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Overcoming the “Adaptive Lag” through Person-Engineering
Phil Torres   Aug 19, 2010   Ethical Technology  

The adaptive lag hypothesis seems to offer a reasonable argument for the transhumanist position that we ought to person-engineer.

In a 2009 article for The Global Spiral, Mark Walker distinguishes between “world-engineering” and “person-engineering.” Although Walker explicates the latter in terms of “[creating] persons who are smarter and more virtuous than we are,” one could interpret person-engineering as the process of modifying the human organism using technologies that are classifiable as either enhancive or therapeutic (although I take this binarism to be vague in nontrivial ways).

Walker then characterizes transhumanism as the biopolitical persuasion that sees both world- and person-engineering as morally acceptable, if not obligatory (i.e., we ought to engineer people). In contrast, the bioconservative position of Francis Fukuyama, for example, endorses technologies designed for world-engineering purposes but rejects those aimed at person-engineering - in particular, those technologies of an enhancive nature.

What can be said in favor of person-engineering? One argument that has not been discussed much in the literature - with one notable exception [PDF] - employs what evolutionary psychologists call the “adaptive lag hypothesis.” This hypothesis asserts that the various psychological mechanisms comprising the human mind (although this applies just as well to our bodies) evolved in and for a long-gone Pleistocene environment - specifically, image 1the African savannah where we lived for ~2.5 million years in small, kin-based “bands.” In the argot of evolutionary psychology, this is referred to as our “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA).

Since the first agricultural revolution, and especially since the eighteenth century industrial revolution, though, our environment has undergone radical transformations. The post-industrial milieu of late modernity is, by all accounts, significantly different from our EEA. This means that, because natural selection is a relatively slow mechanism that operates on extended transgenerational timescales, we should not expect the human organism to be especially suited to the contemporary world. (Indeed, one should expect the degree of organism-environment (mis-)match to correspond to the rate of environmental change such that if the change is fast, the adaptive lag will be great, while if the change is slow, the lag will be minimal.)

The result is a plethora of “diseases of civilization.” Consider, for example, the peculiar fact that, since nearly all of our food is externally “digested” through cooking, most modern individuals require their wisdom teeth to be surgically removed (impacted wisdom teeth can have significant health consequences); or that many people today suffer from allergies, such as food allergies, which are apparently on the rise. Other conditions that were virtually unheard of by our hunter-gatherer ancestors include Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, atherosclerosis, cancer, and so on.

image 2The same can be said for the many psychopathologies that afflict citizens of the contemporary world. As the Harvard psychiatrist Gregg Jacobs claims, “the root cause of modern stress is the discrepancy between [the] modern world and ancestral world.” Consider the case of “social phobia,” for example. While the DSMIV classifies this as an anxiety disorder, Hofmann et al. have argued that social phobia may be associated with “an evolved adaptive module that was once a necessary tool for survival.”

It follows from this that the very same individual who might have been perfectly well-adapted some 12,000 years ago - before our modus vivendi so drastically changed with the adoption of agriculture - could be classified today as mentally ill. (This gestures, incidentally, at the environmental relativism of adaptations: there are no adaptations simpliciter, there are only adaptations with respect to particular environments.) Or, as the humanist psychologist Erich Fromm once put it, “the very person who is considered healthy in the categories of an alienated world, from the humanistic standpoint appears as the sickest one.” Indeed, Fromm’s statement appears to have some truth from the anthropological standpoint as well, if the adaptive lag hypothesis is correct.

An interesting - and especially germane to the IEET’s Securing the Future Program - application of the adaptive lag hypothesis comes from a 2002 paper in which Christopher Williams examines “the perceptual and intellectual shortcomings arising from the disjuncture between our hunter-gatherer brain and the survival threats posed by the modern world.” Williams refers to this phenomenon as brain lag.

Thus, given that the cognitive system and sensorium of Homo sapiens have remained more or less unchanged for the past 30,000 years, a nontrivial number of risks facing us today - from low-level risks like UV radiation to the various global catastrophic risks associated with anticipated future technologies - are largely “invisible” to us, being either too big or too slow to effectively perceive them.

As Williams puts it, we “have evolved so that we readily comprehend the threats posed by: temperature extremes but not global climate change, small group behaviour but not the behaviour of global populations, dirt but not pollution, personal hatred but not fundamentalism,” and so on.

A good example might be the fluoridation of water: about 60% of the American population today ingests fluoride in the public water supply. The problem is that while fluoride is known to have effective cavity-fighting properties - indeed, the CDC listed water fluoridation as one of the top ten “great public health achievements of the 20th century” - there is a growing mass of empirical data [PDF] linking water fluoridation to low IQ, especially in children.

