Is Darwin dead?

Dear friends,

I’ve just arrived back in London after an incredible tour with Street Orchestra Live in the north east of England! I do suggest checking us out on social media, as there is so much wonder and music to see. I’ll hopefully get a post in about the orchestra soon. In the meantime, you might find my most recent thoughts on biomedical enhancement amusing or interesting, so take a look at a short little bit of writing that manifested itself the other day.

FYI the post doesn’t actually answer the question posed in my cheeky title, but I figured it would be a good hook. I hope you enjoy!

***

It seems that some of the most common concerns regarding human enhancement centre around competition. I was speaking with a coursemate about the ethics of enhancement, specifically about her own worries with the future of enhancement. She was worried that one would fall victim to the super-human, one that could flit across the room in the blink of an eye, with strength surpassing that of any unenhanced human, who could then either easily kill or even suppress the individual that is not enhanced. This idea of ‘strength’ seems to pop up as a common thread connecting these concerns; those who are stronger than us, mentally or physically, can out-compete us.

But why is it that our concerns centre so much around the idea of competition? Perhaps if we take Darwin and his theory of evolution into account, we may find a partial answer. Darwin and his contemporaries have shown quite well that humans, along with other living beings, have managed to evolve (by the power not of their own rational minds but by the force of nature) in a way that gives one the best fitness, or ability to survive in this world and produce one’s own kin. The goal, then, of evolving beings (whether this goal is consciously known or not) is to have a body that leads towards the best fitness. Evolution, as I best understand it, is in one sense the notion of nature deciding the fate of human beings, succumbing them to forces outside of their control. Evolution creates beings that are able to out-compete other beings for resources and sexual partners, ensuring that their dominant and successful genes keep moving down to future generations.

We can visualise this idea pretty clearly when we think about the animals around us. The gazelle that can outrun the leopard is the one that reproduces, and usually her offspring will be equally able to outrun a common predator. The gazelle’s entire existence is not necessarily determined by her rationality, where a potential rationality belonging to the gazelle would imply that the gazelle’s yearning to live is backed by a strong affiliation to her friends and family, to a love of life, or to a love for her other offspring. However, we may not be able to make certain generalisations about the motivations of a gazelle, because many other animals exists that are highly social and socially dependent beings.

What should be distinguished is that despite the gazelle aiming to live longer, to avoid death, she still may not know why she is avoiding death. Therefore, outside of mental capacities that are housed in a system analogous to the human cerebellum, we might say that it is only physical characteristics (muscle build, length of legs, height, digestion abilities, etc.) and natural instincts (non-higher order thinking) that are important to the gazelle and her survival. For all intents and purposes, we might be able to say that the gazelle lives at the hands and subsequent fate of nature.

If we drew the same conclusions about contemporary humans, we might think these conclusions were a little short-sighted. However, going back to my coursemate’s qualms about enhancement, we might realise that these worries are directly tied to fitness and competition. My coursemate was concerned about how powerful the enhanced human could be, specifically citing physical characteristics that made the human more powerful than her. Primarily these concerns stem from a fear of her life being put at risk (and perhaps death), but citing this fear is not enough to sufficiently explain why someone is so afraid of an enhanced human being physically better than her. Presumably the fear of being out-competed, or ultimately of dying, stems from the evolutionary drive to be ahead of the game and out-competing others for resources. If one is dead, they have lost their ability to win over resources, but more importantly, they have lost their ability to procreate if they haven’t already had any offspring. So, we might conclude that these fears stem from the evolutionary drive to procreate and keep spreading one’s successful genes to the next generation.

I asked myself a question while thinking on this issue, wondering who or what type of person I would consider as the most ‘fit’. Additionally, I would approach this idea from multiple angles: Who would I consider most fit regarding others? What would one consider as most fit regarding oneself? Who does ‘society as a whole’ deem as the most fit? I first thought of the most fit being an individual with huge muscles, great flexibility, very aesthetically-pleasing, and one who could seriously beat me into the ground if we were vying for the same food source. Those who actually live out this caricature in real life are usually (and perhaps stereotypically) seen as the ‘beefy meatheads’, those who want to have sex all the time and physically please themselves as well as the people around them. Their main goal is to out-compete those around them for any resource, be it food, reproduction, or living space. Their goal is dominance and reproduction via physical means. This method of living may in fact be a good way for fulfilling the goal that Darwin so eloquently laid out in his theory of evolution: those who are seen as the most (physically) ‘fit’ in society could, in fact, be seen as the most ‘fit’ in the Darwinian sense of the term. However, as believable as this may be, humans do not solely rely on physical features and characteristics for the sake of survival.

