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.

Cross-posted at debitage

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11 Responses to Chimaeras and Environmentalism

  1. Pingback: feminist blogs

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    Aunt B. says:

    Also, in some sense, we’ve already run this experiment. Slavery, as practiced in the U.S. at the hight of its virulency, was based on the presumption that people from Africa or of African descent weren’t human. The term ‘mulatto’ shares a root with ‘mule’ because the offspring of white people and black people were seen, at least rhetorically, as some kind of cross-species hybrid.

    Having a bunch of “hybrids” of that sort running around did little to motivate this country to act more morally–not towards the environment, of course, and especially not towards each other

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    perianwyr says:

    A God that chooses sides in this world in human disputes and competitions is an invitation to abuse. You can discriminate against those of other faiths, that’s a given. They’re children of lesser gods, possessed of lesser souls. Less than 3/5ths of a person. You can even attack the less fortunate of your own faith, simply by virtue of their lack of success (after all, if they were viewed favorably in the eyes of God, wouldn’t he intervene on their behalf and give them earthly wealth?) Electos in patria, prescitos ad inferna. Blessings are as blessings do.

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    Polymath says:

    Excellent post. I agree, of course, that even rich white males are harmed by the degredation of the environment. Unfortunately, the “rich” part of that description means that they can insulate themselves (or, we Americans as a whole can insulate ourselves) from the damage, perhaps until it’s too late. Wealth allows us to be blissfully ignorant. I would guess that our wealth and technology are what reinforce this illusion of separateness more than the religious factors at this point.

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    Stentor says:

    Good point, Aunt B.

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    RonF says:

    A chimera and a hybrid are two different things, folks. A hybrid is an organism that through sexual reproduction combines the chromosomal makeup of it’s two different parents into one organism. Thus, crossing two pea plants where one is short and has thick pea pods wiht one that is tall and has thin pea pods may give you a tall plant with thick pea pods. However, the DNA makeup of all the cells in it are the same.

    A chimera is an organism that has cells in it that have differing DNA makeup. The most common example you will see is a calico cat. The cells that express (e.g.) the orange tabby parts of it’s coat are different than the cells that express the white patches of it’s coat. They actually have a different set of DNA from each other. What is being described here is a hybrid, not a chimera.

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    RonF says:

    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.

    White needs to read his (or her) Bible again. The Bible certainly says that the Earth and everything on it is for mankind’s use. But there’s nothing in the Bible that says we are free to abuse it, and there’s a fair amount of talk on stewardship.

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    Q Grrl says:

    Unfortunately, the “rich” part of that description means that they can insulate themselves (or, we Americans as a whole can insulate ourselves) from the damage, perhaps until it’s too late. Wealth allows us to be blissfully ignorant.

    So does poverty. So does a middle-income level. Blissful ignorance of the environment is a social problem across all spectrums of income. In fact, it has been my experience that those who are in lower income brackets tend to shield themselves more from environmental concerns than do others, and that conversely, wealthy individuals tend to donate both time and money to environmental concerns.

    We tend to see ourselves as separate from the environment because we can — no matter what roots that particular blindspot comes from, we actively perpetuate it because that viewpoint serves us well. Current damages to the environment do not necessarily translate as hardships to the current generation; and that which we cannot accurately measure tends to go unobserved.

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    RonF says:

    Q Grrl, you are quite right in your comments. If I may get on my soapbox a bit, the way to fight that is to start young, pull the kids out of their connected world and plunge them into the environment once in a while. You want your kids to have some environmental awareness and respect, get them out in the woods. Without MP3 players, iPods, CD players, and CELL PHONES.

    Yeah, I push Scouting, but if their policies are too unacceptable to you there are other groups that you can get involved in. Get them out in the easy stuff first, the county/state park thing. But after a while, push them a bit. Go for something wilderness at least once intheir lives, somewhere around the 13 – 15 year old range.

    And get them involved in a service project or two cleaning up someone else’s mess in the mountainsor on a lake or river. You can put kids of all economic classes together in this kind of thing, and they see how they are all affected. Plus, it’s fun playing inthe muck.

