Transhumanism embodies the idea that humans have to assume their evolution. Given this approach, Transhumanism is often paralleled with Darwin’s theory of natural evolution. Is this parallel pertinent? Yes… and No? In this article, we will try to identify the limits. We will explain why technological evolution (in the context of Transhumanism) appears to be significantly preferable.
Originally published on Technoprog on May 5 2016 translated by JMIacino
NATURAL EVOLUTION (Darwinism)
The theory of evolution formulated by Darwin and subsequently widely confirmed is based on a simple idea.
At the beginning, there were elementary organisms capable of reproducing by transmitting their DNA. If the replication was perfect, the world would be simple: we would all still be protozoans !
Replication was not perfect, there was always a few “bugs” (mutations).In a given environment, these mutations could be positive or negative. The famous example of the giraffe illustrates these mutations.
How did this animal evolve so as to develop such a long neck? To illustrate the major factors, follows is a simplified explication of its evolution.
The ancestor of the giraffe was a type of horse, with the longer of a neck reasonable. When these animals reproduced, replication of the DNA was not perfect - their offspring did not have exactly the same longer of neck: certain had the neck slightly shorter; others slightly longer.
Those having shorter necks were disadvantaged: having more difficulty to eat leaves on the trees, their chances of survival to the age of reproduction was diminished. Therefore, they reproduced less than the others.
Those which had longer necks were advantaged: it being easier to eat the leaves on the trees, their chances of survival to the age of reproduction was increased. Therefore, they reproduced more than the others.
Consequently, the “long necks” reproduced more than the “short necks”. Statistically, the next generation had necks slightly longer. As the same phenomenon occurred the following generation, the necks became slightly longer each generation, which for thousands and thousands of generations resulted in the giraffes we know today.
Is there a “direction” of evolution ?
Humans are the most recent species and equally the most complex from the point of view of the brain. Given this fact, we often have the impression that evolution goes in the direction of “always more complex”.
This is not necessarily the case. This principle does not express the idea that progression entails more complexity. Species evolve simply to be more and more adapted to their natural environment (for giraffes, to reach leaves high on trees).
While it is true that evolution advantages the appearance of complex organisms, this is not necessarily the case: in certain environments, the best adapted species could be the most aggressive (lion), the most discrete (chameleon) or the one which reproduces the most (stinking fleas).
Why do we have a brain more complex than other animals (brain which allows us to ask all these questions)? The answer may be that it was an accident! An article of 2004 in the review Nature explains this complexity results from a degeneration of the jaws of our ancestors. Having a weaker jaw logically would have diminished their chances of survival. In fact, given the contraction, the jaw would have “decompressed” the cranial cavity which permitted the brain to develop. What is finally an evolutionary advantage, largely compensates for the loss of power of the jaws.
Therefore, we see that evolution does not follow a “straight line” leading gloriously from the protozoan to the human. In fact, evolution is chaotic and unforeseeable. The appearance of intelligence was never written in the genes of our mono cellular ancestors.
This human intelligence, able to project at long term and give a sense to our existences, permits us today to envisage another mode of evolution.
Because of genetic progress, it is becoming possible for us to modify our DNA ourselves. A major breakthrough is the famous technique CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats)-Cas 9 which permits precise editing of DNA portions. Although this technique is subject to a bioethical controversy, but this falls outside the scope of this article.
Therefore, rather than introducing mutations by accident and “see what happens” (as nature has done for millions of years), it is now possible to precisely orient the evolution of our DNA.
Technological evolution is not limited to our DNA. It can also radically lengthen our lifespan, chemically increase the number of our neuronal connections and interface with artificial organs: thought controlled artificial organs, virtual reality, etc
Why Prefer Technological Evolution?
A number of persons say: basically, why not leave nature do what it wants? After all, it is nature that created us after a long process of evolution.
This assertion is not totally correct. In fact, since the appearance of humans, one of the factors of evolution is equally the use of his tools and techniques. Controlling fire and cooked food contributed to modifying our jaws and teeth; clothes accelerated the rarefaction of our hairiness. From a global viewpoint, the theory of human enhancement, notably that conceived by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik and the French biologist Jean-Jacques Kupiec, who consider that since the beginning humans co-evolve their techniques.
Whatever the case may be, we can cite at least three reasons to prefer technological evolution:
- From a human viewpoint, the Darwinian evolution is extremely cruel (even if in fact it is really indifferent). Basically, for this evolution to take place, a large number of individuals must die before reproducing which means only the most adapted survive. Today, we have largely reduced infantile mortality, which is a very good thing. Do we again want a society where a majority of the individuals die before puberty? As Dr. Anders Sandberg stated: “We are worth more than that! Evolution may have created us, but we can do much better than that.”
- Based on the recent history of humanity, the Darwinian evolution is extremely slow. In 2000 years, humanity has witnessed spectacular technical progress and transformed the world, for the better and for the worse. And in these 2000 years, during the last 100 years, there have been more discoveries than in the prior 1900 years. On the Darwinian scale, 2000 years ( tens of millions of years) are not more than the flickering of an eyelash. Do we really want to wait 50,000 years before perceiving new changes? If technological progress continues, the world will be already radically transformed beyond what we can imagine. Focus on the Darwinian evolution would be like regarding a fern growing during a volcanic eruption.
- Even accepting the preceding two points, it is not evident that the Darwinian evolution can continue. Effectively, the process of natural selection requires a given environment. In fact, humans have largely dominated and transformed this environment by building cities which have nothing to do with a jungle or a swamp. We scarcely adapt to cities which are essentially built according to our economic, political and cultural constraints! In this context, the paradigm of the Darwinian evolution is broken. For it to continue, we have to return to live in caves and hunt with rocks - which even the most radical Luddites would not want.
In this context, if we are deprived of natural selection (which is a very good thing!), the laws of evolution play precisely against us: without natural selection, our genetic patrimony dilapidates slowly. Today, medical progress allows individuals who are genetically less resistant to survive (which is to their honor). To eradicate the problem, there are two solutions:
- Return to a primitive and brutal society where the weakest die and only the strongest survive; or
- take in hand our genetic destiny thanks to the biotechnologies, compensate this slow dilapidation… and, why not, go well beyond by actively taking control of our evolution. A conscious evolution, wanted and more rapid than the Darwinian evolution, even if it will be necessary to take the time to verify the pertinence of our choices.
To us, this second solution appears to be largely preferable!