Philosophy in Utah

April 6, 2016

U of U Colloquium: “Biological Normality: A Concept and its Problems”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Huenemann @ 9:26 am

Ronald Amundson, University of Hawaii at Hilo

Friday, 4/8, at 2:30

Judgments of biological normality seem intuitive and harmless. But things are not so simple. This talk will examine biological normality from two perspectives. First, disability rights advocates argue that the concept presupposes ableism, meaning a social bias against people with unusual sets of abilities. Ableism is claimed to have no better moral basis than sexism or racism. Respect for human diversity should include respect for diversity of ability as much as respect for diversity of sex, gender, religion, ‘race,’ and so on.

The second perspective comes from the traditional defense of biological normality as an empirical fact of modern biology. Philosophical definitions of biological normality have often appealed to neo-Darwinian evolution theory, according to which the traits of existing organisms are strongly controlled by natural selection. The function of a trait is the effect that the trait was selected to achieve in evolutionary history. However, twenty-first century views of evolution call this into question. We now know that virtually every body part (and every gene) of every species has been re-purposed from a homological body part (gene) in an evolutionary ancestor. So neo-Darwinian definitions of function as ‘what it was selected for’ are no longer so clear cut.

The intended conclusion of the paper will be a comparison of the functional variability implied by recent evolutionary biology to the functional variability claimed by disability rights advocates. Many humans are mobile (not by walking but) by use of wheelchairs, they communicate (not by speaking but) by use of sign languages, and they read (not by written language but) by use of Braille. Functional variability is a fact about organic evolution, and also about the humans you know and are descended from.

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