Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, February 10, 2012

Does Evolution Create Harmonious Balance or Messy Patchwork?

Along the same lines as my previous post, Allen Buchanan, professor of philosophy at Duke University, recently did an interview with the Atlantic about the ethics and significance of cognitive enhancement technologies.

Buchanan, though pro-enhancement, is a lot more wary of the potential ethical and social problems than a lot of the people discussed on this blog, so I won’t quarrel right now with his arguments about the ethics of employing enhancement techniques. I wish to draw attention instead to Buchanan’s recurring argument, in this interview and elsewhere, that evolution serves as something of a justification for tinkering with nature.

Opponents of enhancement technologies or genetic engineering, Buchanan says, have a

rosy pre-Darwinian view about human nature and about nature generally. They tend to think that an individual organism, a human being, is like the work of a master engineer — a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.

Moreover, he says, such opponents assume that “somehow we’re at the summit of perfection and that we’re stable” (his emphasis). Based on this misguided view of nature, which he has elsewhere called “the master engineer analogy,” we are “almost bound to conclude that anything we try to do to improve ourselves is bound to be a disaster.”

Contrasting to this pre-scientific heathenism is the gospel of Darwin, whose opinion on nature Buchanan often quotes, as when Darwin writes, “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Indeed, we ourselves are just such clumsy works of nature, Buchanan tells us, as “cobbled together beings, products of mutation and selection and the crude development of ways to cope with short term problems in the environment.”

To his credit, he does not go so far as to call his opponents creationists or Intelligent Designers, and in a recent paper on the topic he made some excellent points rebutting the neo-Darwinian assumptions of transhumanist philosophers Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg.

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But Buchanan overstates the case for evolution’s cobbling things together haphazardly. And it is far from obvious that the idea that we are made from “crude developments of ways to cope with short term problems with the environment” is a superior interpretation of our scientific understanding of evolution to the idea that we are “a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.” Modern biology actually shows that there is some truth to both views.

While natural selection often operates in the short term to select for particular traits, one of the surprising findings of molecular genetics over the last few decades has been just how much has remained stable over the “eons of exacting evolution.” Novel traits, such as the traits that define human nature, tend to arise not from a short term cobbling together of genes (nor from the design of a “master engineer”) but from surprisingly small mutations that elegantly change the way relatively otherwise stable genes interact with one another.

As Stephen L. Talbott has argued in The New Atlantis, these elegant biological processes do indeed constitute the “delicately balanced, harmonious whole” that Buchanan dismisses. And of course, this is to say nothing of the complex way our biological nature develops through interactions with the environment, or how that biological nature contributes to and interacts with the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of our nature.

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It is strange that Buchanan thinks that opponents of genetic engineering who find something worth preserving in our nature must believe that evolution is analogous to some sort of “master engineer.” Considering that evolution is a slow process by which biological order spontaneously emerges from highly complex networks of highly conserved genes, there would seem to be an obvious analogy for it in the conservative view of society.

Conservatives tend to be opposed to social engineering — clearly not because they think that society was perfectly designed by some “master engineer,” but rather because they see society as embodying the wisdom of the ages: the slowly accumulated knowledge, customs and practices that constitute the social fabric. Moreover, the historical record of social engineering ranges from abysmal to atrocious. It seems dubious that we could do much better with the incomparably more complex system of biology.

Neither biology or society is ever perfect, but each is profoundly complex in ways that we do not understand. More importantly, human life is deeply embedded in these embodiments of the wisdom passed down through the ages. Living well with the imperfections in our nature is not about “breaking evolution’s chains” through crude exercises of biotechnological power, but is rather the task of ethical reflection and action.

[Images: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Jellyfish © Hans Hillewaert (CC)]

5 comments:

  1. Tagged: http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/02/biolibertarianism.html

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  2. Conservatives tend to be opposed to social engineering.

    I wish this were true. However, it is not. Social conservatism is as much an exercise in social engineering as the liberal left. Libertarianism, which is rooted in the Loch/Heinlein notion that the individual ought to be left alone to pursue his/her own dreams and goals in life, is the only political philosophy that is opposed to social engineering.

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  3. TDCS systems are actually quite cheap. You can make one for around $100. This is something I might try in a few years. Cheap TDCS systems are an example of a growing milieu called DIY biotech or DIY biomedicine. I already do this on myself (CoQ-10, Reveratrol, and chelation with ALA).

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  4. So do you wear corrective lenses like glasses or contacts, or do you just "live well with the imperfections in your nature" by choosing not to read or drive? (Actually your use of the written word to communicate with those outside of earshot, and to store and access information outside of that in your memory, raises similar issues of hypocrisy when it comes to your attitudes towards human augmentation.) When you bought your glasses, was that the result of intense ethical reflection? Or wasn't the most difficult part of that decision the part where you had to decide whether the Warby-Parker frames were worth all that money?

    Sure, there's much worth preserving in our nature, but nobody seems to think that it's disease, disability, and mental incapability. Not even you. You've already augmented your mind with prostheses like language, reading/writing, algebra, and so on. You have no ethical problem, presumably, with people learning calculus even though most people don't and aren't able to. Calculus is certainly a "cognitive enhancement technology"; I'm curious why it doesn't raise the same ethical problems as a simple 9-volt tDCS circuit.

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  5. Isn't religion a form of social engineering? Conservatives are all about religion, so perhaps it's a case of just being against types of social engineering they disagree with or don't control.

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