Wednesday, May 31, 2006

When I Heard the Learn'd Biologist

Published in the Connecticut Journal of Science Education 40:1 (1-4) Fall-Winter 2002

Recently I had a perfect Socratic moment. It occurred during a talk given by a visiting biologist on the campus of my career-oriented university. I had been looking forward to asking him a question about evolution and education. I thought this would be an ideal opportunity, since the speaker was a geneticist and would be addressing a large audience of students and faculty in our theatre auditorium. Specifically, I was curious to hear what a person, whose lifework is presumably premised upon Darwinian principles, would have to say about how to teach those students -- some of whom are quite intelligent -- who claim to reject evolution on religious grounds, or sometimes even on supposedly strictly rational/empirical grounds.

For example, is it a proper part of our educational mission to insist on the truth of evolution (as, I am used to thinking, we uphold the truth of the Earth's orbiting the Sun)? Or ought we instead to present it as a hypothesis or theory plus the evidence for it, but without expecting our students to demonstrate any intellectual allegiance to it? My concern has grown out of my own teaching experience, where I, like any other teacher, will commonly refer to or allude to or presume various items of general knowledge in order to make some particular point; but if students are "entitled" to believe that, say, the universe is only 5000 years old, I'm not sure that I can assume anything at all about what counts as knowledge.

As I listened to the speaker, however, my attention was drawn to a very different implication of his remarks. He began with some general observations about scientific revolutions. A revolution in a given field, he explained, is often induced by a specialist entering from another field; that is because an outsider will sometimes see things in a fundamentally different way. The speaker clearly considered evolutionary biology and genetics to be an example of a scientific revolution.

He proceeded to discuss that field in particular, but, in passing, made what seemed to be an extraordinary concession. Evidently referring to the controversies of a Darwinian sort in contemporary society, he said (I quote from memory): "I have opinions on these issues, but in ethics my opinion counts no more than anybody else's; so I will not talk about them." On the face of it this was an expression of deep humility, and may even have been felt to be so by the speaker himself. But I personally was outraged. To me it sounded like that most dreadful of modern dogmas: ethical relativism. Furthermore, it was relativism being employed in the service of a particular agenda.

I have observed this strategy, or stratagem, before, and I believe it is a way of evading ethical and professional responsibility. Let me stress, however, that I do not mean to be making a personal accusation against the speaker, whose motives and awareness I do not know. But even if his thinking is based simply on a conceptual confusion, its effects can be just as devastating as if it were a consciously perpetrated ploy.

What am I getting all hot and bothered about? Well, first I should explain that our speaker is the head of a well-known research laboratory, which specializes in the cultivation of mice for understanding and alleviating human diseases. His lab has provided millions of mice to universities, medical schools, and biomedical research laboratories around the world, and its annual operating budget is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

I should also disclose that I am sympathetic to the animal rights movement, which holds that nonhuman animals have certain minimal rights that ought to be respected by humans.1 Part of the argument for that view is that humans are very special animals indeed, in no small part because we are apparently unique in our capacity to respect others' rights!

Hence, I readily put two and two together and realized that the speaker's remarks about ethics may have been designed to offset animal advocates. Clearly his laboratory has a vital vested interest in the use of animals for research. So isn't it "convenient" to be able to brush aside any ethical scrutiny of that kind of research by "graciously" according equal respect to everybody's ethical "opinions"? "You live your life by your scruples, and I'll live mine by mine." How nice ... except for the mice! Such an attitude does not allow the millions of mice his lab exports to live their lives unmolested.

Even if I were not an animal advocate, I would cringe at the speaker's apparent assumptions about the nature of ethics. For, as I have already indicated, I am no friend of ethical relativism. Here I am truly in my own professional bailiwick, but I need not argue on the basis of "authority." The refutation of relativism is accessible to anyone, and it goes as follows. The standard argument for relativism is that different people have different ethical beliefs; therefore ethics is just a matter of personal belief -- it is merely subjective -- there is no ethical Truth. But that argument is simply invalid. From the undeniable fact that different people have different ethical beliefs, it does not follow that all of those beliefs are equally legitimate; no more than it follows that there is no truth or fact of the matter about the shape of the Earth, just because some people happen to believe it is round and others, flat.

Nor does it help to attempt to strengthen the relativist argument by pointing to the comparative unanimity of opinion on scientific matters, as opposed to ethical matters. Here there are two rebuttals. First, even unanimity in science does not guarantee truth: Witness the fates of Aristotelian and then of Newtonian physics. On the other hand, one can question the truth of the premise that near unanimity is more characteristic of science than of ethics; as a former teacher of mine2 once put it, "Which is more certain: That it is wrong to torture a baby, or that quarks have charm?"

