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Why We Need to Cheat Darwin
Ben Scarlato   Aug 22, 2010   Ethical Technology  

Last year, JET published Kristi Scott’s fascinating article Cheating Darwin: The Genetic and Ethical Implications of Vanity and Cosmetic Plastic Surgery, which analyzed the implications of cosmetic plastic surgery (CPS) for relationships and genetics. It suggested that since “what one sees is not necessarily what one will get in regards to DNA” that “there is a responsibility on the part of the individual to disclose any previous CPS.” However, there are many other instances where we misrepresent our genetics or interfere with evolution. These range from other cosmetic enhancements, to medicines that allow the unhealthy to survive and the infertile to reproduce. But if we want a better future, we need to become comfortable with bending the principles of evolution to our will, and understand the risks and rewards of doing so.

First though, it should be noted that dating and relationships have always involved elements of deception. Although relatively simple alterations such as makeup can be easier to detect than CPS, people have always attempted to signal that they are as pretty, healthy, smart, and rich as possible without regard to their underlying genetics.

Scott cites Naomi Wolf and says that “association of beautiful women and successful reproduction of offspring is a factor in the relationship.” Still, few on a conscious level are seeking to optimize the beauty of their future children when they look for a mate. By and large, males are more interested in attractive women because they’d prefer to sleep with and spend time with someone who’s prettier, and because of factors such as the halo effect.

Of course, it’s difficult to determine exactly why people choose the mates they do because, as one Psychology Today blog notes, studies show that “the people we actually end up with possess few of the traits we claim to want.” But that’s precisely why the revelation of CPS is unlikely to be of paramount importance in couples’ decisions about children. Although evolution means that those who pass on the most genes will be the most successful, that does not mean that individuals will typically be interested in evaluating the genotypes of a partner they’ve already selected. A much more direct approach would be getting a genotype analysis from a company such as 23andMe, and although that kind of data will become much more useful as our knowledge of the relevant genetics grows, so far there is not great interest in using such services to evaluate mates.

It’s true that healthy relationships might ideally involve disclosure of CPS; just as such relationships involve disclosure on many other topics. Moreover, just because we’ve long tried to present our genetics in the best possible light, that does not mean being deceptive about them is ethically sound. However, if there was some compelling reason to avoid revealing plastic surgery that’s equivalent to a typical breast augmentation or rhinoplasty, failing to do so would probably not have a great deal of negative consequences. Of course, the issue becomes more complicated if plastic surgery was used to mask some underlying disease such as ectrodactyly (sometimes called “Lobster-Claw Syndrome”).

While fictionalized, Nip/Tuck had a powerful example of this when one of the surgeons had a son, Conor, born with ectrodactyly. Due to a debate between the surgeon and his wife about whether they should subject their son to the painful surgery to make his hands normal, he only has one of his hands altered as an infant. In an episode looking at Conor as a young man, we see that after going to an all boys prep school he waits until college, where he is surrounded by many more women, to get the surgery done on his other hand. All kinds of health care, not only plastic surgery, have long been a means of “cheating Darwin,” as medicine allows for individuals to survive and attract mates when they would not otherwise be able to do so. 

An alternative, much more extreme argument could be made that by using medicine we’ve weakened the human species by diminishing natural selection’s influence. Without the use of medicine and technology perhaps the species would be more resistant to disease and stronger. That may be true, but even leaving aside the humane issues, evolution doesn’t even necessarily lead to a stronger, faster, healthier, or smarter species. Although the intellectual capacity of other species is often under-appreciated, humans are the only example out of many millions of species where intelligence has really flourished. Evolution simply ensures that whatever genes are good enough to out-compete in a particular environment will become the most prolific.



Bending evolution to our will

Scott doesn’t argue against cheating Darwin, instead her main point is that there is an ethical obligation to be honest in our relationships about doing so. There’s nothing wrong with honesty, but it is critical that we encourage bending the rules of evolution to our advantage whenever possible, and be explicit about doing so.  Guilio Prisco voiced thoughts along the same lines in the comments of the original piece saying “Well… screw Darwin then.” If we want a better future, people will need to become accustomed to interfering with natural selection, and finding better, more direct ways of increasing our capabilities. We need to understand both what we gain and what we lose by reaching beyond evolution.

