15 October 2010

Radically improving nature

Filed under: death, evolution, UKH+ — David Wood @ 10:50 pm

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man – George Bernard Shaw

Changing the world is ambitious.  Changing nature is even more ambitious.

After all, nature is the output of countless generations of refinement by natural selection.  Evolution has found many wonderful solutions.  But natural selection generally only finds local optima.  As I’ve written on a previous occasion:

In places where an intelligent (e.g. human) designer would “go back to the drawing board” and introduce a new design template, biological evolution has been constrained to keep working with the materials that are already in play.  Biological evolution lacks true foresight, and cannot do what human designers would call “re-factoring an existing design”.

And as I covered in my review “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature” of the book by Gary Marcus, “Kluge – the haphazard construction of the human mind”:

The basic claim of the book is that many aspects of the human mind operate in clumsy and suboptimal ways – ways which betray the haphazard and often flawed evolutionary history of the mind….

The framework is, to me, both convincing and illuminating.  It provides a battery of evidence relevant to what might be called “The Nature Delusion” – the pervasive yet often unspoken belief that things crafted by nature are inevitably optimal and incapable of serious improvement.

For these reasons, I applaud thoughtful attempts to improve human nature – whether by education, meditation, diet and smart drugs, silicon co-processors for our biological brains, genetic re-engineering, and so on.  With sufficient overall understanding, we can use the best outputs of human thought to create even better humans.

But what about the rest of nature?  If we can consider creating better humans, what about creating better animals? If the technology of the near future can add 50 points, or more, to our human IQs, could we consider applying similar technological enhancements to dolphins, dogs, parrots, and so on?

There are various motivations to considering this question.  First, there are people who deeply love their pets, and who might wish to enhance the capabilities of their pets, in a manner akin to enhancing the capabilities of their children.  Someone might wonder, if my dog could speak to me, what would it say?

In a way, the experiments to teach chimps sign language already take steps down this direction.  (Some chimps that learned sign language seem in turn to have taught elements of it to their own children.)

A different motivation to consider altering animal nature is the sheer amount of horrific pain and trauma throughout the animal kingdom.  Truly is “nature, red in tooth and claw“.

In his essay “The end of suffering“, British philosopher David Pearce quotes Richard Dawkins from the 1995 book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life:

During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying from starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

But Pearce takes issue with Dawkins:

“It must be so.” Is Richard Dawkins right? Are the cruelties of the food chain an inescapable fact of Nature: no more changeable than, say, Planck’s constant or the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The Transhumanist Declaration expresses our commitment to the “well-being of all sentience”. Yet do these words express merely a pious hope – or an engineering challenge?

My own recent work involves exploring some of the practical steps entailed by compassionate ecosystem redesign – cross-species immunocontraception, genomic rewrites, cultured meat, neurochips, global surveillance and wildlife tracking technologies, and the use of nanorobots for marine ecosystems. Until this century, most conceivable interventions to mitigate the horrors of Nature “red in tooth and claw” would plausibly do more harm than good. Rescue a herbivore [“prey”] and a carnivore [“predator”] starves. And if, for example, we rescue wild elephants dying from hunger or thirst, the resultant population explosion would lead to habitat degradation, Malthusian catastrophe and thus even greater misery. Certainly, the computational power needed to micromanage the ecosystem of a medium-sized wildlife park would be huge by today’s standards. But recall that Nature supports only half a dozen or so “trophic levels”; and only a handful of “keystone predators” in any given habitat. Creating a truly cruelty-free living world may cost several trillion dollars or more. But the problem is computationally tractable within this century – if we acknowledge that wild animal suffering matters.

David’s fan page on Facebook boldly includes the forecast:

“I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world”

Unreasonable? Probably. Scientifically credible? Perhaps. Noble? Definitely. Radical? This is about as radical as it gets. Thoughtful? Read David’s own writings and make up your own mind.

Alternatively, if you’re in or nearby London, come along to this month’s UKH+ meeting (tomorrow, Saturday 16th October), where David will be the main speaker.  He wrote the following words to introduce what he’ll be talking about:

The Transhumanist Declaration advocates “the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.” Yet is “the well-being of all sentience” serious science – or just utopian dreaming? What does such a commitment entail? On what kind of realistic timeframe might we command enough computational power to police an entire ecosystem?

In this talk, the speaker wants to review recent progress in understanding the neurobiology of pleasure, pain and our core emotions. Can mastery of our reward circuitry ever deliver socially responsible, intelligent bliss rather than crude wireheading? He also wants to examine and respond to criticisms of the abolitionist project that have been levelled over the past decade – and set out the biggest challenges, as he sees them, to the prospect of a totally cruelty-free world.


  1. While there is , of course, much truth in what you are saying, David, your arguments come unstuck on two points in particular.

    The first is the mis-perception that nature’s processes are optimised only on a local basis. In reality, there is every indication that they are, in fact, optimised on a global rather than a local basis.

    We mistakenly interpret it as local only because our considerations are skewed by our usual anthropocentric mind-set.

