Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Our Chemical Romance

A love pill
Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg have an article in the New Scientist (subscription required) talking about how we need to start taking control of romantic love by pharmaceutically enhancing marriages. By infusing our brains with neurotransmitters like vasopressin and oxytocin, we may be able to “tweak” these neurochemical systems “to create a longer-lasting love” as a way to curb rising divorce rates.

The basic logic underlying their argument is the same as Savulescu’s case for biomedically enhancing human morality: just as evolution did not make us “fit for the future,” so also it did not make us “fit for love.” Once again, our current problems are explained by “discrepancies between our adaptation to a past environment” — what they call the “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness” (EEA) — and “our current existence.”
Savulescu and Sandberg’s specific evolutionary argument in this case is that in the EEA, “people survived for a maximum of 35 years,” so that genes predisposing people to stay married longer than roughly 15 years would not have been selected for, since most marriages would end with death before then anyway. It would seem that we are outliving our natural capacity to love, with the current median duration of marriage being 11 years — “surprisingly close” to the 15 years that we could have expected to live in marital bliss in the EEA.

However, in an article on the topic they wrote in 2008, they observe that “divorce rates peak among younger couples, declining with age,” with the highest rates of divorce found for men and women aged 25-29. If natural selection disfavored the kinds of marriages that did not occur in the EEA, then why are people who are older than the historical “maximum of 35 years” apparently so much better at staying married? Shouldn’t the divorce rate continue to climb as people age past that evolutionary point and their marriages drag on past the typical duration they would have had in the EEA?

Furthermore, how does this evolutionary explanation account for the precipitous rise in the divorce rate since in the 1970s? Or the fact that, among college-educated women, the divorce rate has since returned to the levels seen before this rise? However our evolutionary heritage has affected our contemporary pair-bonding practices, there are many other factors at play here that make the evolutionary forces difficult to discern on their own. Savulescu and Sandberg’s particular evolutionary hypothesis, plausible though it initially sounds, doesn’t hold up to the actual evidence, and doesn’t help to explain human marriage trends and behaviors.

It is worth pointing out something that Savulescu and Sandberg had right in their 2008 paper, though: while they rightly acknowledge the importance of marriage as a social institution for parenting, they generally focus their analysis of the value of marriage on love — the formation of an interpersonal sexual and emotional relationship — rather than on theories that see the value of marriage simply in terms of economic or social utility. However, they end up distorting the meaning and importance of love by crudely reducing it to a biological phenomenon; as important as love is for human pair-bonding, it is not the sort of phenomenon that is easily amenable to scientific study — which greatly undermines the case for technologically manipulating it.
Savulescu and Sandberg begin their argument on the ethics of “love drugs” by combining a crudely reductionist approach with a familiar transhumanist trope—that their radical biotechnological scheme is actually “consistent” with what we have been doing all along:

There is a long history to the use of love potions. Alcohol is the commonest love drug. We have always tried to use chemistry to influence the chemistry between people. Neurolove potions will just be more effective. There is no morally relevant difference between marriage therapy, a massage, a glass of wine, a fancy pink [sic], steamy potion and a pill. All act at the biological level to make the release of substances like oxytocin and dopamine more likely.

Assuming this is true, would the fact that these disparate romantic activities all increase the likelihood of oxytocin and dopamine being released mean that there are no morally relevant differences between them? Perhaps if it were true that these activities could really all be understood as essentially acting “on the biological level” in the same way, then there might not be a reason to see any moral difference between them. But it is obvious that marriage therapy does not “act at the biological level” in the same way that a dopaminergic pill does; in the first case, insofar as the activity of talking about your relationship leads to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, it does so by a complex process of dealing with the real obstacles that impede love, and reminding the couple of the real qualities that make one another lovable — all of which allow for the natural emotional responses associated with love, which do indeed tend to correspond with the release of these neurotransmitters. Pills and “neurolove potions” on the other hand, insofar as they are effective, would start with the release of these neurotransmitters, causing the person to feel the emotional responses associated with love, but not in any direct connection with any of causes that might make these responses meaningful and true — namely, an actual, loving relationship with another person.

