Even as our Scientific Knowledge Catches up, Morality Continues to Lag

Scott Deshefy


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Corporate responsibilities, as well as our own, should reflect humanity’s highest ideals, leaving the biosphere better than when we were born. Just how big and all-encompassing are moral obligations? Peter Singer, Australian moral philosopher who wrote Animal Liberation in 1975, concludes the limit of our responsibilities is the limit of our knowledge about the harm and suffering we cause. Historian Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2015) takes Singer’s inference a step further. Hararicontends responsibility extends as far as our power to bring about change, both locally and globally. Gaps between the knowledge to which Singer refers and our powers to effect changes, Harari argues, create dangers for the life forms we impact. That’s because human technologies often produce hazardous byproducts and discharges which alter Earth’s life-support systems like no other creature before.

Human population growth, dams and inefficient water uses have diverted and depleted major river systems. Throwaway-economies predicated on waste, automobiles and “plug-in” devices created enormous energy demands which fouled the atmosphere and oceans long before we understood long-term consequences. Excessive meat consumption, factory farming and urban sprawl have decimated the wilds. We now know 50% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface is used to feed our current population, 10% for agriculture; 20% for livestock. Meat-heavy American diets require about 3 acres to feed a single person. In a few decades, that hectare will have to feed four. Further complicating the future, only 1% of the planet’s accessible water is suitable for drinking, a staggering two-thirds of which is used to make food. That production causes 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions triggering climate change.

But, even as our scientific knowledge catches up, morality continues to lag. Despite stark revelations, life continues to be destroyed wholesale and resources are exhausted at unprecedented rates. Anthropogenic climate change and global warming shed light on the inconsistency with which knowledge keeps pace with technology’s intoxicating power. Slowly, we’ve begun to understand, as a nation, how buying a can of cat food containing tuna in Connecticut could threaten a pod of dolphins off Southeast Asia; how tee shirts and running shoes might come from foreign sweatshops; how single cartons of chips containing palm oil condemn hectares of Brazilian rainforest to slash and burn. That clean alternative energy and plant-based foods, including meat substitutes, are gaining popularity is certainly encouraging, but we’ve a long, long way to go. After decades of dithering, vacillation and denial, reforming our flawed, profligate and wasteful economies has yet to take place, and the shot clock’s running down.

When I was a kid, you couldn’t find melons at grocers in winter, unless shipped frozen from California in small, prohibitively-expensive cans. Today, entire melons arrive in January, recently grown and shipped from Mexico and Costa Rica. In a global economy, we’re connected to far more extensive causal chains of consequences than parents and grandparents, let alone ancient hominid ancestors, ever imagined. Their daily actions, as shoppers and food gatherers were fully contained and understood within local, highly contracted moral circles. Individual or combined actions rarely impacted distant lands or unfamiliar individuals. As animists, early humans probably felt strong connections to other life forms around them and certainly learned from and adapted behaviorally to their models. Foraging, determining what plants and fruits were edible, and scavenging carcasses left by apex predators are likely examples. In a strict Darwinian sense, kin selection filled moral circles with tribal members to whom, virtually without exception, ancient humans were closely related. Responsibility to them was driven by advancing their genes to the next generation’s pool. In time, that constricted worldview expanded. City-states and agriculture were followed by Gutenberg’s press. Then, as literacy caught up to technology, books (especially works of fiction) promoted empathy for others. Long before financiers met at Bretton Woods, NH in 1944, laying groundwork that buttresses today’s global economy (e.g., the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank) Dickens’ novels, flu and diphtheria epidemics, Russia’s famine, the Great Depression, world wars and New Deal presidents, from FDR to Nixon, widened the spectrum of caring. As a young boy, I would listen to my grandmother Minnie and her younger siblings, gathering at great-aunts’ and uncles’ dinner tables, talking about how they survived scarlet fever and whooping cough (i.e., pertussis). They’d recount working as teens at a Yonkers carpet factory when my great grandparents died. My great uncle Rudy, the youngest, was only 12 when he maintained the looms. By pooling their earnings, they kept their turn-of-the century house, made soups and breads and left cots and blankets on an enclosed porch for indigents. Yet, recalling those times, haloed by blue-grey billows from unfiltered Pall Malls, Lucky Strikes and Camels, every bite of food was seasoned with laughter.

