(For various reasons, I'm a bit squeezed on blogging time at the moment, so I've decided to republish some highlights from the past few years, among other entries. This piece first appeared in my old irregular column Eye of the Storm, on the Betterhumans website, back in March 2004, and has previously been republished on the IEET site. I still subscribe to the views expressed here, or most of them (I might not be so clearly opposed to designing the personalities of children by genetic means, though it's still a kind of enhancement that I'm not so comfortable with). Accordingly, I offer them to a new audience with only very slight modification to keep it from being dated.)
Almost everyone these days undertakes some sort of psychological self-improvement. From New Age to neuroscience, do-it-yourself books on mind modification weigh down bookstore shelves around the world. But in an age when genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals promise to allow mental reshaping far beyond anything possible with Seven Habits, we're being forced to confront the question of just how far we should go. It's one thing to increase our physical and mental capabilities, such as using genetic enhancement to extend our lifespan or drugs to increase our cognitive powers. It's another to make genetic or brain changes that alter our desires and emotions, changing what we want to use those enhanced capabilities for.
Arguably, the latter is a deeper change, one that could have an even greater impact on our nature. This thought is strengthened by bioethicist Erik Parens' description, in his introduction to an anthology of essays entitled Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications. The essays were the product of a seminar held at the Hastings Center in 1992. At the Hastings seminar, four scenarios for human enhancement were discussed, the last attracting the most heated opposition. The scenarios were as follows:
1. Our ability to resist disease is increased (most participants thought this was ethically acceptable, as long as "we assume that all persons will have equal access to such a new form of prevention").
2. Our ability to stay alert and get by without sleep is enhanced.
3. Our long-term memory is enhanced.
4. A reduction is made in our more ferocious psychological tendencies, with a corresponding increase in our generosity.
The fourth of these does seem to be the most challenging to our ethical thinking. It is not surprising that it received the most resistance. But are our desires and emotions sacrosanct?
Human systems of morality are based, at least in part, on the social reconciliation of species-wide (though individually variable) desires and emotional responses, inherited from our evolutionary ancestry. If those desires and emotions changed, the conditions under which we interact and cooperate in societies would change as well. So would our various moral systems.
In his monumental study of the possible convergence of scientific and humanistic knowledge, Consilience, Edward O. Wilson predicts that future generations will actually recoil from redesigning human emotions and the epigenic rules (or genetically-inherited regularities) of human mental development, since these elements, he says, "compose the physical soul of the species."
"Alter the emotions and epigenic rules enough," Wilson continues, "and people might in some sense be 'better,' but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly-constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?"
Two initial points can be made in response to this. First, it is not obvious why Wilson portrays the choices as being between our current range of desires and emotions and none at all—the life of a rational, but emotionless, computer. It is certainly difficult to see why we would want to turn ourselves into totally emotionless beings, but this does not rule out changing certain aspects of our emotions. The way Wilson formulates this part of his argument, he is attacking a straw man.
Second — and this is a deeper issue — it is not clear what work the concept of "ceasing to be human" is doing in the argument. Our nature could change considerably without the outcome being that we were no longer human at all. Alternatively, even if we thought it was no longer appropriate to apply the word "human" to ourselves (or our descendants), where does that point lead us? Would we (or they) somehow have lost moral worth?
Not necessarily. We should concede that some imaginable changes would be for the worse. Perhaps there is something especially valuable about having the capacity for a wide range of emotions, including grief as well as joy. As I have discussed, we might well be horrified at a society that found ways to flatten our range of emotional responses. We don't want to turn ourselves into beings of shallow experience, or (as in Wilson's talk of "protein-based computers") without subjective experience at all.
But what if we encountered a "lost race" of beings almost like ourselves, yet with a slightly different range of typical desires and emotional responses, stemming from a different evolutionary history? Imagine, for the sake of argument, that this species turned out to be as keenly sentient and self-conscious as we are, and slightly more intelligent. Imagine that it communicated in complex languages, as we do, and had built up a rich tradition of art and culture. Imagine also that it was less disposed, by nature, to be aggressive or to experience some forms of jealousy.
It is far from clear that we would be these beings' moral superiors, or that a world which contained them, rather than us, would thereby be worse than our own. To make such judgments, we would need to know much more detail. Even then, the value of the two worlds might defy comparison.
If this is correct, there may be scope for considerable changes in human nature (and culture) without any diminution of our moral status, or any loss of value in the world — even if the changes meant that we could be considered, in a sense, nonhuman. Accordingly, consideration of our moral status does not in itself rule out even quite drastic steps to redesign human nature. It is all a matter of what, exactly, would be lost, and of what might be gained.
But why make changes?
Why seek to do any of this? Well, as individuals, we might have good reasons to try to free ourselves from at least some psychological traits that we have inherited from our evolutionary past. They might not suit our rational ideals of ourselves; or they might just be inconvenient for life in our modern environment. As a species, we might one day redesign ourselves on a wide scale if some consensus could be reached on desirable changes.
Take, for example, the fear of death. It is reasonable enough to have projects, relationships, commitments and interests that attach us to life, and thus to wish to go on living. The mechanism of fear might be useful to us in helping us stay alive, and a genetic predisposition to fear death may well have increased our evolutionary ancestors' inclusive fitness (their capacity to pass on their genes to succeeding generations). Granting all that, however, does the degree to which we sometimes fear death—the sense of nagging anxiety or even panic that the thought of death can cause—actually contribute to individual or social happiness? If we could reach into ourselves and rewrite our own emotional code, in order to harmonize our personalities with our rationally considered ideas of what constitutes a happy life, might we not reduce our fear of death in the abstract, while retaining fear responses to situations of immediate physical danger?
