Source: H+ Magazine, Autumn 2009 (& Spanish & Deutsch)

The Genomic Bodhisattva(!)


h+: Your philosophy of bringing an end to suffering echoes the goals of the Buddha. What provoked you to take the Buddha's philosophy to the most extreme interpretation?

"May all that have life be delivered from suffering", said Gautama Buddha. But is this scientifically feasible?

As a teenager, I read The Selfish Gene. Suffering exists only because it helps our DNA leave more copies of itself. I also stumbled across the electrode studies of Olds and Milner on the reward centres of the brain. Uniquely, the experience of pure pleasure shows no physiological tolerance: an important clue. Yet a whole civilisation based on intracranial self-stimulation doesn't seem sociologically feasible; and the prospect sounds attractive only to the severely depressed. Only two other options struck me as viable: pharmacology and genetic engineering. Rationally designed drugs are a more intelligent choice than wireheading: superior versions of Huxley's soma that offer life-enrichment rather than escapism. Alas it's hard to see how therapeutic drugs could abolish mental and physical pain altogether unless we're willing to medicate our children from birth. By contrast, germline gene-therapy can potentially deliver a cure. It should be possible to do more than eradicate specific "adaptations" such as our predisposition to jealousy. Study of the genetics of mood disorders convinced me that we could edit our source code to recalibrate the hedonic treadmill. In principle, post-genomic medicine can genetically alter our "hedonic set-point" so we enjoy life-long mental health based on gradients of intelligent bliss. A new system of motivation may emerge. More practically, the imminent reproductive revolution of designer babies is likely to exert immense selection pressure in favour of "happy" genotypes.

Yet what about the plight of nonhuman animals? The suffering of our fellow vertebrates is sometimes horrific. Until I read Eric Drexler's nanotech classic, Engines of Creation, I couldn't work out how the abolitionist project could be extended to the furthest reaches of the living world. The cruelties of the food chain seemed an immutable fact of Nature. But if we're morally serious, re-engineering the biosphere is technically feasible. The abolitionist project entails ecosystem redesign, depot-contraception, nanorobots in the oceans, rewriting the vertebrate genome, "reprogramming" predators in our wildlife parks, and harnessing the exponential growth of computational resources to manage whole ecosystems. Originally, I assumed that such a compassionate redesign would take thousands of years. If anything like Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns holds good, then the project could be accomplished within a few centuries - or less.

None of the above means a cruelty-free world will ever happen. What passes for futurology is frequently a mixture of disguised autobiography and fantasy wish-fulfillment. Maybe we'll decide to perpetuate the biology of suffering indefinitely. After all, our status quo bias tells us that suffering is "natural". Yet perhaps the strongest reason to believe we'll phase out suffering is our worsening complicity in its persistence - and our (slowly) deepening capacity for empathetic understanding of other sentient beings. Traditionally, the experience of pain, anxiety and malaise has been an inescapable part of life. Later this century, suffering will be something we choose - or decline. If you could pre-select the average lifetime level of well-being of your future offspring, what genetic dial-settings will you choose for the hedonic "set-point" of your children? Depressive, happy or superhappy? If you could determine what degree of suffering occurs in our wildlife parks, will you opt to let animals die of thirst or get eaten alive? If you could decide whether to eat factory-farmed meat from slaughtered animals or delicious and healthier cultured meat, would you choose the cruel or the cruelty-free option?

Of course transhumanists are more ambitious in our goals than abolishing suffering. Thus I predict our superintelligent descendants will be fired by gradients of bliss orders of magnitude richer than today's peak experiences every moment of their quasi-immortal lives. But getting rid of all (involuntary) suffering strikes me as the basis of any future civilisation. I can't conceive anything more morally urgent.


h+: Growing up what was the most intense suffering you had to endure, and would you retroactively erase the trauma of those memories if you could?

Sadness can be very personal. So I'm going to be boringly tight-lipped. Sorry. I'll just say that in the future I think all bad memories will be selectively erased, or at least emotionally defanged after any valuable lessons have been drawn. Actually, I think all mediocre memories will be erasable too - and that includes everything from the Darwinian era. Memories of today's peak experiences will seem banal compared to the textures of everyday life centuries hence. Improved neuroscanning technology will shortly enable us to identify the molecular signature(s) of pure bliss and genetically "over-express" its substrates. Neuroscientists are already homing in on the twin cubic-millimetre sized "hedonic hotspots" in the ventral pallidum and nucleus accumbens of the rodent brain. The equivalent hedonic hotspots in humans may be as large as a cubic centimetre. I suspect they hold the gene expression profile of what makes life seem worth living. If so, there is scope for refinement and intelligent amplification. Our uglier Darwinian emotions can be abolished. Then we can lead lives truly worth remembering.


h+: Isn't the goal of cessation of pain and suffering a bit wimpy? Shouldn't every organism be resilient enough to take some pain and suffering over a normal lifetime?

Intuitively, one might indeed suppose that lifelong bliss would make us weak. Contrast, for instance, the Eloi with the Morlocks in H.G. Well's The Time Machine. In practice, the opposite is true. "That which does not crush me makes me stronger", said Nietzsche; but the best way to make ourselves stronger short of becoming cyborgs is to amplify our pleasure circuitry and enhance our capacity to anticipate reward. Experimentally, it can be shown that enhancing mesolimbic dopamine function doesn't just make us happier: it also enriches willpower and motivation. This is how novel antidepressants are tested: if effective, they reverse learned helplessness and behavioural despair of clinical depression, the plight of hundreds of millions of people in the world today. Regrettably, low mood is bound up with psychological and physical weakness, just as popular stereotype suggests. Superhappiness confers superhuman resilience. So enriching our reward circuitry promises to enhance our capacity to cope with stress and adversity even as their incidence and severity diminish. Biotech can empower us to become supermen - not in the callous sense of Nietzschean Übermenschen, since our enhanced empathetic capacity can extend to all sentient beings, but in the sense of an indomitable strength of mind. Sadly, millions of people today feel hopelessly crushed by Life.


h+: How do you think the Buddha would feel about using technology like drugs or genetic engineering as a means towards ending human suffering?

It's hard to reconstruct the psychology of a guy who has been dead for 2500 years. Yet Gautama Buddha's interest clearly lay in finding the most effective techniques to end suffering, not in delivering some God-given truth. Buddhism isn't like revealed religion. Gautama Buddha seems to have been pragmatic. Let's try what works. If presented with contemporary biotechnology, I doubt he'd insist we go though the traumas of thousands of rounds of rebirth. I think he'd embrace genetic medicine as a priceless gift - and urge us to extend its use to ensure the welfare of all sentient beings, not just ourselves.


h+: We can already alter consciousness radically enough to make people in squalor feel blissed out all the time. But whenever a guru attempts to give bliss to suffering people there is always a public backlash. Is this a legitimate fear, or are we just naturally suspicious of any technology that allows people to escape their misery?

Would you rather feel gloomy living in a palace or happy in a mud hut? Tackling the biological causes of misery eradicates the roots of suffering itself. By contrast, environmental triggers of mental pain are usually symptomatic - and environmental solutions are only stopgaps: important but short-acting insofar as our hedonic treadmill still turns. Typically, social and cognitive-behavioural remedies involve experts (or worse, gurus) telling us how to lead our lives. If you are suffering from physical pain or disease, you want to be cured; you wouldn't want a self-styled expert advising you how to lead your pain-free life. I think the same is true of depression, anxiety disorders and other forms of psychological distress. Either way, it's worth distinguishing between being blissful and "blissed out": high functioning well-being versus permanent orgasmic euphoria. As you suggest, even now we could crudely bliss ourselves out by designing analogues of the Brompton cocktail - the mixture of heroin, cocaine and ethyl alcohol once favoured by English doctors to ease the departure of the terminally ill. But such euphoriants aren't a recipe for sustainable well-being: socially responsible, intellectually productive well-being that permits raising children and lends narrative structure to our lives. By contrast, genetically recalibrating the hedonic treadmill can leave whatever is worth preserving of our existing preference architecture intact. So in that sense, radical mood-enrichment needn't be interpreted as an alternative to more conventional conceptions of our (post-)human future. Rather, it complements them. Whatever guise your personal conception of the good life (or even paradise) may take, mood-enrichment can make it better. OK, here I'm underplaying the intellectual significance of the hedonic transition in prospect. Just as the world of the depressed is unimaginably different from the world of happy, so may the world of the superhappy be unimaginably different from ours. It's a conjecture one would like to test empirically.


h+: You're an animal rights activist and a vegan. What is your personal favorite source of protein, and how do you think protein should be supplied in the future?

Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer described life for factory-farmed animals as "an eternal Treblinka": a world of concentration camps, extermination camps and industrialized mass-killing. Strip away our ingrained anthropocentric bias, and what we do to other sentient beings is barbaric. The non-human animals we factory-farm and kill are functionally akin to human babies and toddlers. Babies and toddlers need looking after, not liberating; and I think the same is true of other sentient creatures, whether domesticated or free living. As the master species, we have a duty of care to lesser beings, just as we have a duty of care to vulnerable and handicapped humans. As our mastery of technology matures, I think we need to build a cross-species global analogue of the welfare state.

Combating great evil justifies heroic personal sacrifice. Going vegan entails mild personal inconvenience - though admittedly it's easier still if you happen to be a third-generation vegetarian. Brighton where I live here in England has some of the best vegetarian/vegan restaurants in Europe. There are also many delicious vegan recipes on the Net. Unfortunately I don't know how to cook, so I can't share any culinary tips with H+ readers. I just sprinkle pea protein concentrate on my bean salad.

Tentatively, I predict that next century and beyond "natural" meat will be reckoned no more legally or socially acceptable than a diet based on human flesh. Most people with a taste for the stuff may eat in vitro gourmet steaks and the like - cultured meat that will taste richer in flavour and texture than flesh from our butchered cousins. Genetically-engineered vatfood doesn't sound appetizing under that description. But when "vegetarian meat" is properly branded and marketed, who will deliberately choose the bloodstained option if cheaper and tastier cruelty-free products are available? Sure, cultured meat isn't "natural". Neither is meat from factory-farmed animals. Estimating timescales for any world-wide changeover to a civilised diet is obviously tricky. Currently, tissue scientists can't culture anything tastier than mincemeat. Yet in theory mankind could make the transition to veganism mid-century or so as the switch to cheaper, healthier, mass-pruduced cultured meat gathers pace. I'm cynical enough to believe the cost issue will be critical; but I also believe (naively?) that moral awareness may play a small but significant role. Fortunately, the technology should prove scalable. In the meantime, anyone who wants to help accelerate the global transition to a cruelty-free diet might like to support New Harvest [http://www.new-harvest.org], the world's first nonprofit research organization working to develop cultured meat.


h+: For some people pain is their most intense form of pleasure, and in a world without suffering pain may become the ultimate taboo designer experience. By abolishing suffering don't we risk accidentally re-branding it as something trendy and desirable?

Masochists don't enjoy the raw pain of getting their fingers caught in the door any more than you or me. However, certain ritualized forms of dominant and submissive behaviour can trigger endogenous opioid release that is acutely pleasurable. In the future, masochists and others who relish such "painful" activities can enrich the quality of their experience by editing out the nasty bits and enhancing the most rewarding. Nothing valuable need be lost. I don't normally dwell on modes of post-human sensualism because I fear doing so risks undermining the moral seriousness of the abolitionist project. For what it's worth, I think future sexuality will make today's wildest eroticism seem like light foreplay.

If there were a genetically constrained floor of bliss below which no one can "naturally" fall, might posthuman novelty-seekers be tempted to peer beneath the floorboards to taste what life was like for their ancestors? Maybe. The lure of the forbidden fruit can't be discounted. But if anyone tries, they will find Darwinian life either nasty or tedious by comparison. It's hard to imagine they'll repeat the experience. Exploring the upper echelons of celestial neurochemistry will be more rewarding. Why go slumming in the lower depths? Possibly our descendants will understand the life their ancestors only by analogy. Thus some aspects of posthuman life may be merely wonderful rather than sublime. If future life is animated by information-bearing gradients of bliss, then perhaps you'll conceive your ancestors as living a lot further "south" metaphorically than your lowest mode of bliss - the posthuman equivalent of the dark night of the soul. By the same token, today we imagine what it's like to be a victim of clinical depression by imagining that being depressed is like being sad - only more so. Yes, it's true in a sense; but to suffer major depression is qualitatively far worse than "merely" being sad. Likewise, to be posthumanly superhappy is to surpass being happy in ways beyond human comprehension.


h+: Do you think the quality of art and cultural expression suffers as our emotional lexicon trends away from shades of suffering and into shades of well-being? How do we retain a sense of drama in an increasingly happy world?

