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Darwin’s Long Shadow

Part essay, part prose, part love letter.

It is impossible to speak of real human progress without acknowledging the need for radical redesign and enhancement of our biology. No matter how much we improve our external quality of life through social and economic reform, we will never stop the hedonic treadmill. Permanent gradients of bliss and universal empathy were, for most of biological history, maladaptive traits. The fact that human civilization is wrought with so much suffering is not solely a result of the inhumane economic and political systems in place all over the world. In truth, our neural hardware is designed for misery, pain, hate, and selfishness, as these experiences have been critical to survival.

This is not limited to humans, wild nature itself is a permanent state of immense suffering. Predation, disease, and fear are woven into the fabric of every animal’s life. At the same time, the institutions we have created are largely a manifestation of the very worst attributes of human nature. The most immense suffering could certainly be abolished through social change. It is undeniable that starvation, genocide, repression, and alienation contribute to a state of human misery that is far greater than it should be or would be otherwise. Indeed, the other side of human nature is love, empathy, justice, and altruism. But even if all the oppressive forces in the world were destroyed and replaced by open, participatory democratic institutions with a robust regard for human rights and social justice, the dark side of our nature would not simply disappear, and the aggregate increase in human happiness would be confined to its biological limits. Even given a society that heavily favors the more noble attributes of human beings to the point that behaving according to these attributes becomes a far superior reproductive strategy, it would take hundreds of thousands of years at the very least to affect a genetic change. No matter what we do, or how grand our visions of human potential, our own biology remains: the most oppressive institution of all.

However, humans are at a unique advantage in this situation. We have established such firm dominion over the natural world (to the point of systematically destroying it) that most of us have nothing to fear from it while under the umbrella of civilization. The greatest threat posed to humans is from humans. The limits of empathy and happiness are no longer defined by adaptivity to nature. This makes the redesign of our neural hardware not only viable in terms of survival but a moral imperative. Despite the best intentions, and the most favorable social conditions, human civilization will only truly progress beyond the misery prescribed by our biology when that biology is overhauled, and the human condition thorougly redefined.

It seems like a utopian idea, a sci-fi fantasy, that the best of human nature could be augmented, brought to the fore, and the worst of human nature abolished or marginalized. At the present time it is not technologically feasible to accomplish, but biotechnology is advancing at an exponential rate. That is the key word, exponential. When people speculate upon what will be possible in the future, they do so almost exclusively in a linear fashion. Exponential growth is an unintuitively powerful concept. It is not a matter of if, but when we have the technological capacity and knowledge of genetics and neural functioning to enable a radical redesign of the human condition. Indeed, enhancing the human condition has been attempted by degrees for centuries. The invention and (all too gradual) improvement of antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants are in large part due to a shared desire to improve the human condition. Virtually all illicit drug consumption is due to one basic desire: to feel better than normal. However, drugs have a fatal limitation in that their mechanisms of action are confined to the “rules” of the existing neural architecture. Even if their action were permanent, they would still 1. never liberate the human condition from its evolutionary cage, the feedback mechanisms in our reward circuitry ensure that even our highest pleasures and most profound joys lose their sublime power in short order. Happiness, like suffering, evolved as a motivating device for survival. Unlike suffering, too much happiness makes surviving in wild nature difficult. 2. Even a hypothetical, advanced, highly-selective designer dopamine/serotonin agonist still carries the risk for negative and probably inevitable side-effects due to the way our neural circuitry is interconnected. There is only one way out of our evolutionary cage, out of Darwin’s long shadow: the intentional recalibration of the human condition through neurosurgery, nanotechnology, and genetic intervention.

For now, the transition into the posthuman condition remains speculative science. We don’t yet know what a posthuman neural architecture would be: what surgical adjustments would have to be made, how to make the changes “work”, the degree to which nanotech implants would be necessary in the transition, how genetic intervention can be accomplished in a manner consistent with respect for human rights, and how to organize such a massive program. Regardless, biotechnology is advancing at a grueling pace and in the (perhaps not too distant) future, this will become a very real prospect. This is perhaps the most distressing part of the situation. This technology, like all technology, will be developed whether or not we are prepared for its implications. What will be the implications if this technology is developed in a society similar to the one we live in today, replete with massive inequality, crumbling democratic institutions, endless war, austerity, and virtually unrestrained corporate power? It is not possible that the capitalist class, who will without a shred of doubt have control of this technology long before most of us are even aware of it, will have the interests of human progress, universal empathy, and abolition of suffering at heart when they implement it. Capitalism is motivated by profit and profit alone, and it is incompatible with a truly progressive vision of human civilization. There is only one possible outcome of a powerful capitalist class acquiring the power that advanced biotechnology entails: humans will be redesigned as perfect, obedient, consumer machines. Humans will have no choice in this, although with effective marketing it is likely that most *would* choose it; with the power of the puppet state and the monolithic corporate-controlled media at it’s disposal, the capitalist class will be able to create a fortified, global caste society that can never be challenged. In fact, with the power of this technology, people could be made to love whatever the ruling elite design them to love. This is a very sobering prospect because it means that if we don’t rise up and create accountable, participatory democratic institutions with the power to challenge corporate influence and if we don’t refuse to allow public universities to be used as proxies for the profit sector to obtain new marketable technology researched and developed at the taxpayer’s expense, then everything is lost forever. Once the posthuman transition under the elite agenda is made, resistance will be *biologically* impossible. The last war that humans will ever fight is a war for eternal heaven or eternal hell.