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Playing the game: a story for the pool-side sun-lounger

It’s still summery, and so here is a little story for the beach or the side of the pool

‘There are challenges, certainly’, said the Boss. ‘But we’re confident that we can meet them. Or at least’, he went on, looking over his glasses for signs of dissent, ‘for a critical mass of stakeholders’.

A graph appeared on the screen at his side. He traced its lines with a red laser dot.

‘Here’, he said, ‘we have the expected rise of temperature with time. And here’ (he stabbed with the dot, as if doing the killing himself), ‘we have the consequent reduction in human population – assuming’ (and he held up a schoolmasterly finger), ‘we don’t have any HR66.’

He sipped some water, and waited for this to sink in. It did.

‘But don’t worry’, he said. ‘There’s good news. We do have HR66. Not enough for everyone, sadly, but enough to ensure that the human baton is passed on. And enough, I’m glad to say, for everyone in this room.’

There was a ripple of relief.

‘And their families, of course’, the Boss continued. ‘Families are very important to us. But all this assumes that you want to have the HR66. No one will make you. But, frankly, what’s not to like? You take a single dose, and you survive. If you don’t take it, you don’t survive. It’s as simple as that. It even tastes of candy floss. It has only one side-effect, and that’s a wholly good thing. It increases – increases, mark you – your IQ. Very, very significantly. By about 100 points, in fact. Not only will you be alive; you’ll be a genius beside whom Einstein would have seemed a hopeless retard.’

One more press of the button, and up flashed the logo of the corporation that manufactured HR66. The Boss didn’t think it relevant to mention his shareholding.

‘Naturally’, said the Boss, ‘we have to vote for this in the usual way. Yes, humanity’s facing apocalypse, and there’s one, and only one way out. But we’ve still got to do things properly. But I expect that we can move to a vote now, can’t we?’

‘I’m sure we can’, agreed the Deputy. ‘You’ve all seen the motion. All those in favour….’

‘One moment’.

The Boss and the Deputy, up on the podium, stared. Everyone else turned. A little man in tweed lisped through a badger’s beard. ‘I’d like some clarification, please.’

‘But of course, Tom’, said the Boss, magnanimous and desperately alarmed. ‘Anything you like.’

No one really knew how Tom had got into the government, or why he wanted to be there. He had no strategically significant connections, no dress sense, no publications other than some monographs on moths and mediaeval fonts, no assets other than a dumpy wife, some anarchic, unwashed children and a small cottage on Dartmoor, and no entries in the Register of Members’ Interests apart from ‘Masturbation’. This entry had caused a terrible storm. He’d been accused of injuring the dignity of the House, but, after expensive legal advice had been taken, it had been ‘reluctantly concluded’ that there was no power to force him to remove it.

‘I’d like to know’, said Tom, ‘who’s going to get the drug. And why them rather than anyone else.’

‘Well’, said the Boss, audibly relieved. ‘If you go to clause 22.4.3 of the Paper, you’ll see that we’ve dealt with all that in detail. We all acknowledge, as I have already done this afternoon, that it is unfortunate that not everyone can have HR66. We’ve had to make hard choices, and we’ve done it as dispassionately as we can. We’ve used the Singer-VI Index to identify the five per cent of individuals who have the greatest overall utility. We’ve then used the best available data to identify the top ten per cent of those whose utility-coefficients have the highest heritability (so ensuring the best chance of robust future generations). That ten per cent of the five per cent will get the drug.’

‘And us, apparently’, said Tom. No one laughed.

‘Well’, Tom went on. ‘You’ve got it as wrong as you could possibly have done. By using measures of utility which identify current elites, you’re choosing, for your pharmacological Ark, precisely those people who brought the deluge down on us and made the Ark necessary. It’s like choosing Herod to babysit. I therefore propose, Mr. Chairman’ (and he waved at the fuming Deputy), ‘that tickets to the Ark should be given to those who get the lowest Singer-VI scores. At least that’ll ensure that the poets and musicians are there to entertain us in the Next World. It’d be pretty grim otherwise. So, Mr. Chairman: I so move.’

The Boss, suavely ignoring the stammering Deputy, was unabashed.

‘You always will have your little joke, won’t you, Tom?’ he boomed, seeming (such was his art), to be genuinely amused. ‘But that’s fine. You’ve every right to your joke, and process is process. So: who’s for Tom’s proposal?’ One arm, in disreputable tweed, rose.

‘They’re agin you, I’m afraid, Tom’, said the Boss. ‘Now can we get on to the main motion. All those in favour….’

‘There’s something else’, said Tom. ‘Sorry to make a fuss.’

