Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Don't Play God? Someone Has To.

One very energetic group of opponents to technological advance and bioengineering happens to be composed of people who believe that the human race lives under the concern and protection of a benevolent deity. In their view, tinkering with something that this god made and called "good," is not only an affront to this god but also a path to destruction. The problem with this point of view is that science has proven it wrong. Throughout the history of life on this planet, species have come and gone. Nature does not care about perpetuating our species.

Take a look at an excellent article by Sam Harris, featured on RichardDawkins.Net entitled "Mother Nature is Not Our Friend." A brief excerpt:
The fossil record suggests that individual species survive, on average, between one and ten million years. The concept of a "species" is misleading, however, and it tempts us to think that we, as homo sapiens, have arrived at some well-defined position in the natural order. The term "species" merely designates a population of organisms that can interbreed and produce fertile offspring; it cannot be aptly applied to the boundaries between species (to what are often called "intermediate" or "transitional" forms). There was, for instance, no first member of the human species, and there are no canonical members now. Life is a continuous flux. Our nonhuman ancestors bred, generation after generation, and incrementally begat what we now deem to be the species homo sapiens — ourselves. There is nothing about our ancestral line or about our current biology that dictates how we will evolve in the future. Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way. Very likely, they will not resemble us. We will almost certainly transform ourselves, likely beyond recognition, in the generations to come.

Will this be a good thing? The question presupposes that we have a viable alternative. But what is the alternative to our taking charge of our biological destiny? Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature? I once believed this. But we know that Nature has no concern for individuals or for species. Those that survive do so despite Her indifference. While the process of natural selection has sculpted our genome to its present state, it has not acted to maximize human happiness; nor has it necessarily conferred any advantage upon us beyond the capacity raise the next generation to child-bearing age. In fact, there may be nothing about human life after the age of forty (the average lifespan until the 20th century) that has been selected by evolution at all. And with a few exceptions (e.g. the gene for lactose tolerance), we probably haven't adapted to our environment much since the Pleistocene.
Sam Harris makes a profound point. The continuation of what we call human is not a given. If we do not play god on our own behalf, who will?

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glen said...

"Those that survive do so despite Her indifference."

Really? How about because of?
absence of compulsion to or toward one thing or another-
may this be linked to free will....are you confusing non-interference with indifference. We are givers/takers, known as sharers...nature gives/takes as well...nature shares not just indifference.

glen said...

And what's up with humanizing nature? Her? Indifference?
Nature is nature.f

Barry Mahfood said...

Would it make you feel better if he said "the laws of physics lead to a system that operates thusly....."

He's just using a simpler means of saying the same thing.

As to your first comment, nature feels nothing toward humanity. Indifference is just another way of saying that.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the perpetuation of our species is not an unqualified good. If you work under the assumption that it is, then this article makes sense. If you don't, then not so much.