I think artistic expression will shortly emerge from the Dark Ages. We've scarcely glimpsed the variety of cultural expression - and cultural appreciation - feasible with posthuman biology. Traditionally, the production of great art has been bound up with suffering. The reaction of its less discerning audience tends to match its painful origins. Philistines find most of the "high culture" we're supposed to appreciate is achingly dull. This unfortunate response can be overcome by neuro-enhancement. Consider aesthetic beauty. Rapid advances in neuroscanning technology will shortly allow us to identify the molecular signature(s) of sublime beauty and genetically "overexpress" its substrates, stripping out what is inessential and amplifying its molecular essence. Awe-inspiring beauty can serve as the backdrop to our lives - or imbue their very texture. Our "aesthetic set-point", so to speak, can be raised. Why shouldn't we "see a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower" like the mystics? The old lexicon of ugliness and suffering will indeed be redundant if we biologically enrich both our aesthetic palette and hedonic tone. But artistic diversity can be increased. Whole new state-spaces of beauty can be opened up too, calling for new primitive terms and modes of cultural expression to match. Granted, if we're persuaded that beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder, then we could build a world where everything looks indiscriminately beautiful. But this is only an option. Alternatively, retention of information-bearing gradients of aesthetic appreciation could allow critical discernment in the arts to be preserved - or enhanced.

Yet what about real-life drama? Perhaps one reason why critics are lukewarm to the idea of posthuman paradise is that the prospect as described can sound monotonous. What will we do all day? I focus on overcoming suffering; but many contemporary humans aren't so much miserable as bored. Well, it's true, on some scenarios our descendants will dwell in a blissfully serene world. But on other scenarios, posthuman life will be exhilarating - dramatic beyond anything imaginable or physiologically feasible now. For example, hyper-authentic immersive virtual reality software can deliver unprecedented entertainment. Better-than-real, "supernormal" stimuli are typically more exciting to experience than their so-called real-world counterparts, inverting the normal connotations of "real" and "virtual". If you want to share a night of passion with Miss Universe, spend a day at the Roman Coliseum, or fancy being present on the day most of the dinosaurs got wiped out, then you will merely need to boot up the world in question and immerse yourself in it. Raw sensationalism will doubtless be a menu option; but there is an intellectually serious side to invincible well-being. Thus I would personally like to explore psychedelia in depth. I daren't do so today because psychedelia can be too dramatic. To cope one needs to be psychologically robust.


h+: I could argue that the industrialized West is already numbed to global suffering and hyper-focused on continual happiness. Is this progress?

Many people today pursue a hedonistic lifestyle. But it's incompetent hedonism. A pleasure-seeking lifestyle just kicks into gear the negative-feedback mechanisms of the hedonic treadmill, leaving us no better off than before. In fact there is little neuroscientific evidence that contemporary humans are significantly happier than our hunter-gatherer ancestors or Neanderthals: a sad indictment of human progress to date. Objective indices of psychological distress such as comparative suicide rates in post-industrial societies versus hunter-gatherer tribes bear out this grim conclusion. Likewise, the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders is higher in many Western nations than in the Third World. Sure, one would prefer to live in, say, Sweden rather than Zimbabwe. But international self-reported happiness surveys consistently show that Nigeria, for instance, ranks near the top; and I think we may safely assume this has little to do with the abundant wealth so many Nigerian correspondents are eager to share with us. Of course bioconservatives can cite such statistics as grounds for dismissing the liberatory potential of technology. This pessimism about technological progress is premature. Imminent self-mastery of our reward circuitry means we can transform our own quality of life and the lives of all other sentient beings. I think this transformation will mark a fundamental discontinuity in the evolution of life on Earth.


h+: You could define the idle rich as a class of humans who have escaped suffering through luxury, drugs, and surgical modification. How do we emulate this hedonic model without becoming complete assholes?

