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Pig Organs and Evolutionary Ethics

Pig Organs and Evolutionary Ethics


Lord Winston of Imperial College, London, said recently that he believes pig organs will be available for human transplant within ten years. Porcine valves are already widely used for human heart patients, but this kind of experimentation often provokes revulsion and ethical outrage, despite its potential to save lives. Why?

The argument made by those who oppose interspecies transplant is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences. And for many of us who do not oppose stem-cell research or other research avenues, porcine organs just seems revolting.

And there may be another motivation for opposing research into life-extending therapies. Religions serve their interests when they oppose medical research, because they prevent progress that has the potential to increase lifespan. If medical science can provide immortality, that’s one less perk of signing up for a religion that promises eternal bliss and salvation.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to interspecies transplant and genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

Of course, if all of the ideas that compose our intuitive ethic arose through evolutionary processes, it could be argued that revulsion with mixing our genetic material with that of animals must confer an evolutionary benefit.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

Why do men wear neckties? I cannot imagine even the beginnings of a theory to explain how this behavior confers some evolutionary advantage over wearing some other attire or wearing no neckwear at all. Wearing neckties must be a behavioral consequence of some other general behaviors and preferences which increase our chances for survival. The necktie-wearing behavior is just a side effect.

Richard Dawkins has argued that deistic belief is a side effect of certain other evolutionarily advantageous traits, such as "theory of mind." If we understand that other entities around us are similar in that they are self-aware, we are more likely to ascribe agency to dangerous creatures. If a tiger is hunting me, it behooves me to understand that the tiger is motivated to murder me. Trying to deduce that that orange and black object over there is about to jump on me would be a lot harder to figure out if I didn't think about what the tiger had in mind. And in order to do that, I had to have a tendency to assume that the creatures around me are the hosts of other minds besides my own.

Having the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes could save your life, and so we are all evolutionarily disposed to think that way. That tendency is inborn, and causes us to imagine spirits and ghosts, Dawkins argues. When we see a face in the sky, that tells our brain to fire up this nifty trick. We use our theory of mind to imagine agency in all kinds of places it isn't, but that doesn't really hurt us as much as knowing that tigers have minds helps us.

The same could be happening in our ethical feeling about pig organs. We have a sense of self and sacredness about our persons, because those traits might be conducive to keeping clean and not biting our own legs. But perhaps our sense that “our bodies are temples” is misfiring when confronting a situation that never arose during its evolution. Humans are only just beginning to gain the ability to modify both our own stem cells and the genes of other animals. We owe it to ourselves to swallow our revulsion and explore the possibilities.



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