Sociologist rebukes Dawkins for not seeing humans as “sacred”

January 18, 2017 • 1:00 pm

Oh, the indignities suffered by poor Richard Dawkins! The latest is a rebuke by John H. Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Evans’s article in last August’s New Scientist found its way to me today (click on screenshot to get partial article; it’s not free), though for some reason its title has changed to “When human rights become human wrongs.”


The answer to Evans’s question is, according to New Scientist’s increasing goddiness, “Yes!” The point Evans makes, using experimental surveys, is that if we see humans as simple biological machines, we’re likely to go down the path of eugenics, torture, and the selling of organs.

Evans first concocts three ways to “define” humans:

Today, there are three influential and competing definitions. The first is the Christian theological view that humans are made in the image of God. The second is a more philosophical position that defines humans as possessing certain capacities, such as self-consciousness and rationality. Finally, there is the biological view, where humans are defined — and differentiated from animals — by their DNA.

Well, I’m not sure that the second definition differs materially from the third, since rationality and self-consciousness are products of our DNA, and in fact I doubt that we’re the only species that is self-conscious. (We’re certainly not the only species that is rational!) And the DNA “definition” seems a bit ambiguous. Regardless, Evans then asked 3500 Americans which of the definitions they most accepted, and then asked them questions about how to treat other humans: whether we could allow the sale of organs, suicide for the terminally ill “to save money”, torture of suspected terrorists, and so on. The results are as expected:

What came out was very striking. The more a respondent agreed with the biological definition of a human, the more likely they were to see humans as being like machines and the less likely they were to see them as special, unique or all of equal value. On the human rights questions, they were less willing to stop genocides and were more likely to accept buying kidneys, suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners.

In contrast, those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners against their will.

Shockingly, then, the critics appear to be right. People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.

This isn’t that surprising: advocates of human exceptionalism, especially those of the theological variety, are surely going to value people more, especially if they’re seen to have souls. I wonder what the results would have been had they asked questions about animal rights? After all, animals suffer, too—they just can’t articulate it like humans can. There is something to be said for Peter Singer’s view that human exceptionalism and its moral consequences are fictions: we rest on a sliding scale with other species in our ability to suffer, and of course there’s no limit to the amount of animal suffering that many people will accept in the name of medical research (after all, you can kill millions of mice to save 100 humans), of factory farming, and of entertainment in zoos and aquariums.

Evans concludes that “these findings suggest a real problem for those who subscribe to both the biological view of humanity and to human rights.”  In the end, though, the proof of the pudding is in the behavior of people, not in how they answer sociology questions right after they are asked to agree with a definition. Are the “biological definitionists” really more immoral? We don’t know.

Given that humans are biological machines—albeit complex ones that can articulate physical and emotional pain—what are we supposed to do? Promote religion? Keep emphasizing human exceptionalism? Evans apparently prefers the second solution, and then high-handedly lectures Richard Dawkins on what he should do to stop this debasing of humanity (my emphasis):

The most influential person in that position today is Richard Dawkins. He is an advocate of the view that humans are DNA-based machines. He is also an honorary vice president of the British Humanist Association, which promotes human rights and recognises “the dignity of individuals”.

In light of my results, many humanities scholars would see some tension between these two positions. I do not doubt anyone’s sincerity in believing in both the biological definition of the human and in human rights, but promoting the former risks undercutting public support for the latter.

What is to be done? If Dawkins’s priority was human rights, he could switch to teaching us that we are made in the image of God. This isn’t going to happen, and it shouldn’t; nobody should change their view of what a human truly is. In any case, Christian definitions of the human have not always been a recipe for the humane treatment of others.

The answer, I think, is for influential people like Dawkins to try to sever the link the public apparently makes between definitions and treatment. The way to do this is to promote the idea that however a human is defined, humans are sacred.

This sacredness does not have to be of the religious variety: it could be based on secular ideas of dignity found in many European constitutions, treaties and human rights documents. (Incidentally, I suspect that if my study was replicated in a secular European country, it would get similar results. Fewer people would subscribe to the theological view, but attitudes to human rights would be tempered by secular notions of dignity found in those constitutions and treaties).

Therefore, whenever we talk about the biological view of humans, we must also say that it does not mean we should treat people like machines. Dawkins, to his credit, often does this in interviews, but he should redouble his efforts. Yes, the public is apparently making the mistake of mixing up an “is” (what humans are) with an “ought” (how they should consequently be treated). But academics need to be attuned to the fact that some ideas have unintended consequences.

