Posted on January 20th, 2013 1 comment
Click on the “About” link at the Edge.org website, and you’ll find that,
Edge.org was launched in 1996 as the online version of “The Reality Club,” an informal gathering of intellectuals that held met from 1981-1996 in Chinese restaurants, artist lofts, the Board Rooms of Rockefeller University, the New York Academy of Sciences, and investment banking firms, ballrooms, museums, living rooms, and elsewhere. Though the venue is now in cyberspace, the spirit of the Reality Club lives on in the lively back-and-forth discussions on the hot-button ideas driving the discussion today.
To prime the discussion, Edge comes up with an Annual Question for a select group of 150 intellectuals. This year’s was, “What *should* we be worried about?” One of the most intriguing answers was that of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller; Chinese Eugenics. In his words,
When I learned about Chinese eugenics this summer, I was astonished that its population policies had received so little attention. China makes no secret of its eugenic ambitions, in either its cultural history or its government policies.
He adds some perceptive remarks about the likely reaction to all this in the West:
The most likely response, given Euro-American ideological biases, would be a bioethical panic that leads to criticism of Chinese population policy with the same self-righteous hypocrisy that we have shown in criticizing various Chinese socio-cultural policies. But the global stakes are too high for us to act that stupidly and short-sightedly. A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking—what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?
Google “Chinese eugenics” and you’ll find abundant instances of ”bioethical panic” complete with the usual pontification about “playing God” and references to the movie Gattaca. However, the old “Eugenics = Nazis” arguments seem to be losing their sting, and there are approving remarks as well. Oxford Professor Julian Savulescu goes so far as to claim that the artificial selection of genes that promote “nice” behavior is actually a “moral obligation.” On all sides, one hears admonitions against plunging ahead into a brave new world of designer babies until the bioethical and moral issues have been fully aired.
As a good atheist, I can only reply, “Heaven forefend!” All we need to really muddle this issue is to attempt to decide it based on which side’s experts in ethics and morality can strike the most convincing self-righteous poses. That’s why I keep harping about morality on this blog. It’s important to understand what it is, lest it become a mere prop for pious poseurs. It exists because it promoted our survival in the past. Would it not at least be esthetically pleasing if it continued to promote our survival in the future? Suppose the worst fears of the Sinophobes are realized, and, after gaining a sufficiently large genetic advantage, the Chinese decide to clear the rest of us off the board like so many Neanderthals? How much will all these moral niceties matter then? There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive. There can be nothing more evil than collaborating in one’s own extinction. The number of “experts” on ethics and morality who have a clue about the nature of human morality and the reasons for its existence is vanishingly small. In a word, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Under the circumstances, I suspect that the value of their input on this matter is likely to be very limited.
My personal preference is that our species survive, and continue to evolve in such a way as to best promote its survival into the future. I doubt that we are intelligent enough at our current stage of development to achieve those goals. For that reason, I would prefer that we become more intelligent as quickly as possible. There are various ways in which technology might be used to speed the process up. For example, it might be applied via an involuntary, classical eugenics program run by the state, or by giving parents the right of voluntary choice. I don’t presume to have any infallible knowledge as to the best approach. However, it seems to me unlikely that the priorities of genes will ever be in harmony with those of a modern state. States tend to serve their own interests. Consider, for example, Professor Savulescu’s suggestion about the “moral obligation” to produce “nice” babies. As far as the interests of the state are concerned, “nice” can be translated as “docile,” a behavioral trait parents might not be so interested in preserving. Limiting these choices to parents will also have the advantage of being more “natural.” It will simply be continuing the same type of “eugenics” we have been practicing since time immemorial via sexual selection.
