Technology and Sex Selection

The use of abortion to choose the gender of a child has long been a concern of the pro-life movement, especially in countries like China or India where cultural and legal norms make both gender selection and abortion more acceptable.  A new study is suggesting that some ethnic groups – specifically Chinese, Korean, and Indian – in the United States may also be using abortion to choose the gender of their children. William Saletan of Slate.com has a good writeup of the study and some implications. 

However, the conclusion of the article is a bit confusing, 

If you think of yourself as a techno-progressive—someone who believes, as Barack Obama does, that “maximizing the power of technology” will help fix everything from energy to theenvironment to health care—the increase in sex selection should give you pause. Technology can facilitate regression as easily as it facilitates progress.

OK – I’m good with that.  I thought that “technology=progress=unlimited good” went out with the Victorians, but that’s fine if people are just now waking up to reality.  The rest of that paragraph is a bit odd. 

But if you think of yourself as a pro-life conservative, the data should humble you, too. In the populations in which it has increased, sex selection isn’t a newfangled perversion. It’s a custom, and a patriarchal one at that. If the sex-selection story teaches us all to be a bit more skeptical of both tradition and technology, that’ll be real progress.

Eh?  Perhaps some pro-life conservatives base their position of “patriarchal custom,” but I’m not aware of custom or patriarchy or tradition – much less Chinese, Korean, or Indian tradition – being used as a foundation for pro-life arguments in the United States.  

This recent story – about a Vietnamese man who runs an orphanage for unwanted children next door to an abortion clinic in Vietnam – notes that he receives donations from “Christian and Buddhist organizations.” I have not encountered any Buddhist or Hindu approaches to abortion – either for or against – so I would be very interested in learning more about how non-Western religions regard abortion. 

The Running Animal

To move things in a completely different direction, maybe human beings are the “running animal.”  We’re not used to thinking of human beings as physically superior to other animals – e.g. cheetahs are faster, elephants are stronger – but it turns out that human beings are the best long-distance runners in the world. So says Daniel Lieberman of Harvard and Dennis Bramble of Utah. In another article, Lieberman notes that:

Once humans start running, it only takes a bit more energy for us to run faster, Lieberman said. Other animals, on the other hand, expend a lot more energy as they speed up, particularly when they switch from a trot to a gallop, which most animals cannot maintain over long distances.

They also point out that human beings are the only animals in the world that run long distances – like a marathon – voluntarily.  Which reminds me of the scene from Back to the Future 3 in which some cowboys are laughing at Marty McFly’s “running shoes.”  

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The Worshipping Animal

Every once in a while, a new definition of “human being” gets floated around, in order to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  I think this effort has taken on a new intensity ever since biology revealed a supposedly unbroken connection between human beings and our suspected primate ancestors.  Unfortunately, these definitions don’t tend to hold up, leading to National Geographic or Discover articles touting the unremarkableness of human beings (for example, see this recent story about a study that compared the relative intelligence of human toddlers with chimpanzees and orangutans). Some proposed definitions have included man as the animal that uses language (debunked by Koko the gorilla and countless parrots), man the toolmaking animal (debunked by chimps that use sticks to hunt food), man the animal who uses tools to make tools (a convoluted definition if there ever was one), etc., etc.

But what about man the worshiping animal?  George Orwell, I think it was, once said that horses would create their god in their own image.  Good quote, one that gets bandied around a lot in late-night college discussions.  Except that, as far as we have ever been able to tell, no animal except man has a concept of God. No animal does anything that could be construed as religious or which does not have an obvious practical purpose. 

Only human beings worship.

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The Hubris of (Some) Scientists

If you happened to read this article in Tuesday’s NY Times, you would have found some pretty shocking statements.

The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is “unassailable fact,” the journal Nature said this month in an editorial on new findings on the physical basis of moral thought. A headline on the editorial drove the point home: “With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside.”

With all deference, the NY Times quotes Nature as stating, Jews and Christians are ignorant bumpkins.  Why should that trouble my sensibilities?

The article goes on:

Or as V. S. Ramachandran, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, put it in an interview, there may be soul in the sense of “the universal spirit of the cosmos,” but the soul as it is usually spoken of, “an immaterial spirit that occupies individual brains and that only evolved in humans — all that is complete nonsense.” Belief in that kind of soul “is basically superstition,” he said.

Let’s be exactly clear with what V. S. Ramachandran, who is Indian, is saying here. I don’t know what Dr. Ramachandran’s personal religious beliefs are, but he here argues that the Hindu-Buddhist religious concept of “the universal spirit of the cosmos” is scientifically acceptable.  Meanwhile, the Jewish-Christian concept of personal souls is “superstition.”  (Though I’m not aware of any theologians who would consider the soul “occupying” the brain or having evolved.)

If Dr. Ramachandran wishes to believe that, then that’s between him and God (or the universal spirit of the cosmos, as the case may be).  But how, exactly, is this science?  Further, how would Dr. Ramachandran counsel a Christian working as graduate assistant under him?  “Superstition” is a strong word, especially from a professional scientist.

We have heard from scientists, such as Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion can peacefully coexist.  Science, we have been told, discusses the “what” and “how” of the world, while religion examines the “why.” Here is at least one group of scientists who expose that as a false paradigm.  For them, science – understood materialistically, with no room for anything that can’t be measured – determines the whole of truth.