February 10, 2003

"Every biological invention is a perversion"

Melvin Konner on treatment versus enhancement in The American Prospect in 1999. Though Konner doesn't say it in so many words, this distinction --- between repairing defects that keep people from being normal, and enhancing normal people --- is a relic from when we couldn't do much of either, but it was more obvious we couldn't do much if you if you weren't broken. Of course, people would always like to be better adapted than they are, so there were always people (yogis, alchemists, Plato, etc.) claiming to be able to do it, but they were all bullshiting. We have no mores about human enhancement because we've never needed them. Almost...

I have to wear glasses to see even as far as this screen. I'm fat, weak, forgetful, gullible, easily distracted, clumsy, unperceptive and immensely ignorant. One on one, a teenage child from almost any foraging band could make mincemeat of me. Fortunately, I confront such people only as part of my society, which is a cunning, attentive, scheming, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-devouring death-machine. In fact, I'm helping this terrifying beast implacably consume the remaining foraging societies right now, as part of my job, in ways I barely even realize, and could easily ignore for the rest of my life. Collectively, we're all about being better adapted than primates have any right to be. I can't think of a single civilization which has persistently held that enhancing social power is bad. (This is not to say that people haven't rejected innovations which would've enhanced overall social power, because they wouldn't have gotten to wield it.)

Now that we actually have the start of a clue how our bodies and minds work, we can see how to improve them. This ability will grow as we get more clueful, and we'll become both more effective and more efficient. (Athletes are fairly effective at making their bodies do admirable, unnatural things, but they have to spend their whole life working at reshaping their muscles and cerebellum.) There are lots of reasons for not wanting people to use efficient, biochemical means of adaptation, but most of the common ones are pretty bad. "Going against nature" is absurd coming from any member of an industrial society (see above). The argument that it would set off an arms race, where previously normal people get pushed to the bottom of the heap, has more merit. But consider the counter-scenario (implicit in Konner's article). Someone develops a pill to make people taller, or faster studies, or improve their muscle tone, or expand their chests, or keep their hair, or whatever. The anti-arms-race position is that those who are currently short (slow-witted, flabby, flat, balding, etc.) should continue to suffer, lest those who are now normal lose their superior relative position!

Biology; The Natural Science of the Human Species; The Great Transformation

Posted at February 10, 2003 23:45 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth