Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Myth of a Human Ideal vs. The Fact of Human Diversity

One of the ways the pseudo-science of eugenics differs from the honest evolutionary sciences is that eugenics claims there is an ideal human standard, an ideal type of human.

Anyone who has made a serious study of human nature knows that claim has little or no evidence to support it, and a weight of evidence against it. Yet, the notion there is an ideal human type persists not only in the pseudo-science of eugenics, but more broadly in our culture.

Hitler really didn't need the pseudo-science of eugenics to tell him there was an ideal human type ("Aryans"). In one form or another, the notion of an ideal human type permeated his culture, and he could have picked it up from nearly anywhere even had eugenics itself not been around for him to draw from. Yet, just as in Hitler's time, the notion, in one form or another, permeates our culture even today.

Perhaps the most obvious example of that notion at work today is in the fashion and entertainment industries -- industries that are notorious for promulgating a single standard of physical beauty. Yet, the realm of physical beauty isn't the only place in our culture where we can find the peculiar notion there is an ideal human type. Simply look at how often someone asserts a single, ideal morality for all humans! Or, an ideal religion. Or, even an ideal spirituality.

The sciences, on the other hand, tell us that we are a diverse species without an ideal type. Just as we show natural diversity in the sizes and shapes of our noses, or in our eye and hair colors, we also show natural diversity in a myriad more hidden ways. For instance: In the number of the various types of neurochemical receptors in our brains.

Perhaps it is time to look long and hard at the peculiar notion there is -- or ought to be -- an ideal human type. Perhaps, rather than look for a single standard of beauty, or advocate for a single economics, or propose a single spirituality -- perhaps, we should take a lesson from our own nature, for we are a naturally diverse species, and ask instead how to manage diversity.

8 comments:

Ed Yong said...

As Paul says, evolutionary theory clearly and patently shows that the concept of an ideal human is nonsense.

Humans like all other creatures are subject to the evolutionary pressures acting upon us and tugging our genes, bodies and minds in ever-changing directions. These evolutionary tides are constantly turning as the world, and our presence in it, changes. As a consequence, no human will ever be perfectly adapted to his or her environment.

Amidst this grand diversity, surely the only thing that can really unite us is how imperfect we all are?

Paul said...

Hi Ed!

Interesting points! Not only are we all imperfect, we are also all interdependent. Two good reasons to unite us.

Richard said...

What happened to the is/ought gap? Science (incl. evolutionary theory) tells us what humans are, and how we came to be, but surely the question of what we ought to be is entirely beyond it.

Paul said...

Hi Richard!

That's a very good question! Until relatively recently, I accepted the is/ought gap as pretty much absolute. But lately, I've come to question it.

Although I think there is indeed something of an is/ought gap, I'm no longer sure it's absolute. It seems to me there is a legitimate role that "is" plays in "ought".

To illustrate: Suppose some mad moral philosopher asserted (1) that every human had a moral duty to be charitable, but (2) only charities done while one was invisible were moral. Wouldn't we have a legitimate right to reject (2) on the grounds that it was impossible for humans to be invisible? And if we rejected (2) on those grounds, wouldn't we in effect be rejecting (2) on scientific or knowledge grounds?

To be sure, I'm not prepared to say there is no is/ought gap, but I am of the opinion nowadays that "is" rightfully influences and informs "ought".

What do you think? Does that make any sense? Or should I drink more coffee and reconsider it?

Richard said...

Fair point: facts about what's realistically possible will constrain what we could reasonably be required to do (as per the "ought implies can" principle).

But, unless I've misread you, that doesn't seem to be the way you and Ed were using science here. Rather, you seemed to be assuming (1) that the human telos, goal, or "ideal type", is determined by the natural origins and development of our species; and (2) evolutionary theory establishes that we are not, in fact, developing towards any unique goal. Therefore, (3) there is no single "ideal type" of human.

Is that a fair reconstruction of your argument? If so, I would have concerns about premise (1). The problem with eugenists, and others who wanted to 'help hurry evolution along', is that they were morally as well as scientifically deluded. "Natural" doesn't mean "good". Even if (counterfactually) humanity was naturally developing towards blue eyes and blond hair, that fact has no intrinsic moral significance. There's nothing necessarily "ideal" about the (hypothetical) end-point of a natural process like evolution.

Paul said...

Richard, I believe you're right. We cannot base our moralities on a simple, straight-forward premise that what is natural is good. After all, war and rape seem to be natural to our species, but very few people would want to argue that they were therefore good.

Thank you for clarifying that!

I do think, however, the point remains there can be no ideal human type because there is no natural ideal. That's to say, asserting an ideal human type in the absence of any natural basis for one is like asserting that humans should fly by flapping their arms in the absence of any known ability to do so.

Am I making any sense?

Richard said...

Ah yes, I see. I originally thought you were merely suggesting that we aren't naturally tending towards convergence. But if you're making the stronger claim that our natures would actively prevent us from converging on a single ideal, even if we wanted to, then the "ought implies can" principle will take care of the rest for you. Thanks for clearing that up!

Paul said...

Richard, thank you for a very interesting and informative discussion. I feel you've helped me advance in my understanding here.