Ethics – Biology, Culture and Morals

From a Biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is also by definition natural  Yuval Noah Harari.

Consider the question of polygamy, homosexuality, incest and even cannibalism. These are some of the most unacceptable acts in culture today. The question that we want to answer in this article is this –

What is it about human beings that disables them to certain range of activities, biology or culture? How can we distinguish that which is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths?

A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables Culture disables’. Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities; it is culture that obligates people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is ‘unnatural’. But from a biological perspective – Nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is also by definition natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature simply cannot exists, so it would need no prohibition.

Evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usage as well. Mouths for example appeared because the earlier multicellular organisms needed a way to take nutrients into their bodies. We still use our mouths for taking nutrients, but we also use them to kiss, speak and if we are a soldier, to pull the pins out of hand grenades. Are any of these uses unnatural simply because our worm like ancestors 600 million years ago didn’t do those things with their mouths?

When we compare the biology of the humans with other genre we realize that we have a lot more free space and berth than others that fall into a more fixed and predictable hierarchies. Humans have created a variety of myths and narratives to ‘tame’ the human ‘animal’ but these myths are not really supported by biological reality. Slavery was once a common practice throughout the world, though we still see it in pockets we can be sure that it is frowned upon by all cultures now, or the caste system which is still deeply entrenched in the Hindu society. Both of these practices were carried out by a series of pseudo-scientific rationalization about the natural order of things. There is nothing in the biological structure of a Dalit that is different from an upper caste Hindu, so how has this myth been able to capture the consciousness of for such a long time? The answer – the stories that we tell ourselves condition our psyche into believing them as realities. As a matter of fact a recent study by National Institute of Biomedical Genomics in Kalyani, West Bengal claims through a study that as of today there is not genetic difference between a Dalit and a Brahmin. In the presence of such facts what is that still lets some people believe in their biological superiority over others? Answer: The myths, the historical fiction that we create almost become our reality (In the language of political theory this is understood by the word ‘Hegemony’ as coined by the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, but more on that later).

All the so called distinctions between rich and poor, masters and slaves, civilized and savages are based on fiction. Yet it is an irony of history that every imagined hierarchy disavows its fictional origins and claims to be natural and correct and have argued that slavery is not human intervention. Hammurabi saw it as ordered by Gods, Aristotle argued that slaves have a ‘slavish nature’ whereas free people have a ‘free nature’ and their status in society is a reflection of their innate nature.

This does not mean that there are no biological differences between people, there certainly are in fact we can go as far as to argue that all individuals are unique in certain aspects. But history has shown our tendency to exaggerate those differences and to create stories around those exaggerations, stories that uphold a certain desired hierarchy. These stories have a way of creating their own reality. And this does not even argue that all behaviour is equally acceptable, practices like cannibalism and incest are certainly not good for any people and must be refrained from commission by the use of these techniques of putting them in a story and conditioning the people’s brain to work around these myths in order to reduce murder, rape, slavery and other vile behaviour that is perfectly biological and natural to us and we should.

But unless we recognize the difference between biology and cultural myth and seek to reduce our unfair taboos wherever possible, we fail in some way to see the world through the eyes of others and see that our imagined order is not always a fair or just one, a natural or inevitable one. Through this discernment we seek to produces better virtues of empathy and open mindedness for other people’s culture and values, these virtues become extremely important in world that is getting closely inter connected. This realization is indeed the birth of Toleration. This ‘spirit of inquiry’ and reform in to the nature of all our cultural mores and customs is the only way forward for humanity, if it wants to survive together. With the political climate getting more and more dangerous globally, we expect shrinkage of liberty and tolerance, a revival of old dogmatic myths and superstition is imminent, in  days as such we are reminded of that ancient Chinese curse, ‘May you live in interesting times’. And now that we are witnessing interesting times we must assume our place as the moral torchbearers of Goodness, Truth and Justice. This is not merely an intellectual practice; this is life as we know it. As we have often claimed through this series – Ethics is the meaning of Life.