Evolutionary Perspectives In Ethics Research Paper

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The evolutionary perspective in ethics is a controversial current that considers the moral sense of human beings to be the outcome of natural selection. Much criticism has sought to rebut this thesis. Recently, the introduction of invasive technologies in ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes of life has revived the bioethical debate on the legitimacy of evolutionary perspectives in ethics.

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The evolutionary perspective stems from the challenge to give a scientific basis (grounded above all in natural sciences) to philosophical reflection on the rational foundations of the deontological status of human behavior. One of the major exponents of this theme, E.O. Wilson, declared that ‘the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized’ (Wilson 1975, p. 562). The evolutionary perspective has influenced both the descriptive and normative framework of ethics. The main assumption behind this ambitious scientific and intellectual effort is the notion that we should consider the moral sense of human beings as the outcome of natural selection. An evolutionary perspective explicitly excludes any theological-religious foundation, but implicitly and radically throws any interpretation connecting ethics to rational elaborations of justification into question. This is the very reason why it has often been accused of determinism.

History And Definition

In the second half of the twentieth century, the rapid development of social expectations on the explicative power of DNA in medicine and the consequent exponential growth of investment in research fields such as genetics and molecular biology (formerly separate disciplines and today closely integrated), profoundly influenced many areas of scientific knowledge. This influence has also come to exert immense fascination on the humanities and social sciences.

The high point of this fascination was reached in the 1950s (though with greater emphasis again in the 1970s), with the advent of a new line of interdisciplinary studies that combined research in the zoological and sociological fields. A significant moment was the publication of Edward O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. Indeed, this publication represents the official affirmation of a new discipline. For Wilson, (1975, p. 4) sociobiology entails the systematic study of the biological bases of social behavior.

This infatuation of the social sciences with biology and genetics did not come about in the twentieth century, but has far deeper roots in the fertile soil of the history of ideas. We may even trace it back to the philosophical propensity, typical of classic Greek thinking (Plato, Aristotle, etc.), to find a foundation for ethics in the concepts of “nature” or “human nature”. However, for understandable reasons, it was the thinking of Charles Darwin that provided the main source of inspiration for supporters of the evolutionary perspective in the context of ethics.

By convention, we regard the date of the publication of The Descent of Man (1871), as the most important moment in affirming the process of the biologization of ethics. In one chapter on institutions and the ethical sensibilities of men, Darwin even extended his model of evolutionary development to human behaviors. He suggested the moral sense of men was the product of natural selection and that there was in truth a “primitive” human social instinct at the roots of the moral sense possessed by all modern humans.

Darwin considered moral sense a genuine “social instinct” and he would attribute an exceptional connective function to it. It would have the strength of a “link,” able to ensure the transformation of animal groups into social wholes. This “instinct” would be traceable in behaviors such as feeding offspring and ensuring well-being, promoting cooperation between relatives and organizing clans. The evolutionary mechanism would not act at an individual level here, but on the basis of group selection. Darwin had found evidence of the existence of such a mechanism in social insects. He hypothesized that it characterized all social animals, even the most advanced. Regarding humans, as beings endowed with developed intellectual faculties (memory, language, etc.) and conscience, Darwin recognized that bare instinct was destined to become a moral motive driven by social habits and customs and by intelligent decision.

A number of authors have interpreted Darwin’s position in terms of an updated revival of classic utilitarianism. In other words, it would be the principle of greatest happiness for the greatest number of people to guide the discernment of what is good and what is bad. But many others claim that according to Darwin, there would in truth be no conscious calculation in the minds of men towards producing pleasure and reducing pain. Namely, the benefit would not be developed and pursued rationally, but rather determined by the welfare and survival of the group.

It is highly likely that Darwin applied the classic distinction between moral sense for the right conduct and canon of moral behavior to his system. Different entities that generally coincide. Moral sense would mean an instinctive feeling (for instance repulsion for homicide or the impulsive act of risking one’s life to save someone). The canon, instead, is the outcome of rational moral deliberation on the recommended behavior. In Darwin’s view, natural selection (at a group level) would favor the evolution of some sets of instinctive responses to safeguard the good of the community. For intelligent creatures endowed with conscience like humans, this common feature of agency would then become a general principle to define appropriate behavior. Hence a rationally and consciously developed principle, but encouraged by an instinctive disposition inherited from a mechanism of natural selection.