In terms of perpetuating shared genes, kin selection still powers our responsibilities to relatives. But, given widespread and interconnected influences we have on the planet and growing knowledge about how local behaviors can impact the living everywhere, moral circles of ethical responsibilities expand accordingly, encompassing the biosphere. From evolutionary perspectives of shared or “selfish” genes determining moral obligations, this makes perfect biological sense. About 3 billion genome base pairs make us roughly 99.9% similar to human “strangers” outside our immediate ancestries. Neanderthals shared about 99.7% of our DNA, and as everyone should know by now, our closest non-human relatives, chimpanzees, are nearly 98.8% similar to us genetically. Gorillas share 98.4% of our homologous genes, pigs 98.0%, orangutans 96.9%; cats about 91%. Mice share 85% of our DNA, dogs 84% and cows 80%. Slugs, both hetero- and autotrophic in some cases, actually share 70% of our DNA, chickens 65% (ask an embryology student), fruit flies 61%, bananas 60% and trees in general about 50%. During fetal development an organism’s ontogeny still does not “recapitulate phylogeny” per se as German naturalist Ernst Haeckel incorrectly postulated in 1866. But our irrefutable genetic commonality with other forms of life supports inferences of unilateral moral obligations. Perhaps that’s why many examples of what seem like altruistic behaviors can be found not only among us animals, particularly eusocial ones, but within plant communities as well.

Biologist and environmental activist David Suzuki describes the Oneness of all life in a “breath-sharing” exercise I’ve referenced before, one based on calculations by the late Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley. Because they’re inert and don’t change or react with other elements, the same argon atoms, making up 0.9% of the atmosphere, have been passing through stomata of respiring plants and lungs of animals for hundreds of millions of years. A human age 80 may take 672 million breaths in that lifespan. As a result, it’s a probabilistic certainty that many of the same argon atoms we inhale during our existences once bounced within lungs of dinosaurs, blue whales, Bengal tigers and passenger pigeons. Argon atoms in the breaths I take to type this sentence may have been inhaled by Attila the Hun or Doris Day, passing even between stomata guard cells of baobab trees in Africa or now-extinct 2,000-year old cycads during the Permian period 290 million years ago. That’s a beautiful thought, connecting us to billions of lives really, hundreds of millions of current and extinct species, the vast majority of which have yet to be described ─ a wonderful “bio-intimacy.”

It’s a noble problem, but informing ourselves about every consumer product that has elements of long-range harm exposes gaps between responsibility and knowledge to which Singer and Harari refer. Of course, eating less meat and reducing our use of fossil fuels are easy and obvious ethical adjustments. Long before Watson and Crick discovered the chemical composition and helical structure of DNA, Charles Darwin thought morality, being beneficial to survival both within our species and among other intelligent animals, would be favored by natural selection and increase over time. Had Darwin known what we now know about DNA-sharing with other animals, he would have had greater confidence in his hypothesis. But the magnitudes and pace of human impacts on the planet are now so great our ethical instincts may not be evolved enough to deal with the types of moral questions we face this 21st century. More and more, despite residual pockets of U.S. scientific illiteracy, we have the knowledge to comprehend long-term consequences of what we’re doing to the planet. Ignoring that knowledge condemns future generations, human and nonhuman animals alike, to an unlivable world.  Anthropogenic climate change and human-accelerated plant and animal extinction rates are obvious, but to do something about them we have to rely on collective institutions for thorough analyses and sound recommendations, scientific institutions especially. Unfortunately, as a detriment to solving big problems and acknowledging our moral obligations, so-called “rugged,” if obtuse, individualism stands in the way. Feeling alienated, some people reject the scientific and moral analyses of our most trusted institutions, and that rejection is at the core of crises we now face.

Peter Singer’s landmark Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, fast approaching its 50th anniversary, changed forever the conversation of how we mistreat, kill and, incalculably, inflict mental and physical harm on other animals. Singer, who popularized the term “speciesism” in his book, took Jeremy Bentham’s 19th century utilitarian views on preventing suffering and forever extended that protective consideration to every sentient animal. Since then, what we scientists keep learning about animal behavior, physiology, sentience and cognition in the natural world keeps widening the canopy of Bentham’s obligatory moral standard “can they suffer,” even to plants and some fungi. If, as Singer and Harari contend, morality is awareness of the suffering we cause, then doing something to prevent it should trend towards greater empathy and moderation, even when impacts are remote.

Because solving problems of global magnitude requires everyone to take responsibility for their actions, immense modern causal chains of consequences necessitate institutions to trace and decipher them, using that knowledge to guide us. This comes at a time, unfortunately, when America’s trust in institutions has eroded, worsened by the last administration’s chicanery, illusory posturing and dissociations from the truth. In an age of amplification without vetting, large international institutions are needed to curate and assimilate information, filter-out the bunk, and expose spurious justifications for causing harm. Scientific cooperation, usually a success story, has remained so during the pandemic, despite some political train wrecks. But if Americans can’t unite against a virus, prospects for mitigating climate change within our limited windows of opportunity are bleak. Perhaps some sense of urgency is in a gene we share with other animals, a genetic predisposition towards wisdom, compassion and survival. One can only hope. Our futures, like our evolutions and genomes, are irrevocably linked.

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.