Dear Professor Barash, No One -- No One! -- Denies the Interconnectedness of All Life - Evolution News & Views

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Dear Professor Barash, No One -- No One! -- Denies the Interconnectedness of All Life

david and dankedog small.pngThere's a certain insouciant ignorance that often goes along with being an ardent Darwin enthusiast, a slack incomprehension of your fellow human beings and of life in general.

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Washington evolutionary psychologist David Barash steps forward to take credit for having wrung the neck of a little bunny. He found the bunny in his backyard -- no, sorry, make that the "upper meadow of our property (we live on 10 rural acres east of Seattle)" -- where the creature, still living, had been half-eaten by a coyote. This led Dr. Barash to decide humanely to deliver the coup de grâce by breaking its neck.

What's his point in telling the story -- apart, maybe, from finding an opportunity to make reference to having an "upper meadow" on his "property" (instead of a mere pedestrian yard in the back of his house)? It is to contrast an enlightened view of man's intimate connectedness with the rest of nature, on one hand, with a backward view he associates with religious faith. Darwin represents the epitome of the enlightened perspective:

For me -- and, I'm sure for many others -- Darwin was altogether correct when he noted the "grandeur in this view of life," that we are all connected, sharing ancestry and thus, partaking equally in the very fabric of our existence. There is also (albeit rarely) horror -- as when we are confronted with the convergence of connectedness and suffering. I also suspect, nonetheless, that [Walter] Benjamin was also correct, and that for many people, there is horror simply in the recognition that they and the beasts are connected at all, and that for some, the very awareness of this connection is itself a source of suffering. After all, we are supposed to be special, godly, chips off the Old Divine Block, uniquely graced with an immortal soul and given our marching orders in Genesis to have dominion over those other, lowly, less angelic creatures.

The notion that "we" are qualitatively different from "them" turns out to be convenient, on many levels. Thus, it enables many of my fellow Homo sapiens to turn away from the fraught question of animal suffering, as manifested in "factory farming," habitat destruction, or cruel and unnecessary experimentation on animals. It also, of course, facilitates a degree of theologically enabled, species-centric preening, to go with the tactical indifference. Fortunately, however, there are alternative voices, and not only those of evolutionary biologists (nearly all of whom, by the way, retain and even celebrate Darwin's sense of wonder). Perhaps in the emerging ethics of the environment, we can catch glimmers of that long-sought common ground between science and religion.

Barash goes on to find common ground between the Darwinian view and that of Buddhism, a religion that, in its innocuous Americanized version, it's always a safe bet to praise even for a self-described New Atheist like Dr. Barash.

In this presentation, religion (apart from Buddhism) is set up against Darwinism, the former standing in horror at the idea of humans sharing a kinship with animals, the latter joyfully embracing the same sense of animal identity with all its Darwinian "grandeur." Because religious folks deny any relationship between man and animal, they can polish their pride on being other than a beast and meanwhile enjoy their meat without worrying about the suffering its slaughter entailed.

Wow, this is so silly as to be almost endearing. Whether you identify yourself with a faith tradition or not, two things should be clear. First there's no view of nature held by anyone, at least that I'm aware of, that denies a commonality between man and beast. Whether its Darwinian evolution with its affirmation of common descent, intelligent design with its affirmation of common design, or Biblical literalist creationism with its belief in a creator who called all of life into existence from the earth in a few days, everyone with a perspective, scientific or religious, on evolution agrees that humans and animals share a common source. (This surely explains the Bible's own injunctions to extend solicitous care to other creatures.)

On anyone's telling, all of life without exception is united by kinship. And yes, Darwin was right, there is a certain "grandeur in this view." If any religion exists that differs on this point, I would like to know what that faith is, because I've never come across it.

Second, no less obvious, despite the undoubted interconnectedness of all life, man stands out from the rest -- and not least for the very conscience, unique in the world of life, that drove Dr. Barash to put that innocent rabbit out of its suffering. His act is called a coup de grâce -- a blow delivered literally as an act of grace, a quality unknown among other animals. We call it humane, an expression of our humanity, for a good reason. Would any other beast extend such a tender mercy to a rabbit in its agony? What principle of evolution would account for a member of one species doing such a thing for a member of another species? From the perspective of natural selection, where in the world would the payoff lie? And where, by the way, is the other animal that would go on to write an op-ed column about what it had done?

David Barash is an expert on animal behavior. I beg him to tell me.

Good gravy, can a professor at a major university who ventures to write about these things really be so oblivious? Of course, of course, he can.


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