After Darwin, the first attempt to systematically apply the evolutionary perspective to social analysis and ethics was undertaken by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Spencer’s work is a weighty intellectual effort, probably unique in the history of modern political-social thinking that manages to make the shift from the principles of biology to those of psychology, sociology, and ethics. Arising from the articulate and complex hotbed of liberal radicalism, Spencerian philosophy in time came to bear a negative stigmatization. No few critics even consider it a sinister anticipation of Nazism. Undoubtedly, it did end up by representing one of the most important examples of reactionary thought, so much so as to be regarded the highest expression of so-called “social Darwinism”.

Social Darwinism does in effect apply a certain simplified representation of Darwinism to society. A vision we may trace back to a principle that the “fight for survival” sums up somewhat hyperbolically. A highly popular image, which for the benefit of synthesis, ends by distorting the complex reading of Darwin in a caricature-like fashion. It is worth recalling that the expression “survival of the fittest” was never used by Darwin, but coined by none other than Spencer.

For Spencer, nature moves forward in a straight line from energy to life, from life to mind, from the mind to society, from society to civilization and to a more integrated and differentiated civilization. His system expressed the hope of social progress, based on the principle of organic evolution. Moral improvement for Spencer is nothing more than the extension of the biological concept of adaptation and social welfare is equivalent to the selection of the best.

Spencer’s sociology is therefore deeply imbued with hedonistic utilitarianism. Human action would be driven by the pursuit of pleasure and the attempt to diminish pain. In this perspective, cooperation, exchange, and mutualism are always interpreted in instrumental terms. His ethical vision is a direct expression of this sociology. The good, from the moral point of view, is what satisfies or facilitates the pursuit of pleasure, interpreted by Spencer as the social declension of adaptation and survival of the fittest (success, wealth, health, etc.).

Drawing on this vision, Spencer, as is widely known, would be contrary to support policies to the benefit of the “weaker” elements of society. At least to those policies whose scope would favor the social reproduction of such weakness, namely encouraging it. In his The Principles of Ethics, he asserted that moral prescriptions must be shaped to the results they will likely produce in certain contexts, with the aim of reaching the ultimate goal of the society, or the greatest happiness for the greatest number of its components.

Spencer implicitly proposed the oxymoronic notion of a “natural society”, namely founded on the principles of the theory of evolution. By doing so, he reproduced the old idea of natural liberty with a new grounding. For this reason, with a substantial leap of logic, Spencer suggested that a more advanced society is not one with a more complex State, but rather one with a residual role or essentially nonexistent State. Indeed, for Spencer as with many other liberal conservatives, legislation is largely considered bad, since it would tend to corrupt the perfection of nature.

The numerous criticisms and rebuttals that besieged Spencer’s work cast an enduring shadow on evolutionist ethical perspectives. Only after the 1970s do we begin to witness a major revival of important theoretical positions attributable to such views. I refer in particular to the remarkable work of Edward O. Wilson (1975), David Barash (1977) and the current of studies known as sociobiology. Sociobiology tends to see human social behavior as being influenced by genetic factors. For sociobiologists, genes favor certain types of conduct and restrict the range of behaviors that human cultures may prescribe.

The argument by which the inclusive fitness model sought to resolve the anomaly of altruism rested on a cornerstone of neo-Darwinism: (a) the gene as the unit on which selection operates (the role that classic Darwinism assigned to the body); (b) the significance of the influence of the genotype on the phenotype (where phenotype, together with anatomical and physiological traits, also includes behavioral ones). The hypothesis of inclusive fitness nonetheless adds a formal innovation to this dual cornerstone, which we may summarize as follows: the behavior of the “ego” does not so much tend to maximize its individual fitness, namely the reproduction of its genes in the next generation, as the fitness resulting from its own reproduction and that of its blood relations (for this reason defined inclusive). Based on this theoretical innovation, sociobiology would not only explain altruistic behavior, but also define a general theoretical matrix to explain the origin and evolution of sociality in all animal species, from insects to Homo sapiens. The models sociobiologists draw on can be divided into three groups: models hinging on the gene-behavior relationship, optimality models inspired by game theory and models seeking to incorporate into the sociobiological program also explanatory principles of a cultural and psychological order. On the latter model, the works of authors not directly involved in sociobiology have also exerted some influence. In particular, Dawkins (1976) or Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza (1976).

