Introducing the Relationship between Human Rights Issues and Philosophy of Biology

It has quite often been assumed that philosophy is a discipline that is performed in “ivory towers” and hence lacks practical importance. Our research team at the Chair of Philosophy of Science of the Department of Philosophy has strong practical inclinations, which means that among other research interests we are demonstrating the practical relevance of the issues of philosophy of science to different other domains of human life.


Cognitive evolution. Thinking monkey. Image credit: Pixabay Creative Commons

This summer I had a great opportunity to demonstrate the intersection of philosophy of science and socio-political human affairs from my own personal angle by visiting two conferences* that were not so strictly dedicated to philosophy and giving a presentation on the relationship between some questions of philosophy of biology and human rights issues (see the end of this article for more information about the conferences). 

The first conference, “Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity“, discussed the new and transformed human rights issues which have emerged in the light of global political, economic, structural, normative, and ideational changes that have taken place during the last decades. The ambiguity that is referred to in the title derives from the fact that a human rights regime that seemed to rest on a global consensus and appeared to be stable is undergoing rapid and deep transformation. One of the biggest challenges is the emergence of non-Western powers, which brings new human rights issues, such as the problems of a global refugee regime, the threats of terrorism and other security challenges for civilian and basic human rights protection, climate change resulting in forced migration, and other humanitarian crises, etc.

My own presentation entitled “Essentialist Thinking, Evolutionary Theory and the Universality of Human Rights Issues” was scheduled for the panel session of “Human Rights in Theory”. In my paper that I had submitted previously, I argued for the claim that sometimes the attempts to approach ethics from a biological perspective – in other words, trying to give evolutionary explanations for why people hold certain moral approaches that they do – is dubious. Normative evolutionary ethics, the attempt to use evolution for justifying ethical systems, has been demonstrated to be problematic by quite a few authors. However, trying to justify certain morally loaded behaviours and attitudes by appealing to their evolutionary and biological factors has been (and still is) relatively common, especially in some public lay discussions concerning several social and political matters.

For instance, male promiscuity is often justified by referring to the evolutionary roots of male sexual behaviour; racism and xenophobia might be justified by explaining their biological functions; different attitudes towards people from different races have sometimes been justified by appealing to the supposed biological differences underlying these races, and so on. By introducing a few mistaken reasoning tendencies concerning the areas of both biology and morality, I discussed some of the flawed assumptions about the relationship between the issues of these domains. I concentrated especially on the beliefs about the universality of the human rights that are based on beliefs about the evolutionary/biological components and origins of these rights.


Fordham University, where the “Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity” took place. Photo from a personal archive

The first reasoning tendency leading to wrong inferences about the relationship between human rights issues and their evolutionary components is essentialist thinking. Essentialist thinking assumes that certain categories – biological species, human groups, human species as a whole, etc. – have certain essential (physical, behavioural, cognitive) properties, the essences that all and only the members of these categories possess. I claimed that essentialism is related to evolutionary theory and human rights issues in three main ways.

  1. The explanations about the evolutionary source and development of morality seem to suggest that there is something like the universal human nature or the essence of the human species. Moreover, according to these explanations, moral decisions and intuitions seem to be the result of evolutionarily developed universal functional properties that are part of or characteristic to human nature/essence.
  2. Justifications of the application of certain human rights to different human groups are often based on essentialist assumptions about the biological properties and evolution of these groups. These are assumptions about what the evolutionarily developed “nature of a woman” is, which is a “normal” way for reproduction of human species, etc. (for instance, homosexuality is quite often criticized on the basis that homosexual relationships do not involve normal reproduction).
  3. The tendency to make essentialist assumptions is probably a naturally selected trait itself, a mental “shortcut” underlying category-based inductive learning.

Morality in ancient Egypt. Maat is both the goddess and the personification of truth and justice. Her ostrich feather represents the truth. Photo credit: Jeff Dahl / Wikimedia Commons

Essentialist thinking is flawed because in reality there probably is no such thing as the universal “human nature” that is supposed to underlie the “roots” of morality, or the universal “essence” of certain human groups that would underlie our explanations about certain human rights issues concerning these groups.

Secondly, in addition to essentialism, the attempts to explain the issues related to human rights by appealing to evolutionary/biological factors are problematic also because of the is-ought problem. The is-ought problem means deriving what ought to be the case from what is the case. The is-ought reasoning pattern quite often underlies the justification of traditional modes of behaviour (for instance, the justification of traditional gender roles by resorting to the observation that this is the way things have always been). In the current context, the is-ought problem might lead us to the assumption that if something has evolutionary roots, it must be good or morally justified. One straightforward counter-example to this assumption is the fact that quite a lot of behaviours or attitudes (such as xenophobia, rape, etc.) that might be shown to have had some evolutionary function have a questionable or consensually low moral status, at least in modern societies.

The third reasoning fallacy that can lead us to flawed assumptions about the relationship between (the universality of) human rights issues and their evolutionary components is the tendency to confuse the universality, evolutionary origins and immutability of a trait. If something (a behavioural or attitudinal trait) is found to be universal among humans, it is assumed to have evolutionary components. If a trait is assumed to have evolutionary components, it is also assumed to be immutable (developmentally fixed, not modifiable by upbringing etc.). Quite often our essentialist predispositions might lead us to think that a certain human behaviour is more universal than it actually is. However, even if a trait is really found to be cross-culturally universal (which might be very likely the case with xenophobia, for instance), this does not automatically mean that the trait has evolutionary roots (it might be the result of socially transferred learning instead). And even if a trait has evolutionary roots, this does not automatically mean that the trait is unchangeable.

Contrary to my previous misgivings, the presentation that I gave did attract some interest from an audience consisting mainly of non-philosophers, thereby vindicating my faith in the notion that addressing certain important socio-political questions from the perspective of philosophy of science would make a worthwhile contribution to the discourses about the issues that we come across daily, either ourselves or via media coverage. This is especially true for philosophy of biology – as humans are part of the living nature, the questions concerning their evolution or other biological aspects of their physical constitution, behaviour, or development are also inevitably parts of this branch of philosophy of science.


Human diversity: how to categorize it? Image credit: Pixabay

As was already said, appealing to evolutionary or biological factors is quite common in the debates about whether and how certain human rights should be applied. Analysing the arguments involving these factors from the perspective of philosophy of biology helps to reveal (and in the future avoid) the flawed reasoning patterns and assumptions that might be inherent in our everyday discussions but regularly remain unnoticed and lay the basis for mistaken inferences.

About the conferences

In June, Fordham University hosted a conference entitled “Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity” organized by the Human Rights Section of the International Studies Association (ISA) of the United Nations.

This event was immediately followed by a partner conference, the annual meeting of the Academic Council of the United Nations System (ACUNS). The theme of that conference was “Meeting the Challenges of Development and Dignity”, what challenges global development (the challenges of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)) poses for humanitarianism and human dignity. 

My conference attendance was funded by Archimedes Foundation and the research project IUT20-5 (Estonian Ministry of Education and Research). The research itself was funded by the research project PUT732.

Edit Talpsepp, PhD, is a researcher of Philosophy of Science in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Tartu.

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