My gut sympathies lie with the underdog. Yet many of the idle rich need help no less than the hard-working poor. Marital breakup, jealousy, anxiety, depression, unrequited love, alcohol abuse and existential angst can plague the lives of affluent and impoverished alike. Fortunately, postgenomic medicine should make maximally efficient reward circuitry available to everyone, not just a global elite. Even in a world of nanotech-driven abundance, some things will always be scarce, for example what economists call "positional goods". The biological substrates of lifelong happiness needn't be among them. Happiness doesn't have to be subordinated to the cash nexus or rationed. Informed speculation on how such happiness will be behaviourally expressed is more of a challenge. Here we're plunging further into the realm of educated guesswork. However, the new biotechnology should allow us to choose the parameters of our own personalities as well as our hedonic set-point. Such a choice presumably includes a predisposition to be either egocentric or saintly. Today we all sometimes behave badly. Some of us then beat ourselves up for doing so rather than blaming our ugly Darwinian genome. But tomorrow's enhancement technologies should let us become idealised versions of the selves we'd most like to be. We can do this by maximizing the reward derived from activities we most value - and by abolishing the pleasure we derive from expressing our baser appetites. For example, if we want to be kinder, then we can selectively amplify the neural rewards from helping others in order to derive most joy from being compulsively saintly. I stress I'm not remotely predicting this will occur. The reason I reckon mankind will get rid of suffering is because technology will ultimately make its abolition trivially easy, not because we all become angels. There are multiple pitfalls to pure saintliness. But it's an option.


h+: You use MDMA consciousness as a benchmark for bliss and empathy. But like alcohol intoxication, I've seen people on MDMA being very dismissive to people with real problems while thinking they were being empathetic and compassionate. Couldn't being "too happy" in the face of real problems be considered a form of shallowness or self-delusion?

Taking MDMA (Ecstasy) may be little better than glue-sniffing compared to mental health in an era of mature postgenomic medicine. But "empathogens" like MDMA are a reminder that not all euphoriants promote selfish behaviour. Ethically, it's (presumably) preferable to seek heightened empathy and sometimes fail rather than not bother to empathize at all. MDMA-induced intensity of emotional release also stands in contrast to the shallowness induced by "psychic anaesthetizers" like the ill-named SSRI antidepressants. Alas you're right to point out how the rose-coloured spectacles of Ecstasy users don't guarantee acuity of insight or accuracy of social perception. The "penicillin of the soul" is no magic bullet. Getting "loved up" is good for communing with other loved up users; but it's not a recipe for solving the deeper problems of non-users - or life on Monday morning. Even when safe and sustainable empathogens can be developed, pure compassion won't cure cancer, solve the AIDS crisis or reverse the ravages of aging. Such complex, multi-faceted medical problems need rigorous scientific research. To say this isn't to devalue the "magic" of MDMA. In a better world, the rose-coloured spectacles induced by MDMA-like states may be as socially perceptive as the most hard-edged "depressive realism" of contemporary cynics. In the meantime, Darwinian consciousness is prudent for a Darwinian world.


h+: Besides using MDMA as a model of consciousness to emulate, but what role do you think psychedelics like LSD or DMT or Salvinorin A play in the evolution of human consciousness?

I think it's hard to overstate the cognitive significance of major psychedelics for the future of sentience. But it's also hard to convey why these agents can be valuable tools of investigation to academics who have never tried them. I know distinguished drug-naive philosophers of mind (and transhumanists) who are certain that psychedelia can't be significant - and it would be irresponsible to urge them to put their assumptions to the test. Perhaps the best I can do is offer an analogy. Imagine an ultra-intelligent tribe of congenitally blind extraterrestrials. Their ignorance of vision and visual concepts is not explicitly represented in their conceptual scheme. To members of this hypothetical species, visual experiences wouldn't be information-bearing any more than a chaotic drug-induced eruption of bat-like echolocatory experiences would be information-bearing to us. Such modes of experience have never been recruited to play a sensory or signalling function. At any rate, some time during the history of this imaginary species, one of the tribe discovers a drug that alters his neurochemistry. The drug doesn't just distort his normal senses and sense of self. It triggers what we would call visual experiences: vivid, chaotic in texture and weirder than anything the drug-taker had ever imagined. What can the drug-intoxicated subject do to communicate his disturbing new categories of experiences to his tribe's scientific elite? If he simply says that the experiences are "ineffable", then the sceptics will scorn such mysticism and obscurantism. If he speaks metaphorically, and expresses himself using words from the conceptual scheme grounded in the dominant sensory modality of his species, then he'll probably babble delirious nonsense. Perhaps he'll start talking about messages from the gods or whatever. Critically, the drug user lacks the necessary primitive terms to communicate his experiences, let alone a theoretical understanding of what's happening. Perhaps he can attempt to construct a rudimentary private language. Yet its terms lack public "criteria of use", so his tribe's quasi-Wittgensteinian philosophers will invoke the (Anti-)Private Language Argument to explain why it's meaningless. Understandably, the knowledge elite are unimpressed by the drug-disturbed user's claims of making a profound discovery. They can exhaustively model the behaviour of the stuff of the physical world with the equations of their scientific theories, and their formal models of mind are computationally adequate. The drug taker sounds psychotic. Yet from our perspective, we can say the alien psychonaut has indeed stumbled on a profound discovery, even though he has scarcely glimpsed its implications: the raw materials of what we would call the visual world in all its glory.