With sweeping simplification, the main premise of sociobiology is that behaviors favoring survival of the species are genetically transmitted to offspring. Egoistic and altruistic behaviors alike. What emerges is an exceptionally clear picture in which the focus is essentially the influence of “human nature” on behaviors, attitudes, orientations, and institutions. The ethical and political implications are countless.

It is worth noting here that towards the end of the 1970s, sociobiology became extremely popular in neoliberal and neoconservative right-wing political spheres. Indeed, suitably interpreted, it may provide a scientific basis to the ideological framework of these groups in their defence of competitiveness, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and so on. Such aspects are thus all readily justified as natural and “suitable,” hence desirable.

According to a number of fervent detractors (for instance Lewontin 1991), sociobiology is by definition a conservative “school.” It can do little else than justify the status quo. What exists, tautologically speaking, is the best of all possible worlds, or indeed the only possible one because the most “suitable.” Some examples might help clarify here. For sociobiologists, feminist egalitarian “claims” are misguided, to the extent that it is genes that dictate a more functional division of labor based on gender in all societies. By similar measure, as maintained by Barash (1977) from a study on the behavior of some animals, rape should be interpreted as a functional strategy to maximize fitness.

This is the coherent framework of a theory that considers human beings machines for the survival of genes. In such context, individuals appear controlled by forces that overwhelm individual will on the basis of functional cost/benefit analyses for the fight for survival. It may be superfluous to add that such a reading of social reality upholds the market as the most natural and most desirable of arenas to regulate human relationships.

Much criticism has sought to rebut the theses of sociobiology. Among the most pertinent is the impossibility to prove the existence of a connection between specific genes and social behavior (as in the case of physical traits or some pathologies). Moreover, sociobiology seems to systematically underestimate the main characteristics of the human species. Those that make it unique among all living things: awareness, cognition and culture. For these reasons, sociobiology has often been considered a pseudoscience by both sociologists and biologists.

Ethical Issues And Challenges

Evolutionary Ethics and Universal Values and Behaviors

There are significant similarities between the positions of sociobiology and those developed by evolutionary psychology. This approach examines the psychological structure of animals, including humans, in terms of evolutionary adaptation, namely as a functional response to natural selection pressures. Psychological and behavioral traits are thus modular structures that perform adaptive functions in order to solve the typical problems living beings encounter in the environment they inhabit. For this reason, evolutionary psychology is heavily oriented towards finding “universal traits.” The latter, if proven, would be evidence of an adaptive kind of evolutionary pressure.

One of the most interesting examples of this research is given by the work of the psychologist Marc Hauser (2006). This work had important implications also in the metaethic sphere. Metaethics looks for possible foundations of ethics. Indeed, the author sets out to demonstrate the existence of universal moral principles underlying various culturally differentiated moral codes. His research starts off from an alleged analogy between moral and linguistic faculties. Echoing the view endorsed by the linguist Noam Chomsky, Hauser hypothesizes that if the linguistic faculty is determined by a universal grammar from which the various languages are formed, then the moral faculty could also be equally based on a kind of universal moral grammar that helps shape the various moral codes.

All men are endowed with a moral faculty capable of evaluating an unlimited variety of actions on the basis of principles that determine what is permissible, obligatory or prohibited. Universal moral principles interact with cultural idiosyncrasies and thus give rise to moral codes, whose parameters, once established, make moral judgments between different cultures at times unintelligible. Lastly, moral principles, being universal, are innate and present in all human beings, since they are bound to our biological makeup as individuals belonging to the Homo sapiens species.

It is worthwhile noting here that the issue of the existence of cultural universals (the “incest taboo” is surely the best known) is an on-going debate and of great importance in sociology and anthropology. Among eminent supporters of their existence, the American anthropologist George Murdock (1965) has for example listed 67. These include athletic sports, bodily adornment, cooperative labor, dancing, funeral rites, education, gift-giving, incest taboos, joking, language, and so on. More generally, the established trend is to consider these universals an adaptive response to fundamental biological needs, common to all humans (or animals).