‘Not at all, Tom’, replied the Boss, letting some exasperation creep into the sentence. ‘Let’s hear it.’

‘It’s about the IQ’, said Tom. ‘It’d be disastrous’.

‘You’ve lost me now, I’m afraid’, said the Boss, looking genuinely, artlessly puzzled.

‘If I were to gain 100 points of IQ’, said Tom, ‘I wouldn’t be me. And if you did you most certainly wouldn’t be you.’

This was reasonably funny, but there was silence.

‘You’d be an even better ‘you’, Tom’, replied the Boss, stretching his metaphysics as far as it would go. ‘It’d be like putting a bigger engine in the car: same old chassis; same old car; faster away from the lights.’ He was pleased with the motoring metaphor. He felt secure with pistons.

‘No I wouldn’t, Nigel’, Tom rejoined. A thrill of sweet shock ran through the room: insurrection is delicious, and particularly when it is tasted for the first time.  No one had ever dared to call the Boss by his first name. ‘A creature with that much processing power wouldn’t see the world in anything like the same way as I do. In trying to save me, you’d actually have killed me.’

The Boss was not the Boss for nothing. You’d have thought he’d never heard the insolent ‘Nigel’, and he smelt something familiar. He might not do metaphysics, but he certainly did politics.

‘We’re getting to the nub of it now, Tom, aren’t we?’, said he, masterfully. ‘There will always be people who are against others making themselves better – improving their lot; climbing the greasy pole. And that’s even, or perhaps especially so, when it’s a, a’ (he groped for the word and mercifully found it), ‘a cognitive pole’.

Seeing that Tom was about to reply, he moved quickly on.

‘We all enhance ourselves and our children, don’t we? And quite right too. We get a good night’s sleep before a big day. We read books which increase the number of neuronal connections.’ (He owed that to an in-flight magazine, but thought it played well). ‘We enhance our appearances by buying suits and haircuts. Or some of us do’. He looked ironically over at Tom. ‘We drink a cup of coffee to wake us up – pharmacological enhancement, that, Tom. And we do the same to our children. We read them bed time stories, and even (I know you’ll hate this, Tom, but many of us think it’s fine), pay to send them to good schools so that those old neurones get wired up all the better. You might say that it’s not fair that I can buy a cup of coffee and so enhance myself, or that I shouldn’t buy educational enhancement for my child, but that’s just life. It’s the business of being human. Aspiration is what most humans do, Tom. We strive: we crawled out of that primordial swamp, and we continue to climb. To say that you lose yourself by doing things better is socialism of a very extreme kind.’

Some younger members clapped. The good old Boss. No flies on him.

But it was not over.

‘There are some things’, said Tom, ‘which although undeniably enhancements, make us better versions of ourselves; allow us to show our natural abilities better. Take running shoes, for instance. They stop us from hurting our feet on pebbles, and so let us demonstrate our power and endurance.’

‘This is all very interesting’, said the Boss, ‘but where is it taking us? Can’t we get on and vote?’

‘Where is it taking us? That’s exactly the right question, Nige’.

Breath was taken sharply into fifty expensively suited chests, and again the taste of rebellion, tart this time, on the second tasting, and on the nose as well as the tongue.

‘It’s about playing the game’, continued Tom. ‘About playing your own personal game, and about playing the human game.’

That was shrewd. The Boss loved to talk about straight bats, healthy competition, and playing the ball rather than the man.

‘If you must go on, you must’, said the Boss, now weary, and letting himself sound it. ‘But I doubt that anyone else here is finding this abstraction helpful. We’ve got serious business to do, even if you haven’t.’

‘Hear me out, me old cock’, said the man in tweed, from deep within his beard. Beyond the pale was his natural habitat, and he strode happily on through it.

‘Think of a game of snooker’. They all did.

‘Now imagine that someone has had her brain and eyes remodeled so that she can effortlessly calculate angles, and her metabolism tweaked so that, even in the most intense competition, her hands never shake. She then plays in a competition. Is there anything wrong with that? Well’, he continued, answering his own question. ‘If the opponent hasn’t been similarly enhanced, it would be terribly unfair. But there’s something even more fundamentally wrong. It is that she’s not playing the game of snooker at all. Snooker is not simply the business of putting balls into pockets. If it were, it would be snooker if one picked the balls up and dropped them in. [1] No: it’s about overcoming nerves, and laboriously teaching your body to compute forces. Take away the need for the sweat and the application, and you’ve annihilated the game. That doesn’t matter much in the case of snooker. But if the game is the game of being a human being, it matters very much indeed.’

