Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Culture and Ethics NEWS

Steven Pinker Pushes Unethical Human Research


Steven Pinker believes in scientism. What's more, the Harvard evolutionary psychologist doesn't seem to believe in robust ethics.

That is the gist of his recent Boston Globe op-ed arguing against ethical restraint in medical research involving human subjects and within cutting-edge fields such as germ line genetic engineering.

And he blames bioethics -- of all fields -- for slowing down medical progress because it insists that human beings be treated with "dignity." If only.

Pinker is long on expectations of CURES! CURES! CURES! but woefully short on specificity about precisely which supposed ethical restraints he finds objectionable.

His prescription for greater speed is truly alarming. From "The Moral Imperative for Bioethics":

A truly ethical bioethics should not bog down research in red tape, moratoria, or threats of prosecution based on nebulous but sweeping principles such as "dignity," "sacredness," or "social justice."

Wait a second: These general principles are essential to maintaining a moral medical research sector. Indeed, without them, we would easily slouch into a crass utilitarianism that would blatantly treat some human beings as objects instead of subjects.

Bioethics is actually rife with such proposals. For example, one research paper published in a respected journal proposed using unconscious patients as "living cadavers" to test the safety of pig-to-human organ xenotransplantation. From my article "Experimenting with Live Patients," published in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which I quoted the paper:

"If it can be agreed upon that PVS bodies can be regarded as dead," Belgian professor An Ravelingien and several co-authors wrote in 2004, "then experimenting on them is legitimate under the same conditions as experiments on cadavers," so long as they consented to be used in this fashion prior to their impairment. To illustrate the extent to which these bioethicists dehumanize people diagnosed as [vegetative], Ravelingien asserts that "living cadavers" in persistent vegetative state should not be called "patients" because that wrongly humanizes them and "impedes the discussion."

How often do we hear that we musn't impede "discussions" or "advances" by worrying about ethics? Pinker says research is being held up by hysteria:

Nor should it thwart research that has likely benefits now or in the near future by sowing panic about speculative harms in the distant future. These include perverse analogies with nuclear weapons and Nazi atrocities, science-fiction dystopias like "Brave New World" and "Gattaca," and freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs.

That's a classic straw man. Our laws governing research aren't based on hysteria: They are founded in awful history, and are aimed at fulfilling the essential task of protecting and preserving the fundamental dignity of human beings as elucidated in the Nuremberg Code and international accords put in place since World War II.

Pinker then, incongruously, says we already have protections in place:

Of course, individuals must be protected from identifiable harm, but we already have ample safeguards for the safety and informed consent of patients and research subjects.

So, how exactly are we unduly and substantially stymieing the advance of medical science? The only way would be via these very safeguards, since Pinker huffs and puffs that we are somehow thwarting science:

The human body is staggeringly complex, vulnerable to entropy, shaped by evolution for youthful vigor at the expense of longevity, and governed by intricate feedback loops which ensure that any intervention will be compensated for by other parts of the system. Biomedical research will always be closer to Sisyphus than a runaway train -- and the last thing we need is a lobby of so-called ethicists helping to push the rock down the hill.

Bioethics is hardly a conservative movement. To the contrary: Many in the field enthusiastically support a "quality of life ethic," that rejects the principle of intrinsic human dignity.

But we need limitations and safeguards, which bioethics certainly analyzes and discusses. Without them, we get Tuskegee and experimentation on living fetuses -- which was being done in the United States in the late 1960s -- until Senator Ted Kennedy led a drive to put an end to it.

The moral imperative of bioethics should be human exceptionalism, balancing the four bioethical goals of "autonomy," "justice," "beneficence," and "nonmalifecence" toward achieving that end.

Rejecting HE and ethics for CURES! is a prescription for oppressing the weak, objectifying the helpless, and exploiting those who can't defend themselves -- the very kinds of evils that civilized societies have strived for decades to prevent.

Image: Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.