19. February 2010 · Comments Off on Biological enhancement and evolution · Categories: Science, Society · Tags: , , , , , , ,

In the March 2010 issue of Reason magazine Tim Cavanaugh writes about the rift between transhumanists who favor biological enhancement versus those who favor non-biological “mechanical” enhancement:

These days transhumanists talk a lot about subcutaneous data ports, permanent immersion in virtual reality, even extending male life spans by removing the gonads. But they spend noticeably little time considering enhancement through inheritable, rather than mechanical, means. “I don’t know why biological stuff is off the plate,” says Greg Fahy, chief scientific officer at Twenty-First Century Medicine Inc. “It’s just not the flavor of the day.”

There are distinct similarities between those who believe that biology is “messy”, “chaotic” and “dumb” and those who advocate centralization and top-down solutions to solve social problems.  In both cases, evolution, competition and spontaneous order are perceived as leading to “sup-optimal” or “unfair” outcomes that can and should be improved upon  through uniform decision making by intelligent decision makers.  Skeptics of such grandiose views point out that a society with distributed knowledge and incentives requires decentralized decision making. And, as Anthony de Jasay has noted:

When a social state of affairs, instead of being collectively decided, is left to emerge from a large number of individual decisions, the effects of the latter tend to be normally distributed: a few prove disastrous, a few are superbly good, and most are middling. The likelihood of the resulting state of affairs being totally disastrous or wholly superb is negligible. When, however, one collective choice is responsible for a state of affairs, no normal distribution can be relied upon. A single wrong decision that “seemed a good idea at the time” suffices to cause disaster.

Can we predict a-priori what enhancements will be beneficial and which will be harmful to an individual? In many cases, the most  useful arbiter will be experience, or to those of a more prudent temperament, the observation of others. Tim Cavanaugh writes:

There is grandeur in the view that genetic enhancement will produce outcomes that can’t be modeled by Bayesian optimization. Better machines and longevity treatments have the attention of the human enhancement community now, but the real fun, and the real mystery, will be found in creating varieties of people, who in turn will have concerns and beliefs and bodies that differ radically from our own. Will all those differences be attractive or adaptive? The beauty of evolution is that we can’t know the end—but we can get more skillful in crafting our part of the beginning.

Even if mankind would be able to improve upon the “chaos” of existing biology, this would in no way mean the end of evolution and competition. Things evolve and evolution will still remain a useful tool to model the interaction of various ideas and systems. One application of particular interest is to use evolution to discover strategies to eliminate or slow down aging, as practiced by biological researchers such as Michael R. Rose.

Unfortunately, Cavanaugh mentions cryonics (“frozen brains”) as as a subdivision of transhumanism. There are an increasing number of  influential cryonicists who strongly object to this identification of cryonics with transhumanism. They see cryonics as an experimental medical procedure that, like any other medical procedure, should not be linked to any kind of “ism.”