‘I see we have a romantic on our hands’, laughed the Boss. ‘A romantic who thinks that failure, graft and, presumably, disease, are all ennobling. And that someone who’s not so ennobled is less than human. You’re entitled to your view, but how does this help us?’

‘If, as you say’, said Tom, ‘those 100 IQ points don’t cause the person who gets them to cease to exist; and if they really do, as you say, constitute a huge advantage, then the person who has that advantage isn’t playing the human game any more. He’s opted out. I don’t know quite what he’s playing, but I don’t want to play it.’

‘That’s fine’, said the Boss. ‘You needn’t’.

And so he didn’t.


The thermometer climbed. Dartmoor went brown, and then black, and the un-modified enzymes of a family of six started to fail. And Tom then said something very significant. But I’m not going to tell you what it was.



1. It looks as if Tom has been reading J Savulescu and N Bostrom,‘Human enhancement ethics: the state of the debate’, in Savulescu and Bostrom (eds) Human Enhancement (Oxford: OUP, 2009), p. 13


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6 Comment on this post

  1. Thank you, Charles, for this story.
    An analogy to add to snooker-playing : I have sometimes wondered whether I would be happy if, after concluding some Faustian pact, I woke up the next day and were able to play like a virtuoso without the need to practise : and always concluded that I would resist the temptation and stick to playing as I can, or just a little bit better after sometimes tedious practice.
    Of course, critics might say that music too is «only a game», but I guess I’d side with Tom – or Plato, or Schiller….
    «man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.»
    (Would like to know what Tom´s last significant words were, though ….)

    1. Anthony: thank you. What do you think you would lose by accepting the gift of magical, instantaneous musical virtuousity?

      1. A good question, Charles, so here´s a short list of a few things I’d miss :
        1. The joy of (sometimes) succeeding in playing a passage as I would like to.
        2. The kick that I get when playing with others who play better than me.
        3. The satisfaction of being able to play better than last month, last year..
        4. The need for (and pleasure of) concentration
        5. the uncertainty of succeeding, Ie taking risks.

  2. I think the game of existing as a species may be as arbitrary as snooker and other games. The question is really: what successor species and link to it would we want to have?

    Suppose there is a choice of a species just like us, a species with some of our traits enhanced (say, very intelligent), and a species with some of our traits disenhanced (maybe crude and uncreative). While the third species may have simple lives worth living, the first two are more likely to find more enjoyment and make better moral choices. The smart species might do really well (although it might of course mess things up grandly – but at least it would be keenly aware of its responsibility). What traits matter depends on value theory chosen and of course problematic guesses about what the future of the species would be. But generally it seems that one can make a ranking of desirability of successor species – the devolved bunny things in H.G. Wells “The Time Machine” are not the kind of successors we wish for, while some (but definitely not all) of the human species in Stapledon’s “Last And First Men” have nobility and achievements that would be worth having in the universe, no matter of their evolutionary link to us is.

    It seems that the problem happens when we start making the link between the successor species and ourselves stronger. One can consider the scenario of a species of glorious superhumans were to appear on a remote planet in the Andromeda galaxy, in the far future of Earth (after humanity had been extinct for millions of years) or right after an existential disaster wiping out humanity, but taking on their culture. In the first case I think most people would just say it is better than nothing. The second case seems to be quite similar: the location does not matter. The third case seems to be what people would have some problem with: humanity gets a nice continuation but it isn’t *humanity*. One can play around with the scenario and say the humanoids are exactly like us but with a fundamentally different genetic code: again many (but likely fewer) would say there is too much of discontinuity. And what about a successor species appearing gradually, being born to humans and growing up among them, changeling style?

    Many games have changed both their rules and style of play (especially when money becomes involved, but also through innovations, like crawl swim). The reasons we play them – entertainment, competitiveness, loyalty – may have been less changed. I think the same might be true for the “game of species”: do we think the current rules embody important value or help achieve the end for which we play it? (survival: “When you play a game of species you survive or you die.”) Or might changes of the rules allow expressing the ends better or allow a better – by some standard – game?

    As I see it, there is plenty of room for improvement in the game of species. And it is a fundamentally different game from the game of being a human. The truly interesting rule variations might be to change the game of species to be a more humane game.

  3. Anders: thank you. I entirely agree that we shouldn’t be blinded by the idea of the necessary worth of our species qua species. Species are, of course, arbitrary, mutable categories. Tom’s membership of the species Homo sapiens is only important because, like it or not, it is an essential part of Tom-ness. Isn’t there something about Tom-ness that would be compromised if Tom took the drug? And isn’t whatever that is something that’s worth hanging on to?

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