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    Q Grrl says:

    Indeed Ron. I do volunteer work with area 4th graders to teach them about the environment and their local watersheds ( It is extremely tricky to do with the working class children – primarily because their parents’ livelihoods depend on jobs/work that actively harms the environment. The kids get gung ho about what we are saying, but we have to tailor it knowing that it will get back to the parents and we don’t want to create an atmosphere where parents are shamed or the kids feel uneasy about their parents’ farm run-off or textile mill work. We try to frame things in a “making choices” type of scenario, which basically admits to the kids that *all* chocies that humans make are destructive and harmful, on some level, and that there are no clear cut answers to conservation or a healthy environment.

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    RonF says:

    Interesting link, Q Grrl. I clicked through to the newspaper article. I loved this quote: “Believe it or not we have students that never spend time in the woods.” Oh, I can believe it. Too many kids glued to earphones and keyboards or cell phones, too many parents that either won’t take those away and tell the kids to go outside, or else have fears about letting their kids play in the woods and maybe get banged up some. Child raises up a fuss when you try taking their electronics away and the parents back off.

    It sounds like these kids enjoy themselves, though, and learn some useful concepts. I like the part where there’s a good contingent of older kids involved in teaching and running the program. Kids pay attention to older kids a lot more than they pay attention to adults, and hopefully those older kids will join back in to activism on this kind of thing as they get older (especially when they have kids of their own).

    The site is a little light on details of exactly what activities the kids do at the various stations, though. I’d like to see those. Maybe there are some good ideas I can adapt/steal to use.

    When I was a kid in Boy Scouts (1963 – 1972) I did a LOT of camping in the Massachusetts and Maine woods. I had to learn to identify trees and other plants and various birds, snakes, insects, small mammals, etc., and I got the Fish and Wildlife Managment and Forestry merit badges. I also grew to understand a lot of the concepts working on Nature MB. But the words “environment” or “environmentalism” weren’t ones you heard a lot. I remember walking the 5 miles to school on the first Earth Day (1970), but the terms hadn’t worked their way into general discourse yet.

    The camping methods then were invasive. It was not unheard of to ditch one’s tent, although we were cautioned to replace the sod when we were done. And cooking and boiling water for washing up were all done over wood fires; I spent a lot of time walking out into the woods with an axe to chop down and then chop up a small dead pine tree for fuel. It was also not unheard of to dig a latrine for everyone to use.

    These days the BSA is much more on top of things. You still have to learn to build a fire, but most all your cooking and clean up is done using a propane or liquid fuel burner. Ditching one’s tent is forbidden (besides, tents have floors now). And the Environmental Science merit badge is required for Eagle (and there’s a bunch of links on that page); the practical effect of that is that just about every kid 12 or over who goes to summer camp earns it. The BSA also pushes Leave No Trace; no more chopping down a stack of dead trees to build a camp gateway, building a bunch of firerings, digging latrines, having a bunch of people camping in one spot, etc.

    I must say that we don’t worry so much about the implications of environmental lessons based on the class/income/jobs of the parents of the kids involved. For one thing, I have no idea of what they might be unless the kid involved happens to be in my own unit. In fact, one of the explicit objectives of putting the kids in uniform (whether it’s the full blown BSA shirt and pants or just a camp T-shirt) is to deliberately mask income and other differences among the kids.

    I have to wonder whether any of those kids go home and think, “Damn, Mom or Dad’s job involves screwing up the environment.” It’s certainly possible. But we are all Chicago suburbanites, and as such are more isolated from the effects of what we do on where we live than more rural kids might be. Plenty of these kid’s parents work for companies that might be doing such things, but they wouldn’t be doing it locally; the plants dumping pollutants in the river or the air are hundreds of miles from here. There are assembly facilities and shipping facilities nearby that could be generating hazardous waste, but that’s a bit harder to visualize; it would be trucked away and disposed of somewhere out of sight. Hm.

    Yes, conservation is a series of tradeoffs. What are the costs of recovering recyclable material out of household waste vs. what it can be sold for (making new newspaper out of logs seems to be cheaper than recycling used newspaper, but collecting aluminum cans and reusing them is much more economic than mining and smelting bauxite)? What are the hazards/effects of extracting a mineral or other non-renewable resource from an area vs. it’s uses as a watershed, farming and recreational area? What are the costs of producing and recycling/disposing of the battery in a hybrid car vs. the fuel saved? What are the political (as well as environmental) consequences of using or saving that fuel?

    We can’t live without making a mark on the planet. Neither can anything else, though; humans are not special in that regard. What’s makes us special is that we can make choices about how much of a mark we make and what kind of living standards we choose. I applaud your efforts to help kids understand that concept, and what our choices are.