May 3, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Morality Backfires on Big Science

Piracy sparks indignation among advocates of the idea that morality is an evolved trait.

Know the major science journals and you will know Big Science. That’s where the attitudes of the vested interests of this major cultural force are reflected. Nature, Science, PNAS and other journals decide what’s trendy, what’s important. Their papers filter down to the popular media, whose reporters translate the jargon into sound bites for the masses. And as the official mouthpieces of powerful scientific organizations, the journals importune governments to further the interests of their constituents.

Journal editors, on the other hand, love to promote evolutionary psychology. Mind, religion, altruism – these are mere Darwinian adaptations, outcomes of natural selection. Only simple-minded religious throwbacks pay attention to commandments of punishing gods who say, “Thou shalt not steal” (9/06/15).  Nature, for instance, just printed a letter from correspondents in Poland who are very concerned about an “anti-science wave” there, including a rise in creationism:

Creationism, too, seems to be experiencing a resurgence. For example, the book Ewolucja, Dewolucja, Nauka (Evolution, Devolution, Science) Fronda, 2016) by the dendrologist Maciej Giertych, which we read as arguing against evolution, is being promoted in schools. In our view, this poses a threat to the country’s scientific-education programme.

Now the journals have an ethical conundrum. People are stealing their stuff.

Science Magazine, the voice of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published three pieces worrying about Sci-Hub, a Russian website making thousands of pirated journal papers available to everyone. Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science journals, tries to spin her frustration in “My love-hate of Sci-Hub.” While she understands the temptation for people to use this resource, and recognizes the trend toward open access, she complains that publishing her organization’s papers incur very real costs. She waxes eloquent about all the good things the AAAS is doing to keep science squeaky-clean. Nothing in her piece about subjective morality; when she feels a threat, she discovers her calling as a preacher of righteousness:

Scientific nonprofit societies do indeed understand the need to continue addressing research accessibility by those in challenged regions, but through legitimate means. For those who have such avenues but choose to pirate a paper instead, ask yourself whether it is worth risking the viability of a system that supports the quality and integrity of science.

John Bohannon, a perceptive writer for Science, tells the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a frustrated grad student in Kazakhstan who went for the dark side by applying her hacking skills to develop Sci-Hub. “When she got back to Kazakhstan, frustration with the barriers that scientists face would soon lead her to create Sci-Hub—an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” Elbakyan looks at her piracy as a practical side of her research. Why not? Isn’t it survival of the fittest?

In another piece, Bohannon asks “Who’s downloading pirated papers?” The answer: “Everyone.” So does that make it right? Supporters of Sci-Hub are armed with plenty of rationalizations; everybody does it, the journals are selfish, scientists have a right to the information. This should be a classic test of evolutionary morality, but Bohannon never mentions morality—just illegality, court decisions and futile attempts to stop it. He discusses statistics and demographics, but leaves it to readers to provide feedback: “Tell us what you think about Sci-Hub.”

What are McNutt and Bohannon going to say? “Thou shalt not steal?”

We would love to see a journal paper on the evolution of Sci-Hub. When your ox is the one getting gored, it’s hard to argue that morality is a subjective, evolved trait.

Exercise: Write a polite letter to the editor of Science, pointing out to Ms. McNutt that since her own journal has advocated evolutionary morality, Elbakyan is just doing what Science told her is OK. Provide documentation (you might search CEH articles on “altruism”).


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  • rockyway says:

    ”In our view, this [creationism] poses a threat to the country’s scientific-education programme.”

    – Is the threat to the country’s scientific education program, or to ‘scientific materialism’?

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