinsic goodness - or determinism - of nature comes from the same madhouse.
    3)All arguments, as Wittgenstein observed, stop somewhere. This is another way of saying no argument can satisfy or justify us. Beyond the end point, therefore - the point at which we fall silent but still have to act - lies a perhaps arbitrary allocation of value. This arbitrariness is no more irrational than the pursuit of logic to a conclusion which our intuition - in the silence - tells us is unreasonable.
    4) I could go on bit it's been a long weekend.
    Thanks again

  6. I think an awareness that attempts to reduce itself to subordination to reason and nothing but, must end up in absolute nihilism, ie total sceptism about thought itself. I think we can't be afraid of the self-evident or intrinsic values that speak luoudly and directly to our sense of life.

  7. Sorry to lower the tone again, but it's a fact that no one has the faintest idea of the number of species on Earth. Estimates vary more than widely. How and why, in these circumstances, can there be an 'intrinsic value' is every species - just, presumably, for being a species? We have no clear idea at all of the richness of the 'biosphere' - nor, by extension, of the rate of extinction or the extent of the threat to diversity. It's all just another case of us humans being human. What isn't?