More generally, the particular range of desires and emotions that human beings currently have may not be the optimum for our happiness as individuals, or for useful social cooperation in modern environments. It was never designed for those purposes.
When I refer to our happiness as individuals I do not mean simply superficial feelings of pleasure. We might want far more than this. For example, as many philosophers have suggested, we might want to live in touch with reality, have deep feelings, create beauty, achieve remarkable things, exercise or challenge our physical and cognitive abilities, and so on. But there is no reason to think that our current range of desires and emotions is the most effective possible for helping us to achieve happy lives in this sense.
After all, to the extent that we have a species-wide repertoire of desires and emotions it has an evolutionary explanation. Presumably this repertoire promoted our ancestors' inclusive fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. However, what we most care about, whether as individuals or at the social level, is not the passing on of our genes. Some people have even made conscious decisions not to have children. We all have plans and projects that are far more important to us than maximizing our inclusive fitness, which is quite simply not a conscious goal for most people. Surely this is not what consciously motivates people to have children.
To take another example, it seems clear that human beings as a species are inclined to be largely, but not entirely, monogamous. We are more monogamous than chimpanzees or bonobos, but it is a cliché of evolutionary biology that men are genetically programmed, at least to some extent, to stray into polygamous ventures. In his provocative book The Red Queen, Matt Ridley argues that women are also predisposed, to some extent, to extramarital liaisons. But at the same time, men and women are predisposed to sexual jealousy.
All of this causes much strife for individuals and our society. Might we not be better off if people were more perfectly monogamous? Alternatively, in a world of fairly reliable contraception, childless-by-choice couples, and greater intellectual sophistication about these things (from reading books by Matt Ridley, for example), might we not be even better off if people were less predisposed to sexual jealousy? Either way, our current mix of propensities does not seem optimal for our happiness, much as it may be explicable in Darwinian terms.
A more prosaic example is our love of sugar-rich foods. This was doubtless of benefit to our evolutionary ancestors, and helped them to pass on their genes, in an environment where sugar was relatively scarce. It is now positively damaging to our health, in a dramatically different environment where sugar is easy to produce and available in abundance. Perhaps we should change our psychology so that we have a greater desire for fibrous, vitamin-rich foods, and a lesser desire for sugar.
Alternatives and implications
Of course, we have many alternatives. We could cooperate socially to reduce the availability of sugary foods, or to make them less of a temptation by imposing advertising restrictions. As individuals, we can make conscious decisions not to act on our desire for sugar, or to do so only as an occasional treat. Still, the problem would be easier to solve if we had less desire for sugar in the first place.
In short, there is nothing fundamentally wrong about changing our psychology. The inherited repertoire of human desires and emotions is not inviolable. Perhaps the desires and emotions that should be preserved are those which we would endorse if we fully understood our own psychology and its evolutionary genealogy. There is no Archimedean point to which we can step, somewhere entirely out of our own desires and emotions, but we can at least look at what we really want in the environment that we now find ourselves in, and try to bring some elements of our desires and emotions into line with our rationally endorsed values and goals.
The difficulty is that we lack both the scientific knowledge and—let us face it—the wisdom to start all over again. In that light, some methods of changing ourselves would surely be more trouble than they are worth, and are not currently justifiable. If, for example, we tried to make inheritable changes to human psychological nature through germline genetic modification, we would be running monstrous risks. Genes typically have many effects (are pleiotropic), while even far simpler phenotypical characteristics than our psychological predispositions are affected by the cooperation of many genes (such characteristics are said to be polygenic). For the foreseeable future, the complex interactions of genes and human psychology may rule out the genetic redesign of the latter.
This also suggests that designing the custom-made personalities of individual children may never be feasible, and may to be too risky to be attempted. That, in turn, may limit the other kinds of enhancements that we should make to children, since there is the risk in any individual case of a mismatch of alterable capabilities and practically unalterable psychological dispositions (Nicholas Agar is one philosopher who has discussed similar issues). When we are thinking about genetic modification, it seems rational to focus on increasing our resistance to aging and disease—and perhaps on increasing our general cognitive abilities—before we start tampering with our desires and emotions themselves, or giving our children individual, custom-made talents.
However, if our happiness as individuals is impeded by desires and emotions that we want to disown, there are more everyday ways to try to change ourselves than using genetic modification. Perhaps we are best off if we can make the changes we desire through individual self-examination and insight, associating with people who already seem to have the kind of species-atypical psychological makeup that we aspire to, reading books about the experiences of such people, and so on.
Yet some of the desires and emotions that we want to disown might be too deep for us to reach by these methods. In this case, I see nothing wrong in principle with more direct physical changes to ourselves, such as if we can design safe, effective drugs that help reduce our craving for sugar (or our fear of death, and so on).
The point of this debate, then, should not be that there is a general moral rule against tampering with our inherited nature. Indeed, such tampering might be justified. Rather, we need to acknowledge that it would necessarily be a piecemeal, iterative process. It would begin with efforts by individuals to change those aspects of themselves that they rationally disapprove of. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities, a program of genetic alteration of the personalities of our children would be undesirable. All that said, there is no overriding objection to using technological means to modify our own personalities, and ultimately to reshape human nature. After all, self-help books are a type of technology too.