To Those Who Say “There’s Simply No Question on This Topic”

On this blog, I often write about so-called controversial topics, which test people’s moral convictions: If you agree about abortion, you should agree about infanticide; there are no good reasons to have children; there’s nothing wrong with consensual incest or necrophilia; and so on.

Recently, I wrote about the legalisation of child porn. For some, there is “simply no question on this topic”: it is wrong, through and through. Debates are useless. To debate child porn’s morality is to show oneself to be, at the very least, crass or insensitive.

There are many topics I’ve written about that have encountered this reply. I want to, now, set out a reply to this assertion, despite its seemingly axiomatic nature with regard to certain topics.

To those who say there’s “no question”, we should remember that there are always questions because we are fallible, we make mistakes, we live with uncertainty. To say there is no question is to say that there is no need for further discussion: this topic is closed, locked down, removed from the framework of scrutiny. Whether you shut the gates of the discussion using religious outrage or what are considered self-evident viewpoints, the conversation is locked either way. You claim silence with certainty and conviction through dismissal.

But to do this is to ignore our fallible nature. All topics should open for discussion, even the morality and legalisation of child porn, since we could be wrong. To assume you know, beyond doubt, that something is right or wrong is to dismiss the history of our moral catastrophes. If nothing else, humanity’s history is a series of ethical failures that continued unabated because of the assertion of the powerful or the majority that they knew what was right, true, or good. One powerful way to prevent that is to be open to evidence and counter-arguments – but in order to do that, the gates must be at least unlocked, if not entirely open. To claim even something as apparently obvious as child porn to be wrong is not make a mistake: the mistake is to say all discussions on it are now no longer needed. It’s not enough to say something is wrong: we need to know what we mean by wrong, what standard, how it effects law and society, and so on. Recognising something as wrong should only be the conclusion of a long deliberation; then, upon recognising it is wrong, further deliberation only begins on what its wrongness means for us.

Consider two things I consider wrong: the criminalisation of marijuana usage and child rape. I strongly disagree with sending most drug users to prison, since current policies do not help stop drug-related crimes or addiction. However, I would, on a personal one-on-one basis, try dissuading you from using narcotics. I would support measures to dissuade people from using drugs, but strongly oppose the law being used as an instrument of dissuasion. With child rape, criminalisation and citizen opposition are needed. Notice that the two are different discussions: (1) Is this action wrong? (2) Will the law help oppose this wrong action? But there are parts (3), (4), and so on, that still need to be had. Is it wrong only in this country? Should we criminalise it anyway, but if someone is charged always give him or her a light sentence (as happens in most countries with physician-assisted suicide)? The point is that discussions are only beginning when you’ve decided something is wrong – even terribly wrong.

Are the terrorists’ actions of 9/11 wrong? Of course. Was Josef Fritzl wrong to treat his daughter like a sex-slave for decades? Yes. Is it wrong to force children to perform sex acts? Yes.

But now what? What do we do?

What happens to people who write and speak in support of Al’Quaeda on US soil? What happens if Muslims want to build a “mosque” near Ground Zero? What should happen to Fritzl now that we’ve caught him? How do we prevent this from happening again? What do we do about his wife and children, who were aware but felt powerless? What is wrong with merely looking at child porn, but hating how it was made? Why is it different to eating meat but opposing factory-farming, where enormous amounts of suffering also occurs?

The answers to these questions require us to discuss, debate and be open about our answers. You can’t tell me, you can’t affirm, you simply cannot assert that there are no questions on this topic. You can’t shut down the conversation because you feel that everything has already been said that needs to be said. This is clearly not true, if someone like myself is scrutinising aspects of it. As we previously noted, the tyranny of the many (framed in politically-correct or widely-assumed assertions of morality) is still a form of tyranny. Silencing a minority opinion is still silencing. When you bar the gates of the conversation you also prevent yourself from looking at what you’ve locked up. We should always be keeping a close eye on it, in case we discover the harm comes from our imprisonment rather than its freedom.

As we know, there might be more effective ways to tackle the problems; problems that we think we're opposing through our convictions. For example, as I previously asked, what happens if evidence suggests that legalising the possession of child porn dramatically reduces physical child crime (beatings, torture, kidnapping, rape, etc.)? We might miss out on an effective solution, merely because we're convinced the topic is over, done, decided. This means that we're more interested in maintaining our convictions on morality than taking specific action that might counter immoral actions. Being right matters more than making things better. If we reach that stage, we're no longer interested in morals and ethics, but maintaining an acceptable appearance. This is understandable, of course, since "radical" ideas can upset societies and undermine social cohesion. But again: we should all be more interested in doing what is best than doing what won't offend.

Image Credit: Elnur/Shutterstock

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.