It’s now commonly known that educated women (although I might go on to say that more educated partners in general) have less children as opposed to women (partners) who did not have any sort of schooling or education. If we move outside the realm of the physical and into the realm of intellectual capabilities, the simple “more fit = more reproduction” model tends to become increasingly less representative of human behaviour. One may think that animals who are more cunning, who are smarter and sneakier, may be able to outsmart their fellow competing animals for a source of food or for a sexual partner. Would it be, then, that the better the mental capabilities, the more an animal reproduces? Following Darwinian evolution, this may be true, but it seems that this model is far too simple to describe human behaviour. In fact, with the example I stated at the beginning of this paragraph, we can start to see that those who are smarter or who are more educated will tend to have less children. This could lead to a certain testament: regarding humans and mental fitness, more fitness does not necessarily imply more reproduction. (Might it imply less?)

Humans have evolved past a point of relying solely on physical fitness for the sake of survival. There is reason enough to think that humans have been able to break free from the Darwinian model of evolution, or at least the latter portion of a two-part theory. It may still be that the most mentally fit (and perhaps physically fit) people manage to get with the best sorts of partners (whatever that may actually mean, because we really can’t define what is the ‘best’ sort of partner), but the end goal of reproduction is nowhere near identical to what the endgame is of many contemporary partners in our society. In fact, those who are more educated and well-off (this is not bringing up anything regarding the justice of this positioning in life) have managed to pretty well prevent reproduction of their offspring. (As an aside, I’m not only implying the use of contraception, as this would only apply to heterosexual partners. As society comes to realise that heteronormativity is surely not the only ‘right’ way to live, then we create more situations that are less prone to biological reproduction in the way it is commonly thought of.) With literacy, technology, and education, humans have been able to go to many lengths to diminish the chances of creating more humans that would increasingly burden this world. As I see it, the world could make use of humans living longer and producing less children, for many reasons. (This is not to say that we need to stop having children altogether.)

The implementation of the enhancement enterprise (following the words of Allen Buchanan) may allow for a new humanity that is not meant to reproduce but that which is meant to focus more on social equity and fairness. Unfettered reproduction, at this point in time, has the potential to be very detrimental and burdensome to the planet and its inhabitants. (I know this can lead towards sounding paternalistic, but I think the idea can be considered without implying state rule such as the one child policy in China, or more generally the heavy-handed government that restricts too much human freedom.) Enhancement and bioengineering give us not only the opportunity to be more deliberate and careful about when we have children (if at all), but also gives us the chance to create humans that will be the saving grace to society. Natural evolution may be seeing an end in our time, solely because we’ve managed to create a world that requires serious thought about conservation and sustainability. We are need of figuring out how to save the planet in which it lives. If enhancement can help bring us towards that goal, then we may be able to focus more on bringing about a society that is just, equitable, and more pleasant for all who think of the earth as home.

***

There may be some ideas in here that are controversial, or those that a reader may disagree with. As is the nature of philosophy, with debate comes more knowledge, so please do submit any comments if you would like and we can discuss further! I also have not read fully Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and should probably read further into theories of evolution and the philosophy behind evolution. Perhaps that should go in the queue of reading for the next month, so please do send recommendations along for reading if you have any.

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(Un)just war theory

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished watching the film American Sniper (yet another break from work while on the plane). I’d like to take this post to speak a bit about the ethics of war. I’m not sure if that term itself is actually a term that really makes sense, or one that makes sense to me. The term, I think, is very much an oxymoron.

A few weeks of a second-term module, Politics and Ethics, were devoted to discussing the ethics of war, so I had a bit of normative reading on the matter. We talked about topics from just war theory to the ethics of drone warfare. In the first week, I learned about two terms: jus in bello and jus ad bellum. To the best of my understanding, jus in bello is a framework of ethics that functions with the assumption that war is inevitable or that war is already happening. Jus ad bellum is the framework of ethics that functions in order to justify (or refuse) resorting to any type of war that could be avoided.

As US citizens, our lives are always affected by war. I grew up during one of the most potent US war involvements to date, sometimes avidly described as the “war on terrorism.” A few good friends of mine took their passions into the military, and my grandfather served as a marine. I remember sitting at a U-M football game, experiencing a phenomenon that is not uncommon in the United States; a decorated war veteran, who served as a pilot in Vietnam (I think) was brought out onto the field to be celebrated for his service, so to say “Look at all the worthy things this man has done for our country.” The entire stadium was cheering for this man, yet I was sitting there not really knowing what to do with myself. Do I cheer for this man who devoted his life to a cause that I fundamentally disagree with? He seemed to have done the selfless thing, to give up much of his life, to risk his life, in the name of protecting others (or so that’s the story I’m told).

There seem to be some conflicting ethics going on here. I think it’s a highly admirable thing to put yourself at the service of others, to sacrifice a bit of that oh-so-precious autonomy that we Americans love for the sake of making one’s life a little better. Solely within this framework, we can think that this war veteran was taking a severely high moral standing, one that is meant to be praised. The end goal? Protect his family, his loved ones, from the never-ending threat of the “other” making its way onto our precious land.

