Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The "Intrinsic Value" of Genetic Integrity

In my class on environmental philosophy, we entered a discussion on the preservation of species.

A part of the discussion concerned the value of preserving "pure" species. For example, one article mentioned the fact that many of the bison alive today have some genes as a result of breeding with cattle. Thus, they are not pure-bread bison. Some authors argue that genetically pure bison have more intrinsic value than these mongrel bison.

I objected to that view. I began with the claim that genetic purity has no intrinsic value. It is a learned sentiment. Furthermore, it is a learned sentiment we have no reason to encourage people to adopt.

There is no such thing as intrinsic value.

Consequently, all claims in defense of a policy that say that the policy will protect or realize something of intrinsic value are false. Intrinsic value claims cannot justify any policy. 

These comments concern the article, “Is There a Prima Facie Duty to Preserve Genetic Integrity in Conservation Biology?” By Yasha Rohwer and Emma Morris. Rohwer and Morris entertain the idea that genetic integrity may have intrinsic value.

They reject this claim. However, they do so in a way that allows for the possibility of intrinsic value. They simply deny that any of that intrinsic value can be found here.

This might be a prudent tactic. It is sometimes efficient to simply accept premises that one's opponent asserts without debate, arguing that even if those premises were true it would not support the opponent's conclusion.

However, it may still be a good idea to address the truth of the premise. "Oh, and by the way, they're also not true, but that's just icing on the cake."

In discussing intrinsic value, Rohwer and Morris mention G.E. Moore’s isolation test. 

Another argument against the idea that genetic integrity is intrinsically valuable is to use G. E. Moore’s (1903) method for determining whether or not something is intrinsically valuable that he put forth in his Principia Ethica. Moore’s thought experiment is supposed to give evidence that something is intrinsically valuable. The thought experiment goes like this: imagine that there exists a possible world and that the only thing that exists in that world is that which supposedly is intrinsically valuable. Once the thing is isolated thusly, we ask ourselves: is it good? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then that is evidence that the thing has intrinsic value; if ‘no,’ then that is evidence that the thing does not have intrinsic value.
This test is not a test for intrinsic value. Moore’s test would work even if intrinsic value did not exist – if, instead, all value depended on individual likes and dislikes, but among the things liked or disliked are things in themselves – that certain situations be realized. 

Take Moore's most famous example: 

Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful....And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it as simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other.... [S]till, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance.
Let us grant that we would choose to have the beautiful world exist, even if nobody were to experience it and derive any pleasure from the experience. 

Now, ask this question of somebody who is an intelligent descendent of the dung beetle. She, too, may tell us that she would choose to have the beautiful world exist.

Then ask her, “Which world is the beautiful world?” 

We should not be surprised if, being a dung beetle, she would choose the world that is, “one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us” – a big ball of dung – that the dung beetle has evolved a disposition to value as we value green meadows, rainbows, flowers, and flowing streams. 

The value, in each case, depends not on its intrinsic qualities, but on the preferences of the observer. Those preferences just happen to include a preference that the world one counts as beautiful exist independent of anybody experiencing it. 

Applying this to genetic integrity, then, we get the conclusion that genetic integrity has no intrinsic value. Instead, we there are people who value genetic integrity for its own sake. They prefer that genetically pure individuals exist and genetically mixed individuals do not exist, even if it has no impact on what people experience. 

After establishing this as a preference, we can then ask whether people generally have reasons to universally encourage or discourage the development of this preference.

Let me illustrate what I mean by this. Assume that we had a community of individuals all with an aversion to personal pain. They would each have a reason to promote in all others (universally) an aversion to causing pain to others. They may do so by praising those who refrain from causing pain and condemning those who do not refrain. 

There may be a similar reason to promote in others a desire to preserve nature for its own sake (and not merely for the sake of the instrumental value of nature). It would certainly be better than having all that has successfully sustained and supported life for millions of years vanish. So there may be a reason to promote a nearly universal interest in preserving nature.

However, the preference for genetic purity is a preference we have a great many and strong reasons to discourage, and not to encourage. We need only look at this love of genetic purity - this aversion to mixed breeding - has had on human society. We have reason to worry that this love of genetic purity among animals is too closely related to a quest for the same type of genetic purity among humans. 

The situations are quite similar. Rohwer and Morris wrote about cases where parts of a population became isolated, began to form genetic differences, then came back together again and began to interbreed, thus reducing the genetic purity of each sub-species. I want to make sure the reader understands that they did not share this value, but they wrote about a great many people who thought it was obviously the case that pure-blood specimens had more intrinsic value than mixed-blood specimens. 

The story of humanity is also a story about a population that spread out to the point that different populations became genetically isolated to the point that they began to genetically differentiate. Then technology brought them back into contact with each other – allowing interbreeding. If we apply the intrinsic value claims that Rohwer and Morris criticized to human interbreeding, we would end up with arguments calling for genetically pure Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, and the elimination of any type of corrupted impure genetic specimens. 

One might argue that these “oughts” do not apply to human populations. I suspect that the authors may be surprised - even offended - at the claim that they could defend such attitudes among humans. However, their offense aside, we need a real-world reason as to why there is a difference between the two types of cases. Otherwise, regardless of the degree of protest, the intrinsic value of genetically pure specimens of subspecies applies to humans as well. 

These sentiments do not, in fact, realize anything of intrinsic value. They are learned – and we really don’t have any good reason for people to learn them. In fact, we have reason to discourage people from this lesson, and discourage the fondness for genetically pure members of any species

1 comment:

Shaun said...

There might be another reason to discourage preference for genetic purity among animals. Purebred dogs often have painful and deadly physical conditions due to inbreeding, and the same might apply to other species as well.