Such a view is not however shared by all and has come in for criticism from many quarters. One of the most significant critiques has been made by the anthropologist J. J. Clarke (1970), who challenges the very idea that there are fundamental needs that may be above and beyond the cultural characteristics of any given society. According to Clarke (like many others), the fulfillment of so-called needs is always influenced by values, laws, and cultural meanings.

Moreover, according to the critics of this theory of universals, the very definition of cultural traits cannot be made neutrally. A cultural trait such as dance for example, has different meanings in different cultures. It can be defined only by reference to the behaviors of those belonging to these cultures. On the other hand, people eat, have sex, dress, and so on, not just to meet needs, but also for more complex and sophisticated cultural reasons (identity, symbolism, relationship, etc.). How then can cultural institutions be unequivocally traced back to basic needs? What’s more, animals solve problems posed by basic necessity without using culture. Human beings by contrast, create institutions to solve problems which, in turn, produce other problems to solve.

It is important to note how the existence of a “universal moral grammar” has also been questioned within evolutionary psychology itself. Ayala (2010), for example, claims that human moral capacity should not be directly attributed to natural selection. He applies the distinction used in biology between adaptation and exaptation (Gould and Vrba 1982). This term is used to identify the process characterizing those structures or biological organs that have evolved to perform certain functions and that over time have taken on different tasks not covered in the original “intentions” or targets of natural selection. Ayala considers moral sense in humans an indirect and “unforeseen” consequence of the important development of intellectual abilities.

This distinction would enable comprehending even the human specificity produced by so-called “extra-parental morality”. This, in principle, is antiadaptive. Instead, when parental moral behavior is present also in many animal groups, it can be attributed to the classical categories of the struggle for survival and transmission of genes (that characterize a family).

If we accept Ayala’s hypothesis, the “ethical capacity” of humans would only indirectly be dependent on their biological makeup. That is, in terms of a generic predisposition guaranteed by the development of evolved intellectual abilities. In the last instance, these capabilities are effectively made possible by the particular biological and evolutionary make up of Homo sapiens. Moral codes, instead, originate within cultures, and it is through them that some manage to survive for a long time, whereas others die out quickly.

Evolutionary Ethics, The Is-Ought Problem And The “Naturalistic Fallacy”

From a philosophical and logical viewpoint, evolutionary ethics has been accused of succumbing to the so-called “naturalistic fallacy”, a formal fallacy described for the first time by the British philosopher G.E. Moore in his Principia Ethica 1903. In brief, this simply indicates the fallacy in deriving prescriptions from descriptions, applying a rule of valid inference in an incorrect manner.

According to Moore, there are two types of properties: simple and complex. Unlike the latter, the former cannot be further reduced, and hence, in a certain way, would be indefinable. The concept of good at the basis of moral discourse would fall into this category. Therefore, the claim to identify what is good with some natural property (such as the useful, the pleasant, and the most suitable) would pave the way for logical error and nonsense.

This metaethical problem, which plagues all ethical theories, natural as much as metaphysical, is nothing but a reformulation of the so-called “Hume’s law,” also known as the “is-ought problem.” This law prescribes the impossibility of transition, by purely logical means, from descriptive to prescriptive discourse, namely the “ought” from the “is”.

On the basis of this fundamental principle, normative rules cannot be derived from empirical facts. In this sense, the impression is then that Darwin, Spencer and Wilson have all fallen foul of this kind of logical trap. For example, to claim in Spencerian fashion that society should not help the poor, the sick or old, in so far as unfit, would mistakenly be deriving the ought to be (should not support the non-adapted for survival) from the be (nature ensures the survival of the fittest).

Evolution, Ethics, And Post-Human

The evolutionary perspective in ethics has been challenged by the introduction and use of potentially increasingly invasive technologies, compared to ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes of life. These technologies are animating a political and bioethical debate on the legitimacy, opportunity or need for transformations that could change or even endanger the human species.

