Over the last couple of weeks a series of articles has been appearing in the US media attacking biologist Jerry Coyne. They’re in response to a post on his own website, Why Evolution Is True (WEIT). On 13 July 2017 he wrote ‘Should one be allowed to euthanize severely deformed or doomed newborns?‘
This wasn’t the first time the subject has come up for discussion on WEIT. He’s written about it before, and it upset people in the past too. This time though, it came at the same time as the Charlie Gard case. Conservatives and the religious right were already up in arms, and this fed the narrative.
Conflict of Interest
I should say up front that I have a conflict of interest on the subject of Jerry Coyne. Jerry and I are friends. However, I don’t think that stops me from looking at this topic fairly. I am friends with Jerry for no other reason than because I like him. The fact that he is well known makes no difference to me – it’s not how I choose my friends. I’m not the sort of person who “sucks up” to get or keep friends. I’m quite open about disagreeing with him if and when that occurs. Jerry is a genuinely good, kind man. Anyone who knows him well will tell you the same thing.
Who is Jerry Coyne?
Most readers here will already know of Professor (Emeritus) Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago well. In fact, many of you only know about Heather’s Homilies because Jerry is kind enough to refer to some of my posts on WEIT.
Jerry’s academic credentials are without doubt. As well as over one hundred papers in his field, he has written three books which are all held in high regard. The first, Speciation, is an academic work written with a former student, H Allen Orr. In 2009 Why Evolution is True came out, and is still a best seller. In 2015, we got Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.
Speciation is beyond my own science knowledge, so I haven’t read it. However, I can highly recommend both Why Evolution is True and Faith vs Fact. Both are excellent and enjoyable reads.
In recognition of the quality of his work, multiple awards have also come Jerry’s way.
Media Opposition to Jerry Coyne
I’ve just about lost count of the number of media outlets which have now come out to attack Jerry on the post in question. So far I don’t think I’ve come across a single one that has all its facts straight. You’d think they might at least do the minimum of research for their articles i.e. read what Jerry wrote! However, some don’t even appear to have done that. Further, the nuances of what he writes don’t fit their agenda so the best they can expect is the cutting room floor.
Many of the articles even go so far as to portray him as some kind of monster, advocating the introduction of eugenics by stealth.
There are five characteristics the articles mostly have in common:
1. They misrepresent Jerry’s views.
2. Each outlet is either on the political or religious right.
3. They create a link between Jerry’s ideas on euthanasia and his background as an evolutionary biologist.
4. Each makes at least one error in their reporting, and those errors are then part of the case against Jerry.
5. Once Jerry is cast as a demon by all that, his atheism is brought into the articles to confirm that status.
Summary of Media Disapproval
Here’s a table I’ve drawn up of some of the articles attacking Jerry.
And links to the articles in question:
The Daily Caller: ‘University Of Chicago Prof Argues For Newborn Euthanasia‘
The Chicago Fix: ‘UChicago professor: It should be legal to kill newborn babies‘
National Review: ‘Does Darwinism Lead to Infanticide Acceptance?’
The Washington Times: ‘Famed evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne argues killing of disabled newborns is ‘merciful’‘
Evolution News (1): ‘Darwinian Biologist Endorses Killing Handicapped Babies Who “Suffer”‘
Evolution News (2): ‘Euthanasia Reveals Atheism’s Moral Confusion‘
Black Christian Network: ‘University of Chicago Professor Jerry Coyne Uses Abortion to Justify Infanticide‘
Life Issues Institute: ‘Abortion Makes Euthanasia Okay‘
Christian News Network: ‘Evolutionist Professor Says Parents Should Be Allowed to Euthanize Severely Deformed Newborn Children‘
First Things: ‘PUTTING INFANTS “DOWN LIKE DOGS”‘
Townhall: ‘When a Professor Justifies Infanticide‘
Just the titles of the articles gives you some idea of the frenzy they’ve whipped themselves into!
The Link Between Evolution and Euthanasia
Despite the fact that most of these articles make a connection between acknowledging the theory of evolution and questioning whether we should let babies suffer as they die, I personally can’t see the logic. I suspect the fact that many on the religious right see accepting evolution as evil in itself has some relevance here.
Evolution is scientific fact. It will remain so unless and until the unlikely event of the emergence of a better explanation for the evidence.
Jerry’s ideas about whether it might sometimes be better to euthanize babies are a question of philosophy. Unlike the media outlets attacking him, I thought I’d ask him directly whether he thought there was a connection between being an evolutionary biologist and his thoughts relating to euthanasia. His response:
No, there’s absolutely no link between my studies of evolutionary biology and my views on euthanasia. To say that I want to weed out sick infants to improve the human gene pool is a total mischaracterization of my position, which stems solely from philosophy and thinking about ethics. It’s the classic “naturalistic fallacy” to think that we should do to our own species what natural selection did. If I really believed that, I’d be against any medical care, as well as eyeglasses and dentistry, which of course allow genetically “inferior” people to survive and reproduce. And I’d be having as many kids as possible, for of course those who leave the most offspring (and genes) are the winners in the evolutionary race. But, alas, I’m childless, and have never had the desire to pass on my genes.