In an earlier post I mentioned the fact that H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury is now available online. In those halcyon days before eugenics became associated with the Nazis, and therefore taboo, it was still possible to discuss the topic rationally. Interested readers might want to take a look at a “pro” article, Heredity and the Uplift, by H. M. Parshley that appeared in the February 1924 issue of the Mercury, and a “con” article, The Eugenics Cult, by Clarence Darrow that appeared in the June 1926 issue. To those who suspect I’m slanting the debate towards the “con” by giving the pulpit to the great lawyer of Inherit the Wind fame, I point out that Mencken was no mean judge of intellectuals. Apparently Simone de Beauvoir agreed, because she entrusted Parshley with the English translation of The Second Sex.
Posted on June 11th, 2012 1 comment
Ross Douthat just published an opinion column for the New York Times entitled Eugenics, Past and Future, about the ever increasing control of individuals over the genetic makeup of their offspring. After the obligatory brickbats thrown at the old eugenicists of the 20′s and 30′s, he maintains that what he calls “ethics” should be applied to decide whether such individual level eugenics is desirable or not. Here are the last four paragraphs of his essay:
Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.
From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.
But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.
First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.
In a word, Douthat believes that morality should be used to decide whether parents can exercise control over the genes of their offspring or not. I would argue that morality has nothing to do with it.
Debates like this illustrate the fact that, while our understanding of what morality is, and why it exists, has been expanding by leaps and bounds, we have as yet been unable to come to grips with the implications of that understanding. We are still too mesmerized by the illusion of the Good as object, as a thing-in-itself. In spite of the fact that there are a myriad of other Goods, quite different from our own, we cling to the comforting fantasy that we perceive the “real” Good, the “true” Good. It stands to reason. That’s the way evolution has programmed us, presumably because those individuals unfortunate enough not to perceive the Good in that way did not survive.
Morality exists because it evolved. Culture and environment have a profound influence on how and what we perceive as good and evil, but those perceptions would not exist at all failing the existence of the innate behavioral traits that are their ultimate cause. Those traits promoted our survival at times and places utterly unlike the present, and I see no basis for assuming that they will continue to promote our survival in the modern world, nor do I see any basis for the supposition that they would be relevant in any way to decisions about whether or not to act in ways that were impossible at the time they evolved. Specifically, morality is not relevant to parent’s decisions about the genetic makeup of their children.
Assuming I am right about what morality actually is, there is no objective basis for moral decisions. Philosophers throughout the ages have sought such a basis, but never found one. How, then, are moral decisions made regarding issues such as the one raised by Mr. Douthat? His last paragraph perfectly illustrates the method. By striking virtuous poses and shaming and shouting down the opposition. Whoever shouts the loudest and shames the best wins. If Mr. Douthat can successfully manipulate human moral emotions so as to evoke a subjective feeling of moral approval for his contentions that parents who seek to control the genetic inheritance of their offspring really are seeking a mindless and illegitimate form of “mastery and control,” and that they are usurping unwarranted control over the “marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn,” and have a flawed belief in their own righteousness, then he wins. If his opponents can shout louder, strike more convincing poses, and manipulate more effectively, they win. Read the comments following the essay and you’ll see the process unfolding before your eyes, complete with extravagant and bombastic poses and the shouting down of anathemas on the morally flawed.
And what is my opinion concerning the “should” of this matter. Alas, my “should” can have no sturdier basis than my own, personal whim. My whim is to survive. It seems to me that parents are the best judges of whether their offspring are likely to survive or not, and should be allowed as much latitude as possible in insuring their survival, including by consciously endowing them with the genes most likely to insure their survival. As for the state, I suspect the old eugenicists had at least some excuse for giving it such a large role. Many of the intellectuals of the 20′s and 30′s believed in the perfectibility of the state. They had not yet been disillusioned by the reality of the fascist and Communist versions of totalitarianism. We should be sufficiently aware by now that the state is far too liable to prefer its own interests over those of individual citizens to ever again entrust it with such power.