I suppose there’s at least something to be said for Evans’s article, in that it emphasizes the values of secular humanism. But in fact most of us who subscribe to the biological view of humans as a hypercerebralized species also adhere to humanism. If you have to single out one on a questionnaire to which you most adhere, you may get the result that Evans got. But I suspect most of us can simultaneously adhere to a biological view of humans and to humanism as well. If we couldn’t, scientists would be a cold and evil lot—the worst moiety of humanity.

As for Evans’s tut-tutting of Dawkins, who constantly emphasizes humanism, it’s just patronizing and reprehensible.

h/t: Nicole Reggia


100 thoughts on “Sociologist rebukes Dawkins for not seeing humans as “sacred”

  1. ” … some ideas have unintended consequences.”

    LOL. All ideas have unintended consequences. The bloke who invented the wheel thought it would be very useful for ambulances. Little did he know Hitler would use them on armoured cars.

  2. Altruism must come about through our evolutionary heritage as social animals. We are also able to allow our love of kin to expand to include larger swaths of humanity. Beyond that, a simply logical analysis of behavior that’s in our own best interest will usually include the golden rule, or something like it, as a law to uphold in society.
    Imposing a God’s interests on top of all that seems unnecessary and dangerous if you consider other tendencies dragged in with theism. No sacred for me.

  3. This guy sounds like a complete git to me. I often think they throw in criticism of Dawkins, who wrote an effing book about the genetics of altruism ffs (‘The Selfish Gene’), just to get more attention.

    I notice there’s no talk of the results of the torture question. My own observation has been that any group capable of seeing a group as the other, such as Christians vs Muslims, has no problem with torturing that group. In the US it’s the right-wing Christians who support torture. Those of us in less religious countries oppose torture much more strongly. NZ soldiers, for example, refused to hand their prisoners over to the US in Afghanistan because of the likelihood they would be tortured.

      1. You’re not the first internet friend who’s said something similar to me. 🙂

        I’ve yet to decide whether it’s a fault or a quality. It seems to depend on who’s doing the judging. 🙂

        1. A bug? Or a feature? 😉

          I’m with darrelle; I love the stuff you contribute.

          And, of course, my first thought was: A one-line refutation of this guy’s hypothesis? How about: “Kill them all; god knows those who are his.”

        2. “It seems to depend on who’s doing the judging.”

          Exactly. If in doubt, say to yourself,

          I am forthright;
          You are opinionated;
          S/he is bigoted.

    1. Adding to that, the most Christian of groups — the American Republicans — frequently sound like an organisation of supervillains, a collection of the vilest of hypocrites, fearmongers, and genuinely evil characters, who’d famously worry about an unborn clump of cells and force women to even bear a rapist’s child, then have the kid live in poverty once born, and when it is old enough it can shed its blood for the country, so pro-life they are. After it passed a certain stage of usefulness to the Republican Gods of Slavery and Exploitation, it can die in poverty again, or from lack of medical treatment.

      It would be funny weren’t it such grotesque, how far Christian self-perception is apart from reality. Fortunately, it was made easier to point out, and the one place were Donald Trump cannot be thanked enough. Nobody has shown better how hypocritial and indeed deluded these people truly are.

      1. I’m frequently astounded by the attitude of these so-called Christians. When I was a Christian, it made me embarrassed to admit it because of things like this. I always felt like I had to add a rider depending on the situation to separate myself from those sort of people.

        There’s one on my site today telling me that Betsy DeVos will sort out education, and US education will only be fixed when it’s completely separated from the state. They just don’t seem capable of deep thinking or proper analysis on any topic. The reality is, as you know, that they’d be better off long-term to invest more money in raising the quality of education for everyone. But they follow their leaders mantra blindly and just accept what they’re told.

    2. because of the likelihood they would be tortured.

      The NZ soldiers (for daring to disagree with the “leaders of the free world”), or the prisoners (for being brown and/ or foreign, or both)?

        1. Oh I know that. Which is one of the things that could well have been going through the minds of the NZ soldiers : “Am I going to end up crouching in a black prison in Algeria?”

          1. Sorry Aidan – I was half asleep when I read your comment and didn’t click that it was the way I phrased my comment that was the problem. 😀

  4. Humans are the most destructive animals on the planet. We’re destructive against one another, other animals and to the planet itself. We will probably end up destroying the earth as we know it. How does one align this fact to the belief that humans are sacred?

    1. From a certain point of view all that you describe fits perfectly with the belief that humans are sacred. The problem though is that it is a crappy point of view that has been holding us back for thousands of years.

    2. I imagine that there are plenty of species that, if endowed with the same intelligence and physical capabilities of humans, would be significantly more destructive.

