4. Objections.

No 31

"There is a flaw, possibly a fatal flaw, in HI. Yes, there probably will be a reproductive revolution. True, over time, prospective parents are unlikely to choose "nasty" genotypes for their children. Yes, this reproductive shift may even represent a major evolutionary transition in life on earth. But, critically, a large percentage of the population will presumably continue to have children by "natural" means - whether out of bioconservative ideology, religious conviction, or just normal teenage fecklessness. Among this percentage of natural reproducers, a large and unknown number of couples will themselves be the offspring of natural methods of reproduction. Therefore a lot of the nastier code in our old Darwinian genome will be retained, together with the propensity to suffering it entails. Perhaps the natural reproducers will eventually interbreed with mature designer babies of more distant posterity. Who knows what will be the long-term consequences of mixing rational re-design and a legacy genome? But either way, unless the ideology of abolitionism is universally adopted as a value system - or ruthlessly enforced by a coercive state apparatus of unprecedented intrusiveness into the female body - then the global abolition of suffering will be postponed indefinitely. HI is a nice idea. But it's hard to see how it could work."

The key premise of the Objection is probably correct. So long as any pure-bred Darwinians continue to procreate by natural means, then suffering in some form or other will persist. The persistence of suffering is inevitable if archaic humans also reject as "unnatural" (etc) the other two core technologies of mood-enhancement, i.e. wireheading and sustainable pleasure drugs. So what grounds are there for believing that natural reproduction as practised today will ever cease? This is quite a radical prediction. And even if the abolition of natural reproduction is technically feasible, isn't its disappearance too high a price to pay for mental superhealth and a cruelty-free world?

The reason for predicting that within a few centuries all human reproduction will be rigorously controlled, both in its timing and in its nature, stems from a second momentous technological revolution in prospect, namely the conquest of ageing. Whether you estimate that curing senescence will take another 100 years or 500 years, this genetic-cum-nanotechnological revolution is destined to sweep away the plague of human mortality. First on the horizon are interventions to prevent age-associated diseases (Alzheimer's, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, age-related memory decline, etc). Such primitive gene therapies are only the harbinger of a massive repair-and-renovation job on the human genome. This mega-project will tackle the fundamental biology of ageing itself. Replacing the biology of ageing is much more ambitious. Since rational design of the genome from scratch is impossible, we can only "bootstrap" our way to millennial lifespans - a formidable genetic challenge. But as the era of eternal youth unfolds, our descendants are not going to pre-select genotypes predisposing to ("for") age-associated diseases or senescence for their future offspring. Nor, realistically, are members of the older generation likely to shun rejuvenating somatic gene therapies for themselves. In consequence, the current slowdown in global population growth will reverse. The planet will fill up and approach the limits of its carrying capacity.

This physical constraint on our ability to multiply will recede but stays intact even if you think we are destined to colonise the galaxy, or even if (fancifully and implausibly) you think we are going to "upload" ourselves onto computers, or even if you think the sky's the limit and intelligent life is limited in its expansion potential only by our world's Bekenstein bound. Even if individual mobility and resource consumption weren't an issue either, since we'll all be plugged into immersive VR or an analogue of the Matrix (etc.), then this physical constraint still holds: if we phase out ageing and become quasi-immortals, then we'll quite literally run out of Lebensraum in the absence of strict reproductive controls. The libertarian will find these words as uncomfortable to read as they are to write.

HI ducks the question of the specific social and biomedical mechanisms regulating reproduction in a post-ageing society. This omission is deliberate: control of human reproduction, whether sexual or clonal, will be a generic feature of any post-ageing civilisation. The need for social mechanisms of reproductive control on pain of Malthusian catastrophe isn't a specific peculiarity of the abolitionist project. If (post-)humans aren't going to grow old and die, as we do today, then we can't go on having children at will indefinitely. A regime based on genetic Russian roulette will be replaced by an ethically responsible(?) policy of planned parenthood.

At what cost? Other things being equal, state-regulated birth-control might be expected to cause widespread and profound personal distress. Only a small minority of people in human society are happy to remain childless. Infertility causes much heartache. For most people, having children is to a greater or lesser degree our raison d'ĂȘtre. For evolutionary reasons, it would be astonishing if this were other than the case. We may fear death and growing old; but typically what makes life meaningful - and our death bearable - is the lives of our children and grandchildren. Thus as we're constituted at present, the spectre of restrictions on our right to procreate is a disturbing idea. An intimate realm of our lives that has hitherto been essentially private could be in danger of intrusion by the state. Even a Chinese-style one-child campaign strikes the Western mind as a draconian curb on personal freedom.

