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Humane Evolution

Professor John Harris wonders Who’s afraid
of a synthetic human?
in the Times. He argues we should support
the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill because it will help us develop
effective therapies and enhance ourselves. Science is about bettering our lot,
after all. In particular, he says, synthetic biology may help us avoid going
extinct due to our vulnerabilities and instead enable us to choose (or become)
our successors as a species.

Many people become confused by the
possibility of a posthuman future. The traditional view of the future is a
stark one: either humanity extinct, or humans roughly as they are today. The
posthuman options would be that we either change ourselves so radically that
the resulting species is so  fundamentally different from humanity that we
would regard it as something entirely new, or that we create some kind of independent
beings that continue our culture even as traditional humanity retires from the
forefront (hopefully as proud parents of the new beings). The range of possible
options within these scenarios is endless, inviting equally endless and loud
speculation. That tends to distract from the key message of Harris’ essay: we
are leaving the realm of natural evolution and entering what he calls a realm
of enhancement evolution.

Natural evolution is about reproduction, diversity
generated by random variation and selection of the most “fit” individuals: they
have the most offspring. Fitness is determined by the environment, and
selection occurs not just by number of kids but by survival – the unfit simply
end up killed by the environment. In enhancement evolution fitness is dominated
by the desires and ideas of intelligent beings. Diversity is no longer
generated by random mutations but by deliberate interventions, which can be
very complex (e.g. synthetic biology). Selection, to the extent it happens,
occurs prenatally by selecting the right embryos.

Natural evolution is by its nature cruel: being
selected against means being killed or living a less successful life. Fully
mature enhancement evolution is humane in that fewer (if any) lives have to be
sacrificed in the selection step. The ends may still be problematic, but even
if natural evolution were for some reason striving towards a good end (say
intelligent beings with maximal happiness) it could only achieve this by having
unsuccessful individuals die childless. It is preferable to fight bird flu by
vaccines, drugs and maybe gene therapy than to let the vulnerable die and the
immune survive.

Natural evolution is not immoral since
there is no moral agent responsible for it, but it is a quite painful process.
Enhancement evolution is subject to moral consideration since the beings doing
it are moral beings; hence it is possible to have "moral evolution"
in the sense that it aims at good goals and achieves them using good means.

Natural evolution is also reactive: it can
only respond to changes in the environment, it cannot plan ahead. While it often
maintains diversity within a species that increases adaptivity, it has a hard
time handling sudden events or being trapped in local optima such as
overspecialisation. Enhancement evolution can be proactive: if
we know that the environment is going to change we can engineer that consideration
into other organisms before it happens. By having intelligence involved in the
evolutionary process it gains foresight. It is a limited and fallible
foresight, but infinitely more than natural evolution could ever produce.

From a purely utilitarian perspective where
only human happiness and fulfilment matters these later two considerations may
be superfluous. But if one thinks there is a value in nature and its
continuation (moreso if one thinks its extension
is valuable) then enhancement evolution may actually be preferable to natural
evolution. It is only through intelligent intervention life could, for example,
spread beyond the Earth and in the long run avoid the red giant phase of the
sun. More short-term, having someone held responsible for what is done or not
done is a better way of protecting the environment than saying it is a domain
separate from human activity. Even regarding a species as better if humans have
not interfered with it paradoxically puts it under the domain of enhancement
evolution, since the human desire for the natural is now keeping its evolution

Most of the species we surround ourselves
with are the result of enhancement evolution, be they pet dogs or heirloom vegetables.
For a long time their evolution has been more under human control than natural
selection. The shift occurring right now is that new technology that gives us
more effective and controlled ways of changing organisms and that we are
ourselves becoming subject to enhancement evolution. We have removed many of
the big selection pressures on ourselves (through modern nutrition, hygiene and
safer societies) and made reproductive fitness rather independent of genetic
fitness. We are doing minor selection (the most dramatic is probably current
eugenic programs against some genetic diseases
) and will likely be doing prenatal genetic diagnosis
more and more in the future. It just takes a little bit more genetic testing
and counselling and we will be evolving according to enhancement rather than
natural evolution. It is the human and humane thing to do. 

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