      Due to the intelligence coupled with physical characteristics of humans, they are bound to be both the most destructive and the most positively productive.

      1. Heck, early anaerobic bacteria were more self-destructive without the intelligence. Thank goodness for that, its the reason oxygen-breathing life dominates and they are relegated to small ‘corners’ of the Earth. But we should certainly take their status now as an object lesson of what could become of us, and how hostile to our form of life we could make the Earth, if we aren’t careful.

      2. We have no idea what another intelligent species might do. Humans are having a devastating effect on the planet. At 10,000 BC the human population was around 1 million. This small human population had managed to kill off most of the mega fauna on every continent except Africa. The population of Africa is expected to quadruple this century.

  5. Evans study seems dubious at best, and his conclusions of the data equally so.

    “Finally, there is the biological view, where humans are defined — and differentiated from (other?) animals — by their DNA.

    Does the lack of “other” there indicate a bias?

    Also, that Evans groups being okay with suicide by the terminally ill as against humanitarian values indicates a bias that throws doubt on all of his premises and interpretations.

    But, going only by what you’ve quoted here, I was surprised by how relatively respectful he was to Dawkins. Though he was patronizing and, in my opinion, just plain wrong in about 18 different ways.

    1. Interesting observation. After all the person who drew the clearest distinction between humans and animals was Descartes — who was the first to say we humans are machines.

      Descartes, of course, ascribed a non-material rational soul though, for humans but not animals. This is, arguably, largely where Evans’ second definition of humans came from too, as well as a huge amount of theological guff and even New Age esoteric spirituality (who still believe the pineal gland is the seat of the soul).

      Instead of simply repeating the attacks on Descartes machine metaphor — which Evans and everyone like him is doing here, he would have been better off criticizing the simplistic Cartesian dualism that infects his thinking.

    2. Evans groups being okay with suicide by the terminally ill as against humanitarian values

      I don’t think that’s the point that’s being made. The phrase used is

      suicide for the terminally ill “to save money”,

      given that this is the issue he sees, and that he’s at University of California, then I suspect that he’s a product of the profit-driven model of healthcare that is worshipped by so many Americans to the point of hysteria if it is proposed to do anything else.
      The only substantive amount of justification I’ve seen for autocide by the seriously ill (everyone is “terminally” ill, or terminally well ; life is, as the saying goes, a sexually transmitted state of disease with a 100% mortality rate) here in Europe is the reduction of suffering, often expressed as preserving the dignity of the ill person. Cost of treatment has never been cited as a consideration in any discussion that I’ve seen.
      Needless to say, the new (has the deed been done yet? Watching standing stones recorded documentary on the TV myself.) president is going to do all he can to preserve the profits that the healthcare industry makes from the suffering agonies of their customers.

      1. Well said.

        I have seen the suggestion of suicide to save money used, but only as a strawman by the ‘pro-life’ brigade – suggesting that someone terminally ill might be persuaded by his/her heirs to commit suicide so they can have the money.

        And Evans has got it wrong anyway – “those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money” – correction: “those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide FOR ANY REASON (including relief of suffering)”

        There, ftfy.

        It seems to me that Evans carefully tailored his categories to give the answers he wanted.

        P.S. I WANT the option to end it if I’m dying in agony. Being nagged by heirs is a risk I’ll take.

        1. It seems to me that Evans carefully tailored his categories to give the answers he wanted.Who’d do a thing like that?

  6. I had trouble understanding or appreciating Evans’ position because it was expressed in words. If all his ideas are reducible to nothing more than squiggly little bits of black on a white background, then where does the sense and reason come in? It doesn’t. Burn all books.

    Okay, I’m getting so tired of people who ought to know better presenting greedy reductionism and smallism as if words have real power. If we are nothing but chemicals, then why do we have value? Where did it come from — the chemicals? Can’t. But if we start there, then that would mean worth is something built from the ground up. That’s work. Work is hard We need a skyhook.

    That’s why people think God gives meaning. It’s defined as irreducibly meaningful. It has an essential nature which IS goodness, IS virtue, IS value. The whole idea of the “sacred” is just a lazy way of establishing that anything you like, is really, really, truly likeable. If someone disagrees, then they’re wrong.

    1. God is the fancy-schmancy, spiral bound writing assignment with hard plastic covers and color illustrations you turn in hoping the teacher won’t notice you put just about no effort into the actual writing.