When we take a tool not even as strong as a toothpick and start to chisel away at this façade of reasoning, that façade falls away pretty easily and reveals to us what our desire to laud the veterans of this nation’s military really means. The simple idea, I think, is that war itself is intrinsically and inherently harmful, despite whatever moral reasoning we come up with to justify war. We simply have created the need for war because we ourselves have claimed undue power over the rest of the word, such that we need to protect such a fabricated power.

A simple truth is that Chris, the sniper, was killed by the very entity to which he devoted his life, and even more importantly he was killed in the very country he was trying to protect. As unfortunate any death is, Chris’ death is indicative of where the true problem lies (not with the ‘other’, or the terrorist, the killer, the murderer, the rapist): in the United States. It’s true, yes, we have people terrorising the world with their killing and exploiting of others, but it is a clear non sequitur to assume that the existence of an enemy creates the need for war. We only name these killers as ‘enemy’ because we wish to exert our dominance against the rest of the world, to bear our teeth in hopes of intimidating the god-forsaken uprisings of a voice that actually speaks for the people.

I think it’s easy to watch American Sniper and think that the movie is a glorification of war, that even though humans are massively affected by the war, emotionally and physically, this detriment is the price we have to pay for democracy and peace. The subtlety in Eastwood’s ending (not actually his, but history’s) can teach us a lesson. Democracy, peace, shelter, mutual connection, love, and justice come from altruism, collaboration, dialogue, and mutual understanding. We cannot instil peace or democracy, we cannot create a safe environment, with the establishment of a war that’s supposed to be the means to any sort of end I’ve listed.

Perhaps I’m taking too simple of an approach to this idea, but I see the use of war for the sake of protection and safety of people, no matter who they are or which country they belong to, resembles the use of fighting fire with fire. To quench conflict we must use the tools that are as consistently (yet subtly) powerful as the forces of water. Water does indeed take the past of least resistance, no?

***

Ironically enough, I wrote this entire note whilst sitting next to a man who works for the US air force. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, because he slept for most of the flight, but we ended up speaking a bit after filling out some UK landing cards. I’m not sure we reached a level of intimacy to the point that I could ask him about his thoughts on working in the US military, but I was also wondering if he had caught any of my writing while I was doing it. This is the real-life dilemma: Cliff seemed like a really down to earth, grounded, and reasonable person. He was socially aware of certain issues like racial justice and gentrification (just to name a couple), and was really keen on living abroad; he really enjoyed a year’s time in Korea and was looking forward to assimilating to UK culture. I’m not sure what he did exactly in the service, but I’m just wondering how much people who participate in war-centred institutions really confront the larger ethical issues at play. Maybe it’s an issue of turning oneself away from the ethics, of pushing those thoughts aside and doing what one needs in order to survive.

This brings me to some experiences I had in El Salvador. We were at a museum that focused on the civil war, especially on the relationship that young men in the Salvadoran military had with the larger aims  of the military and the subsequent atrocities of their actions. It was mentioned that, when looking into the eyes of a 15-year-old soldier, all one saw was raw fear, yet not hatred nor malice. What does this say of people who work for any country’s military? Is there a large disconnect between the individual moral frameworks used to help one decide to join the army, or does there exist a complete awareness of what one is doing, yet they are still pushed to work for the military due to other forces at play, perhaps like socioeconomic reasons or push factors?

This all needs considering, yet I think that if we get around to discovering what kind of motivations are truly at play here, I think we can make massive steps forward in any attempts to stifle the use of violence for the sake of creating peace.

A break from work

Dear friends,

Instead of doing the lauded eight chapters of reading I had thought I would accomplish on this flight back to the US, I managed to start Miles Davis’ autobiography and watch the movie, Call Me by Your Name. I’m trying to devote some time away from writing about philosophy with this post, so hopefully this is a nice, refreshing embodiment of such.

The following writing is quite simply a stream of consciousness, trying to sort out my thoughts from the film. I’m going to leave out an explanation of the film and leave anyone who hasn’t watched the film to watch it if they want context. I also wasn’t sure what the limit was in terms of what sort of thoughts I’m meant to share on this blog, but I feel so moved by this film that I don’t think I can refrain from posting my thoughts. Professionalism or not, people still have feelings, irregardless of the formality of the situation, it’s just how much we choose to let the feelings through to others depending on the setting.

I guess I just feel stunned, unable to think about anything but the raw emotion that I couldn’t shake after the film had ended. Just this empty feeling, to know that someone you have loved deeply, perhaps not out of choice, but out of nature, simply may never find their way back into your life again. That thought is terrifying, a stunning thought for which I have no words. It’s this romanticism that I think I despise, yet can’t help from digging into the very heart of the pain.