    The workings of nature’s machinery are not geared specifically for the benefit of our species.

    Our shared imagination being the medium in which the present phase of technological evolution takes place, however, certainly endows us with much welcome spin-off, and, if we get our act together, may continue to do so after that point in the not very distant future when our species has become redundant.

    The second crucial point concerns nature’s “not going back to the drawing board”. Its actually a phrase I use myself quite often but we have to be very careful not to stretch the metaphor too far. For these reasons:

    1. We, of course, assume that we have this amazing capability to “design” things. After all, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But here’s the catch of anthropocentrism tripping us up again. Without launching into a lengthy exposition here I will just point out that while, let’s say, your latest smart-phone, is, of course, not a self replicating entity with an intrinsic evolutionary capacity, these devices certainly show an evolutionary pattern. Simply because the real evolving entity is that of ideas within the pool of shared human imagination.

    Just as the heart or the liver or the big toe are expressions of genes, the smart-phone or the motorcycle or xenon hexafluoroplatinate are expressions of ideas. The gene and the idea are the evolving entities.

    Now, when you “go back to the drawing board” to “design” your “improved” version you will be using an integral of a multitude of tiny ideas that have accumulated exponentially over the millenia. I know its uncomfortable to think that way, but that just happens to be the way it works. I apologise for any dents in your ego. Wasserman & Blumberg as well as Henry Petroski, have some interesting things to say in this regard.,

    2. There is one sense in which nature does “go back to the drawing board”. If we look at biological evolution, we see that, driven by chance(and gravity!) the underlying process equates to: generate a mutation, test that new version of the phenotype under the prevailing conditions. If advantageous or neutral then proceed. If not, “go back to the drawing board” and try the next mutation.
    I would not like to carry this analogy too far, but I think it gives the flavour.

    A more detailed account of all this is presented in my latest book “The Goldilocks Effect” which will be available next week. A successor to “Unusual Perspectives” it is, in response to feed-back, dumbed down, trimmed of excess fat and thus more concise, but nevertheless contains much fresh material. (Unlike UP, though, it is not available for free download) More info to be found on the re-vamped website.

    With regard to the preservation and cosseting of all sentient beings, by the way, do we extend this to such as the smallpox virus, the malarial parasite and so forth?

    Comment by Peter G Kinnon — 16 October 2010 @ 2:23 am

    • Hi Peter,

      You say that “nature’s processes are … optimised on a global rather than a local basis”.

      What’s optimal about the horrendously long route taken by the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe – as strikingly demoed and discussed in this video by Richard Dawkins?

      You also say, “Now, when you ‘go back to the drawing board’ to ‘design your ‘improved’ version you will be using an integral of a multitude of tiny ideas that have accumulated exponentially over the millenia. I know its uncomfortable to think that way, but that just happens to be the way it works”

      It’s not ‘uncomfortable’ to think that way. I don’t think any human designer will consider it a dent in their ego to realise that, in their new design, they are drawing on many previous ideas from numerous other people. They are generally “proud to copy” (though they may not all follow Nokia’s Anssi Vanjoki in articulating this so explicitly). But they key point is this: human designers have the ability to combine these different ideas together in dramatically new ways, jumping across gulfs in the total design space. Evolution by natural selection, in contrast, cannot jump these gulfs in the same direct way.

      Comment by David Wood — 16 October 2010 @ 8:55 am

  2. I am well aware of the example you have given, which is but one of many examples of the way nature’s processes proceed by what we perceive as bodges. That is indeed the very essence of the biological phase of evolution. As I indicated previously,the fundamental mechanism is replication, chance introduction of copying errors and, importantly, subjecting the mutant variations to the prevailing environment. It is, of course, the last component which gives the evolutionary process its directionality. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms the additional shuffling of genes that results produces a further source of variation but the same filtering by prevailing conditions applies. The giraffe of your example works just fine. Thats why it survives, Nature gets the job done. Even on “spin-off” species such as this.

    But, you see, the more important aspect, that of carrying forward the wider evolutionary process that observably extends from stellar nucleosynthesis to our present technologies and can be safely projected into the next phase which is arising from the internet, it also gets that job done. That is the global aspect of optimisation.

    To return to the present technological phase of evolution. While there is a close functional similarity of the evolution of ideas the mechanisms are not, of course, identical. A failure to appreciate this was the downfall of the memeticist movement.

    In “The Goldilocks Effect” I propose that there are no true inventors. Merely individuals who happen to be in the right place at the right time and with the right motivation to fit together the pre-existing ideas continuously evolving in the background in tiny steps and are ripe for the picking.

    Of course you may like to think of yourself having some kind of divine inspiration and soaring across great gulfs in design space, but I suspect that if you are totally honest with yourself and think such situations through in sufficient detail, you will find that the more prosaic situation really applies.

    Anyway, if such matters interest you, the book will be available next week next week.

    Comment by Peter G Kinnon — 16 October 2010 @ 10:16 am

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