  7. I think that the idea of the “sacred” is impossible to invoke outside the realm of the religious or the spiritual, etymologically and in common parlance — in fact, think of the polar opposition contained in the phrase “sacred and profane” where the two are explicitly set against each other, and the author is being completely disingenuous in urging Dawkins to appeal to the sacred.

    This post, though, caused me to do some more thinking about a conundrum I encountered this a.m., when I came across this post in Science Daily:
    “Tiny fruit flies use cold hard logic to select mates.” In the summary it states that “The study provides the first evidence that fruit flies are capable of making rational choices,” and the article uses such phrases throughout. One of the authors states that “The cognitive process of making rational choices is something we often think of as uniquely human…” And the article does state that “While it is largely unknown whether animals are capable of making rational choices, this study provides the first evidence that fruit flies can, and do.” It also states “While it’s unclear what female characteristics are driving the choices, chemical signals, and female receptivity (speed from courtship to matting) appear to be factors.” PCC(E) states that “We’re certainly not the only species that is rational!” but what does he mean by that and what other species is he referring to? Does he regard this paper as possibly demonstrating that fruit flies are rational creatures?

    I am so confused on so many levels and these confused comments reflect my fundamental confusion — the nature of rationality — philosophical, neurobiological? not to mention all this stuff about logical choices. And does the spectre of “free will” in fruit flies lurk beneath this hypothesis, despite the caveat about what drives the “choice”? If fruit flies are “rational” animals then Evans should also assail anybody who doesn’t stress the “sacredness” of drosophila. And we all need to be come animists.

    1. How would any animal use rational thinking in mate choosing? Talk about a hard-wired behavior, the very pursuit of which is irrational, at least in that it is purely instinctive.

      1. Well I don’t want to get into an argument of the definition of rational. Suffice on that front to say that I’d agree that there can be many, and whether animals can be counted as rational depends on which one you pick.

        Having said that, if instinct causes an animal to weight factors that actually improve their chance of winning a mate and having successful offspring over factors that don’t, then in that sense (giving greater weight to truly-in-fact relevant factors), they are acting rationally.

  8. And Physicists should make sure we all know that The Standard Model is a Sacred Document and that Atoms are sacred and Subatomic Particles are sacred and Fields are sacred and the Higgs Boson is most especially sacred cause it runs around giving mass to everything.

    Mass… get it? Mass…?

  9. Of course, Evans didn’t bother to ask people who have a religious view of humans questions like whether conquering unbelievers or forcing religious doctrines on society are acceptable. It seems he only asked questions he hoped would provide the results he was seeking (as is so often the case with “studies” in the humanities these days), and even those results are dubious.

  10. Speaking of patronizing and reprehensible his statement that “Christian theological view that humans are made in the image of God” excludes the majority of the planets population who while religious are not Christian and most likely hold a similar view, many of them belonging to religions that pre-date Christianity.

    And I suspect that if he had run his survey in a less religiously contaminated region than the US, such as one of the Scandinavian countries, he would have obtained quite different results.

  11. Perhaps Evans should also have provided 3 definitions of ‘sacred’ as well? Then we could have filled in a 3 x 3 matrix and decided which definitions of sacred and human match up (or leave a blank box).

  12. I think a lot of this attack-Dawkins-for-something mentality is really just a kind of virtue signaling for people who otherwise don’t have any virtues.

    1. I have not heard of Evans providing any evidence at all that he has stopped beating his wife. So now we know what sort of virtues he considers “good”.

  13. In a recent interview with Sam Harris, Dawkins made the suggestion that less intelligent animals may actually feel pain more keenly than more intelligent ones, to make up for the fact they lack the intellectual capacity to avoid pain.

      1. mayamarkav: Dawkins says things that gets on your nerves, the statement given being one case, but you don’t actually know what it means? And you want somebody to tell you so you can feel justified in continuing to dislike him?

        Don’t expect other people to do your work for you. Go to the Sam Harris website or YouTube, listen to the podcast, and you will, I suspect, understand what Dawkins means by the intellectual capacity to avoid pain.

        1. You are implying that it is my duty to like Dawkins. My opinion is that I can dislike anyone I want, without any need of justification. Moreover, when I dislike an author, the more I read of his works, the less I like him.
          My life is too short to launch research about whether statements that sound absurd are really such or just look so. (I had once a university teacher, molecular biologist, who advised me to read Hegel.)
          To me, the statement in question sounds too much like the natural birth advocates who claim that positive thinking will make your birth pain-free. (Some women have listened to them and ended up with PTSD.)

          1. maya, nobody said you have to like Dawkins. But if you’re going to criticise a statement of his on the grounds that you can’t understand it and can’t be bothered trying to check the reference you’re given, that reflects on you, not Dawkins.


