Comment on Changing our minds

Spaceweaver Thu, Nov 26, 2009
I think we have here an interesting starting point that already stimulates new reflections and ideas about this critical issue.

The question of: “should we take the reins of our future evolution?” is for me a no-brainer, there is no doubt not only that we should, but in fact that we are already taking our future evolution in our hands (though I will submit to you that those so called ”Hands” are at present few and non-representational of the larger part of humanity). The fact that only a few hands are involved in the process is for me the main problem here; it is not only a problem of scale but an issue that glides right into the problem of ethics and values, the fact of change in itself is a simple point compared to the radical deformity a partial, to say the least, transformation implies.

What seems obvious at a given level of generalization might not be that as when we get into the details. Let me exemplify that with the concept of evolution being at the crux of the matter here. The only kind of evolution which is empirically observable and fairly understood is the natural evolution of life. Natural (biological) evolution is driven by processes of variation and selection. It is distinctly ‘blind’ in the sense that it follows no premeditated design, just responding to complex environmental dynamics. Additionally, natural evolutionary change takes place gradually starting from a single organism spreading to a small (usually isolated) population and only later becomes a major ecological event. Even punctuated evolutionary events need quite a few generations to consolidate and have large scale effects. Another characteristic of natural evolution is that it advances by conducting a number of parallel yet diverse ‘experiments’, each is a random variation on the same theme. These evolutionary ‘experiments’ race and the one(s) achieving optimized fitness proliferate and consolidate. There is a fundamental diversity involved here.

When we think about guided evolution, we find very little in common with the so called natural biological version. In contrast to biological evolution, guided evolution is certainly not blind because it is a process guided to achieve pre meditated effects. These effects are not necessarily balanced within the greater ecological context. Moreover, our understanding of the complex ecological context, which is a generalization of biological ecology, is often partial and highly simplified (computational limits and mathematical intractability might be involved). Also, certain augmentations that come to mind as candidates to a guided evolutionary step, for example: increasing the IQ of whole populations, will become effective within one to very few generations. There will be no adjustment period and there is no gradual introduction that seems to be part of a successful strategy of natural evolution. Last but not least, the introduction of distinct premeditated targets (say increasing everybody’s IQ) is not coherent with the kind of parallel ‘experimentation’ of diverse variations observed in nature. Diversity in augmentation is not likely to be adopted.

Bottom line is that guided evolution is a very novel and progressive idea. It is fundamentally different from natural evolution and finding useful analogies between the two is tricky. There is indeed very little in empirical knowledge and theoretical understanding to guide our thinking about guided evolution. The point that we already do it, to some extent, is not entirely encouraging. Suvalescu’s argument that humans are biologically biased towards short term thinking and short term advantages is one that should be taken into serious consideration. A point I would like to add here, somehow missed by Suvalescu, is that our thought processes, as abstract as they might be, are not entirely fit to support and develop an evolutionary perspective. This is not an intellectual weakness; it is rather an emotional-motivational issue originating in our biological evolution and manifested in the bias towards strategies of interaction with the environment that safegaurd short term and local optimization of utility (territorialism, possession, self interest are just a few examples).

Another point worth mentioning is that in the developing discourse about human augmentation, it seems that the greater projected change, the greater is the resistance it invokes. Clearly, this principle derives from biological evolution itself: only life forms that persist within changing circumstances get to survive and reproduce. Life, therefore, though being susceptible to change, is largely homeostatic. This bias towards equilibrium and persistence reflexively resist change: the greater the change, the greater the resistance. The human collective organism seems to follow very similar dynamics. In natural evolution we observe both self organization and self regulation where variation and persistence spontaneously balance each other within a dynamic process. It is my view that an effective strategy for guided evolution must achieve such balance and this should be reflected in the way we address the subject matter. We need to develop an evolutionary perspective while being keenly aware that some of our most ingrained biases work against such prospect. Paradoxically it seems that we need to evolve in order to successfully evolve…

Having said this, I think that indeed we need to take the reins of our own evolution; mostly because we need to; not because we can. This is perhaps the one and only point of convergence between natural -biological evolution and guided evolution: both are catalyzed by the complex combination of necessity and affordability.