Anyhow, I worry that our own predicament resembles in more extreme form the hubris of the blind super-rationalists I describe above. In fact, intellectually, I worry far more about my ignorance of other modes of conscious existence than I do my cognitive biases or deficiencies of reasoning within ordinary waking consciousness. Sure, I'd love to know the master equation of a unified field theory. I'd love even more to know what it's like to inhabit a world of echolocation like a bat - and to understand the indescribable weirdness of LSD, DMT or Salvia. It transpires that ordinary waking and dreaming consciousness are just two among numerous wholly or partially incommensurable realms of sentience. What we call waking consciousness was doubtless a fitness-enhancing adaptation in the ancestral environment of adaptation. But it occupies only a tiny fraction of experiential state-space. Our ignorance is all the more insidious because it is not explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. From the inside, a dreamer has little insight into the nature of a dream, even in rare moments of "lucid dreaming"; and I fear this may be true of ordinary waking consciousness too. Unfortunately, the only way to even partially apprehend the nature of radically altered states is by first-person investigation, i.e. to instantiate the neurochemical substrates of the states in question. If drug-naive, you can't fruitfully read about them. Compare how (ostensibly) trivial is the difference in the gene expression signature of neurons mediating phenomenal colour and sound. Who knows what further categories of experience other "trivial" bimolecular variations will open up, not to speak of more radical neurochemical changes? Thousands of scholarly philosophy papers and books have been written on consciousness in recent years by drug-naive academics. Psychedelic researchers worry that too many of them evoke Aristotelean scholasticism, whereas what we need is a post-Galilean experimental science of consciousness. Perhaps the nearest I come to an intellectual hero is psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin, whose pioneering methodology is described in PiHKAL. Alas, Shulgin doesn't yet occupy a prominent place in the transhumanist pantheon.

It's worth stressing that taking psychedelics is not a fast-track passport to either happiness or wisdom. If you take the kappa opioid agonist Salvinorin A found in Salvia divinorum, for instance, you might easily have a waking nightmare. And the experience may easily be unintelligible rather than illuminating. Even in a society of sighted people and a rich visually-based conceptual scheme, it takes years for a congenitally blind person who is surgically granted the gift of sight to master visual literacy. So understanding the implications of radically altered states may well take millennia. I'd hazard a guess and say comprehension will take millions of years and more. Either way, our descendants may be not just superintelligent but supersentient - blessed with the capacity to shift between a multitude of radically different modes of consciousness whose only common ingredient is the molecular signature of bliss. Posthuman mastery of reward circuitry will let them safely explore psychedelia in a way most humans beings don't dare. Yes, it's prudent for us to play safe; but in consequence our consciousness may be comparatively shallow and one-dimensional. Mine is today.


h+: Humans have violent predatory instincts wired into the pleasure/reward center that civilization no longer finds useful. We repress these instincts through behavioral conditioning but they still present themselves as pathologies in mentally unstable people. Would you support proactive gene modification to abolish these predatory instincts and make humans more docile?

Proactive gene-modification to enrich our capacity for empathy strikes me as morally admirable. "Docile" is a loaded word; if you'd said "pacific" instead, I'd agree. In an era of weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism, human survival may even depend on it. Until humans establish self-sustaining bases beyond the Earth on the Moon and Mars, the extinction of intelligent life itself is a non-negligible possibility. Britain's Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, estimates the probability of human extinction before the year 2100 is around 50(!) per cent. For the world's predators aren't confined to violent criminals or the mentally ill: they include "statesmen" holding senior positions of political and military power. The genetic source of most human predatory behaviour has been identified: the Y chromosome. However, this is one risk factor we're probably stuck with for a long time to come. Competitive alpha male dominance behaviour is perhaps the greatest underlying threat to what we call civilisation. Human history to date attests the gruesome effects of testosterone-driven male behaviour. Socialization on its own seems inadequate.