            1. I didn’t quite mean that I cannot understand the statement, rather than I cannot understand in in a way that makes sense. Most importantly, it didn’t sound like something that would begin to make sense in case I would read more.
              But you prompted me to read the entire text nevertheless. It contains a nice point:

              “It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth, I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line.”

              Then, unfortunately, follows a “just-so” argumentation that negates this thought:

              “I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why? Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? [This just after the argument why pain, to work, must have the same degree – overwhelming all other motivations – in every animal – insertion mine.] Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement? At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt. Practices such as branding cattle, castration without anaesthetic, and bullfighting should be treated as morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.”

              My opinion: No, it is not plausible, and I do not think anything done to non-human animals is morally equivalent to doing the same thing to human beings.
              Frankly, it seems to me that Dawkins set his conclusion before the argumentation started – non-human animals should be protected from pain like humans, or more – and then adjusted the argumentation to fit the conclusion, as we see in religious philosophers.
              The preoccupation of humanism with the welfare of non-human animals is one of the reasons why I no longer call myself a humanist.

              1. Well I flatly disagree with you on the animal welfare aspect, but skip that for now.

                Re the ability to feel pain, I’m not sure I agre with Dawkins argument. However, I’m extremely sceptical of the assumption by many that ‘animals don’t feel pain so much’ – – what a convenient excuse for anyone who wants to mistreat animals for any reason.

                Myself, in the absence of relevant evidence, I’d assume neutral correlation between intelligence and the ability to feel pain – that is, the two may not be directly related. In that respect I agree with Dawkins “At very least, I conclude that we have no general reason to think that non-human animals feel pain less acutely than we do, and we should in any case give them the benefit of the doubt.”


              2. Here I agree. Conscious perception of pain is presumed to be best developed in humans, but feeling of pain is likely to be as acute in other animals. In this respect, I’d like to see humanists acknowledge also the ability of human fetuses past a certain gestational age to feel pain.

              3. It would be foolish to argue a fetus does not feel pain at some point in gestation. I doubt there are humanists who deny that. In Idaho has a law stating anesthetic for the fetus must be supplied at 20 weeks, which contradicts what’s known about the development of the nervous system.

                “a wide-ranging 2005 study that found a fetus was unlikely to feel pain until the third trimester of a pregnancy, or about 27 weeks”.


              4. Even if pushed by anti-choicers to increase the cost of abortion and to shame women, I find it a good law. Better to err on the safe side.
                An anesthesiologist once told me an horror story about 6th month fetuses. Many years ago, she was urgently called to the hospital in the middle of the night. It turned out that a patient who had been treated for infertility by ovarian stimulation, and had become impregnated with 5 or 6 fetuses, had suddenly delivered them all and was hemorrhaging. They were laid side by side on a plot and screamed loudly like kittens. At that time, such very premature babies were doomed. Nobody tried to prolong their lives or ease their discomfort, because everyone was too busy saving the mother. But the anesthesiologist never forgot them.

    1. I can’t say what Richard Dawkins meant by more intelligent animals having a greater “intellectual capacity to avoid pain”.

      However, I think that human beings tend to use all their sensory apparatus, brain power, what they’ve learned, memory, every tool in the arsenal, etc. in an effort to avoid pain. Even so, one can’t always avoid it. And, in fact, people who can’t feel pain are in danger of being severely injured without their awareness. Pain is a tool to help us survive.

      Quite a long time ago, I read an article that indicated plants experience pain. Don’t know if that’s true, but perhaps all life forms have
      the ability to feel pain to one degree or another.

      1. I’ve been reflecting on this the last few weeks, since I have an elusive but persistent back pain, and I’ve come to the conclusion that pain, like the laryngeal nerve or the optic nerve, make no sense in ‘intelligent design’ or even evolutionary terms. Specifically, why does it have to hurt so fucking much?

        ‘Pain is a tool to help us survive’ is only partly true. I can understand pain’s function in ‘do not continue hitting thumb with hammer’ – okay, thanks pain, I’ve stopped, now will you please stop throbbing? – but what’s the use of the thousand-and-one other pains that we can do nothing about? There to teach us not to get kidney stones?
        My theory, which is mine, is that severe pain is an unwanted side-effect when nerves get stressed or overloaded ‘up to 11’ or sometimes, as in the case of my back, a symptom that something has gone wrong with the nervous system.

        If by ‘intellectual capacity’ Dawkins means our collective social ability to manufacture, prescribe and take paracetamol, I fervently agree with him.

