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Living With Other Hominids

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Written by Professor Neil Levy

The recent discovery of what is claimed to be a distinct species of the genus Homo, our genus, raises to three the number of species that may have co-existed with Homo Sapiens. Homo naledi is yet to be dated, but it may be only tens of thousands of years old; if so, it coexisted with modern humans. Homo floresiensis, the so-called ‘hobbit’, seems to have been extant well after sapiens evolved, and there is strong evidence that the Neanderthals coexisted with, probably interbred with, and may have been killed by, our ancestors.

If any of these species had survived into contemporary times, we would be faced with an ethical question which is novel: negotiating our stance toward a species that is not quite human, but too close to be regarded as simply animal (using that word in its common meaning, to refer to non-human animals). More specifically, we would face the problem of how to respond to another deeply cultural being. Naledi seems to have had a culture – so the researchers conclude from the placement of the bones, which they think indicates burial. Perhaps it was language using (floresiensis seems a very good candidate for language using). Yet they might not have been intellectual equals of modern humans (perhaps they were – genetic difference certainly doesn’t entail inferiority – but for the purposes of this post I will assume they weren’t). If they were our contemporaries, would we be obliged to allow them to vote? To have affirmative action for them in universities and in jobs (assuming that some of them, perhaps rare geniuses, could function at a high enough level to take advantage of these opportunities)? Should we treat them as permanent children, appointing guardians for them?

Some philosophers would say that the answer to these questions is quite easy: we should give them equal consideration. Equality of consideration is the kind of equality which philosophers like Peter Singer argue should be extended to chickens and chimps, just as much as human beings. Treating chickens equally in that sense doesn’t entail affirmative action or voting rights for chickens, because chickens don’t have an interest in either. It just requires taking their interests equally into account.

While there are strong reasons for thinking we ought to extend equality of consideration to homo naledi, floresiensis and Neanderthals, that doesn’t tell us the answer to the concrete questions. Insofar as they are self-aware, these people (let’s call them that) have an interest in self-government, and therefore in voting. But (let’s assume) they have a limited capacity to understand the issues on which we vote. As self-aware beings, they might be harmed by being treated as inferior. But there may be good grounds for thinking that they are inferior.

We might offer them limited rights: rights to vote in elections for people who have the special role of looking after their interests. That would entail that they are not as self-governed as we are, since they would be living in a broader society (or in a world, at any rate) in which decisions are taken over which they have less say than we do.

I don’t think there are good answers to these questions. That is, while I am sure there are better and worse answers, I think this would be a true moral dilemma: the best possible response would have big moral costs. There seems to be no way to act that would involve some harms to a properly cultural being that couldn’t be fully autonomous: harms that would arise from its awareness that it was less autonomous and less able to govern its own life than others.

Julian Baggini sees in the discovery of naledi good news for humanity; it shows that in some sense we are not alone. Perhaps, but had they survived, we would face a tragic dilemma. To that extent, we are lucky that they didn’t. Genetic diversity among modern human beings is tiny, with genetic differences between groups swamped by those within them. That ensures that the questions we face about how to treat members of other groups are in one central way easier: they are in every important respect our equals. Our ethics would struggle to settle how to treat a deeply cultural group distinct from us which is in some respects not our equals.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. I sometimes toy with the idea of a modernized version of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where the health care providers of Gondor bring challenging problems to the ethicists of Minas Tirith. After all, the humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and orcs are all hominids, even able to interbreed, yet with different properties. The above post brings up the problem of what to do with the on average more stupid orcs. But even worse for the healthcare policymakers are the issues brought up by elves: elves never fall sick nor age. Should they get tax benefits since they do not load the Gondorian healthcare system, or should they pay the same taxes in order to help the far more sickly humans? (Retirement and mandatory pension savings are another matter).

    Morally the humans, orcs and elves may have about the same status (apparently even Tolkien thought orcs could in principle act good, although it never happened in the books), making the problem slightly less extreme than having a subspecies that clearly lacked the cognitive abilities to be a full human-level modal agent. But the physical differences do seem to scale up current inter-group differences that we often try to paper over in order to not get a too controversial resource allocation (consider the difference in male and female lifespan, or diseases). It seems to me that there is a vague dividing line along any scale of health, lifespan, moral agency etc. where the difference becomes too large to ignore morally.

    Maybe a world with hominids (or Middle Earth) would have developed ethical systems that actually were used to handling this problem (likely after a long history of atrocities and decisions later regretted). Maybe Homo sapiens uniqueness has deprived our ethics from important counterexamples. But given our own past of not treating other subgroups of humans as full members of the species, it seems we may not have *needed* hominids to try to develop an inter-species ethics.

  2. “Should we treat them as permanent children, appointing guardians for them?” Sounds familiar. Like the perpetual custodial care many are in presently. And I suspect they would be treated just as different races are today. They may be paleo-human, but still human.

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