Is Biology a Normative Science?



Is Biology a Normative Science?



At first sight biology would appear to be steeped in normative concepts. Animals act for their own individual good or for the good of their offspring or for the good of the species,[1] and their organs are designed to promote these goods. Biologists speak of adaptations, where an adaptation is a trait that benefits an organism, or possibly other organisms—it is a trait that contributes to wellbeing in some way. The OED defines “adaptation” thus: “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”: the phrase “better suited” is normatively loaded (as normally understood). Adaptive traits contribute to fitness, health, survival, flourishing, robustness—all these are normative notions. It is a good thing to be adaptive. We might naively suppose that adaptations help ward off death, which is a bad thing, so that makes them things of value. We might even suppose that adaptations promote the happiness of organisms (in those organisms capable of happiness): they make the animal less prone to disease or injury or hunger or loneliness. Evolution produces, by means of mutation and natural selection, organisms that are constituted so as to live longer and do better than their evolutionary rivals—the “survival of the fittest”. The fitter the organism the better it will perform in the race to reproduce and pass on its genes, so evolution favors the good—health, wealth, and happiness. It favors strength, speed, agility, beauty, intelligence, and the absence of neurosis—all those good things. So we might suppose that biology as a science is concerned to study the means and mechanisms that contribute to something of value: life, health, and fitness. Its theme song is “I Will Survive”.

But this naïve picture is apt to make the professional biologist wince, precisely because it interprets biology as centrally concerned with questions of value. Physics and chemistry don’t deal with value, so how can biology be a “natural science” if it does deal with value? Worse, isn’t value really a subjective matter? We like to say that life is good (and death bad), and that happiness is better than misery, but these are subjective value judgments not reports of objective fact. What if other intelligent beings made different judgments of value—wouldn’t that mean that biology is only relatively true? No, biology must be purged of all such subjective normative notions, on pain of not being an objective science. Admittedly, it may be conceded, the vocabulary of biology might naturally be interpreted in a normative manner, but that is merely superficial; all these terms can be defined without reliance on normative notions, which are merely heuristic. Thus we can define an adaptation as a trait that maximizes the number of an organism’s offspring, or a trait that ensures the maximal propagation of genes into future generations. There is nothing normatively good about this property; we define it in strictly mathematical and descriptive terms. Evolution produces organisms that outperform their rivals at causing a certain outcome—offspring creation or gene propagation. We don’t say whether this is good or bad, merely a fact. The biologist quabiologist is not concerned with the value of life in the way we are concerned with it as moral beings that make value judgments; he or she is normatively neutral about life and death, merely regarding them as biological facts that affect the power of organisms to generate copies of themselves or their genes. Thus biology is an objective science as “natural” as physics and chemistry, and not mired in the subjectivity of the normative. It is true that the facts it describes and explains are correlated with things we treat as having value–being alive for longer (surviving) is correlated with producing more offspring than your rivals—but biology is not concerned with value as such. It is no doubt good to be healthy, but health is only relevant to biology as a fact that can contribute to offspring generation. Medicine cares about health in the normative sense—doctors strive to realize an admittedly valuable thing—but biology as a science is not concerned with such matters. Doctors are ethical beings by profession, but biologists are scientists—they deal only in facts. Any appearance to the contrary can easily be removed by appropriate redefinition.

Let’s consider some thought experiments. Suppose that a certain trait has the property that it increases procreative productivity but decreases wellbeing in the ordinary sense: it makes the organism have more offspring but at the same time it makes it less healthy, less long-lived, less happy. Picture this as an odd kind of disease that causes all the organism’s energy resources to go into its reproductive organs. Conspecifics that lack this trait live longer, are healthier, and enjoy life more, but they don’t produce as many children; maybe their reproductive years are simply fewer, while their sicklier comrades go on reproducing to the bitter end (fewer kids, good life; lots of kids, rotten life). According to the objective conception of biology, the latter organisms are more adaptive, fitter, and more biologically successful than their healthier counterparts. Or suppose that the sicklier organisms produce sicklier offspring compared to the less procreative but healthy organisms: there are more of them but they are not as robust and full of the joy of life. Then they are more reproductively “successful” than their rivals, if we define success numerically, simply because there are more of them. Suppose that intelligence causes animals to restrict the number of their offspring, the better to take care of the kids they have, so that intelligence acts counter-reproductively: that would lead to less intelligent animals having more kids. So intelligence wouldn’t be an adaptation in the biologist’s objective sense: it wouldn’t lead to comparatively higher reproductive productivity. So what we regard as good when making value judgments is not “good” in the biologist’s austere sense. Suppose that a species has two sorts of member, the sort that retain consciousness throughout life and the sort that have consciousness only up to an certain age, after which they become zombies. However, the loss of consciousness has no impact on reproductive fitness; in fact it enhances it because it allows more resources to be directed to the reproductive organs. Then whatever value life has in the ordinary sense evaporates when the age of unconsciousness begins, though in the biologist’s sense these zombie organisms are a roaring biological success—look how many of them there are! If you are a biologist member of this species, you might relish the loss of consciousness because it will enable you to outdo your rivals in the reproduction stakes—though of course you will derive no pleasure from this victory, since you are a zombie. What these thought experiments all illustrate is that the objective non-normative notion of adaptation (and allied notions) can logically come apart from the ordinary normative notions we bring to biological understanding. What is bad in the ordinary sense becomes “good” in the stipulated sense, and what is good becomes “bad”.