        But any creationists please explain why G*d was such a sadistic bastard as to inflict severe pain on us.


        1. In principle pain is adaptive so that individuals can survive to reproduce. The minimum amount of pain at every point in the body to cause a strong enough memory so as to create a long lasting aversion to repeating the causal action. But, it’s clear that something like back pain occurs most often in the second half of life, after the reproductive phase has played out. This is due to stress and wear in the vertebra and associated tissues. So, as we age we often receive undeserved hits. They are no longer adaptive but persist simply because the structures were put in place for an earlier purpose. It might help to think how from your gene’s point of view you might as well be dead than too old to make babies.

          1. That has occurred to me. I like to draw the analogy of a very old plane, past its design life and flying on the safety margins.

            BUT, even within the reproductive ‘design life’, pain can be mal-adaptive. Unnecessary pain certainly would be. Consider a lion with a thorn in ts paw – that pain would certainly be both a distraction and an impediment to hunting.


          2. In principle pain is adaptive so that individuals can survive to reproduce. The minimum amount of pain at every point in the body to cause a strong enough memory so as to create a long lasting aversion to repeating the causal action.

            In the words of your Granny, “the burned hand teaches best”.
            I was considering linking to a picture of a burned hand to put a question mark against that assertion, but I came across this interesting image instead. Maybe not one for the dinner table.

            1. Interesting image. In fact it looks like a skin graft for a damaged hand. The hand is covered with healthy skin which carries it’s own circulation. Once the skin from the chest is well attached to the hand, the hand is cut free and trimmed around the edges. The area where skin was taken from the chest is then covered with very skin layers of skin taken from another part of the body. I had similar surgery on my foot. I had my right foot attached to my left thigh for 3 weeks to establish a good take. Works like a charm.

              1. Yeah, I’d figured the general purpose. but it was a more interesting picture than most of the gory “burned hand” pictures I’d found.
                My search image was of the problems that can result from inadequate treatment of severe burn. If the patient survives, without careful treatment of the scar tissue the hand can freeze into a claw. Not often seen these decades in the developed world, but still common enough to see on the streets of Africa. That, and leprosy damage.

        2. As someone with a history of kidneys stones, I can say that kidney stone pain and its precursors have taught me quite a bit about how not to get more stones.

          1. Likewise with my experience with lower back pain and sciatica. The first bout experiencing this pain stayed with me for years and made me careful about how I move and lift. I am currently suffering a relapse having momentarily “forgotten” the lesson. As I slowly recover, I frequently rehearse mentally how to avoid another recurrence.
            Animals (other than humans) are confined to a simpler model of such learning much closer to a reflex. They probably don’t reflect intellectually as we tend to do. Maybe we should be glad for our capacity to deliberately replay events and talk to ourselves about how stupid we have been. In this way we embarrass ourselves into getting it right the next time.

            1. Agreed, rickflick. My (upper) back pain *may* be a result of having lifted a heavy engine block – I say *may* because it’s the only apparent possible cause, BUT neither my doctor nor my physiotherapist can pinpoint a specific strained muscle and in some ways it doesn’t resemble muscle strain. It might be a pinched nerve. Apparently one in three cases of back pain can never be isolated to a specific cause. But it still hurts just as bloody much.

              But anyway, the relation between the pain and possible cause is sufficiently indirect that it would only occur to ‘modern man’ to look for it. Our more primitive ancestors wouldn’t have had the reasoning power, I think – and therefore, in evolutionary terms, I can’t see its function. (It’s certainly not as if this capacity for pain evolved in anticipation of our brains being able to work it out!).


              1. Then pain, in some cases, might be considered an ugly spandrel. The vast network of nerves and pain cells designed to keep us from harm also serves to haunt us uselessly. That’s also why it’s hard to treat no doubt. To dampen some nerves requires dampening all nerves which has, often unpleasant, side effects.

              2. @rickflick
                Again, agreed. I think much pain is just a by-product. If I were ‘designing’ a pain reflex I’d certainly put a limiter on the intensity since, beyond a certain point, the pain ceases to be just a useful signal and becomes a distracting and disabling factor in itself. (Or as I said, why does it have to hurt so bloody much?).

                Also, as the Intelligent Designer, I’d make sure the signals were all more specific rather than just ‘something hurts somewhere’.


          2. Yes BUT – that surely comes under the heading of Dawkins’ comment about our intellectual capacity. Or as I’d put it, our collective social intelligence and knowledge.