Meanwhile, one can argue directly for the falsehood of relativism by pointing out that proclaiming the truth of relativism seems to be a self-contradictory act. Or, less abstractly, one can argue that the primary virtue of the relativist is supposed to be tolerance; but then is not the supposed relativist espousing an absolute value?3

A final key fact accounting for my reaction to the speaker's statement about ethics, in addition to his being a relativist and heading a mouse lab and my being a non-relativist and an animal advocate, is that the linchpin of his laboratory's phenomenal success has been the modern genetics research finding that, to quote their brochure, "Mice are remarkably similar to humans and share 75% of our DNA. [Hence, t]oday, the mouse is recognized by the world scientific community as the most important model of human diseases and disorders."

So at the end of the biologist's talk I raised my hand and, when recognized, spoke as follows. "Despite your disclaimer regarding ethical opinions, Dr. ______, I would like to ask you about your opinion on a certain subject, since your experience and expertise would make it an especially informed one. You have noted that a scientific revolution in one area can be brought about by some influence from another area. So I am wondering if you think there might be a moral revolution in the offing, brought about by the findings of contemporary genetics regarding the extraordinary degree of closeness between other animals -- in particular, other mammals -- and ourselves. Might we come to accord an analogous sort of moral concern and respect to our fellow mammals to that we currently accord our fellow humans?"

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say this question elicited a definite response from the audience, and an atmosphere of tense expectancy ensued. The explicit charge of the speaker series4 of which this was a part is to bring to the university "persons of national stature and prominence in the fields of business and public service [in order to] broaden the horizons of undergraduate students and to enable them -- in an open and informal atmosphere -- to gain exposure to the ethics and dynamics of those areas of endeavor." But the talks themselves are often conducted as a kind of love fest for the distinguished visitor, whose favor is sometimes, understandably, sought by various faculty, students, and administrators (as potential employer, benefactor, and so on.). Also, this was being broadcast on live radio, and at the very least one does not want to embarrass a guest.

I had tried, therefore, to phrase my question in the most respectful and open-ended way possible, but at the same time I felt a professional obligation as an educator to plant a seed in the students' minds. Both the audience and the speaker were also able to put two and two together, as my implication was that the very similarities that argue for the use of our fellow mammals as research subjects would seem to militate against that use on moral grounds.

The speaker was visibly hesitant about how to proceed. He began to talk in a desultory way about the closeness of the primates, but then abruptly shifted gears. (Here again I quote from memory.) "Look, I know what you're getting at. Let me tell you that my son suffers from Crohn's Syndrome. And if I have to kill a thousand mice in order to help my son, I will." Then he simply stopped, and his presentation was over.

After a moment there was a round of applause. One may imagine a mix of reactions. (I will not speculate on the relative percentages.) There were no doubt those who were expressing their approval of the speaker's "devastating" response to my question, with the reference to his son paramount in their sympathetic imagination. There were others, such as myself, who wished to extend a courtesy to a man who had perhaps revealed far more than he had intended ... the echo of the words "I will kill a thousand mice" lingering in the great hall.

It was afterwards I realized that this had been my true Socratic moment ... for better or worse! My question had not been designed to increase my popularity. I was the gadfly, attempting to "sting" my university to a better performance of its mission, which is to graduate genuine professionals. I take the latter to mean those who have attained not only technical competence in a given field but also an appreciation of, and a sense of responsibility for, the impact that that competency can have on the world at large.

Furthermore, in true Socratic fashion I had posed a question to a prominent citizen and professional expert that presented him with a contradiction contained in his own utterances. This, I believe, is actually a form of respect, for one is attending to the other person's own opinions, rather than ignoring them or merely trying to impose one's own. Unfortunately, many people view this as an outright attack on their (or somebody else's) God-given right to hold their own opinion on any subject. Hence the death of Socrates.

But I have yet to be martyred for expecting experts to back up their opinions with reasons. And I was indeed thankful for the opportunity to engage in this minimal dialogue; I felt the university was functioning quite as it should. After all, you can't expect everyone to love you when you suggest a potentially fatal criticism of someone's main accomplishment, and couch it in moral terms to boot.

But did the speaker really engage in a dialogue? He did reply to my question, but his reply struck me as mainly rhetorical in nature. Specifically, I heard him making an appeal to the audience's emotions, analogous to a prosecuting attorney's depicting the heinousness of a crime as "evidence" (or an "argument") for the defendant's guilt. Strictly speaking, the speaker did not even address my question, did he?

Or at best he did answer my question, thus: "No, there will be no moral revolution such as you suggest." And his implied argument was, "The scope of morality, at its broadest, is delimited by the needs and desires of one's own species." But that is not a self-evident truth to every listener, and I would be curious to hear him articulate any further reasons in its favor. Are we entitled to neglect the interests of other animals, when their interests conflict with ours, simply because we can get away with it (in the case of mice, because we are bigger than they are)? That kind of "justification" would not work with respect to our fellow humans; for example, I am not authorized to cannibalize your child to garner organs that may be needed by mine. So what exactly is the entitling difference? Again consider that the speaker's central argument is the similarity of other mammals to us.