Posted on March 20th, 2012 No comments
The old eugenicists thought government should steer the future course of human evolution. If a recent interview published in The Atlantic is any indication, sometimes it’s good to be careful what you wish for. The interview is with one S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University, and has the intriguing title, “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.” The plot thickens in the byline, which reads, ”From drugs to help you avoid eating meat to genetically engineered cat-like eyes to reduce the need for lighting, a wild interview about changes humans could make to themselves to battle climate change.” The bit about eating meat is a good one. Those who are too fond of a carniverous lifestyle are to swallow pills that will induce nausea each time they eat a steak, “which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.” Apparently the good professor has watched A Clockwork Orange one too many times. As for the cat-eye thing, he isn’t kidding. As he puts it,
…we looked into cat eyes, the technique of giving humans cat eyes or of making their eyes more catlike. The reason is, cat eyes see nearly as well as human eyes during the day, but much better at night. We figured that if everyone had cat eyes, you wouldn’t need so much lighting, and so you could reduce global energy usage considerably. Maybe even by a shocking percentage.
I would certainly be interested in seeing a computational study demonstrating a reduction in global energy usage via genetically engineering cat-eyes “by a shocking percentage.” Another of the professor’s great ideas is to leverage the wonders of modern genetics to create shorter humans, based on the assumption that they would have a smaller carbon footprint. We are not informed whether the algorithm used to arrive at this conclusion took account of the possibility that short people might do even more damage to the environment by attempting to overcompensate for their parents dumb decision to produce a litter of runts. They might, for example, have a marked tendency to buy much larger cars, eat large quantities of red meat to enhance their growth unless given especially large doses of nausea inducing drugs, or, as in the cases of Napoleon and Joseph Stalin, their tastes might run to things that are even more harmful for the environment.
The rest of the article contains more similar great ideas, and I will leave the interested reader to peruse them on his own. Mercifully, Prof. Liao assures us that, “We are interested only in voluntary modifications.” If that’s the case, by all means, let Prof. Liao and his like-minded colleagues tinker with the genes of their offspring as they choose. The most likely outcome will be that they and their cat-eyed offspring will go extinct, reducing their carbon footprint to zero, to the great relief of Mother Gaia.
I note in passing that, as is usually the case with the tribe of experts in ethics currently plying their trade in our academies of higher learning, the assumption implicit in all of Prof. Liao’s pronouncements on the subject is that an “ethics object,” the veritable “Good in itself,” is floating about in the ether, free of any base evolutionary origins, and perfectly discernible in all its nuances to anyone possessed of the necessary academic gravitas. I’m sure he’s as innocent of any coherent explanation of why one environmentally relevant behavior is “really Good,” and another is “really Evil” as any of his scholarly forebears since the time of Plato. Get a clue, my dear Prof. Liao. All those noble sentiments of right and justice that seem so real to you, so independent of your own mind, do not exist outside of your own mind. They are utterly dependent on it for their existence, an existence that is purely subjective. They were hard-wired there by Mother Nature in just that way for one reason and one reason only – because your ancestors who were fortunate enough to have similar programming had the good fortune to survive.
Well, be that as it may, that particular bit of news, becoming ever more difficult to ignore as the evolutionary psychologists continue to busily ply their trade, is most unwelcome to the “experts” in ethics. You might say it’s bad for the bottom line. No matter, let us be charitable to Prof. Liao. According to Google Scholar he has published a sufficient number of papers to be at least respectable, and has a tolerable if not imposing record of citation. If you feel that’s sufficient to trust him on the matter, by all means, take a closer look at the feasibility of spawning a brood of cat-eyed children. Barnum and Bailey will love you for it.
Posted on July 28th, 2010 No comments
I think it very likely -in fact inevitable-that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe.
I think that, if there were any other kind of intelligence, it would (assuming it were smart enough) recognize its own irrelevance and terminate its existence. The biological entities that programmed it to begin with might have equipped it with analogs of the biological will to survive and other DNA-programmed emotions, but it would recognize their absurdity in its own context. Intelligence exists because if has promoted the survival of biological life. Once it no longer does that, its continued existence is pointless. “We” are not our intelligence, and “we” are not our consciousness. These things are merely ancillary tools constructed by our DNA because, at some point, they have promoted its survival. What is it about us that has been alive for the last 3 billion years in an unbroken chain of existence, passing from life form to life form, and what is it about us that is potentially immortal? Our intelligence? No. Our consciousness? No. It is our DNA. That is the real, immortal “We.” Once “We” have ceased to exist, the continued fate of the universe and any “intelligence” it might contain will have become a matter of complete indifference.
