4. Objections.

No 30

"Suppose that biotechnology really does give birth to an entirely new reproductive era. Suppose that humanity really is destined, as claimed in HI, for an era of ubiquitous designer babies - the so-called post-Darwinian transition. This transition may not be to an era of paradise-engineering. The biological basis of suffering may never be abolished. For if prospective parents are free to choose the attributes of their children, their typical priority will not be the creation of offspring who are innately happy. Instead, innumerable "pushy" parents will continue to seek children who are smarter, better-looking, competitively driven, more "successful" - and choose genotypes to match. Such parental bias can be explained, ultimately, by evolutionary psychology. At present, of course, prospective parents can't directly select allelic combinations of genes that promote such traits. In tomorrow's genetic supermarket, they may have an opportunity to do so. But if so, then selection pressure - albeit artificial or "unnatural" selection pressure - will favour exaggerated versions of traits that were adaptive in the old Darwinian era of natural selection. The outcome of the imminent reproductive revolution won't be a civilisation founded on genetically pre-programmed bliss."

Assume, plausibly, that within a few decades prospective parents will be able to choose the genetic dial settings for their kids' emotional well-being - the average "set-point" on our emotional thermostat around which well-being (or ill-being) tends to fluctuate. Grant too the key premise of the objection: many parents do indeed care far more about the worldly "success" of their children than their personal (un)happiness. This doesn't entail that the substrates of suffering will be re-created indefinitely. Even parents for whom the emotional well-being of their offspring is trivial - of no more significance than, say, choice of eye colour - are still likely to opt for higher rather than lower dial settings on the hedonic treadmill i.e. alleles and allelic combinations that predispose their children to flourish. For most parents do prefer, on balance, their children to be temperamentally happy rather than miserable, even if happiness is only one desired attribute among many - perhaps not the most important - and in some instances perhaps only a minor or incidental trait. "I don't care what [s]he does when [s]he grows up, so long as [s]he's happy" expresses, not a revolutionary sentiment, but a clich├ęd platitude of Western liberal society. This preference is explicable in part because happiness, and the spectrum of behavior associated with the "winning sub-routine", is positively correlated with social dominance and reproductive success. Ambitious parents certainly don't want to produce "losers". Depressive or anxiety-ridden kids can't compete effectively against their peers. A tendency to low mood, and the spectrum of subordinate behaviour with which depression is associated, may have been genetically adaptive for low-status tribal weaklings on the African savannah. For depressive behaviour, contingently activated, can be a viable fallback strategy for stressed low-status tribal animals in an adverse social environment. This may explain why depressive disorders are so common. But a genetic predisposition to low spirits, or at least anything like unipolar depression as distinct from bipolarity, is not part of an optimal reproductive strategy for potential "winners". If intelligently engineered, a genetically enhanced sense of well-being is empowering. Its behavioural phenotypes are potentially far more adaptive than the predisposition to learned helplessness and behavioural despair characteristic of the depressive spectrum. So in the new reproductive era, pushy parents in particular are likely to shun depressive genotypes. What guise their children's well-being may take is another question. True emotional enrichment transcends the simple-minded recipes discussed here - mere modulations of the old Darwinian repertoire of sadness, happiness, disgust, fear, jealousy, anger and loneliness. Indeed the enriched emotional palette of our descendants may assume textures conceptually unimaginable to primordial Darwinian lifeforms. Our post-human successors may be rapturously happy about things we've never dreamed of, in ways we can't imagine, and in a conceptual scheme that hasn't yet been invented. But in today's terms, parents who are ambitious in a conventional sense for their family may seek an egoistic rather than empathetic kind of well-being for their children. Such parents may also favour (genotypes predisposing to) hypomanic exuberance rather than serene happiness. Backwood-looking parents may even opt to endow their children with functional analogues of older Darwinian traits, but set against a much higher emotional baseline. None of this suggests that parents will opt, in the long run, for allelic combinations whose expression induces suffering or even unpleasantness in their carriers - even if medical ethics committees were to license their (re-)creation. Aside from anything else, children who are genetically predisposed to be depressive, sour-tempered or brattish are less rewarding to raise than children who are abundantly joyful and loving. Pre-selecting one of the nastier Darwinian genotypes for one's progeny would be self-defeating. In an era of artificial selection, the partially heritable bundle of traits we call "lovability" promises to be highly adaptive for (post-)humans and their household pets alike.

         The above account inevitably falls short on detail. Empirical cross-cultural studies of the (partially) heritable characters most favoured by contemporary parents for their offspring may serve as a better guide to the nature of tomorrow's designer babies. However, such a yardstick implausibly assumes an absence of state regulation and control over parental genetic choices. Likewise, the question of the future intensity settings of genetically pre-programmed happiness is here left open. Oversimplifying hugely, and treating happiness on a crude one-dimensional scale, will successive generations of genetically enriched (post-)humans tend to be a bit happier, or blissfully happy, or orders of magnitude happier than their Darwinian ancestors, as predicted in HI? Most parents today, if pressed, might express a preference for their children to be very happy rather than happy; but only a minority of early adopters would opt for superkids who were constitutionally sublimely happy. Thus in the near future, the dial settings on enhanced kids' emotional thermostats will probably encode lives animated by (homeostatic gradients of) modest well-being rather than (homeostatic gradients of) sublime bliss. Analogously today, parents are typically most comfortable with the idea of rearing clever children rather than a family of geniuses. Yet as our conception of psychological health is enriched, so presumably will its socially acceptable norms. Ambitious parents usually aspire to a higher quality of life for their offspring than their own. This holds even though initially a comparative poverty of ambition may induce many parents to settle for comfortable mediocrity for their kids rather than mental superhealth. Perhaps this pleasure deficit will be remedied in our lifetime by somatic gene therapy and genetically personalised mood-enrichers; perhaps not. But ultimately our descendants are no more likely to pre-select genotypes coding for inherently nasty states of mind than they are likely to pre-select genotypes coding for neuropathic pain. The historical record notwithstanding, human perversity has its limits.

next


  • 4.31 ...persistence of "natural" reproducers with Darwinian genotypes means that suffering won't be abolished...
  • 4.32 ...cosmic HI? Some pitfalls...
  • 4.33 ...why stress gradients of well-being? Wouldn't permanent maximum bliss be ethically better...?
  • 4.34 ...why the headlong rush? Let's wait until we have the wisdom to understand the implications of what we're doing...
  • 4.35 ...the Simulation Argument suggests suffering can never be abolished...


    E-mail Dave : dave@hedweb.com