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GETTING TO THE YEAR 3000: CAN GLOBAL BIOETHICS OVERCOME EVOLUTION'S FATAL FLAW? VAN RENSSELAER POTTER* Elwyn L. Simons1 has recently concluded his article on "Human Origins " with some somber afterthoughts about present tendencies that threaten our survival: The extreme novelty of humans as the dominant force on this planet is as surprising as is our current rate of destruction of our own habitat and that of the earth's other life forms. This disregard is all the more striking since, in geological terms, our species has only recently departed from its "place in nature." The full implications ofour derivation by the random processes ofbiological evolution in a mere 5 million to 7 million years from an animal much like a chimpanzee have yet to be incorporated in any manner into the fundamental beliefs or institutions ofour own, or in fact, any society. In its very success, our species has raised grave problems that demand new kinds of solutions. Will we, by better understanding the processes that made us what we are, grow in capacity to solve the frightening problems of the future arising from our very selves? [1, p. 1350] When Simons asks whether "better understanding the processes that made us what we are" will make us "grow in capacity to solve the frightening problems of the future arisingfrom our very selves" (italics added), he issues a challenge that we cannot afford to ignore. The present article will suggest that evolution's fatal flaw, defined roughly as the biological predilection for short-term gain, is built into "our very selves" by the process of natural selection (see below). In other words, the fatal flaw is part of the process "that made us what we are" and hence the primary basis for the problems of the future foreseen by Simons. The vision of global bioethics is to further the development of a morality that will *McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison, Wisconsin 53706. 'James B. Duke Professor of Anthropology and Anatomy; Director, Duke University Center for the Study of Primate Biology and History, Durham, N.C. 27705.© 1990 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0031-5982/91/3401-0716$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 34, 1 ¦ Autumn 1990 \ 89 attempt to respond to the concerns of Simons and others who hope that their specialty will somehow lead to better understanding of the worldwide crisis humanity faces. It is questionable whether we now have either the understanding or the moral stature that is needed. It remains to be seen whether "global bioethics" can gain enough adherents to forestall the onrush of unthinking and self-centered economic activity. Our biological instinct for self-preservation and reproduction in the immediate present translates into short-term decisions as we interact with our cultural milieu. As Trosko has commented, "we, as human cybernetic machines,2 tend to behave in ways that are usually the result of the immediate or short-term feedback of information that allows us to feel the 'goodness' or 'badness' of our behavior. The longterm expected consequences of that behavior, if perceived at all . . . are only abstractions and are hard for many individuals to internalize" [2, p. 85]. The goal of global bioethics, as I see it, is to attempt to overcome evolution's fatal flaw by developing a morality that places long-range goals of human survival ahead of short-term economic gains that biological and cultural evolution have made preemptive. Unfortunately, as noted by Thomas Berry, a radical Roman Catholic theologian and cultural historian , "There is no sustained religious protest or moral judgment concerned with the industrial assault on the earth, the degradation of its life systems, or the threatened extinction of its most elaborate modes of life expression" [3, p. 15, italics added]. Berry concluded, "We cannot do without the traditional religions, but they cannot presently do what needs to be done. We need a new type of religious orientation. . . . Whether in Asia or America or the South Sea Islands, the earth is the larger context of survival." While Berry emphasized the crisis in religious terms, Manfred Stanley generalized on the crisis even further: "institutions prove irrelevant to population expectations...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 89-98
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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