by Steven B. Cowan –

A recent issue of Free Inquiry [Vol. 22:2, Spring 2002] contained an article relevant to Areopagus Journal’s focus on bioethics. The article, “Homsap: Elixir of Holiness” (pp. 9-12), by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, clearly demonstrates the anti-life implications of metaphysical and evolutionary naturalism (a.k.a., atheism).

Dawkins is critical of President Bush’s recent policy limiting stem cell research. Arguments given in support of tough restrictions on stem cell research presuppose that the human embryo from which stem cells may be taken is a “fully paid-up human individual” (p.12). He believes, apparently, that this belief about the embryo is motivated by an unjustified and ignorant religious dogmatism. About this he says,

It is here that the religious mind most starkly exposes its lamentable short-comings. This kind of religious mind just knows, without question and without reason, that there is something self-evidently special about Homo sapiens. . . . It is as though we had a unique and magical substance called Homsap, an enchanted juice, a divine elixir that bathes every cell of Homo sapiens and of no other species.

Well, that may be appealing, but evolutionary biology tells us it is rubbish. . . . Infinite moral value is not baptized upon us by simple virtue of the species to which we belong. The essentialist view that humans are deeply special, down to their very substance, is profoundly at odds with the fact of evolution. . . (p. 12)

Dawkins is absolutely right about one thing: The view that human beings have a unique essence (the image of God) that sets them apart from all other animals and makes human life profoundly sacred is indeed at odds with evolutionary biology. If human beings are simply nothing more than the result of chance plus time plus random natural selection (i.e., highly evolved germs), then, of course, there is nothing special about us. Our species and our individual lives are no more significant than the bacteria we wipe off our hands every day. And if that is so, then there can be no objection to embryonic stem cell research or any other moral atrocity for that matter.

However, Dawkins’ argument, such as it is, suffers from three problems. First, he assumes, without question and without reason, that biological evolution is a fact. Of course, Dawkins would strongly disagree with this charge, but I would challenge him to produce a single datum that unambiguously establishes evolution as a scientific fact or even a well-established theory. Scholars such as Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, and others have shown in recent years that the evidential foundations of evolution are extraordinarily weak if not nonexistent, and that evolutionary theory maintains its cultural prominence through sheer religious dogmatism. So, Dawkins has no grounds for calling the idea that humans are unique and special “rubbish.”

Second, Dawkins either does not understand, or (more likely) does not care about, the implications of his view of human beings. If we take Dawkins’ evolutionary view of persons seriously, it would justify inhumane atrocities that none of us could or should stomach. For if human beings are nothing special, if we have no more moral status than bacteria or plants or cockroaches, then there can be no moral objection to torturing children for the fun of it, to slavery, to racial genocide, to kidnapping, murder, rape, embezzlement, or. . .you name it. Taken to its logical conclusion, in other words, Dawkins’ view implies that there are no objective moral values, no sanctity at all to human life, no right or wrong of any kind. Can we live with this view? Do we not know, deep down, that such moral nihilism is fundamentally erroneous? Yes. We do. And since it is erroneous, Dawkins’ view of human beings must be erroneous as well.

Third, Dawkins is mistaken when he says that the “essentialist” view of human beings is held “without question and without reason.” We have already seen one very good reason to deny the atheistic picture of humanity and embrace the essentialist picture, namely, the unacceptable moral implications of evolutionary naturalism. Our intuitions that the torture of children and rape are morally wrong have far more evidential weight than any scientific theory could ever have. So, if a scientific theory entails that our moral intuitions are mistaken, then we have every reason to believe that it is the scientific theory that is mistaken and not our intuitions. Only an unjustifiable and self-defeating scientism (the view that only scientific statements are true or rational) could lead us to think otherwise. And knowing that such moral intuitions are true leads us inescapably to the only plausible explanation for these moral facts—there is something unique and special about human beings that cannot be accounted for by naturalism or evolution; something given us by our creator.

Despite Dawkins’ dogmatic disclaimers, the belief that there is a unique sanctity to human life is not simply a “religious” theory accepted without reason. It is grounded in deep-seated moral intuitions about objective human nature. And this means that the human embryo is indeed a sacred human life, and to kill one of them for the sake of scientific research is wrong.

There is another aspect of Dawkins’ article that deserves response. Though this is not his main focus, Dawkins does castigate what he takes to be a particular line of reasoning used by some opponents of stem cell research:

They start with the admirable assumption that suffering is a bad thing, from which the vulnerable should be protected. . . . [However, it does not] follow that all human entities are capable of suffering. . .

Most reasonable thinkers would agree that an early human embryo suffers less than an adult cow or pig with its fully functioning nervous system. (p. 12)

In other words, Dawkins appears to think that at least some opponents of stem cell research reason like this:

(1) Suffering is bad and therefore should be prevented when possible.

(2) Human embryos suffer when subjected to stem cell research.

(3) Therefore, stem cell research on human embryos should be prevented.

Dawkins is correct, of course, in seeing this as a bad argument. Premise (1) would be rejected even by most pro-lifers because it would require us to prevent most animal suffering as well. And premise (2) is false because it is virtually certain that human embryos killed in stem cell research do not experience any kind of suffering.

The problem for Dawkins, though, is that he would be hard-pressed to find any pro-lifer ethicist who has defended such an argument. Dawkins appears to realize this, however, because he shifts the focus of his article to discuss the “anti-essentialist” argument that was analyzed above.

I bring up this part of Dawkins’ article, though, because it reveals his own thinking on the morality of stem cell research. Dawkins quotes Jeremy Bentham, the famous utilitarian philosopher, concerning how to evaluate moral questions:

 . . .a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, can they reason? Nor can they talk? But, can they suffer?

What Bentham is saying here is that what matters in evaluating whether some creature has been wronged by another’s actions has to do with his capacity (or incapacity) to suffer. Let us call this view Bentham’s Principle of Suffering (BPS) and state it more formally like this:

A being’s moral significance is directly proportional to its capacity to suffer (i.e., a being has moral significance in so far as it is capable of suffering, and its moral worth is greater when its capacity to suffer is greater).

With this in mind, Dawkins’ case for the morality of stem cell research can be stated thus:
(1) A being’s moral significance is directly proportional to its capacity to suffer (BPS).

(2) A human embryo has no capacity to suffer.

(3) Therefore, the human embryo has no moral significance.

The conclusion of this argument implies that a human embryo may be killed without any moral repercussions. There are two problems with this argument. First, even if the first premise (BPS) has some plausibility, it cannot be be justified on Dawkins’ atheistic worldview. BPS is a moral principle, but (as we have seen) a naturalistic, evolutionary worldview has no room for objective moral principles. Why should we care if a another creature suffers? On the evolutionary scenario, a creature’s capacity to suffer is simply a mechanism naturally selected to enhance its ability to survive. Why, then, does having such a capacity increase its moral significance?

Second, premise (1) is questionable in any case. If the BPS were true, then it would not only be human embryos that would have no moral significance. There are a lot of human beings who, at various times, have no capacity to suffer. For example, a person in a coma or under the influence of a strong anesthetic may have little or no capacity for suffering. On Dawkins’ logic, such a person would have little or no moral significance while in those states, and could be killed without moral repercussion.

Dawkins may himself have some respect for at least some human lives, but his worldview, and the assumptions and implications of his arguments in this article, can have no other result than the devaluation and contempt of human life. This is why Christians and pro-lifers everywhere must not be silent.