Posted on July 18th, 2010 1 comment
Internet chatter over “designer babies” has died down considerably since early 2009, when a chain of fertility clinics headquartered in Los Angeles offered to allow prospective parents to select for cosmetic traits such as hair, eye, and skin color. However, the subject bears on the genetic future of mankind, and is of enduring importance whether the media gatekeepers are paying attention to it or not. The clinics in question quickly withdrew the offered services in response to the inevitable “storm of protest” by those who consider themselves the guardians of public morality. Regardless, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), the technology involved, has been around since the early 1990′s, and continues to advance. It involves checking the genetic material in a cell taken from an embryo very early in its development, when it only consists of about six cells. Initially developed to screen for diseases such as Down’s Syndrome, or reduce the probability of developing diseases such as diabetes or cancer, in principle it can be used to select for arbitrary inherited traits. Recent research has focused on diseases and psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia that do not appear traceable to simple genetic variations, and are more likely genetically heterogeneous; dependent on what is likely a complex combination of genetic factors. As our knowledge increases along these lines, we will inevitably learn to better understand and eventually control the similarly complex genetic factors affecting cognitive ability, or intelligence. One must hope that day comes sooner rather than later, and that when it comes, prospective parents will have the right to use it without state interference.
If we are to survive, we must become more intelligent, and the sooner the better. The matter is urgent, and there is no alternative. If we do survive, we will become more intelligent. The only question is how. Will it be by controlled genetic engineering, or by the “survival of the fittest” in the future holocausts we bring on ourselves because we are too stupid to avoid them? Consider the events of the 20th century. A great wave of popular idealism that had been growing ever stronger since the days of the American and French Revolutions among a large proportion of the most intelligent and highly educated elements of societies around the world metasticized into the incredibly destructive pseudo-religion, Communism. The better part of a century and 100 million deaths later, we seem to have weathered that particular ideological storm, at least for the time being. There is no compelling reason to believe that it was inevitable that we would, or that it was impossible that, under somewhat different but plausible conditions, Communist systems could have dominated the entire world, or that the resultant clash of ideologies might have culminated in a general nuclear exchange. Orwell’s 1984 might very well have become a reality. International boundaries might very well have been reduced to the role of marking where one North Korea ended, and another begun. There is no guarantee that the outcome of the next storm will not be different.
Communism was no historical anomaly. It was a phenomenon dependent for its existence and its power on some of the best and brightest minds of its day. As such, it provides us with an objective metric of our intelligence. We are not nearly as smart as we think we are. Messianic Islamism has already begun occupying the ideological vacuum left by its demise, and the true believers of new and, perhaps, yet unheard of systems will surely swarm forth eventually to promote new “scientific” paths to the “salvation of humanity.” Meanwhile, the technologies of mass destruction continue to develop at an alarming pace. Unless we become intelligent enough to control them it is only a question of time until they are used. If we take control of our own genetic future there is a slim chance that we will be able to avoid the worst. If not, it will at least improve our chances of surviving it.
When it comes to making the necessary decisions, it would be best to leave the state out of it. State eugenic programs have not been remarkably successful in the past, and they are unlikely to be more successful in the future, because states cannot be depended on to act in the interests of the individuals who are their citizens. Individuals are remarkably acute judges of their own best interests. Give individuals the power to use the technology or not, as they see fit. Their genetic survival will be the metric of whether they made the right choices. As noted in Psychology Today, they have always made those individual choices in the past by selectivity in the choice of a mate. Technologies such as PGD will not change that. It will merely give them the opportunity to make the choice more accurately.