Within this cultural and technological frame, a new concept has been coined : post-human (or posthuman). The term refers to a viewpoint that seeks to redefine the notion of the human being, his identity and ontological status. This theoretical thinking, certainly varied and not readily traceable to a single author or theory, sees technique as a “natural” partner of the human, thanks to which human identity is shaped and built. It does not consider the evolution of humanity threatened by technology; on the contrary, it enables new forms of physical, moral and cognitive existence, as has happened throughout the evolution of Homo sapiens in its partnership with animals. This also implies a change in ethics, since technology brings about new conditions of human behavior. The relationship between technology, animal, and human is defined in terms of hybridization, understood as openness to otherness that modifies and enables a mutation. The figure of the cyborg, as we shall see, is central here.

Posthuman thought stands on the critique of Humanism and the anthropocentric position of the human considered, in his historical and natural development, as a free and self-determining agent, intended to command and subdue nature, without any contamination with technique and the animal, as D.J. Haraway explains. This view takes up the classic theory of philosophical anthropology (Gehlen) which presupposes a deficient and constitutively incomplete human animal, which would obviate his natural deficiency with technique. However, from a Darwinian perspective, each evolutionary stage of man implies having an adapted brain, no more or less than proves useful to him. The continuationist assumption of evolution does not in fact imply any chasm between human and nonhuman, nor any rupture between natural selection and unprecedented growth of human mental and moral faculties, contrary to what A.R. Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary evolutionist, instead claimed.

What nonetheless concerns reflection on the posthuman is the relationship between technological acquisition and human evolution. Roberto Marchesini suggests considering the partnership with technology from the perspective of a sliding of pressure [selective] from one performance to another (Marchesini 2002). Through hybridization with technologies, the selective pressure exerted on a particular performance of the living being slides on the performance that the body activates with otherness. The object of selection is then no longer the individual but the binomial represented by the evolutionary partnership. For posthuman evolutionism, every hybridization with technique transforms the morphological, functional, and behavioral structure of human identity profoundly, even determining a real mutation at a genetic level.

According to a more orthodox view of Darwinism, mutation would result from a chaotic and random accumulation of skills that are fixed over time in the species’ genotype (gene pool modification generally requires thousands of years). However, for posthumanism a specific cause of mutational mechanisms is made up of the relationships of hybridization that the human establishes with otherness, both animal and instrumental. Indeed, mutation is actively caused by hybridization, outside the laws of chance, not only in terms of the functions of the individual at an ontogenetic level, but becoming deeply inscribed in the phylogenetic structure of the species.

Without the partnership with nonhuman otherness, Homo sapiens – and every other living creature in general – could not improve or invent, in certain cases, performance suited to new developmental challenges. A paradigmatic example is the introduction of the antibiotic in human evolution. The introduction of this technological otherness, slides the selective pressure from the individual human being (and his specific ability to produce antibiosis) to the increasingly perfected (by the creation of synthetic antibiotics) man-antibiotic. As Marchesini states, slides of selective pressure, obtained through technological mediation, inscribe technology de facto in the genetic heritage of the species. Technology, seen as a broadening of the possibilities of performance, extends the human operating range to reality without impoverishing the species, indeed offering superior genetic complexity and a possibility to expand the frontiers of the ecological niche.

Two assumptions are fundamental according to posthumanist evolution theory: the first is that there is no division between interior and exterior, as each sliding of evolutionary pressure, achieved thanks to technological mediation, inscribes that very technology in the gene pool of the species; the second assumes there is a possibility that a single mutation (of the phenotype) could affect the genotypic structure of the species, thereby varying the entire pool of genotypes with a view to growing adaptation to the environment. The living being would therefore be the result of a process involving both interior and exterior, enabling feedback that starting from the mutation of a genotype involves the entire species. This process is intrinsically linked to the action of partnership with the animal and technique that have always been a nonequilibrium factor for Homo sapiens, especially with the intensification of converging NBIC technologies (nano-bio-infocogno). According to some authors, such as R. Braidotti (2002), the human body itself is the embodied memory of this interplay of organism and technique that becomes inscribed in the genetic structure.

The posthuman position heavily criticizes ultra-Darwinist theories, such as by R. Dawkins for instance, in that the interior genetic structure would entirely determine the exterior structures and functions of organisms, without leaving any room to the shaping action of otherness. This interior (genes) – exterior (organisms) bond would only be one-directional and would determine not only individuals but also societies, not only morphology and somatics but also character traits and behavior (there would be genes for aggression or for homosexuality, for example). If ultra-Darwinism considers the development of each individual as the execution of a program of the genetic code, the posthuman approach places value instead on the increasingly unpredictable and random mediation with otherness present in a context set solidly in a historical dimension.