Trying to understanding a love so deep that one just simply cannot ignore… it’s that kind of love that just bubbles up from inside, that you only feel after learning how to pay attention to yourself. And in listening to only oneself, there isn’t a space for what others are telling you to be, or who to love.

Many a time, when facing the sort of shunning, outcasting, ignoring, or non-celebration of non-heteronormative ways of being, we ask, “Why?” – Why is it so that anybody who doesn’t ascribe to what was ‘traditionally’ (and even today) a norm in society is simply not given the proper respect they deserve like anyone else? However, I think asking “Why is this [social norm] so?” is simply regarding this norm as a norm that exists and will continue to exist. Instead of asking why must one face the undeserved social struggles of holding any sort of non-heteronormativity (being gay, lesbian, bi, or another), why not just just act, just be, in a state that holds no judgement, but more importantly holds no regard for current social norms, ’norms’ whose end goal is ironically creating a non-normal elite?

(When I say ‘norm’, I am by no means justifying the norm, rather my ‘norm’ here refers to a strict heteronormativity that is not inclusive of non-heteronormative ways of being.)

This conversation aside, Call Me by Your Name was a film about love, about heartbreak, about a story that can be felt and told and known by Elio, by Oliver. I recognise this story as a love story. I would think that this film would be regarded as a gay love film, because this is such a strong strain through the film and is so beautifully portrayed. Yet at the same time I don’t think this means that we need to create a category of ‘gay love’ that is different than ‘heteronormative love.’ The fact that I have to reason about gay love versus heteronormative love may seem quite angering (and it is), as it is obvious to many that love is love, no matter who the love is between. However, this sort of obviousness is not present in much thought within our society, and I think a film like this that rips emotions out of me, regardless of whatever story is being told, needs to be regarded as a beautifully nuanced and worthy film to watch by so many.

I’m a bit unsure of what to think of the end of this film. We don’t know who Oliver got engaged to, but to the best of my interpretation, he seemed to be engaged to a woman, as he remarked about how irate his dad would be if he knew what sort of relationship Oliver had been in that summer. If he was engaged to a woman, it does hurt just a bit more to know that after this whole struggle of learning who one is, who one wants to be, and the risked that one took to get there, is left in a state of pain and desire.

Regardless, the film made me engage with raw feelings that drew up so much of what I’ve managed to push down deep enough to perhaps not engage with until now. Some lines I wrote, immediately post-film:

 

What’s just happened?

To avoid feeling anything

For the sake of feeling nothing

What kind of foolery is this?

 

Whatever feeling runs down my spine

I do not know

I’m blindsided,

A warm cold that I have never

Come to know.

Stunned, is all I feel.

 

The romanticism of living in an old, European,

Sepia’d town

With one you love.

He never said he loved him,

Merely addressed him by his own name.

 

Such an action intertwines the Lovers

With means of language and presence,

But also with means of self.

Sharing the self, calling the other

By the self.

 

What intimacy.

 

(One should know that I’m not trying to make generalisations here. We have a duty to understand anyone’s situation for what it is, not how it applies to a certain mode of thought or a mode of being. Ultimately, and in the end, someone’s mode of being is determined solely by them, the singular human, and that cannot be changed by someone outside of the self who is making that decision.)

Is enhancement problematic?

Dear friends,

I’m in a bit of a conundrum at the moment. Here’s why:

Yesterday, everyone in my cohort gave presentations on our respective dissertations. This presentation was solely meant for our benefit, so we could share the ideas that we had so far in hopes of getting feedback and new ideas for where we could take our work. I was excited to share my ideas, as well as listen to what my coursemates had to say about their work. Needless to say, everyone is working on topics that are astoundingly in-depth, varied, and important.

However, once I got up to speak on my topic, which was titled “The Justice of Transhumanism: Who does Enhancement Help?”, I started to think to myself, “What is it really that I’m trying to write about?” Perhaps I was thinking more critically about my own topic after hearing so many great presentations on other projects, but at the same time, I didn’t realise how profound an effect talking about one’s own work would allow for introspection.

Here’s what we see as what I believe to be the “old debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of morality:

As we delve deeper into research, medicine, and genomics, we are only going to keep discovering and improving new technologies that can further improve the human body. Many don’t have a problem with augmenting the human body with, say, a prosthetic arm if someone has lost their arm. However, this is a situation where the human is returning to a condition that they once held (e.g. to have an arm again). The same goes for a knee replacement or a pacemaker. What about technologies that catapult a human into a condition that surpasses that which they once held? One could argue that a bike, rollerblades, or a skateboard are all technologies that allow us to travel faster in order to reach our destination.