            That is to say, you (and I) know a certain amount about how to avoid kidney stone pain because we’ve been told by our doctors. But I very much doubt if, in our ancient ancestors, the link between between the causal factors of kidney stones and the pain can ever have been apparent to them. It’s not like touch-hot-thing-feel-pain. So – purely in terms of evolutionary cause-and-effect – kidney stone pain has no useful function.


            1. Of course it can have a function. Other animals get kidney stones; probably the most well-known is male cats can easily get them from a diet that includes an unhealthy excess of calcium (i.e. too much milk). Their body giving them a pain-signal in response to an unhealthy diet is very functional; it will convince some of them, some of the time, to modify their diet. Now cats being cats, the signal probably doesn’t work very well (both because most of them will lack the intelligence to make the connection, and because some just might not care). However, evolution doesn’t necessarily produce perfect solutions. A crappy solution that works some of the time for some of the population is still likely to have an adaptational advantage.

              1. On the other hand this pain may not be adaptive. Just a byproduct of unusual circumstances. A cat in the wild would probably never experience excess calcium. Humans get sick from too much salt, too much sugar, etc. But this is unlikely to have been an issue over evolutionary times.

              2. Anecdotally, both of my cats figured out that getting stuck by a needle for sub-Q fluids ultimately made them feel better. They were able to see past the immediate pain to the longer-term relief.

                Similarly, all animals can benefit from an ability to discern connections between what they’ve ingested recently and how they feel hours or days later. Once you learn what kidney stone growth feels like, figuring out what promotes it falls squarely in that category.

              3. @gregory
                I can conceive of an animal making the connection between ‘Eat X – feel nauseous – vomit’ if it takes a few hours or even a day, but – I believe – kidney stones take far longer to build up, I’m not sure an animal could make the connection.


        3. My theory, which is mine, is that severe pain is an unwanted side-effect when nerves get stressed or overloaded ‘up to 11’ or sometimes, as in the case of my back, a symptom that something has gone wrong with the nervous system.

          On the other hand long lasting pain could be an evolutionary response to warn animals to ‘rest up’ a damaged part of their anatomy. That the long lasting pain occurs when it might do no good is just a byproduct of the evolved mechanism and as long as it reduces ‘fitness’ less than not having ‘long lasting pain’ at all will persist in the population. Can still penalise the individual though.

          1. Of course pain can act as a warning system. When a reflex retracts an arm from a hot stove, I suspect pain rather than intense heat sensations is the trigger (but I could be wrong).

            But isn’t there something like 200+ pain pathways and counting (which is why it is so hard to stop in all cases)? That suggests to me that there is no simple reason for general pain.

            1. Retraction reflexes are triggered in the spine, aren’t they? Whereas pain is perceived by the brain. So in that case the pain isn’t part of the reflex arc; it’s an after-the-fact report of what happened.

  14. Sadly, as America approaches the Age of Trump many more metaphysical prophets will emerge from the woodwork to confirm that nonsense is truth and truth is nonsense, so eager are they to bask in his golden radiance.

    1. Or, of course, you could reasonably argue that some ‘nonsense is truth’, including Evan’s exhortations, predates the Age of Trump. Just situated in regressive leftism rather than aggressive rightism.

  15. Someone of a Christian background who talks about Eugenics and Torture as if it has never been a part of their society is laughable. The U.S. government lead by “Good Christian” George W. Bush openly endorsed torture and Eugenics is as much at home in Christianity as anywhere else. What a disgusting piece of hypocrisy.

    1. Strictly, “eugenics” isn’t something you can talk about before about 1870, when people around Francis Galton put together the ideas and stuck some Greek roots together to make the word.
      OTOH, at about the (alleged) time of the existence of this “Christ” person, it is documented that Augustus Caesar, first Roman Emperor of that family, was introducing laws to punish socially superior males (equites and higher IIRC) who hadn’t married by some fairly young age – 20 or 21. This was for explicitly eugenic reasons, though they didn’t have a word for it.

  16. Dawkins seems to be the one gnu atheist consistently subject to utterly unfair character attacks.

    If one believes there is a greater continuity between animals and people than previously thought, why not then be more concerned about animal suffering??

    Exceptionalism can imply contempt for the non-exceptional as well as dignity for the excepted.

  17. To me, humans are sacred (if I must give a definition, something like “very-very-very valuable). They may be just another animal species, but they are my species. I am much worried by the recent promotion of animal welfare and animal rights, at the expense of human welfare and rights, of course.

    Current laws of my country, justified by emulation of EU laws, effectively reduce humans to dog prey. When a friend wrote a blog post against this, she got a bunch of angry commenters seriously insisting that, indeed, stray dogs should be considered innocent until proven guilty. My friend answered: “I put children of my species first, and if dogs could express opinions, I think they would also put their puppies first.”