Evolution is not a process to be deduced from the starting settings, but depends on the relationship of organisms with the environment and the possible mediations with othernesses that create new virtualities and unexpected evolutionary paths. The figure that best represents the posthuman vision in this sense is the cyborg (cybernetic organism), introduced the first time as an epistemological and metaphorical concept of the posthuman by D. Haraway (1991). The cyborg, as a cybernetic body, a hybrid of human and machine, represents the surmounting of anthropocentric humanism and, beginning from the becoming-animal of Homo sapiens, suggests the becoming-cyborg of future humanity. The animal origin of man indicates hybridization with technology is not so much a danger but rather a task, as a further possibility.

Clearly, if on one hand the becoming-cyborg of the human lies not only in an evolutionary but also anthropological continuity, so that the human species has changed for thousands of years through education, the acquisition of new cultural traits, through cosmetic, athletic, religious and symbolic practices on the body, on the other hand it does raise the question of how it is possible to “steer” this process of hybridization. This need concerns the social, political, symbolic, and ethical contexts making up significant elements of the human dimension in constant evolution, also towards the cyborg. The question of human enhancement (all technologies, including medical and pharmacological ones that improve human performance) is increasingly at the heart of on-going bioethical debates. While a number of authors assert the need to impose strict limits so as to respect human “nature” or “dignity” and principles of equity according to a precautionary principle, others instead argue for the need to reflect on values that using such technologies may promote. While others again believe it a “moral duty” to improve, through technology, what may constitute an advantage for today’s and above all future generations. Accepting an intensive use of technique could be based on a “proactionary principle” (More 2004) that would require constant appraisal of the opportunities offered by technologies.

Certain transhumanist currents take an even more radical position. These instead push to the limit the willingness to replace natural evolution with an evolution of the artificial, of the machines, even as far as hypothesizing the replacement of human intelligence (embodied) with artificial intelligence (independent of its material support), as proposed by the theory of singularity put forward by R. Kurzweil (2005). Such perspectives, based on a clear separation between the body (obsolete) and mind (also artificial), between human and nonhuman, between nature and technique, are deemed rather much a continuation of a kind of humanist anthropocentrism, not founded on hybridization, but on the simple substitution of nature with technique, of the body with the machine.

It would be amiss not to mention some critical elements of evolutionary thinking illustrated previously. Despite being wholly opposed to the ultra-Darwinian kind of determinism and receptive to the contribution of animal and technical otherness in the process of constructing Homo sapiens, the posthumanist approach does however present two problematic issues at the heart of its own basic principles. The first concerns the connection between interior and exterior. According to Darwinists, the posthuman approach seems to recuperate a premodern vision of biology and to revive a deterministic mechanism: the direct relationship between exterior and interior allows seeing the human as a being shaped entirely from the outside with a view to adaptation without alternative possibilities.

The second knotty issue is precisely the relationship between organism and environment. According to the dynamics described by posthumanism, there would be a tendential inheritability of the acquired characteristics so that any mutation of the phenotype of an organism would be inscribed in its genotype and potentially inherited by future generations. However, the separation between interior and exterior established by Darwinism makes it extremely unlikely that a mutation affecting the somatic cells – subject to mutation – might be passed on to the germ cells, to the sperm and ova, destined to transmit the characteristics to the next generations.


The evolutionary perspective in ethics is a controversial current stemming from the challenge to give a scientific basis to philosophical reflection on the right and wrong behavior of human beings. The main assumption behind this ambitious scientific and intellectual effort is that the moral sense of human beings is the outcome of natural selection. Much criticism has sought to rebut the theses of those sustaining such perspective. From a philosophical and logical viewpoint, evolutionary ethics has particularly been accused of succumbing to the “naturalistic fallacy” in deriving prescriptions from descriptions. From a political angle, it has been imputed with providing a scientific basis to the ideological framework of neoliberal and neoconservative right-wing political groups. Recently, the evolutionary perspective in ethics has been challenged by the bioethical debate on the legitimacy, opportunity, or need to introduce invasive technologies influencing ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes of life.

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