It seems that we only accept technologies that augment the human body “from the inside” (e.g. pacemakers, a new heart valve, a knee replacement, a new arm) if we are returning the body to a point of “normalcy” (defined by what that person believed to be normal). Once we want to augment our bodies past a point of normalcy, there seems to be a hesitation in changing things biologically (e.g. engineering an embryo that will grow into a human with incredible smartness or athletic prowess, replacing a healthy arm with a robotic arm, creating a more efficient mechanical heart) as opposed to being okay with temporary external changes (e.g. rollerblades, sunglasses, etc.). It seems that any internal, biological changes that are made in order to push the human past a point of normalcy experience backlash because they mess with something that is ‘innately human.’

Many remain hesitant with the idea of augmenting our bodies in such a way that will redefine what it means to be human, that enhancement (or more specifically, bioengineering, as this technology is quickly becoming (and has become) reality) risks changing the moral status of personhood between the enhanced and the unenhanced. However, I might argue that anything we believe to be ‘innately human’ is simply based on what we’ve known to be human in our own past experience, which is only a small window of time and hence a small dataset for reference and assumption into who we are as a species. We’re still evolving, and who we are today would most likely seem incredibly different and non-human to our ancestors. Yet our ancestors might still have considered their fellow humans as persons who were worthy of respect for their moral status just as much as we ought to consider our neighbours today. (This is not to say that all humans have been treated fairly and their moral status has been respected throughout history, as such a statement would be incredibly false.)

The definition of what it means to be human changes so widely not only historically but also cross-culturally. If we imagine today how many different cultures still exist on the face of the earth, we can see that (and there are anthropological studies to back me up here – inquire if you want them) even the concept of personhood changes drastically from culture to culture. If the concept of ‘humanity’ has varied so widely between peoples, cultures, and times, then why is it such a bad thing to let something change this concept again? What is it about our own distinct humanity that is so special that it cannot be tampered with? Despite the variation, we still classify ourselves as uniquely ‘human’, and I think that classification lies in our sense that all other humans should (note the absence of the more sure word, “are”) be considered as moral equals despite how they define their personhood.

Moving to the “new debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of justice:

If there is no special nature about ‘being human’, then it may be (and some philosophers have proved this point pretty well) that there would be no moral difference between the enhanced and the unenhanced. In fact, it is quite problematic to believe that enhancing humans now would create a super-race of humans that would prevail over all that don’t have access to the means of enhancement (presumably what bioengineering would turn into). This is assuming that there is something so special with the (predominantly white, Western) human being that they shouldn’t be tampered with biologically. The existence of this kind of superiority complex, I might think, is very dangerous to all those who do not ascribe to the enthusiasm that is so obviously exhibited by those who call themselves transhumanists.

What I’m thinking is that those who believe in a transhumanist world, or in the time when the “singularity” (when technological growth takes off and drastically changes humanity) comes, are so incredibly unaware of the vast inequality and suffering that exists outside of the technological and virtual world in which transhumanists can imagine for themselves. Transhumanists believe in an ideal world where posthumans have the capacity to be hyper-empathetic, incredibly well-knowing of any information we could dream of accessing, or hyper-healthy, living into thousands of years. Yet, as ideal as this world may be, I think this sort of will that is expressed by the transhumanists carries such a strong underlying tone (imagine a river the size of the Amazon running underneath a bustling metropolitan centre) of a worry and fear for the inequity, suffering, and demise that exists in the societies that surround the Western, high-income settings in which these transhumanist thinkers live.

I see it as no coincidence that most transhumanists live in highly gentrified, well-off, “hip” places like the Bay Area of California, where they don’t have to confront the perils of inequity and exploitation on which much of the tech industry thrives. The Alcor Life Extension Facility, a place where people can go to get their bodies cryogenically frozen in hopes of being reincarnated into the transhumanist world, is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the whitest and most affluent towns in the United States, not to mention how expensive it is to have one’s body cryogenically frozen (membership fees cost, at minimum, $200,000). Perhaps all of this points towards not a hope to “better the human condition” as transhumanists claim, but to “better the human condition of people with social status and money.”

All ranting aside, the idea of enhancement carries with it, I think, highly potent issues of justice that need to be considered when these technologies are being implemented within societies. I simply worry that the problems of justice that I’m talking about have the potential to be needed in the future, but as of yet, the problem of justice in transhumanism may not be that existent because the technology just isn’t at a point where we need to start worrying about the implications of global justice that transhumanism would have on the world’s population. In a paper of his, James Wilson mentioned that despite the fact that no moral difference would exist between enhanced and unenhanced humans, we cannot be assured that this moral equality will be respected. In other words, enhancement carries not a moral issue, but an issue of justice. However, justice is instrumental by nature, where we have to wait for the actions of humans to take place to determine whether these actions are just or unjust.

