Created from Animals

Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism, by James Rachels, Oxford University Press, 1990 ISBN: 978-0192861290 (ISBN-10: 0192861298)

I actually read the italian version of this book, Creati dagli animali: implicazioni etiche del darwinismo, by James Rachels, but it is now out of print. I became aware of it through Le Scienze (the italian version of Scientific American).

I liked this book very much and it did refine the ideas I already had on ethics.

Some very dubious ethical views have been derived from evolution, mainly connected with simplistic and erroneous view of the “survival of the strongest” or racial views. I always found it a bit ridiculous: thinking even only a bit more on it one can see that sometime the one that survives better is not the strongest, but the one that collaborates. In a complex system, it is difficult to establish a priori a winning strategy, game theory and some economic theories can help study this, but often there isn’t a unique solution, and the solution depends also on the solutions chosen by others (the environment is influenced by the other actors). Defining the strongest as the one that survives is a tautological choice that isn’t useful, and anyway in ethics one can argue that a fact (something that is) cannot change the morality (the way something should be).

I read it a long time ago, but there are still are some points that I remember clearly and are still very relevant to me.

  1. Evolution shows how it is possible to have an a reason for something, but no goal, a complex behavior without having someone that planned it. Thus evolution theory can undermine many arguments, for example the special position of humans among animals.

  2. The complexity of an individual (or from a more mathematical/computational point of view the amount of unique information in an individual) either at the current moment or expected in the future can contribute to define a measure of the value of an individual that makes sense, and works without needing to declare humans special. Using it the value of a bacteria is really different from the one of a chicken, and the one of a plant or a chicken from that of a person. Then ethics works toward protecting diversity.

  3. Several ethical questions can be resolved just from general thinking, but other require one to actually quantify an acceptable loss. If there are large differences one can still be somewhat general, but some cases require more quantification which is culture/tradition dependent.

I enjoyed also the historical account on Darwin. I think it would be worth re-reading it. Major Transition in Evolution (or its more popular version) is a nice companion to this to understand evolution better.version) is a nice companion to this to understand evolution better.

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