Meanwhile, I found my own reaction to the speaker's answer to be interesting in its own right. When a colleague afterward asked me what I had thought about it, I said, "He answered like a human." "Well, isn't that exactly what you would want?" retorted my colleague. In other words, isn't that precisely what an ethical response would be? But I meant it in the sense, "Just as a tiger would 'answer' like a tiger if you asked her why she killed a human." Instead I was looking for an answer from this human in his professional capacity, which supposedly legitimates his sacrificing countless nonhuman mammals for the sole benefit of human mammals. Alternatively, I was asking him to exercise his uniquely human capacity of rational and moral reflection.

So I continue to wonder whether the speaker was just a con man, trying to divert attention from the issue I had raised, or, more typically, he was illiterate in professional ethics, that is, not conversant with the standard theoretical bases for making ethical judgments in his field. It is simply naive to presume that science deals only with objective facts, while ethics has to do only with subjective values. But it is disturbing when a person in a position of high professional power is either unwilling or unable to sustain a rational discussion about the ethical defensibility of his work.

Certainly I am not suggesting that there is an algorithm for coming up with the right answers to questions about right and wrong. Nor, despite my rejection of relativism and espousal of animal rights doctrine, do I maintain that the speaker is proved ignorant because he disagrees with me. All I seek is a professional's willingness and ability to discuss and debate -- and, in the first instance, to recognize and respect -- moral issues that pertain to his or her profession, rather than to be blissfully unaware of them, or to intentionally ignore, dismiss, sidestep, or obfuscate them.

It could well be that I have inadvertently caricatured the speaker's actual attitude and position. But this is just another reason to advocate dialogue, for without the opportunity to probe our respective views in detail, we are left with only stick-figure images of each other. The speaker may also imagine that I hold some radical position, such as totally banning the use of animals for research. But despite my leanings, I am approaching the matter as a genuine questioner, for I have had my mind changed on many occasions in quite unexpected ways by exposure to novel arguments. Somehow we must all strive to strike a balance between our convictions and open-mindedness, lest a general defensiveness push all of our positions towards the limits.

Why didn't the speaker attempt to meet me halfway by discussing the efforts his laboratory takes to treat its mice humanely? Surely there is a broad area for ethical discussion and implementation between the extremes of banning animal research outright and treating animals as mere objects having neither rights nor feelings. Alas, one is left to suspect that the speaker and his laboratory may indeed be guilty of ethical negligence. Thus, it was disappointing to read in the very next issue of AV Magazine after hearing the lecture, even as the article vindicated some of my "a priori fears," that mice are entirely excluded from the Animal Welfare Act.5 So even the minimal protection afforded to hamsters by this federal law do not apply to those very useful mice.

In conclusion, while I applaud our university's hosting speakers of this prominence, I would also have some of them serve as cautionary models to us educators, that we do not want to turn out graduates whose notions of career success and professional competence are restricted in the way this biologist's appears to be. By engaging them (both speakers and students) in vigorous dialogue we do our proper jobs. Some of us serve the special function of Socratic gadfly, questioning speakers on ethical issues in particular. The university may therefore be conceived as the part of our society which institutionalizes the gadfly -- the academic equivalent of the court jester, perhaps, who is given the mandate and accorded the special privilege of remarking on the emperor's clothes, new or otherwise ... and all, one would hope, for the ultimate good of the whole.

To assure the desired outcome, of course, much more needs to be institutionalized in the university besides the critical questioner at the occasional colloquium. Ultimately one wants a full-fledged professional ethics curriculum, involving critical examination of foundational assumptions, as a component of every career program. More broadly, formal education as a whole, beginning with grade school, ought to place due emphasis on dialogue as a form of learning. Thus, to invoke my original, un-asked question for the speaker: If I had to choose between inculcating Darwinism and debating anti-Darwinists in the classroom, then, despite my own Darwinist convictions, I would choose the latter.

A final question for the speaker: Do you suppose science will ever come up with a way to genetically engineer gadflies so they won't be so annoying anymore?


1. The locus classicus is of course Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, 2nd ed. (New York Review/Random House, 1990).

2. John Troyer, Philosophy, University of Connecticut.

3. Fred Feldman makes this point in chapter 11 of his Introductory Ethics (Prentice-Hall, 1978).

4. The Bartels Fellowship at the University of New Haven, sponsored by Henry E. and Nancy H. Bartels.

5. "The Injustice of Excluding Laboratory Rats, Mice, and Birds from the Animal Welfare Act," by F. Barbara Orlans, in AV Magazine (a publication of the American Anti-Vivisection Society), Spring 2002, Vol. CX, No. 2, pp. 2-5 & 9.

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