This is causing me to think that perhaps I should shift my focus to more current issues such as migration and health, as these issues involve current, bona-fide people who should be defended by any means necessary. To be fair, there has been much happening in the face of justice that genetic testing has allowed for (see the fact that less females are being born in India than males due to the ability to learn the gender of one’s child before birth). This can be seen as a loose form of genetic engineering, or a precursor to genetic engineering, but I’m having a hard time thinking that there’s anything more than the obvious “this is wrong” nature of this sort of issue with bioengineering, and therefore cannot see the worth of writing a dissertation on the matter.

We’ll see what comes of more thinking, but these are my thoughts as of now!

I wish you all well.

~Jeffrey

A capacity for self-led evolution?

Dear friends,

It’s been a while! I’ve been up to a lot over here in London, from delving into reading for my dissertation (slowly getting to actually writing anything) to seeing some of my favourite London musicians play at venues on the Southbank, to auditioning for the London Street Orchestra in Greenwich (a ‘beachy’ part of town that is almost an escape from the bustling city life of central London).

I’m having some trouble knowing where to take this post, as I have a month’s worth of thoughts to share that won’t fit into the ~1000 words to which I try to limit my blog posts. But for this post, I want to focus on the idea of inclusion and justice. I recently just finished Michael Sandel’s “The Case against Perfection”, as my dissertation is, to an extent, focusing on human enhancement and bioengineering. I’ve also managed to make it to several performances and shows that follow a prominent and expanding social movement for the rights, recognition and empowerment of black, asian and minority ethnic people in London, the UK, and the rest of the world (not to mention binge-watching the show Dear White People on Netflix – a phenomenal watch indeed).

I don’t see it as a coincidence that I’ve happened to start my reading on human enhancement with technology (commonly referred to as “Transhumanism,” which can mean many things, from cryogenically freezing one’s body to picking the gender of one’s children before undergoing in-vitro fertilisation) while also being so influenced by the social movement I just mentioned above. While making my way through the first ten chapters or so of a book, the Transhumanist Reader, I noted specifically one of the main goals of transhumanism was to “improve the human condition,” to allow the human to realise its potential, to take Darwinian evolution into one’s own hands, fuelled by a capacity for rational thought that gives us the ability to realise our own future as (non)biological beings.

I realised that the foremost thinkers on human enhancement come from highly educated, Western backgrounds, which worries me. Is transhumanism truly aimed at helping move forward the human condition, or is it only help make the lives of the best-off in society even better, at the detriment of those who have 1) perhaps no access to the technology that is needed for human enhancement or 2) no interest in bettering a body whose needs are not being satisfied in the first place (e.g. the hungry body)? This is a question I continually asked myself whilst studying biomedical engineering. Who is this “new and innovative” technology actually helping? Is it not just improving already good technology and ignoring the more systemic issues at play, those that are preventing the dispersion of already good medical technology to those who might need it more than one needs the benefits that come from a slightly improved surgical method?

Humans have evolved in such a way that our biologies are so incredibly complex and intricate, such that this biology has led to a capacity for rational thought. Many argue that our capacity for rational thought (or being able to overcome natural urges or motives that one might deem “animalistic”) gives humans a moral high ground over other non-rational (distinguished from non-sentient) beings. Whether we do actually stand on the moral high ground is another conversation, and another post, but what I want to focus on is the idea that humans gaining a rational capacity has justified us in an endeavour to take control of our own evolution.

Some might say that humans have the capacity to know what is best for us, to use bioengineering to move humankind to a healthier overall state, to push out genetic defects and let parents decide what is ‘ideal’ in a newborn child as opposed to leaving the child’s characteristics up to a well-intentioned chance of genetic probability. I might agree that if we can decide between a child being born with a heart defect that will predispose them to an early death, or a child with a healthy heart, then it makes complete sense to do all in our power to give birth to the child with a healthy heart. However, these clear-cut medical cases only exist in a small subset of what society sees as a ‘disease’, hence we want to be careful about how we use technology to move humanity forward in a way that we see as ‘best’ for our own offspring.

Even up until today, we have seen that the heralded “human rationality” has not led to equality and justice for all of humanity. In fact, humans with as much rational capacity as you or I have managed to conceive and create the eugenics movement, mass genocide, forced sterilisation campaigns, and slavery, to name a few examples. Just because we have rational capacity does not by any means say that humans know what is best for themselves. I might add that even today racism is far from gone, that commercial, educational, and global structures are thriving at the cost of the poor, the marginalised of society, that universities pride themselves as being “diverse, inclusive environments” when in reality they are doing much less than is necessary to address an ingrained and recursive power that comes with being a person with privilege in our society.

