Human nature ought to be changed. Humans have evolved to be what humans are, but that does not justify that humans stay as humans, we, now are. The difference between what-is and what-ought to be is an ethical distinction which led to the legislated end of slavery, child workers, and violent machismo. What was once normal, became banned. As the historical record—and continual abuses—show those what-is facts of pain and violence and suffering are well within the purview of human nature. (Treating each epoch as it were a person leads to different, irreconcilable, opinions.) Yet the rise of liberalism, feminism, and rights are also in the purview of human nature. ‘Nature’ is all that is possible. None the less, we think of culture and nature being opposed. Nature as what humans have the potential impulse to do; culture as what (dumb and fragile) humans learn to, and not to, do from experience.
We evolved a reverence for human nature as-it-is because, for all its foibles, human nature has many evolutionary stable strategies which have led to our proliferation and dominance of this planet. We are biased in favour of our own human position and the status-quo because it has served us well. Yet with the threats of ecological devastation, global warming, and potential nuclear war those evolutionary stable strategies are ill-advised. Consider: if each human (billions) had access to the warheads button. The world would be destroyed. The traits of recklessness, fragility, selfishness, and anger which have been evolutionarily advantageous to genes rather than people, would be a disaster on the scale of such technology. In fact, because of these negative traits global warming, ecological devastation and nuclear threat are realities. For citizens do not act against them en-masse (a sin of inaction) and governments do not democratically allow citizens control of what they do not understand. For the greater the size and incidence of the hazard the greater the risk; most humans are fundamentally good and would not click the button, but some in a time of distress, simple error, or anger would eventually click self-destruct. If that hazard were as common as handguns, given the number of horrible shootings, just imagine. It is good to remember: no hazard, no risk
Think of a hazard like CO2 emissions or littering. The less flashy damage of climate change and ecological devastation carries on with everyone contributing. When laypeople are asked to assess a climate model they are, often, incapable of looking far into a future without them in it. Without them in the picture – or a close heir – it does not matter that needless suffering will happen. Without our genes in play, there is little play of interest at all. (On a similar note, the nervous system pain of creatures does not matter because they are useful and tasty to us. We may sympathise with them, but we do not empathise with them. That is, if we are most people, not yet vegans or vegetarians.)
We evolved for a small community of around 150, easily defined conventions, and short-term interests. Our culture has evolved to be nice, likely because of material abundance. In books like The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker and Behave: Humans At Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky, it becomes clear each generation has become more moral and considerate, on average. For thousands of years, underclass ownership of slaves and women and children was normal—and they were traded on the economic market. Common bloodsports, atypical mental-state persecution, domestic violence, and the default-response of warfare are now statistical rarities.
Things are getting better, with humans embracing the mass invention of 242-year-old (two a half centenarians’ lives!) rights. I say that age-old because though they were invented earlier than that—reworked, really—from Christian equal-souled theology by John Locke, they were enshrined in that year by the Founding Fathers of The USA. The fact that rights of many other kinds came after a constitution which stressed white men and ownership is a credit, still, to the rapidity of progress. It took the depravity of world war 2 to invent The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The real challenge of our era is bioethics. For while progress is happening might it not be a sin of inaction to not take away the pain children may feel, and to erase the dormant nastier aspects of their human nature? Imagine a world where everyone indeed could be genetically engineered to not embrace short-sighted selfishness like global warming quietism, the acceptance of nuclear weapons, or the mass murder of animals, or being horrible to others? What if the tendency to tribalism and racism and sexism could be rooted out, or least mitigated, at the source? If, as neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky says our bad actions are as much a matter of biology as our brain-imprinted habit to brush our teeth then perhaps it would be advisable to alter that biology for the greater good?
If our brain is not equipped with a fully working prefrontal cortex until twenty-five (it is not) perhaps we ought to engineer that prefrontal cortex to limit the mistakes it can make? (Otherwise is it not like blaming someone for being short?) We rightly blame political systems and cultures, yet the difference between nature and culture is not so binary as we may think. If humans were indeed engineered it would create a different culture. One arguably better so long as it increased happiness for the greater number, and decreased suffering in turn. To the contrary of limiting freedom, changing the biology of a psychopath would be liberating for everyone, psychopath included; just as administering interfering Ritalin to ADHD sufferers prevents them from acting out; just as neurological depressives require antidepressants to be charming company; and removing the hazard removes the risk and any pangs of victim’s suffering and perpetrator’s guilt.