  18. I’ll wait for an independent replication of the study before I think much about it. I hate to be skeptical, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone emotionally tied to a spiritual view faked data.

  19. The questions had to have been multiple choice (with a narrow range of possible responses), super-simplistic, and designed to elicit certain responses.

    The more of these kinds of studies and articles I read about coming out of the California university system, the less I respect the universities.

  20. Looks like very sloppy survey writing. Also looks like there could be a cause and effect of the first question priming the subsequent ones – perhaps putting respondents in a frame of reference in advance that makes subsequent answers more likely to go a certain way. For me it doesn’t pass the smell test that he’s not starting out from his conclusion and then working backwards to design a study to prove his point. Seriously, in the debate about suicide for the terminally ill, when does one ever hear it debated in terms of saving money?

  21. Dr. Evans should consider the random occurrence of meteors, super novae, hurricanes, and tsunamis and consider whether he thinks humans are sacred in the eyes of mother nature.

  22. “these findings suggest a real problem for those who subscribe to both the biological view of humanity and to human rights.”
    Evans is full of it.

    I can’t see any cognitive dissonance between my biological view of humanity and my view of human rights – which, by the way, includes *my* right to demand assisted suicide if I’m terminally ill (but not for financial reasons. Where did that come from, other than a strawman concocted by the ‘pro-life’ movement?)

    Did he analyse responses on the authoritarian – vs – libertarian scale, which may have had more influence on answers than evolutionary belief?


  23. I think it might pay to read the whole of Evans’s paper. I seriously question his results, so perhaps his methodology is flawed. Experience over many years tells me that people who reject a religious view and accept the biological/evolutionary view of humans are *more* inclined to grant moral rights to the dispossessed. They are more inclined to reject racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, etc. I’m not willing to grant Evans the results of his study without a close look at it.

    1. Certainly, a couple of centuries ago, the faithful saw no impediment to justifying slavery on various grounds, most of which hinged on the ‘fact’ that blacks were inferior in some way.

      (Though I’d better acknowledge that abolitionists came from both religious and secular camps).


        1. Well, since many powerful members of “the establishment” made huge profits from the slave industries, and in many countries at the time being an atheist was a crime, then who was left to oppose slavery but non-conformists of various religions.
          Unless I’m mistaken, all abolitionists had not more than ten fingers. So is support for abolition a consequence of a low number of fingers?

  24. “nobody should change their view of what a human truly is” ??? Why? Should we allow people to be counterfactual?

  25. “But academics need to be attuned to the fact that some ideas have unintended consequences.”

    For me that’s the most problematic statement. It’s not “academics” that need to realize this, it’s human society in general and all who live in it.
    Also, what of it? Should we alter or ignore facts because they might be turned into something ethically uncomfortable?

  26. I’d rate his advice as a medium-miss. Not near, but not immensely far off. In answer to his “what is to be done” question, I’d say the much better response is “first, teach people the truth about human origins, biology, and so on. Second, do a better job of teaching the importance of social cooperation and empathy with others.”

    I say his ‘ teach that people are sacred’ response is a medium miss because I think he’s trying to get at something very similar to my second bit of advice. He just phrased it in a really bad way that unnecessarily pulls in both ‘manifest destiny’-type and woo-type thinking.

  27. Whenever a sociologist ‘puts out,’ I’m reminded of a scene from C. S. Lewis’s ‘That Hideous Strength,’ in which a callow sociologist is chatting with a seasoned chemist.

    Soc: ‘In my judgement. . . ‘
    Chem: ‘Harrumph. . . never judged anything in my life, unless it was a flower show.’

    Soc: ‘In sciences like sociology. . . ‘
    Chem: ‘There are no sciences like sociology. . .’

  28. I wondering how the God people would have answered if the question were, “Do you think assisted suicide should be allowed even if the patient is in constant excruciating pain?”

  29. Methodology Flawed?
    Although I didn’t read Evan’s entire paper (and I’m not going to pay to do so), from Jerry’s synopsis, it appears that Dr. Evans made, what could be, a significant methodological error. By asking how you view human beings and then immediately following that with a series of situational ethics questions, you can’t rule out that a significant priming effect affected the subjects’ responses. A better method would have been to ask the situational ethics questions first, then 1 -2 weeks later (as the priming effect is frequently short lived) with the question of what defines a human.

  30. “Peter Singer’s view that human exceptionalism and its moral consequences are fictions”

    True, but animal rights and its moral consequences are also fiction.

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