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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Revising Good and Evil


Writing in the New York Times, Harvard Professor Howard Gardner proposes a revision of traditional morality.
Howard Gardner

Gardner writes,

"For millennia, religious believers have attributed our nature to God’s image, as well as to God’s plan. In recent years, evolutionary psychologists peered directly at our forerunners on the savannahs of East Africa; if human beings change, we do so gradually over thousands of years. Given little or nothing new in the human firmament, traditional morality — the “goods” and “bads” as outlined in the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule — should suffice.

My view of the matter is quite different. As I see it, human beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance. Moreover, tenable views of “good” and “bad” that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action."
Here is a peek at Gardner's plan:

"tenable views of 'good' and 'bad' that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action. Let's start with the Ten Commandments..."

Gardner's premise is flawed, so therefore is his conclusion.  Evolutionary biologists have had to admit that those archaic ancestors of East Africa were fully human, sharing the same essence as modern humans.

The etymology of the word horotely suggests the very opposite of how it is used by evolutionary biologists today. The term relates to Horus and fixed limits or boundaries between "kinds" (an essentialist view). This is not a popular concept among those who believe that chimps and humans have a common ancestor because they have similar anatomical and genetic structure, or that nurse sharks and camels have a common ancestor because they have a similar antigen receptor protein structure.

For purposes of classification, the essentialist is willing to group similar species such as apes and humans in the same genus, but this does not mean they are of the same essence. Clearly they have different essences since they reproduce different kinds. Humans only reproduce humans and have done for the past 3 to 4 million years. There are fixed boundaries within the DNA code. While the similarity of humans to primates may suggest a common origin, a common ancestor(s) is not known to have existed in real time.

Three to four million year fossils recovered in Ethiopia and Cameroon have been studied to reconstruct a picture of Lucy and her archaic people. These 3.2 million year old remains were found in Hadar, Ethiopia in 1973. For about 20 years Australopithecus afarensis was described as the earliest known “human ancestor species.” Australopithecus means “Ape of the South” and afarensis refers to the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia where the fossils were found. The first discovered skeleton of this population was named "Lucy" and she was described as an ape rather than a human.

Australopithecus afarensis is the term coined by South African anatomist Donald C. Johanson for Lucy and her community. Johanson has since concluded that these were Homo, not apes, although the artists’ drawings in biology books still show them as hairy and apelike.

Ward, Kimbel, and Johanson reported in Feb. 2011 the recovery of a complete fourth metatarsal of A. afarensis at Hadar that shows the deep, flat base and tarsal facets that “imply that its midfoot had no ape-like midtarsal break. These features show that the A. afarensis foot was functionally like that of modern humans.”

What are we to make of the phrase “functionally like” – does it mean similar or identical? The evolutionary biologist will read this and stress similar structure as evidence of common ancestry. On the basis of similar anatomy humans and chimps are classified in the same genus. So why not admit, on the basis of similarity, that A. afarensis is human? Here we find a serious flaw in logic.

When paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva compared the ankle joint, the tibia and the talus of fossil "hominins" between 4.12 million to 1.53 million years old, he discovered that all of the hominin ankle joints resemble those of modern humans rather than those of apes. Chimpanzees flex their ankles 45 degrees from normal resting position. This makes it possible for apes to climb trees with great ease. While walking, humans flex their ankles a maximum of 20 degrees. The human ankle bones are quite distinct from those of apes. Using DeSilva's evidence no argument can be made that the fossils are similar to apes. They are not. Lucy and her community are not evidence of common ancestry of apes and humans. They are evidence that humans have had the same essence for millions of years.

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