We don’t necessarily know exactly what is best for all humans, and as shown through the transhumanist movement, we have an idea of the human being that we want to be, and enhancement allows us to enact this vision. However, I fear that those who are leading the movement for human enhancement might mistake a ‘disability’ or a ‘disease’ for a genuine difference, one that doesn’t need to be ‘corrected’ to fit an existing social structure. Enhancement risks being a direct pathway to excluding all that we see as unfit for humanity, when in reality we are viewing others’ shortcomings in a certain framework, one that puts the ‘other’ at a lower level than what is perceived as ideal.

We have an entire history of examples that show us what happens when the powerful decide what is best for the rest of the world, and in this case, I cannot help but see that those who are most interested in transhumanism and human enhancement are those who have money, privilege, and undue social power in our society, and it would be highly questionable for these people to determine the fate of all others in our society.

However, despite this great fear, I still trust that science and technology have the power to yield great benefits for humankind. Moving forward, we might only be extremely careful with what we consider to be beneficial for humanity, as ‘humanity’ is merely a notion that, by nature, can be reached by many means of ‘being human.’

 

I’m going to leave the post here, as any conclusion I reach will probably be that which concludes my dissertation. Hopefully I have left some food for thought, though!

 

Fear + vaccines + autism = ?

Dear friends,

I was taking a break from some preliminary dissertation reading (that’s right – done with term papers and on to dissertation work!) via Tumblr and came across this post:

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There’s a nearly obscene amount of sass in this post, and I would personally refrain from expressing any thoughts on this matter in such an accusatory way. However, I think this post does point towards a few deeper issues that we need to confront.

I’m really interested in value judgments that humans give to medical treatments (or just value judgments in general, but that discussion is for another time), especially when potential death is involved. Specifically thinking about vaccinations, we might see value in vaccinations only for making us physically healthier, or for allowing us to avoid death caused by a little molecular entity having a field day with our bodies. However, the recent phenomenon of parents (not just mothers, as the post refrains to regard (we don’t want to gender the politics of decision-making for children’s health)) choosing to not vaccinate their children raises peculiar issues regarding value judgements regarding vaccination. With this phenomenon, we see a parent choosing that their child face the risk of losing their life, or having their life physically threatened, solely for the sake of avoiding what is perceived as a disability by contemporary society.

I (regrettably) don’t know enough about autism to make informed comments on this condition, but I want to raise a point that may let us circumvent having to know too deeply about autism.

What is the fear of a child having autism saying about our value judgments when it comes to disease risk versus risk for a ‘disability’ that (is said to, and might not actually) come from getting a vaccine? One of these outcomes will, quite objectively, kill you. The other is what I believe to be the simple consequence of a different neural network, one that causes ‘issues’ only due to the difference’s relation to what is perceived as ‘normal’ in our society. Additionally, having autism will not kill you. (That’s to say autism will not physically kill you. The stresses caused by having to conform to mainstream society might lead to more stress and premature death, but again, we must save that conversation for another time.) Must we assume, then, that the fear of a child having autism (what can be seen as a socially contrived condition) is greater than their child potentially dying (not to mention the potential risk of causing other friends’ and family members’ children the same demise)?

Moving along and assuming that this assumption is true, is it right to blame the parents who choose to not vaccinate their kids for acting irrationally? If they are acting irrationally, then are they acting out of impulse or emotion? Is this impulse born out of their own research (regarding the post’s mention of “access to the internet”), or born out of the larger societal notion that autism is a bad thing to have in our society, bad enough that we are willing to risk death by infectious disease to avoid autism?

Contrast this phenomenon with the idea of putting a loved one on life support to extend their living but possibly vegetative state. In this instance, we are putting objective physical health (staying ‘alive’ in a biological sense) over socially valued health (being able to interact with others in an unhindered way, or living comfortably without being connected to medical equipment 24/7). In essence, our value judgments have flip-flopped.

At the bottom line, we can see here that value judgments are by no means concrete or unchanging. Just because we might swing one way when it comes to vaccinating a child, does not mean that we are bound to swinging that same way when we might make a decision for our less-than-autonomous parent who is approaching a (dignified) end. What does this say about where our value judgments are based? If we see that value judgments are not coming from objective moral reasoning, and rather from impulse and emotion born out of highly external factors, then I fear that we cannot put sole responsibility on the non-vaccinating parents for making that decision.

We might instead see that we have a duty as a whole to work toward a re-conceptualisation on what is socially valued, especially with notions of what is deemed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ regarding action in the social setting (that which is affected greatly by autism). Hence, instead of blaming those who make these decisions to not vaccinate their children, I might think that we have a shared responsibility in resisting a (what I see as detrimental) shift in the perception of value in vaccines.