And that’s almost exactly the answer I thought I’d get, because I read his posts on the subject. It’s a shame the media didn’t do the same.
A Link Between Atheism and Euthanasia?
I also asked Jerry if he thinks being an atheist has any influence on his opinion. This is what he told me:
Only insofar as I am able to think about the question in a purely utilitarian way, considering how to best reduce the amount of suffering in the world, without my views being polluted by unfounded religious notions such as the soul or the idea (of which Mother Teresa was one exponent) that it’s somehow good to suffer.
Mother Teresa, of course, was pretty evil when it came to suffering. She went around the world for years begging for millions, including from multiple morally bankrupt characters wanting good publicity. That money disappeared into the coffers of the Catholic Church. Those in her “clinics” though would continue to suffer without even adequate pain relief. Her opinion was that this suffering brought them closer to Jesus as they were suffering like him.
So Where Does Jerry Coyne Get His Ideas Regarding Euthanasia?
The best person to ask about this is, again, Jerry himself. So I did.
My exact question was, “What do you think has been the biggest influence in forming your views?”
Vis-à-vis this particular view, it’s clearly the work of Peter Singer, one of the first to broach the idea that under some circumstances euthanasia of newborns is the moral thing to do. He’s written extensively on it, and has been brave enough to state his conclusions (nearly all of which I agree with) publicly, even though they’re close to being heretical. For that he’s been demonized, picketed, deplatformed, had his universities besieged by requests to fire him, and even physically attacked. He’s a brave man to follow his philosophy exactly where his conclusions lead, and to try to prompt others to think through this difficult issue–even though most instinctively reject it or would rather avoid thinking about it. It really does need to be discussed publicly, just as assisted suicide of terminally ill adults (also once demonized) was discussed and is now being adopted.
I also asked, “Are [your views] still evolving?
My views are indeed still evolving–mostly about what medical conditions would make euthanasia the right choice, and how one should regulate this procedure so it’s used in an ethical way and as consistently as possible. But I’m very sure that in some circumstances it is indeed the right thing to do.
The Religious Right
Linking Jerry’s views to his being an atheist and evolutionary biologist is just another way to attempt to demonize him. Atheism to many, especially in the US where religion still has a strong grip, represents a lack of morality. Thus, any who might consider his arguments get the label “immoral” or “amoral” before they even start.
Further, in the eyes of the religious right it’s a convenient way to link his views to the atrocities of the eugenics programme of the Nazi regime. The fact that Jerry makes it clear throughout that he completely opposes even the idea of eugenics is one they conveniently ignore. It’s also not a position a secular Jew is ever likely to take.
So what is it that is so wrong with what he’s suggesting? Making the choice to stay alive and suffer is all very well if you’re an adult. If it’s your religious beliefs that inform that choice that’s fine too. As much as anyone can, an adult is in a position to make that choice. When it came to the end of her own life, Mother Teresa certainly made a different choice for herself than she made for those in her care. Her care was the best care possible. There was no unnecessary suffering as far as anyone is aware.
But for a baby who’s not in a position to make that choice, it’s a different matter, and that’s what Jerry is saying. What is so moral about forcing a baby that is going to die, or live in a vegetative state, to carry on living? We’re talking about a human being who cannot possibly understand why he or she has to suffer. Surely the moral thing to do is, as Jerry suggests, stop the suffering? And if God is real, and is the loving, compassionate, understanding being that his followers says He is, surely He will understand.
Maybe God Will Intervene and Cure my Child?
Another issue with too many is the false belief that somehow God will intervene and perform a miracle cure. If you believe that, you’re talking about the same God who is causing the suffering in the first place. There has never been a miracle cure that doesn’t have a rational explanation. Amputees do not see their limbs grow back, no matter how much people pray. If that ever happens, it will be because of advancements in science. In the meantime, we rely on science to design better and better prosthetics.
However, I would think that would make someone more sympathetic to Coyne’s position. There will be no miracles outside the possibilities of science. A baby will continue to suffer pain unless we stop it.
A real life scenario is the recent Charlie Gard case. He couldn’t see, hear, move, or even breathe on his own. The doctors said all he knows is pain, with no chance of recovery. Their recommendation was to let him die, and eventually his parents made the decision to withdraw life support. Countless numbers of parents have been in a similar heartbreaking position away from the media glare.
In these situations, once they withdraw life support, the parents have to watch their precious baby struggle for every breath until its inevitable death by suffocation. What Jerry Coyne says, and I agree:
It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.
If I was in a situation like that of Charlie Gard’s parents, I would want to stop my child suffering. Currently, the only legal way is to withdraw life support. I would want it to be possible for the doctors to give my child something so he or she didn’t have to struggle to breathe and suffocate to death. I would want to reduce my child’s suffering as much as possible. For suggesting this, critics give Jerry labels like “Doctor Death,” “monster,” “immoral,” and more.
I cannot see what’s immoral about that. All I see is kindness, and that’s the Jerry Coyne I know.
Update 6 August 2017
Pliny the Inbetween put up this great cartoon about the situation at The Far Corner Cafe.
If you enjoyed reading this, please consider donating a dollar or two to help keep the site going. Thank you.