One of my favorite podcast lecture series is Dr. Gerald “Doc C” Cizadlo’s Biology of Aging. Although primarily a look at the facts of how we age rather than how to extend life, occasionally it touches on anti-aging. Doc C seems to think that such efforts are misguided, because the old dying and giving way to the more fit young is how life and our species adapts and preserves itself. While true, what is important is not the preservation of a set of genes or a particular species; instead what is important are characteristics such as personhood and happiness.

Therefore, we can’t leave ourselves at the hands of natural selection. We need technology in order enhance our capabilities to be happier, healthier, smarter, and if you will, ethical-er. Genetic enhancements and the increased merging of our bodies with computers and other devices will greatly alter human evolution,  much more so even than it’s already been altered throughout human history.

Of course, we can’t actually change the principles of evolution, merely change when and how they apply to better suit our needs. Moreover, principles similar to the natural selection of DNA-based life can be seen at many other levels, including computer viruses, memes, and speculating at a higher level, the types of civilization that are likely to survive.

Evolution has been very efficient at helping us get where we are today, but that efficiency has come at a great price of violence, disease, and death. It has left us with a disposition that is much too prone to traits such as depression or hatred, and with skills that are typically better suited for reproduction than achieving our goals as individuals. To give individuals the freedom to become who and what they want to be, it is essential that we avail ourselves of NBIC (nanotech, biotech, information technology, and cognitive science), and whatever else we can in order to take control of our evolution.

Ultimately, instead of relying on death and natural selection to adapt civilization to new situations, we need to become more flexible. We have a long way to go, but we need to work on anticipating solutions to problems before they arise, instead of relying on evolution to select the most fit portion of the population after the fact. We need, as much as possible, bodies, minds, and technologies that are flexible enough to adapt in place to whatever the future holds.

Ben Scarlato, a former IEET intern, studied Computer Science at Rochester Institute of Technology and works as a software engineer focused on security.



COMMENTS

As a long time advocate of morphological freedom, I look at it this way.

Which is more important? The individual’s right to free expression of the self, or genetic slavery to the lottery of chromosome expression?

Is WHO you are less important than WHAT you are?

I am a trans, but I am also much more, since being a trans just means becoming female. I’m pretty sure that stem cell technology will make that possible within a decade, allowing me to not only have the external appearance, but the internal biology as well. For a lot of people, this alone is going to shake their fundamental “world view”. I already have to deal with people who can’t wrap their head around how a 6 foot 5 inch, built like a NFL linebacker, all too male, person like me can be a woman inside, yet science has proven without a doubt that my brain is more feminine than masculine because I was given the right set of chemical signals during pregnancy to make my brain female, despite my xy chromosome. I have science to prove I have a womans brain in a man’s body, but my external appearance is all that matters to 99% of the world.

And yet, daily, I find people in the net who are suffering that same issue. Far beyond just trans, I find people who want to be elves, and vampires, and trolls, and klingons, and furries. Everywhere I go I find people who’s “mental core self” is utterly at odds with their “physical shell”

And I am not talking about people who are “play acting” like thousands of teen “twilight vampires” or emulating this or that game character. I’m talking about the millions upon millions of people who spend miserable lives because “who” they are doesn’t match “what” they are.

I hate my body, because I’m a woman, not a football player, but how many people are there out there who would give everything to have the body I view as a curse? Who would love to be tall, broad shouldered, and co-ordinated? We FORCE people to act in a manner consistent with our stereotypes based on nothing more than physical appearance, regardless to how damaging this is to them.

Think about that kid in school who so desperately wanted to be a sports player, tried as hard as he could to be good at something athletic, but who was constantly ridiculed for it because he was skinny, uncoordinated, and unattractive? We base far too much of our interpersonal interactions on appearances, demanding every “attractive” person be extroverted, every “unattractive” person be introverted, every male be “masculine” and every woman be “feminine”. We treat people like me, who’s internal self and external self don’t match, like freaks unless they conform to those behaviors we deem are “appropriate” for their physical appearance.

This is the “Darwinian” norm for our species. We judge based on genetically programmed criteria, criteria which utterly fail to take into account such major metrics as personality compatibility, shared interests, or even whether or not that person is detrimental to our personal health, mental or physical.

So, it’s comfortable, it’s what we’ve always known and dealt with, and I apologize to Miss Scott, but all I saw in her essay was “Let’s make sure that people are trapped in their genetic lotteries, because GENES ARE WORTH MORE THAN PEOPLE.”

And I cannot, under any circumstances support that argument.  Genes are not more important than people, and we don’t HAVE to be trapped by them, NOR SHOULD WE.