Scenarios of pro-social genetic modification may or may not work; but they aren't purely hypothetical. Humanity is on the brink of a reproductive revolution. Within the next few decades, prospective parents will increasingly choose the genetic design-specifications of their future children via pre-implantation diagnosis. In the absence of a regulatory framework, one may hope most parents will choose genotypes for loving, empathetic children and decline to choose "sociopathic" alleles, e.g. the less active "warrior gene" variant of monoamine oxidase A, which is associated with anti-social and violent behaviour. A lot of our nastier alleles/allelic combinations were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. They may exert a potentially catastrophic influence now. At the risk of sounding like some crude genetic determinist, it may eventually be possible to edit out some of our more sinister code and enhance the expression of the pro-social. One example here would be oxytocin, the "trust hormone" recently shown to be copiously released by taking MDMA. Enriching long-term oxytocin function could make us naturally more honest with each other - not just more trusting but more trustworthy. Unfortunately, indiscriminate amplification of oxytocin function would only work if it were universal: its use would make a powerful instrument of social control and an ideal tool for predators. Today, sadly, we often have good reason to be suspicious of governments and each other. So yes, pro-social drugs and gene therapies have numerous pitfalls. But somehow we need to bootstrap our way into becoming civilised.


h+: Pleasure pathways are primed by high risk/reward behaviors. As suffering decreases this risk/reward instinct becomes less of a motivator, meaning humans will be progressively less likely to take big risks to reap greater rewards. Is this a positive shift in human behavior, and in this shift are we losing something uniquely adventurous and impulsive about the human spirit?

We live in an era when advanced technology poses existential and global catastrophic risks. Any interventions that promise to reduce our propensity to risk-taking should be seriously evaluated. As you note, however, there are subtler risks to the future of humanity than the apocalyptic scenarios well-known futurists discuss. Some kind of botched paradise engineering might lock humanity into a second-rate utopia of the sort you describe. A stagnant world of soma-like contentment is very different from a world animated by heritable gradients of bliss. Yet policymakers will clearly do well to examine every conceivable scenario in which life could (in some sense) "go wrong" when the traditional signal of anything "going wrong" (i.e. suffering) is no longer physiologically feasible. A neo-Buddhist or negative utilitarian ethic suggests that any pain-free world would be an immense improvement on today's horrors. But let's assume we're more ambitious. How can humanity guard against inadvertently creating some other kind of Brave New World that blocks the fullest expression of life in the universe?

One possible answer is that postgenomic medicine will let us choose not just our normal baseline of happiness, but also our baseline of "adventurousness". Thus both dopaminergic and opioid enhancement can be pleasurable, but amplifying mesolimbic dopamine function leads to increased exploratory behaviour, whereas long-term enhancement of mu opioid function alone leads to greater quiescence. Gaining full control of our own reward circuitry allows a choice of what kind of person one wants to be - an adventurous extrovert or thoughtful introvert, for instance. If you've always wanted to be a larger-than-life adventurer, then the option of tweaking your own genome could make high-spirited exuberance your natural state of mind. If, on the other hand, you've always felt anxiety-ridden, then a life of contemplative bliss sounds more appealing. I'm not really satisfied with this answer because it's unclear whether temperamental "adventurousness" can be adequately distinguished from recklessness. I'd simply argue that no one should be forced to suffer as now for the sake of an abstraction like "the human spirit".


h+: There's an old saying that says Utopia is ultimately unattainable because no matter how perfect things are people will always find something to complain about. How do we modify human behavior to trim back the complainers?

Discontented people have arguably been the motor of human development. This is one reason why it may be prudent to recalibrate our hedonic treadmill rather than dismantle it altogether. When we enjoy gradients of lifelong bliss, the functional analogues of discontent can drive (post)human progress. Maybe getting rid of suffering isn't the culmination of civilisation, just the start.

David Pearce
September 2009
more interviews 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 : 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14


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