So how will this dilemma be resolved? At present, we may try and persuade ourselves that we wouldn't want to stay eternally youthful. But if the option of eternal youth or even its semblance were there, then it would be naïve to think most people wouldn't discard a lifetime of rationalisations and seize it. This bold statement might seem to imply a rather facile biotechnological determinism. For it is being assumed without argument that just because 1) we don't really want to grow old; and 2) technically it will be feasible to live indefinitely, we will therefore opt to do so - barring traumatic wetware accidents of course, though even here the use of prudent automated off-site self-backup policies should allow restores from last working copy. But for all its pitfalls, some sort of biotechnological determinism here is well-founded. Our fear of ageing, death and dying is simply too deeply rooted in the Darwinian psyche for us to perpetuate the senile holocaust into the era of mature genomic medicine. Renouncing the option of quasi-immortality may be conceivable in theory. Yet who'll opt to live (and die) as a disposable Darwinian "crumbly" if one can live and look like a Greek god?

The solution to the psychological dislocations such sustainable youth may entail is more likely to be biological than sociological. Just as biotechnology can potentially allow us to become better, more loving parents (e.g. by use of agents that induce oxytocin receptor gene overexpression, etc), so conversely biotech can curb the craving to have children when reproduction is infeasible. These techniques may be pharmacological or genetic or both. Godlike lifespans needn't have any adverse effects on our mental health; quite the reverse. Genetically enriched humans can feel utterly divine, not just look it. For lifelong well-being can potentially take many guises; and most forms of emotional enrichment won't entail living vicariously through the lives of our immediate biological descendants - natural as this habit of mind still seems in our late Darwinian world.

Switching on or off some of our deepest human desires sounds more like a dystopian nightmare than a recipe for paradise-engineering. Who is to orchestrate the switching; and how? No such hard choices are thrust upon us today. We just reproduce, decline into our dotage and then die. Yet re-engineering the human soul and body alike can still strike even secular minds as almost sacrilegious. We admire excellence in the design of inorganic technology even as we abhor its prospect in ourselves. But whatever the mechanisms, if we cure ageing and don't intervene to regulate other primordial human traits as well, then intolerable psychological stress and social conflict are presumably inevitable. All sorts of ugly scenarios can be envisaged if life-extension technologies are pursued in isolation from mental health research and therapeutic interventions to match.

Nothing in this analysis of a post-ageing world proves that the control (post-)human reproduction also entails the design of psychologically superwell (post-)humans. In overcoming ageing, it is possible if sociologically unlikely that we will opt to leave our repertoire of hunter-gatherer emotions unchanged - just as, conversely, it is technically possible we will conquer suffering without scrapping death and ageing. The response set out here aims rather to show why haphazard sexual reproduction isn't an inevitable fixture of tomorrow's post-Darwinian society; and how in future the creation of pain-ridden humans will demand an implausible measure of premeditation. So too, one day, may the creation of perishable human beings destined to grow old and die.

Yet just how likely in practice are our descendants to be eternally youthful, superintelligent, superempathetic - and to live happily ever after? A reality-check might seem in order. The post-ageing era is still far enough away to make any predictions hazardous. Those of us still in thrall to our Darwinian gut-instincts will find these scenarios all smack of wish-fulfilment and idle fantasy - mere fairy tales masquerading as science. HI certainly glosses over some very grim late Darwinian nastiness looming in the decades ahead: nuclear warfare, bioterrorism, global pandemics - and the usual soul-destroying tragedies of Darwinian-style personal life. Certainly, any futurology based on radical discontinuities rather than extrapolation rarely rings true at the time. But the (potential) beauty of genetic engineering, quantum supercomputing and utopian nanotech is the way these technologies can be used to convert wishful thinking into sublime reality. What it means to be "realistic" will shortly be redefined. One reason for researching the prospects of a post-Darwinian civilisation is that paradise-engineering can deliver a practical solution to everything that's wrong with the world today.


  • 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