Instinct vs. Reason

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Mother Earth Agitprop Channel -- I mean Animal Planet twice in one video clip (HT: Getting Things Done in Academia) inadvertently hints at (but still misses) why man is the dominant species on the planet even as it entertains us with a black lemur getting high by smearing millipede secretions all over itself.

Notice that the lemur gets a clear biological benefit from its behavior and doesn't do it to excess -- but that we also don't hear about lemurs generally developing new ways to improve any other aspects of their lives or even to get a buzz. So long as this aspect of their environment remains unchanged -- we don't, say, have this type of millipede die off or a lookalike that is deadly poisonous to lemurs come along -- they will hit the jackpot every time they come across one of these. This generalizes to any other evolved behavior of the lemur. Drop one into Manhattan and I doubt it would survive for long.

Man's great advantage -- and limitation -- is his faculty of reason. He has the advantage of being able to learn new things and to apply his knowledge and imagination to the problem of how to survive. The downside is that he can err and that his faculty does not act automatically.
That later property of the human mind is known as free will and, in the context of the creative use of chemicals, the above picture of the effects of crystal meth addiction shows all too soberingly what can happen when man tries to live without applying reason to the problem of his survival.

Some kinds of recreational drug use can be harmless and some fun, but if one does not actively consider the question of how it can affect his future -- if one attempts to live like a lemur rather than like a man -- one will pay the price. And the more one fails to live by reason, the steeper that price will be.

We can glean this lesson by thinking about why the video of the buzzed lemur is funny, but we can also consider what sounds like the beginnings of (yet another) Green sermon at the end of the video. The central ethical error of environmentalism is intrinsicism, specifically of holding nature completely untouched by human action as good in and of itself.

But a proper, rational ethics considers the question of "Good -- to whom?", thereby raising the issue of the standard of value. If man is to survive, he must have a way to guide his reasoning day to day, and the application of an intrinsic standard (which inherently yanks all context of one's life out of consideration) is a sure way to reduce him to an animal level of functioning, but in an environment -- the wilderness -- which does not permit man to live by instinct.

Too bad environmentalism, with its intrinsic ethics, blinds scientist and layman alike to what one species of animal, man, needs to survive. All animals interact with their environment in specific ways. To damn across the board man's use of creativity in his interactions with nature is to condemn him to extinction.

-- CAV

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