I’m a girl, trapped in a mans body. That’s a fact. Genetically, I would have to assume that the odds of my children suffering the same issue are high. BUT THAT is for them to decide, not me. In fact the genetic heritage my children carry is meaningless in the long term sense, as the ability to completely rewrite every single link in their DNA is likely to exist within 20-30 years. That make’s their “genetic heritage” as much a matter of choice as their hairstyle.

We need to break out of the trap in which Miss Scott seems to think we must be caged. I am all too aware of how impossible to do that it is AT THIS POINT IN TIME, but that is now.  And now is when we need to begin making the changes towards freeing ourselves from this cage, not justifying the cage’s existence.

So your argument is that survival is no longer the most important genetic trait?  That we need to replace evolution with a human-directed, technology-driven development of the species, taking control and redirecting the very systems of life that have been the basis of not only our entire natural history, but that of the rest of the world’s?

On the topic of ethics, what about the irresponsibility of replacing more and more natural systems with human systems?  Human created systems are inevitably less stable and sustainable than natural ones.  To base something as all-encompassing as the development of ourselves on a human made and directed system seems rather foolhardy.

2 Sam Moody
In short, yes. We need to replace the blind evolution caring only about survival of the species with a sighted one which is about survival of the persons. This is what makes us HUMANS, not another animal species. Every living person has a right to live a decent life, period. Humanity itself is about replacing jungle laws with the Golden Rule.

And, most important, it’s not what we want to do in 21st century. It’s what we’ve done since Stone Age. Since then, a HUMAN cannot rely on their genes alone to survive - we rely on technology and culture. If we relied on our genes only, we’d live for 20 to 30 years and there would be only several hundred thousands of us in Africa. Just another ape species. What makes us humans, it’s right exactly replacing more and more natural systems with human-made ones.

The question is not whether we should do that; the question is about further improving efficiency and safety of our actions (and currently, despite all that alarmism, we are improving them, as it is reflected in global stats of life expectancy vs deaths, GDP, education etc.). We are not doing it wrong, although we certainly need to do it better to save and improve as much human lives as possible. It is just unhuman to sacrifice billions of people to death, as biocons want, in the name of any “survical of the species”, just because they used to think that all we humans do is always bad (so why do those biocons use products of human civilization at all?). This is a moral argument — to be humane is to bring mind into the blind nature, otherwise we may survive, but just as animals, as non progredi est regredi.

Besides, there is a practical argument. It is really about survival of human civilization to save from death as much humans as possible as longer as possible. Not only our knowledge is growing exponentially and needs more and more efforts to pass from one generation to another. Our personal experience also becomes more and more importaint. If it took a village to raise a child in the past, it takes a planet to grow a future person. We are at such point in history that the whole “replacement of generations” concept (in cultural sense) is becoming obsolete. A death is not only the ultimate tragedy for a person who dies. It is also a more and more dangerous disruption in human relations we rely more and more on. Any death makes a hole in our culture — in fact, we begin even recognizing the role of unnecessary animal death. One day we may learn to end animal suffering at all, but humans first.

Also we may think about it from global, cosmic point of view. A humanity and its mind is the nature’s tool to do things it cannot do itself with genes only. No student species has yet overcome its teacher; and it is our obligation to take and pass this exam.

@ Z - Well said!

And yet moreover a philosophy which indeed comprises Universalism and not merely Utilitarianism!

Of less concern may be the protestations of biocons as compared with established monotheistic religions and theocracies.. Excluding the venerable Zionist states that is?

;0]

@Sam

Yes. Our instincts, in their current uncontrolled form, lie behind nearly every current major problem that lies before the human race. Those instincts lead us to create societies, but they also lead us to compete against each other for status, leading to the current “wealthy gap” as high status actors seek to pull every last bit of productivity of the entire world into personal wealth building, depriving the vast majority of the world’s population of the very basic necessities of survival.

We’ve allowed our instincts to control us. And those instincts were designed for a small tribe of apes living on a savanna. They’ve ceased to be survival instincts, and have become dangerous to our continued existence.

It is long past time we stopped allowing instincts to rule us, and long past time we harnessed them into serving us. It can be done, and it will be done one way or another, the only question is how many more people we allow to suffer and die before we finally face up to the fact that WE must adapt ourselves to the future instead of clinging blindly to a evolutionary past we long outgrew.

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