Just so long as the biological did not remove focus from the sociological: childhood is when we must learn through experience. If we are never taught something through experience, we ought not to be expected to know it ‘by [universal] nature’ or ‘universal intuition’.
In A Clockwork Orange the main—psychopath—character Alex is conditioned so that he feels pain in response to horrible acts. He, like Pavlov’s dog, comes to associate suffering with his bad behaviour, where a neurotypical person would feel the pain of empathy or remorse already. Author Anthony Burgess likes to imply that since this morality is forced that it is not genuine ‘chosen’ morality, and ultimately cannot work as an ethical or moral approach. Yet, the approach would work, if rather than feeling pain in response to sadist stimuli Alex felt revulsion and empathy—or even indifference rather than excitement. In his case changing his nature deeply rather than shallowly, would be a good act to alleviate pain.
I believe this would be the stance of bio-enhancement supporter Julian Savulescu, a professor of practical ethics at Oxford University. It is part of a trend from positive psychology; in the past, we have focused on mitigating the bad rather than preventing the bad and increasing the good. Where health and goodness have focused on remedying and disciplining, one ought to focus more on the promotion of holistic health and goodness. Rather than use genetic engineering to mitigate or screen-out painful disease merely, we could just as well use it to promote pleasure and health; and to screen-out selfishness while promoting altruism.
We have evolved responses to things we do not understand as an ‘ew’ or ‘yuck’ response, for example with designer babies it—for some—just does not feel right. Novel technologies for creating gene machines (humans) do not seem ideal, and for those without exposure to the new technology, perhaps yucky. But that yuck response is only intuition rather than reason: combining DNA artificially may be weird (read: different), unnatural (read: new), or ‘playing God’ (read: hacking what we are), but that does not entail that it is not right if it brings pleasure and happiness and only the pain of superficial disapproval from others. Such disapproval was once the case for extramarital sex and childbirth out of wedlock, androgeny, gender fluidity and homosexuality; none of which are in any way bad. Not in any objective pain calculus. To the contrary of prejudicial norms, they are good for they allow happiness and pleasure and freedom.
Consider: if those designer babies, who may become reality, felt better about being alive than current babies, happier, healthier, fitter, smarter and so on—how would that not be better? Of course, there is the risk that the rich would dominate technology and it creates a super-class, but if the strictures of moral, that is kind, altruistic, generous, forgiving, and so forth babies were created how could the old template of class domination apply? It could well be like having Vulcans—a Star Trek race with a greater pre-frontal cortex—guide us, with the unupgraded humans actually causing the upset and inequality that they do today.
There is, of course, a great problematic dynamic to changing humans biological nature to make everyone better behaved or feel better about existing. As with the dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Lois Lowry’s The Giver, would pills that go beyond ameliorative antidepressants to happiness creating pills be best for everyone to take? Would a society where citizens are censored from pain and risky privacy from a young age be better for everyone overall? The difference between Utopia and Dystopia is not as binary as we have been told. Reality is far messier than the frameworks and words we overlay upon it. (I for one quite like the ignorant life of the Buddha before he left the palace. The blue pill is sweet. Ignorance is bliss.)
There is the belief, however, that the new technologies, Crispr9, which we deem bad or worrying we can prevent from taking over. If we don’t want designer babies, we ban them. Yet with the advent of new technologies becoming more democratically accessible this is less and less likely to hold true. All it takes is one research lab to overstep the mark, perhaps in competition with other nations—like China considers itself to be—for a domino effect of research competition to lead to more risky technologies. Akin to the war on drugs—trying to erase seems ineffective; having the state tailor the drugs and, analogously, drip-feed access to changing biological natures seems least bad.
After all, the scientific-industrial-complex is so complex that it is subject to the sociological phenomenon called emergence: we do not understand the sum of parts, we do not know who decides how technologies and ethics make paradigm shifts. Often, it happens and normalcy and acceptance come after the fact, and indisputably. No one asks if we want self-driving cars; they are coming. They are more efficient. The few voices who want designer babies will—with relaxation and familiarity around intimidating technologies—likely lead to designer babies and indeed more voices for designer babies in a loop. It won’t be a black and white issue, but perhaps the grey could be wielded to a lighter shade, to make humans more ethical and decrease the pain in the world. Then it would—as far as we can tell with chaotic biology—be more good, than bad.
It may take 300 years, but it will likely happen. For our childrens’ children, it may be as normal as toothbrushes.