Now it is not that this stipulation is impossible or contradictory, but it is instructive to see how far it departs from ordinary notions of fitness, success, adaptation, etc. In order to make biology like physics and chemistry we have to detach it from the ordinary understanding of the form and function of organisms. We normally think that the form and function of organisms contributes to their wellbeing, health, happiness, and life expectancy—all regarded as valuable things—but we are told that this is of no concern to biology as a science, which deals only in causal relations between traits and their reproductive consequences. As things actually stand, these two levels coincide, more or less, but this is not a necessary truth; and once we separate the two we see how far the official conception of biology departs from our ordinary conception of organisms. What I want to suggest now is that we should not accept the elimination of commonsense biology, indeed that it is quite wrong to suppose that a normative biology is somehow unscientific or lacking in objectivity. The first, and weaker, claim I want to make is that there is room for both sorts of biology, properly distinguished: we can do objective biology in the sense outlined and we can do a normatively loaded type of biology closer to common sense. There certainly are facts of the kind identified by the austerely objective type of biology, so it is possible to study these facts; but there are also facts of the kind the second type of biology recognizes—facts of health, flourishing, happiness, etc. There is nothing to stop us from studying how these facts are produced and what their consequences are. We can investigate what traits are adaptive with respect to these facts—what traits are apt to lead to their obtaining. Strong muscles, an effective immune system, efficient digestion—these all help to produce valuable states of organisms (life, pleasure, vigor). The imaginary organisms I described will have adaptive traits in this sense, though not perhaps in the other sense, since their health, happiness, and continued life depend on their biological make-up. So we can envisage two types of biology, each focusing on a specific kind of fact—reproductive fecundity or valuable states of conscious beings. These subjects can coexist and are not in competition with each other. We could call them “normative biology” and “non-normative biology”. A given biologist might identify as a normative biologist, while others are proud non-normative biologists (compare social and physical anthropology).

But it may still be insisted that the normative type of biology is not objective, not scientific, and not factual. To this I make two replies: the first is that this is a substantive stance in philosophical value theory, not a datum we are required to accept. According to value objectivists, the value of life and happiness (etc.) is objective, absolute, and incontrovertible—not subjective, relative, and disputable. So we can’t just assume as a dogma that where there is value there must be subjectivity; nor that value and science are incompatible. This may be a philosophical opinion common among biologists, but it is not an opinion we are obliged to endorse. I certainly don’t, but I won’t pursue the matter now. The second, and more telling, reply is that it is a biological process that has caused value to come into the world: evolution by natural selection is a value-generator, an engine of the normative. For evolution is what has led to the thing we call life, to consciousness, to freedom, to knowledge, even to virtue: these are biological phenomena, i.e. results of biological processes—as much as hearts and kidneys, species and genes. For example, pain is an adaptation brought about by mutation and natural selection—a biological trait built into the genes—and pain has a normative dimension, i.e. it is bad. It hurts, it is not something we desire, it is connected to death; a life with it is worse than one without. So actually it is the duty of a biologist to be interested in value: it is part of his subject matter. It is an aspect of the evolutionary process.[2] Not that the evolutionary process aimed at value, but it did bring things of value into the world—they are a biological outcome, like teeth and flesh. Evolution caused there to be things of value in the world (this is not to say that it caused them to be valuable). And aren’t biologists supposed to be interested in the products of evolution? Darwin’s great book is called The Origin of Species, but he could have also written a book called The Origin of Value. According to the rival theory, God is behind the origin of value since he intentionally created beings about which value judgments can be made—and God was generally supposed the origin of all value. Darwin tells us that value was created by a natural process beginning with value-neutral materials (inorganic matter): that is, the traits of animals that have value (positive or negative) arose by a process that had no value at its origin or in its mode of operation. That is a highly significant claim, and one that every biologist should heed. So the biologist must study the organism as an entity laden with value; and part of that is recognizing that its traits contribute to the value of the organism’s life. When we say that organs of the body and mind are adaptive we mean (or should mean) that they contribute to valuable states of the organism. These can vary from hedonic states to cognitive states to moral states, depending on the organism. Granted that it is good to he happy, good to know things, and good to be virtuous, we can say that biology is properly concerned with the value of these products of the evolutionary process. If eyes lead to knowledge, then eyes are good, because knowledge is good; if taste buds lead to pleasure, then taste buds are good, because pleasure is good; and so on. Traits enable good things and hence are adaptive with respect to those things. They may also be adaptive in a non-normative sense by producing an outcome that lacks any normative dimension, such as the sheer number of offspring or the volume of genes that get passed on. I would regard the latter as a derivative notion of adaptation; the primary notion relates to facts with normative significance. Likewise, when we speak of “fitness” we primarily mean it in the ordinary normative sense; the non-normative use is a derivative sense. There is really nothing wrong with accepting that biology is steeped in normative notions, and we may as well acknowledge that fact. Biology is more like medicine than physics.[3]



[1] Actually animals never act “for the good of the species”, but people talk this way clearly intending a normative assertion.

[2] I hope it is clear that this claim is not tantamount to some sort of biological reductionism about value, as that “good” is definable as “what natural selection selects”. It is merely the claim that the things that are valuable are precisely the things that have evolved by biological processes, particularly states of mind. So the biologist is unavoidably studying things that have intrinsic value. It is a good question whether any evolutionary process will inevitably lead to things with value built into them.

[3] Medicine is really applied biology, so the notions it works with (notably health) need to be grounded in biological fact; and so they are because biology deals with facts that have value. Psychology is a branch of biology, and psychological facts are the locus of value.

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