Furthermore, I might call attention to the fact that this vaccination issue is a manifestation of a larger social problem of how we create (yes, create) disabilities that result in unjust stigmatisation. Regarding the word ‘create’, I mean only that much of what we may see as a difference (in social interaction, or mental processes) is deemed a disability when, in reality, this difference is only a difference and nothing more. If we don’t address this detrimental social wrong that takes place all too often, then fighting the vaccine issue (by any means, including blaming parents who probably shouldn’t be fully blamed) will not fix the problem, and we will come out of this situation with two ‘bads’ (namely, sick children with antiquated diseases and further social stigmatisation). Certainly, we might (rationally, emotionally, however you like) fear this outcome.

RIP, Keith.

Dear friends,

On my way home today, I passed this set of flowers and messages on the wall outside of a Sainsbury’s (a UK grocery store chain).

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I tend to use this Sainsbury’s fairly often, mostly because it’s close to Uni and close to the tube stops that I use. I may have seen Keith outside, perhaps made eye contact with him a few times, but did not engage with him further than that. As a disclaimer, I want to fully respect the death of this man. I think his death (which I would not have known about had I not passed this memorial) brings about a few thoughts worth sharing. (I’m also not claiming moral high ground on talking about others’ actions – for all intents and purposes, I, too, belong to the ‘other’ that I write of in this post.)

Here’s what went through my head upon walking past this memorial:

  1. This is out of the ordinary – why are there all of these flowers outside of Sains?
  2. There’s a message posted on the wall – ah, it seems as it someone who used to sit out here has died. Perhaps a homeless man? – yes, confirmed by what’s pasted to the wall.
  3. It’s good that people are remembering his death with flowers – he must have been well-known by those who frequent this area.
  4. What were people doing during the time when Keith was alive?
  5. Were they spending the money that they spent on flowers to give food or other necessities to Keith?
  6. What makes one’s death worth drawing attention to, when the suffering it took to reach that death was probably an objectively worse thing than the death itself?

This article was pasted on the wall above the flowers – it gives a short overview of who Keith was, why he was on the street, and how he may have died that night. I want to expand upon a thought regarding death versus suffering, and why we notice death more than whatever suffering leads up to that death. Also, why would we feel a moral imperative to act on that death and not on the suffering that precedes the death?

It seems that these flowers may be a signal that others have chosen to show their sadness and lamentations over Keith’s death at this moment, only after he has died. Upon first examination, this seems a bit counter-intuitive to me. Quite bluntly, this man’s death might have been a form of respite from his life up until that moment. That’s not to say that it was okay that he died, but it may be safe to say that he isn’t suffering as much as he was (not to open up the debate on what ‘suffering after death’ actually means). What is it about death that makes us realise so suddenly the ‘badness’ of any lost human life? Think about that cliché moment in a film, when the antagonist’s family member or loved one dies – even the protagonist and their posse manage to find compassion for the antagonist’s loss. However, they can’t seem to find that compassion until death is involved.

One idea that may help explain this is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘peak-end thesis’. This topic is best explained using the experiment that Kahneman and his fellow researchers used, involving colonoscopies. In this experiment, the researchers had the whoever was conducting the colonoscopy leave the probe in the patient a little longer for some patients (which led to the patients getting a bit more used to the pain by the end of the test), as compared to leaving the probe in for a normal amount of time (this was the control trial). Patients then rated their overall pain experience as they remembered it, and it showed that the patients who had the probe in for longer (which might have caused a larger ‘total’ (think integrals here, calculus people) amount of pain) remembered less pain than did the patients who had a normal-length colonoscopy (who would have experienced less ‘total’ amount of pain).

This basically shows that people will remember the ‘badness’ of experiences by two things: the amount of pain at the worst moment (the peak) and the amount of pain at the end of the process (the end). Taking this idea to Kevin’s death (or anyone’s death, who is also suffering prior to that death), we might think that the ‘end’ of someone’s life ending has a great determining factor in how we actually remember that person’s life – i.e. death plays a large part in our perception of the ‘badness’ of the suffering in one’s life, and the length of that suffering plays less of a role in how we recognise the ‘badness’ in someone’s life.

This may be able to provide us with an explanation of why humans act more often (and perhaps why they feel more compassion) for someone when they die (as opposed to when we see a living person suffering).

If this is true, the implications of this sort of thinking are drastic, especially in explaining why homelessness (and more generally inequality that leads to human suffering) persists despite our clear knowledge of the sort of suffering that is caused by homelessness. If our reaction towards this sort of suffering is explainable using contemporary behaviour theory, then we can’t necessarily fault those who participate in that way. However, once we become aware of our implicit assumptions and actions, we may at the same time generate a duty to address these actions and not merely leave them up to the whim of nature. After all, we are rational beings (not meaning that we always act rationally, but have the ability to think about our actions and not merely ‘do’).

If we now can recognise why it may not be natural to go out of our way to recognise our compassion for the living homeless only until they die, our duty to do something about human suffering (and homelessness, surely) may be grow stronger with each passing day.