Printed: 2019-09-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Why We Need to Cheat Darwin

Ben Scarlato

Ethical Technology

August 22, 2010

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.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837