Whatever the neurological effects of fluoride are exactly, Williams argues that the antifluoridationists lost the debate - at least for now - simply because the good effects of fluoride are more perceptible than the time-latent, sometimes merely “subclinical” neurological effects that apparently result from the ingestion of fluoride. We have our Stone Age brains to thank for this, Williams claims.

What can be done about this? Williams proposes what he calls “enhanced difference” as a solution to the problem of brain lag. The method of enhanced difference involves modifying information about risks to make them more detectable to the human sensorium. Thus, risks deriving from global climate change, global population growth, pollution, and so on, can be rendered more visible to the perceptually “maladapted” individual.

Williams then concludes by noting that “for millions of years the risk-learning process has principally been through natural selection. [...] Our genome did the fundamental learning, not us. That situation has changed radically [since] natural selection has probably ceased. The human genome is not attuned to the new security risks, and probably now never will be. As a species and as individuals, how we learn about risks is how we survive.” This is, indeed, why Williams advocates a comprehensive learning program in which the method of enhanced difference is central.
image 3
But natural selection is not the only way to bring about changes in the human genome, of course. This is where Walker’s notion of person-engineering enters the picture. The idea here is - to borrow an apposite phrase from Norbert Weiner  - that “we have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment” (emphasis added).

As many transhumanists have discussed, such modification would involve assuming the evolutionary role of natural selection by “reflexively” modifying our own observable features - that is, either by using technology as a means to induce changes or by actually integrating technology into our biology to produce “biotechnological hybrids,” or cyborgs (see here and here). The contemporary milieu would thus become the EEA of these human-designed cyborgs.

Most intriguing, in my view, is the possibility of person-engineering to produce future individuals - call them “posthumans” - that are better able to detect and analyze the many “invisible” risks of the 21st century, especially those of a global catastrophic nature. Although Williams does not consider it, the creation of posthumans could, at least in theory, provide a more robust solution to the problem of brain lag than Williams’ solution of enhanced difference: rather than devising more effective techniques to educate the public, maybe a better strategy would be to engineer organisms better suited to the specific environments in which they live. That is, maybe the best answer is phylogenetic rather than ontogenetic.

In sum, the adaptive lag hypothesis seems to offer a reasonable point-of-departure for the transhumanist argument that we ought to person-engineer. But more work needs to be done.


“known to have effective cavity-fighting properties” - people like to say this, but no one can provide a clinical study to back up the claim.  If fluoride had the ability to fight cavities, nowhere would this fabulous myth be more apparent other than the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which has been almost 100% fluoridated for some time now.  The CDC gives Kentucky awards for being so very “optimally fluoridated.”  However, for their efforts, the population of Kentucky now has one of the highest rates of dental cavities, as well as one of highest rates of complete toothlessness in the entire US.  Presumably, their cavity rate drops after their teeth all fall out.

I like!
Who wants to be the first ‘Lawnmower Man’?

Thank you, Philippe, for another thoughtful essay raising the uneven quality of discourse on this site.

Adaptive lag is well known and taken for granted in some circles, with the understanding that slower processes of adaptation at the biological level are already being subsumed by a more agile layer of adaptations at the cultural level.

For fundamental systems- and information-theoretic reasons, ongoing meaningful growth requires not just improvement at any particular scale, but transition to a larger scale of organization. 

Efforts at the level of the human organism will be out-competed by the greater “flow” available by developments exploiting synergies at higher levels of organization.

For the purpose of promoting our present but evolving values into the future we create, we’ll do much better by working in the direction of a technologically amplified “cultural cortex”, not to “direct” our path toward any imagined goal but to minimize our mis-steps into an inherently uncertain future.

Actually, fluoride may harden outer enamel; but it doesn’t prevent tooth decay; it hides it.  Studies showing reduced decay rates are done upon visual examination.  However, when dentists pick at sound-looking-enamel, they sometimes “explode” open revealing a cavity too small to be seen on x-rays and unseen with the naked eye.

Electronic equipment, eg the diagnodent, reveals these hidden cavities or “fluoride bombs” as dentists call them.  Teeth aren’t solid and decay seeps into the interior of the tooth regardless of how hard the outer enamel is.

If/when we person-engineer, it will likely be harder to add in the ability to comprehend global warming, than to build in adaptation to changing climate. In other words, hacking the mind seems further off than hacking the body.
While we certainly suffer from adaptive lag, evolution is still going on, and perhaps more rapidly than ever thanks to accelerated change, large population, and globalization. That is not fast enough to close the adaptive gap, but the phenomenon, while slow and by design trans-generational, is ongoing.

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