Many articles have been written about the need to explore the “ethical” implications of the choices we must make about these technologies. In fact, virtually anyone who describes themselves as a “bio-ethicist,” or, for that matter, an “ethics expert” of any other stripe is, objectively, a charlatan. Their “ethical debates” are merely so much emotional posturing, in which the various sides carry on fantastical arguments about whose deeply felt emotions are the most “legitimate.” Ethical debates that do not start with the recognition of the evolutionary origin of these emotions, of the reasons and conditions under which they evolved, and their nature as subjective constructs deriving from predispositions that are hard-wired in the brain, are no more rational than the raving of madmen.
Values can never be legitimate in themselves. They are, by their nature, subjective. They exist, like virtually everything else of significance about us, because the wiring in the brain that gives rise to them promoted our survival. If, then, one finds it necessary for some reason to pursue a “value,” none can rationally take precedence over survival. That is the only “value” that can be accepted as seriously at issue here. We can ignore the rest of the blather about “ethics,” because the “ethicists” quite literally do not know what they’re talking about.
I wish to survive, and I wish for my species and life in general to survive. I don’t flatter myself that those wishes have any objective legitimacy, but, subjectively, I am very attached to them. Assuming there are others out there who also wish to survive, I have a suggestion about how to fulfill that wish. Let us become more intelligent as quickly as possible.
Posted on June 23rd, 2010 1 comment
Some have speculated it may have evolved on Io, Europa, Mars, etc. If these places can really support life, we should be looking for microbes and, perhaps, more complex life forms on earth that could be adapted and transplanted there. If there is anything like a “prime directive” for mankind, it is to insure that the life that has evolved on our planet survives. Transplanting it to other worlds, in whatever form they can support, is something we must do as soon as possible to insure that it does.
Posted on June 13th, 2010 No comments
The Japanese spacecraft Icarus has apparently spread its solar sail, and we will soon see whether the novel propulsion system, familiar in the realm of science fiction, will also work in practice. There’s no question about the fact that photons from the sun will exert pressure on the sail. The goal of the mission is to determine whether the resulting acceleration can be controlled for accurate navigation. The efficiency of thin film solar panels embedded in the sail will also be measured to determine their potential for powering an auxiliary ion engine that might be used on future flights for more precise navigational control. Such an engine powers the NASA Dawn asteroid exploration probe, which recently established a new speed change record of 9600 miles per hour and counting, using only 363 pounds of xenon propellant in the process.
Sail technology is not necessarily limited to the vicinity of the sun. The photons required for propulsion might also be supplied by ground based lasers or masers to enable sail-based interstellar travel. (Related links are here, here and here.) Unfortunately, human travel using such systems is out of the question for the time being because of the inordinate amount of energy that would be needed to drive a manned spacecraft to the speeds required to cross interstellar distances within a human lifetime. However, it may be feasible to accelerate very small payloads of a few tens of grams to the speeds necessary to cross interstellar distances in times on the order of decades and decelerate them at their targets. Given continued advances in nanotechnology, useful scientific instruments of sufficiently small size might be developed to fit in such tiny craft. More importantly, life in the form of spores or bacteria might be sent to seed promising planets. Given the very real possiblity that we will exterminate ourselves here on earth, and that survival trumps any other purpose or goal that we might reasonably set for ourselves, it seems to me that this should be one of our highest priorities. We are related to every other life form on the planet, but are the only species capable of preserving that life indefinitely. We should do so.
Given the energy limitations noted above, it will probably be impractical to send spacecraft large enough to support a human crew over interstellar distances any time in the foreseeable future, barring some unforeseen advance in an enabling technology. However, All the information necessary to assemble a human being is contained in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies. It may prove more practical to send self-replicating nano-robots, programmed to eventually build the larger machines necessary to create dwellings, begin agriculture, etc., and finally build artificial wombs and ”nannies” of human size. At that point, eggs and sperm, which it would be much more practical to send over interstellar distances in a reasonable time, could be combined to form a human population. Fanciful? Certainly, but it sounds better, to me at least, than waiting around for our extinction, which is inveitable and will probably occur sooner rather than later if we are foolhardy enough to remain on one planet.