In today’s #TuesdaysWithBill, Charlie comes to Bill with a question about the balance between the ethics of scientific concepts and those same scientific concepts in and of themselves. In response, the Science Guy demonstrates how the two ideas — an idea and its ethical implications — are innately inseparable. Bill also delves into a popular thought experiment involving a burning building: If you could only save one person, who would you save: your child or your grandchild? The correct answer makes ethical and biological sense for the same reason, and Bill explains why.
Charlie: Bill Nye, I love your work. My name’s Charlie and my question today is associated with you as a scientist and how you’ve evolved over time to deal with both science itself and the ethics and morals associated with science. I'll start off with this quote: "So science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus rex; humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea." So my question today is whether or not you prefer to deal with the morals and ethics associated with scientific concepts or the exploration and explanation of the concepts themselves and which one engages you to a greater extent?
Bill Nye: Charlie, this is a great question. In mathematics, you may have run across the word integer and you may know the word integral and you may know the word integral. It’s integral to my outlook, or whatever. What we want is for everybody to be a complete person with a complete point of view, a complete understanding of the process of science which enables humankind to know nature. But also to have an appreciation for what it means to be a member of the tribe, to be a human, to be living here on Earth with other humans and other species. So we want you to have both an appreciation for the process of science and an appreciation for ethics or what seems to be the best way to live, the best way to conduct yourself on Earth and especially in the human tribe.
So with that said when it comes to ethics I always, pretty much always, harken to evolution and here’s the extraordinary claim and you can evaluate this, Charlie. That not only is our size and shape, the number of fingers we have, our eye color and hair color and skin color associated with our ancestors and the genes that were passed to us through the process of evolution. But furthermore what we feel is a result of evolution. Our ancestors who were antisocial jerks got pushed aside by the ones that were perhaps more social and less jerky. However, you don’t want to be meek. You want to have the right level of aggression and the right level of accommodation with your fellow creatures. And when it comes to ethics, when you look at whatever scheme you feel is most reasonable to pass your genes on into the future that usually leads to what we all consider ethical behavior. And the classic example, this is not my fault — don’t come running to me Charlie, okay. This is a thought experiment, Charlie, okay. Don’t bust my chops. It’s not a real thing. The house is on fire. You have a chance to either save your son or your grandson. By the rules of this thought experiment you can’t save both. You can’t say well I find a firehose and I call in The Terminator and he can walk through fire. No. You pick your grandson. You always pick the grandson. You will feel that because that passes the genes farther into the future if you’re a guy. If you’re a woman, you’ll pick whichever offspring is farthest in the future. It’s the same thing.
So when it comes to how you should treat other people who are not part of your family, everybody is a human and is somehow related. If you go far enough back, everybody is related as troubling as that may seem. And so this old thing expressed as the Golden Rule — do onto others as you would have them do onto you. If you can do that, Charlie, I think you will get through life as well or better than anyone. Carry on.