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!

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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.

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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?

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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.