I had nightmares after reading Nicolas Kristof’s gruesome description of the Guinea worm — a two-foot worm that eats through people and pops out of their bodies in the most unpleasant places — in his editorial on Jimmy Carter’s work to eradicate the disease. Beside the sleepless night, the article helped to solidify two things for me.
First, in this world we are but one among millions of creatures competing for resources. There are many out to kill us, but also many living inside us that do us great service. Within the cycle of life that we call nature we humans do not take precedence; we are not the end point of all natural processes. While on many dimensions we are the most advanced, there are many areas where we are less advanced. But perhaps most importantly, the extent to which we adhere to moral principles and ethics is due solely to our own conceptions of how things ought to be, not how they are.
Where this morality comes from is one of the greatest questions humanity has ever faced; we continue to grapple with it to this day. Increasingly, I believe that evolutionary explanations are the most persuasive, but not necessarily in a traditional way. Yes, we evolved to cooperate because it was in our interests to do so, but also, as our knowledge has grown so has our ability to empathize with other humans and non-humans. This ability, I conjecture, is at the root of our moral progress. We know pain and are able to easily conceptualize how others feel similar pain. For most of us it makes us feel better to help prevent that pain than to inflict it. The more our ability to empathize grows, the more we are willing to alter our behavior to serve the needs of others.
This brings me to my second realization. We really need to do a better job of prioritizing the problems we address as a global community. Curing the world’s most terrible diseases and making sure that not a single human being ever has to suffer such pain and indignity as those afflicted with Guinea worm should be at the top of the list. There are many other important issues that come next, such as providing clean drinking water for all. Only when those problems are being adequately addressed should we then turn our attention to the next tier of problems, no matter how pressing they may seem to some. This includes many environmental concerns, which I specialize in.
In this spirit, I have decided to shift the bulk of my charitable giving in order to reflect these priorities, even though there are many other causes I have long supported. I plan to shift some of my research to areas of higher priority as well.