FaithWorld

Do animals have moral codes? Well, up to a point…

wild-justice-2“We believe that there isn’t a moral gap between humans and other animals, and that saying things like ‘the behavior patterns that wolves or chimpanzees display are merely building blocks for human morality’ doesn’t really get us anywhere. At some point, differences in degree aren’t meaningful differences at all and each species is capable of ‘the real thing.’ Good biology leads to this conclusion. Morality is an evolved trait and ‘they’ (other animals) have it just like we have it.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. If a book declares that in its introduction, it better have to have some strong arguments to back it up. A convincing argument could influence how we view our own morality and its origins, how we understand animal cognition and even how we relate to animals themselves.

Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, a new book by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce, presents a persuasive case for some animals being much more intelligent than generally believed. The authors show how these animals have emotions, exhibit empathy, mourn for their dead and seem to have a sense of justice. They draw interesting parallels to similar human behaviour that many people think stems from our moral codes and/or religious beliefs rather than some evolutionary process. All this is fascinating and their argument for open-mindedness about recognising animals’ real capabilities is strong.

The stories they base their thesis on are intriguing. They talk about an elephant with a leg injury whose fellow elephants in her herd slowed down for her and even fed her. They tell how dogs can agree for a session of rough play that’s not supposed to hurt and those that overstep the bounds, by for example by biting too hard, get frozen out of the group. Caged rats taught to push a level for food won’t do it when that prompts the scientists to give a rat in the next cage an electric shock. Vampire bats share the blood they collect with bats that can’t go out to hunt for their daily dose. Some sort of behavioural code is clearly working here, just as a behavioural code is at work when humans do similar things.

But the authors overreach when they say this shows that animals have morality. The problem is with their limited definition:

What Darwin and evangelicals had in common: hatred of slavery

Back in January we reported on a new book which argued that a hatred of slavery did much to form Charles Darwin’s views on natural selection as he sought to prove that blacks and whites had a common ancestor and were not separate species or products of “separate creations” as many of the 19th century defenders of white supremacy maintained.

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I did a blog at the time to draw attention to my colleague Mike Collett-White’s story on “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore and said that it had piqued my curiosity enough that I might be tempted to read it. I have done just that and think it raises a couple of issues that will be of interest to readers of this blog. (Photo: A portrait of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin’s former home Down House, Kent, England, 12/02/2009, REUTERS/Stringer, UK)

For starters, much of the credit for the anti-slavery movement has been taken by evangelicals and other Christians such as the Quakers, who were indeed often the driving force behind it.  There was much excitement in U.S. evangelical circles two years ago about the release of the movie “Amazing Grace” about British anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce who was an ardent evangelical. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, notably in 2005 by Adam Hochschild in his superb book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery.”

Evolution book takes aim at “Intelligent Design”

Among the new crop of books with themes that would resonate with readers of this blog, one that caught my eye is Jerry A. Coyne’s recently published “Why Evolution is True”. I rushed out, bought it and read it.

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The title says it all and is clearly aimed at an American audience. America’s reluctance to embrace evolution — which is the foundation of modern biology and stems from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection — sets it apart from almost all other countries in the developed world. Polls generally show that only around 40 percent of Americans believe evolution is true while in most European countries the figure is closer to 80 percent.

A Harris poll in 2007 for example found that only 42 percent of Americans accepted evolution while 62 percent believed in the devil.

Texas reaches evolution compromise: who won, who lost?

The State Board of Education in Texas voted on Friday to remove a long-time science curriculum rule that required “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories be covered in the classroom.

It also struck down two proposed sections that would have required students in high school biology classes to study the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of common ancestry and natural selection of species.

But it settled on a compromise that will require teachers to discuss “all sides” of scientific theories with their students. This may allow both sides to claim a victory of sorts.

Just before Darwin day, Pew reviews faith and evolution in U.S.

Just in time for Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday next week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has posted an extensive research package examining the debate about evolution, Darwinism and religion in the United States. “The Debate over Evolution” is a treasure trove of information about the debate and especially useful for the lists breaking down views of the main religious groups and the political fight over Darwinism state by state. (Photo: British Darwin commemorative stamp, 29 Dec 2008/Royal Mail)

Here are the main entries:

Speaking of Darwin, we’ve done several posts about the Turkish anti-Darwin campaigner Harun Yahya and his Islamic creationst campaign against evolution. Most of the attention on this has been on his mega-book Atlas of Creation, how it’s being distributed in Europe and what the reaction to it has been.

And speaking of Darwin …

A new book on Charles Darwin says a passionate hatred of slavery was fundamental to his theory of natural selection, which challenged the assumption held by many at the time that blacks and whites were separate species.

“Darwin’s Sacred Cause” is among the first of dozens of works about the 19th century scientist to appear in 2009, the bicentenary of his birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of his groundbreaking “On the Origin of Species”. You can see a report here about the book by my colleague Mike Collett-White.

I find the choice of title by the authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore to be an interesting one. Other Darwin biographers have written of his gradual loss of religious faith — and he is today a target of scorn by many religious conservatives who would regard his cause as anything but sacred.

Evolution gets added boost in Texas schools

Social and religious conservatives in Texas suffered a setback on Thursday when the State Board of Education narrowly voted to ditch a requirement that high school science teachers cover the “strengths and weaknesses” of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is more popularly known as the theory of evolution.

A final vote on the entire science curriculum is expected today. You can see reports here and here.

The rule to teach “both sides of the evolution debate” had been in place since the 1980s, but national interest has been rekindled in recent years by attempts to get Biblical creationism taught in U.S. schools in one form of another.

Cardinal Schönborn links financial crisis to evolutionism

Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is one of the Catholic Church’s most vocal critics of what he calls evolutionism, which he defines as an ideology that applies Darwin’s theory of natural selection to a wide variety of questions beyond biology. He usually directs his criticism at scientists and philosophers who say evolution proves that God does not exist. (Photo: Cardinal Schönborn, 16 March 2007/Leonhard Foege)

In an interview with the Austrian provincial newspaper Vorarlberger Nachrichten on Jan. 5, Schönborn, a former student and close associate of Pope Benedict, said his criticism also applied to the current financial crisis:

Q, One of your favourite topics is evolution and creation. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to devote yourself to more practical things than those that cannot be proven anyway?

Can policymakers use Darwin’s insights? New twist on old debate

The latest issue of The Economist has a provocative essay on Darwinism asking if Charles Darwin’s insights can be used profitably by policymakers. You can read it online here.

America … executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?” it asks.

It goes on to ask why men still earn more than women 40 years after the feminist revolution and why racism persists.

Harun Yahya dangles big prizes for creationism essays

Turkey’s Muslim creationist Harun Yahya is not satisfied with sending lavish books against evolution and Darwin to western schools. He’s now running an anti-evolution essay contest with a top prize of $64,000. He has just doubled the prize money from $32,000 and boosted the maximum length for essays from 15 to 60 pages.

“The competitors of the competition “Why Is the Theory of Evolution Invalid?” held by Science Research Foundation had some righteous demands, stating that given the too many dilemmas of Darwinism, 15 pages is too short for their essays and that the time is inadequate,” his group has written in a message I just received. “The purpose of this competition is to raise young people’s awareness of Darwinism, which has inflicted immense damage on mankind and to put them on their guard against this terrible fraud in science.”

The procedure is a bit complicated. One hundred participants have to first be accepted on the basis of the essays. They will then have to take a test consisting of 80 questions about evolution. The announcement says the test will be held in December 2009 at a location to be announced.