All that is being said in preparation to answer wildcat’s difficult question supplemented by Rene’s reflections that put the issue in historical perspective.

Would you personally (given the technical possibility and actual opportunity) perform such an all-encompassing act of improving humanity without direct consent? (please note that in this gedanken experiment no negative side effects are known to exist at the time of the act, in other words, the consideration should be only on ethical grounds)

I have invested much thought in this question and my straight answer is yes. I would indeed engage in such act. Yet, my positive answer is far from being all encompassing – conclusive, cover-all answer. Considering the points raised above and the ethical issues involved from a personal perspective, I would take such formidable responsibility given the constraints I am going to detail in a minute. It is very important to remark that my positive answer is meaningful only in conjunction with these constraints.

The constraints I have in mind have to do with two aspects: the nature of the augmentation and the size of the overall effect. Regarding the nature of augmentation there are three distinct categories I came up with:

1. Augmentation of the general intelligence of human beings which roughly mean the level of smartness and capability to solve problems and recognize patterns at all levels.

2. Augmentation of socio-emotional capacities of human beings which roughly mean emotional capacity, empathy, tolerance, understanding the minds of others, regulating interpersonal relations, cooperative capacities, balance and well being, effective dealing with conflicts etc.
(important: one becomes capable to perform better not forced to perform better)

3. Augmentation of conscious states available to human beings which roughly means extending and altering mental states, states of consciousness, states of perception, non specific creativity and more (in line with Rene’s account of achieving altered states of consciousness on a mass scale with hallucinogenic agents).

In view of these categories, my positive answer above applies only to the first two categories while the third one should always be left to the discretion of individuals and never applied to masses (at least until we all become significantly augmented in the first two categories). The reason behind this distinction is that in the first two categories I can imagine a controlled quantitative change while the third category is by definition qualitative and therefore has a definitive immeasurable and unpredictable impact on the minds of individuals. Such impact goes way beyond the ethical horizon I am trying to set here. Altering the conscious states of human beings en mass without consent is therefore not ethically viable.

This brings us to the second parameter of the size of the effect which is applicable to the first two categories. Let me start with the first category which is somewhat easier to grasp. I believe that any single human and humanity at large will categorically benefit if anybody will wake up tomorrow morning with an extra 5-10 IQ points. This is a very small change with a very small probability of disrupting the life of human individuals or the highly complex balance of human society. Such gradual minute change seems to be universally beneficial and therefore ethically valid. The overall effect might be highly significant but locally it will barely be noticed at first and will gradually develop. This is very similar to how natural evolutionary processes take place. I cannot and would not argue similarly if a greater augmentation is considered. A sudden increase in 20 or more IQ points is an entirely different category of change and therefore needs a much more complex consideration. Such change cannot and should not be taken by a single individual precisely because the impact becomes qualitative, immeasurable and unpredictable both individually and collectively (like category 3). The numbers mentioned here are of course arbitrary. It is the principle which matters.

Regarding the second category, my argument is analogous to the one above. Suppose there is a measure of AEIQ (augmented emotional intelligence quotient) that measures the category 2 performance and capacities of human individuals. Again a small differential increase en mass (say 5 AEIQ points) has a very high probability to yield great benefits without disrupting the general balance neither of individuals nor of all society. If we can exact the measure of change, I do not see any ethical argument against it. The individual change will be so subtle that it will be barely registered, but in an appropriate span of time the cumulative benefit will be immense.

Should anyone be informed? Not necessarily. Wouldn’t it be the best if such change would take place without any public knowledge at all? Since it will happen to all of us at once, no single individual or group of individuals (including the person initiating the act) will possibly gain any particular advantage upon others. Nothing in the general balance will change. We will just wake up a bit smarter and a bit more agreeable to each other (and ourselves). Though there is no direct consent, I do not see how any right, actual or implicit, of any living human being is possibly transgressed. (Interestingly, there is a solid reason why such an act must be informed to all in advance. The consideration is not ethical but rational. One must consider that the idea and capability to perform such act of augmentation en mass might occur simultaneously to more than one individual. To ensure that only a small scale augmentation takes place, the operation must occur only once, so the information must be published to ensure that :-)).

As speculative and provocative as it may sound, at first reading at least, let me conclude with a question:

Why not?