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Darwin vs. Christianity and Transhumanism?
So my class on technology is beginning to consider skeptical views of the transformative possibilities of biotechnology. One comes from those who say that the evolutionary understanding of nature explains everything about who we are.
Maybe the most intelligent and certainly the most erudite defender of the “Darwin explains it all” proposition is Larry Arnhart. (Check out his amazingly comprehensive and thoughtful blog.) Larry calls himself a Darwinian conservative. For one thing, Larry puts himself more in the “generationist” than the “innovationist” camp. He says that social desires have been given to us social animals by nature. And we’re happy when we act according to those desires. So we deny who we are when we innovate in such a way as to undermine who we are as generative animals, which we are no less than the other mammals. Transhumanism, for Larry, is both undesirable and impossible.
Larry is fond of saying that nature is our home. So all of our experiences of alienation from nature are based on illusions. We aren’t, as existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger seem to say, aliens thrown into this world from God knows where. It’s the techno-project to liberate us from nature that makes us think of ourselves as more homeless than we need be. That techno-project is a secularization of what Larry believes to be the Christian fantasy that to be a person is not to be defined by biological limitations, to be somehow more than a merely natural being. The Christians and the transhumanists both make the mistake of imagining that we truly long to be more than biological beings, that we long for a world where no longer constrained by the natural imperatives of biological birth and biological death.
Heaven is the world Christians believe we will inhabit after natural death as the result of the grace of our personal Creator. There we will somehow remain whole persons with bodies—including our generative equipment—but we will no longer be married or have sexual lives. Because nobody will die, they’ll be no need for birth. And our love will be perfected by being free from the limitations of sinful bodily separateness we now experience. We will see other persons in love just as they are.
Larry, of course, readily finds all kinds of contradictions in that imagined existence. Being whole social animals has to mean being the sexual and generative beings that nature intends us to be. And the idea of “pure love” that somehow transcends altogether the natural imperatives of reproductive coupling and the raising of young is ridiculous. “Personal love” is the attachment of social animals to each other—ultimately in the interest of the biological perpetuation of the species. Just as Larry finds “political life” among the other primates, he would surely find “personal love” among the dolphin. He says that “love of God” has to be explained as a tool for social bonding and nothing more.
The transhumanists, of course, make the mistake of imagining that somehow personal consciousness can be detached from physical embodiment, just as they make the mistake of believing that our erotic desires can remain what they are if detached from generation. There’s no way we could ever become conscious machines or conscious software. And conscious, disembodied existence would, in fact, be detached from the desires that make life desirable. It would be the misery of “pure possibility,” of the empty experience of “not not-being.” The techno-mode of imagining freedom to be freedom from nature ends up with freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose.
From the point of view of Darwinian conservatism, the various techno-visions of heaven on earth that we create through our own efforts are probably more ridiculous than the Christian vision of otherworldly heaven. The first of these visions we find in Marx: We completely conquer nature and so eradicate natural scarcity. God and the state wither away, and we live completely unobsessive lives, doing what we please whenever we please. We will be free from the various forms of necessity that have historically distorted human lives—or kept me from being wholly me. They include natural necessity, the necessity of being a cog in a scheme of division of labor not of my devising, and, apparently, the necessity of love. There are no children in Marx’s vision of communism! (It’s hard to know what’s “communist” or communal about it.) There are no “can’t helps,” beginning with can’t help falling in love. (Marx says, in effect, that capitalism killed love, and what capitalism truthfully kills doesn’t come back.)
Now the easy existentialist criticism of Marx is that even under communism people will continue to die. His vision of the conquest of nature really doesn’t have a biotechnological dimension. How is it possible to be self-conscious and mortal and not somewhat alienated and obsessive? The transhumanists promise to solve that problem by detaching self-consciousness from mortality. The real conquest of nature depends on the biotechnological separation of “the self” from the body. For Larry, the transhumanist correction of Marxism in the name of consistency produces the impossible (thank evolution or nature) hell of a wholly unnatural existence.
So here’s the good news Larry gives us about our biotechnological future: “If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, we can foresee that biotechnology will be naturally limited both in its technological means and its moral ends.”
Given that adaptive complexity, “precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible.” There may be two pieces of bad news lurking there: We might have to learn some tough lessons about “undesirable side effects.” And “very difficult” isn’t the same thing as “impossible”: Larry isn’t absolutely sure about nature’s capacity to resist our conscious and volitional efforts at manipulation to transform ourselves into more or other than natural beings. He’s not absolutely sure that Darwin explains it all.
Biotechnology, Larry claims, will be morally limited by the fact that “the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterize human nature.” Technological means will serve natural ends; techno-liberation won’t become an end in itself.
But, as I will explain more later, Larry doesn’t really sell the “natural desire as invincible limitation on human technology” position. He admits, for example, that parents, out of love, might want to free their children from suffering and death. And he doesn’t really give a Darwinian explanation for why only members of our species alone “dream of physical and mental perfection” or what Leon Kass calls “ageless bodies, happy souls.”
About that dream, Larry’s real response is “How likely is that?” His response, in other words, is technical, not moral. And so Larry can’t really explain why we might really screw ourselves up in pursuit of that mission impossible, in, for example, trying and maybe succeeding in clamping down on our “naturally adaptive” emotions such as fear and anxiety. It’s true that “being utterly unresponsive to stress would be unhealthy,” but that doesn’t mean Marx didn't move lots of us with that dream of overcoming obsession.
The quotations in this post are from Larry’s fine essay “The Bible and Biotechnology” in Biotechnology, ed. S. Sutton (SUNY Press).
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.