The President’s Council on Bioethics addressed this to some extent in Beyond Therapy when they argued that “drug-induced ‘love’ is not just incomplete — an emotion unconnected with knowledge of and care for the beloved. It is also unfounded, not based on anything — not even visible beauty — from which such emotions normally grow.” Savulescu and Sandberg argue that these objections might apply to the inducing of new relationships, but would not to apply to established relationships. That may be partly true: most people would probably find it worse to establish a relationship through drug-induced emotions than it would be to maintain an existing relationship. But similar objections still apply to the latter: severing the connection between the emotion of love and its proper object could still threaten to make a relationship detached from the real circumstances on which such emotions are normally sustained. And if an established relationship has the kinds of problems that would require a “neurolove potion” to keep it going, then maybe it is those problems themselves that need to be addressed. For instance, Savulescu and Sandberg argue that it is basically a good idea for a woman to take love drugs in order to tolerate her husband’s infidelity. Is that really a prescription for personal and moral progress?

Psychopharmaceuticals surely have an important role to play in enabling people with clinical depression and other mood disorders to live well and pursue their happiness; but they become an odious and dangerous tool when they are used as a way to avoid dealing with real problems in the real world.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Happy Birthday?

One of our crew here at The New Atlantis celebrated a birthday this week, and we were discussing the question of whether transhumanists — especially of the Eliezer Yudkowsky, hyper-rationalist variety — should celebrate birthdays. On the one hand, from a philosophical perspective, they are a barbaric concession to arcane rituals of pre-rational cultures. They are based, moreover, upon a system of non-universal measurement — the arbitrary length of time it just happens to take the planet on which we just happen to be located to rotate around the stellar mass around which it just happens to rotate. What’s so special about occupying the same region of the solar system you did when you crossed through the maternal threshhold? And what about beings who don’t live on planets? What would a universal sentience say?

On the other hand, birthdays suggest the primacy of the individual, who is after all at the center of the transhumanist ethos. However, this suggestion comes by way of noting our icky, evolutionarily inefficient, and arguably tyrannical biological natality — not to mention our mortality. Yikes! It’s all quite dizzying.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Free Willy

On a Mothers’ Day trip to the Pittsburgh Zoo yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the antics of a baby sea otter. The docent explained that it had been found on an Alaskan beach along with its two dead parents, nursed on Pedialyte to stabilize it, and then shipped via FedEx to Pittsburgh, where to all appearances it is thriving.
It is one of those little stories that tells us what a remarkable time and place we live in. For the vast stretch of human history, I’m guessing, a foundling sea otter would have meant some useful fur and perhaps meat (does anybody eat sea otter?). Books like Rascal and Ring of Bright Water suggest that, for some decades in the twentieth century, somebody might have tried to make this otter a pet. Now, a network of commerce, civic institutions, and individual professionals is ready to swoop in and save the critter, at no small monetary cost. It is a privilege to live in a society that can afford to do such unnecessary things, and, on balance, I’m willing to say it represents something we can fairly call progress.
But what is the next step in such progress? The docent did not present a cause of death for the otter’s parents; but plainly, for many, further progress would mean at least making sure that human activities were not the cause. Hence we list the sea otter as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, and we can imagine all sorts of schemes to protect it and its habitat. Beyond that, as we have had occasion to discuss on this blog, some would say further progress would mean protecting it from the dangers and pains of nature itself — such as by eliminating animals who prey on them. And then, there are those who imagine that someday “we” — that is to say, our posthuman descendents — will be able to implement the Uplift of sea otters, granting them the gift of rational intelligence.
Now, I think it is fair to say that the consensus position of the vast quantities of science fiction I read as a much younger man in the 1960s and 70s was that in the future there would be no wild animals at all, and that a trip to a zoo might mean a look at exotic species like cats, dogs, and pigeons. The prospect of such a future is still a threatening card to play in the hand of environmentalism. But here is a great example of where extremes meet. For at a certain point, our vision of progress for the sea otter would mean its extinction just as surely as its entire habitat were paved over. The more we imagine ourselves managing the world of the sea otter, the less it is a wild animal, and the less it is a wild animal, the more it seems reasonable to place it within our technological dominion, until even its self-evident joie de vivre is not enough if it can’t tell us all about it.
Plainly, we are on this slope already — the otter I saw will likely spend the rest of its life in a zoo, and I for one will enjoy visiting it there. The question is, how slippery will this slope prove to be? It will be all the slipperier if we fail to note that, like any other good thing, there can be too much progress.
[Image: Sea otter at the Pittsburgh Zoo via flick user mikentiffy]