Chris Hables Gray, Resident Scholar

Dr. Chris Hables Gray

Dr. Chris Hables Gray, professor at the Union Institute and University and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the fourth individual this year to complete a term as Resident Scholar in the Special Collections & Archives Research Center.  Dr. Gray is a self-described “anarchist, feminist, post-modernist” who has written widely on a number of subjects, with a particular emphasis on cyborgs and evolution.

Gray visited Corvallis to examine the Paul Lawrence Farber Papers and the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers, spurred by a keen interest in tracing the development of Pauling’s thinking on evolution.  His provocative Resident Scholar presentation, titled “Linus Pauling and the Temptation of Evolutionary Ethics,” generated a great deal of thoughtful discussion among those who gathered to hear him speak.

Gray’s thesis was that, in at least two instances, Linus Pauling gave in to what Paul Farber termed “the temptations of evolutionary ethics.”  Farber, a historian of science and emeritus chair of the OSU History Department, defined this temptation as the impulse to use science as a basis for a full system of normative ethics.  Gray is sympathetic to Farber’s warnings against this impulse as, in his view,

Culture is not different from nature.  Human culture is natural.  It is evolved, as much as the behavior of mockingbirds or ants.  All of life is evolved.  The natural/biological vs. cultural distinction is not only wrong, it is dangerous.  [On the same token], humans are not rational.

As an extension of this postulate, Gray offered this thought, which was fundamental to his presentation

I don’t think evolutionary science will ever provide a base for a system of ethics.  The ideas and actions behind the Holocaust are as natural as those behind the Civil Rights movement.  All that humans do is natural….Farber is right that evolutionary science cannot give us a normative ethics, a complete system of ethics.  It cannot show what should be ethical, but it can show what is possible and what is impossible.  It can help us in our ethical reasoning.

During his stay in Corvallis, Gray traced Pauling’s thinking on evolution from his earliest documented years, noting a particularly optimistic Junior Class Oration in which the future scientific great “makes of evolution a religion.”  As time moved on, Pauling’s thoughts on the topic changed somewhat, his optimism tempered by the realities of the atomic age.  Instead of a religion, evolution became a morality.  Likewise, man was no longer destined to evolve into a superman, but rather was part of a superorganism, “humankind,” whose greatest attributes – as Pauling noted in 1959 – were “sanity (reason), and morality (ethical principles.)”

For Pauling the concept of morality was firmly rooted in Albert Schweitzer’s principle of “minimization of suffering,” and it is here that he began to fall prey to the temptations of evolutionary ethics. Most glaring was Pauling’s advocacy of negative eugenics in the mid- to late-1960s.  As Gray noted

Pauling saw reality as based on molecules, and so diseases were molecular….His work on sickle-cell anemia was framed in this way. Once he realized that it was a genetic disease he put forward some startling solutions… [including the tattooing of phenotype information on people’s foreheads] enforced genetic testing and abortions…even though dietary and other treatments for sickle cell anemia were known and effective. Eventually he stopped raising this issue. We don’t know why for sure, but we can assume he realized it was not a popular approach to the problem of genetic disease.

Gray also submitted Pauling’s interest in vitamin C, especially as a possible treatment for cancer, as another example in which his evolutionary thinking went astray.

The reasoning behind Pauling’s belief that humans did not consume enough Vitamin C was based on evolutionary science. Roughly half the primates, including humans and our closest cousins, cannot synthesize vitamin C, an ability that all plants and almost all animals have. His theory was that the ancestral primate lost the ability to synthesize C when in an environment with plentiful dietary C. Then, as humans moved into other environments with less dietary C, deficiency diseases and conditions, such as a degraded immune system…resulted – and not just scurvy, but long term conditions and even cancer.

While Gray conceded that there is some validity to this argument, he found Pauling’s larger thesis to be “less than convincing.”

…numerous studies have failed to show that all, or even most, humans have a massive Vitamin C deficit. It is true that C can help limit the severity of colds, that it helps in some healing, and has other benefits. But the massive positive effects of massive doses of C have not proven to be as helpful as Pauling claimed.

Gray concluded that

we have to be more careful that Pauling in applying evolutionary thinking to ethics….if we take evolution seriously we have to let go of totalizing schemes for perfecting humanity, as much as the dream of perfection appeals to young chemistry students and profoundly moral famous scientists alike. But evolutionary science can be useful in our quest for a better, more moral, world.

Because of the great diversity of humans…especially as evolved culture allows for such a wide range of variation, and “conscious” evolution, no totalistic ethical system based on human altruism or any other quality is viable. Altruism has certainly evolved in humans, as has selfishness, cruelty, and social pathology. Inherited traits are often not universal, which makes sense in that variation is the key to evolution’s power. But this also means that any ethical system will have to be imposed on some people, even if it is a “biological” fit for the majority. And since all of us have many layers of moral reasoning and ethical impulses, often contradictory, and that humans continue to evolve and a very fast rate thanks to the Lamarkian power of culture, we will never have a perfect ethics.

For more on the Resident Scholar Program, please visit this page, which, among other details, includes links to the profiles that we have written of all past scholarship recipients.