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Better Babies Through Evolution? Richard Weikart on the Siren Song of Transhumanism


Thanks to “advances” in technology, we’re turning over a frightening future to our children and grandchildren. On one hand, there is the world of the Internet and the wilderness of glowing screens, which in a couple of decades have already done so much to degrade, numb, misinform, isolate, and addict us.

DeathofHumanity3D.jpgOn the other hand, there is the prospect of technological “fixes” for everything that’s deficient about us, from the medical to the moral.

Which is the scarier? I would instinctively say the former, but our colleague the historian Richard Weikart raises an alarm about the latter — the siren song of transhumanism. Engineering better humans by taking control of evolution sounds likes “science fiction,” says Weikart, whose new book is The Death of Humanity. And fiction it may be. But before that is realized, it could do plenty of damage.

Writing at the online journal Public Discourse, Weikart examines the thought of Oxford University philosopher Julian Savulescu (“Can We Make Ourselves More Moral? Designer Babies, Hormone Therapy, and the New Eugenics of Transhumanism“). Professor Savulescu is against designing babies for enhanced intelligence, but advocates it for enhancing morality.

What could go wrong? A lot, argues Weikart. For one thing, under the materialist view shared by most transhumanists, there can no objective notion of morality in the first place — in the sense of standards of right and wrong that transcend our natural, material existence:

According to [Savulescu’s] account, morality is the product of biological evolution, and he seems to agree with most biologists and evolutionary psychologists that these are mindless, purposeless processes. If a non-teleological process produced human morality, then how can we find a measuring rod for morality outside of nature that allows us to prefer “moral” behaviors to “immoral” behaviors? Savulescu insists that we can “liberate ourselves from evolution,” but it is unclear where we can acquire the moral fulcrum to do that.

Savulescu has no objective grounds for choosing which specific behaviors to favor. Like many evolutionary psychologists, he discusses the evolutionary advantages of various altruistic behaviors, but he rarely mentions that selfish behavior, wars, racism, atrocities, rape, and many other kinds of immorality are also a natural part of human history. Indeed, there are evolutionary explanations for these kinds of behavior, too. If both selfishness and altruism have evolved simultaneously, and both have benefitted individuals in the struggle for existence, why should we think that one is superior to the other? Indeed, some biologists have insisted that selfishness is every bit as important as altruism in advancing the well-being of individuals or species.

What if these biologists are right? What if making our children more selfish would help them in the struggle for existence and human flourishing, providing them a healthier, happier life? In that case, according to Savulescu’s own teaching about designer babies, we would have strong moral reasons to genetically engineer our children to be more selfish. Savulescu thinks that increased cooperation is preferable to selfishness, but how does he conjure up a rationale for it, since he seems committed to a naturalistic understanding of the origin of morality?

If we examine other moral characteristics, we run into the same problem: what grounds do we have for preferring one over the other? For instance, in one article Savulescu notes that compared to men, women have a lower tendency to harm other people. Because of this, he suggests that “we could make men more moral by biomedical methods by making them more like women.” Even if this sexist version of evolutionary psychology proves to be accurate, why should we prefer female empathy to male aggression? Why assume that empathy will lead to greater human thriving and welfare than aggression?

Such doubts aside, the science of transhumanism seems dubious. But where the possibility of implementation does exist, it would quite possibly involve coercion and other undemocratic means. Or worse. Weikart reminds us:

Even if we could screen for genetic moral traits, the primary ways to produce designer babies are embryo selection and selective abortion. Savulescu argues that since we already allow embryo selection and selective abortions to eliminate embryos and fetuses having diseases, there should be nothing objectionable about using these methods to choose other genetic traits, such as intelligence or empathy. For those who embrace the pro-life view, Savulescu’s suggestion that we should make the world “more moral” by killing off those who are “less moral” is simply grotesque.

The fact that all this is so far technological fantasy may be its lone saving grace.

Image: Odysseus and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse via Wikipedia.