December 14, 2007

Of Genes, Jesus and Tao

It's strange to me, but probably not to everyone, that just a couple of days after publication of Hawks et al., Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution, theologians are already debating its significance — particularly when it doesn't appear that they understand what the paper actually says. Nonetheless, here they are talking about it at the American Academy of Religion.

Radical Life Extension and Religious Evolution

By Sonia Arrison

New data released this week shows that human evolution is speeding up -- an interesting development given that many in the scientific community are hopeful that humans can take greater control over the process. At a recent conference in San Diego, scholars discussed how various religious orders may perceive radical life extension, one potential path of human evolution...
Having read the paper, I'm not sure how these folks have come to this conclusion. From the data, it seems to me that human evolution sped up in the past and has since slowed, although it has not stopped. Alternatively, it may be an artifact of the methods used in discerning increased rate that can't look at more recent changes. The peak rate of change occurred more than 5,000 years ago and then declined precipitously, or at least may have, so saying that it's speeding up now appears to be a misunderstanding of the research at worst; at best, we can't really say what's happening right now.
In order to clarify what radical life extension means, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey showed up to repeat his well-covered prediction that there is a 50/50 chance that in 25 to 30 years it will be possible to continually repair humans so they can live indefinite life spans. Of course, even if de Grey's predictions are off, it is still the case, as Professor Mercer points out, that researchers working on areas such as genetic and tissue engineering, stem cells, telomere research, and nanotech will be pushing the human life span into the triple digits, making this particular conversation a matter of "urgent public debate..."
I'm not familiar with de Grey, but I would caution that just because it's theoretically possible to do something doesn't mean that we should, or that we will, do it. There are some very good, and not at all religious, reasons that individual humans shouldn't live forever, which I'll get into later.
...Professor Shawn Arthur of Appalachian State University discussed the Daoist outlook, which has sought to lengthen life for more than 3,000 years. Arthur explained that while modern Daoists believe that longevity is a natural result of balancing chi, or natural energy, the "poking and prodding" of science is not the way to gain immortality because it unbalances chi and disregards morality. That is, Daoists only believe you can achieve true immortality with time and massive amounts of willpower.
"True" immortality as opposed to what, exactly? Faux immortality, wherein one thinks one is going to live forever but ends up dying anyhow? Attaching the label "true" to something, especially in a context like this, is a red flag that the speaker is making a distinction between something he disagrees with and something he prefers, which tells us everything about the speaker and nothing about the topic being discussed. Immortality is an absolute; one either lives forever or one doesn't.

As far as Daoism, it seems to me that Arthur is falling into the same traditionalist trap that one usually sees with fundamentalists. That is, whatever it says in an ancient text is how things must be. Such a view ignores the possibility, and I would venture the actual nature of religio-scientific and mystical texts, that the authors were simply explaining the phenomena they investigated in terms of the best tools available at the time the text was composed. Arthur is essentially telling us that there is something called "chi" which exists absolutely unto itself and that it isn't simply an outdated interpretation of a real phenomenon. For instance, why can't "chi" be nothing more than a crude explanation of what we would now more precisely and empirically label "electron transport." Chi is, as I understand the term, "life energy," a vague notion that makes no attempt to examine this entity directly. Moreover, ancient Taoists, like Indian yogins of various schools, certainly did attempt to influence this chi with any number of physical and mental exercises, potions and powders, etc. In other words, they did the best science they could at the time they did it using the tools they had. We now have better tools and more reliable methods of investigation, so why must we be trapped, as Professor Arthur would have it, in an outmoded and improved-upon state of knowledge? Arthur doesn't care much for science in this context, so he throws out words like "poking and prodding" and makes a distinction between "true" immortality and plain old immortality. This in itself tells us nothing about either Taoism or biology, only one interpretation, and a fundamentalist-natured one at that, of these things.
The Catholic and Protestant scholars predictably delivered their messages with stark differences in tone, although ultimately they both came to the conclusion that any quest for immortality is based on hubris and dangerous for humanity. According to Catholic scholar Paul Neskan, this is because the threat of imminent death helps people stay moral. Therefore, professor Neskan argues that Aubrey de Grey's life extension plans are bad for humanity as "people will put off preparation for the afterlife until it is too late."
The threat of imminent death, Buddhism-style.Thanks to Professor Neskan for cutting right to the chase! I would tend to agree that immortality is a bad idea and dangerous for humanity, but I needn't posit that it's the threat of imminent death that keeps people moral nor what lies at the heart of this assertion — that eternal reward or punishment awaits in some afterlife — that makes life valuable and guides our interactions.

For example, imagine doing something immoral enough that it might warrant a lifetime in prison. If that lifetime were of infinite duration, how much worse would it be than if one knew that death would eventually come? More generally, though, life is a valuable and wonderful thing in its own right and morality comes just as well from understanding that all of us want the same sorts of things out of life. I know that I want others to be honest with me, so I will be honest with them because I don't want to cause to another person the pain engendered in me by the deception of another. I don't murder because I know the value I place upon my own life, so I don't take the lives of fellow human beings. I don't steal because I know the heartbreak of being stolen from. "The threat of imminent death" has nothing to do with the morality of most other people on a day-to-day basis; that's driven largely by empathy, to the extent that we call someone who lacks such empathy entirely a sociopath. One can have a conscience without fearing death being just around the next corner precipitating a fall into some pit of eternal torture. Such notions are handy for use as a means of social control, particularly when some institution takes it upon itself to dictate vague aspects of morality — dietary laws, taboo sexuality, etc. We have evidence in all of our lives, though, that violence and larceny are harmful things. Can it be demonstrated that eating pork gets one cut off from eternal life or that homosexuality is disfavored by a deity? It's only when there's a necessity to enforce this latter class of assertions that "threat of imminent death" need be brought into the picture.

That being said, I don't favor making individual human beings immortal. It's a bad idea in terms of ecology; immortal humans will still reproduce, and without death to keep our numbers down, we'll still wind up depleting resources to a point that our environment can no longer support the existence of our species. Moreover, death is a necessary part of evolution, and without evolution we leave ourselves open to new diseases and other selective pressures that will eventually catch up to us, in which case it becomes more likely that we will simply become extinct. For swathes of humanity to become immortalized only postpones the inevitable, and en masse at that. None of us are so important in the scheme of things that there is justification for becoming immortal, whether this were to occur by means of molecular manipulation or "balancing the chi." Death looks like the ultimate bad thing to us as individuals, but it's a good thing in terms of our species, and in terms of all species, overall. From a purely biological perspective, old generations must make way for the new and potentially improved generations that come after them. It's our responsibility, whether we can someday avoid it or not, to die — not so that rewards or punishments can be meted out in an afterlife, but so that this life can continue. Life is not an individual and it is the property of no single individual. Professor Neskan's assertions not withstanding, then, there are plenty of valid reasons that individual life spans should be limited by death.
Religion will also serve to inject ethical competition into technology circles. If the future of evolution is now more in human hands, the religious question is: toward what end? In other words, if humans could live longer, what good should result? Perhaps the Buddhist scholar had the most clear and concise answer.

Professor Derek Maher explained that in Buddhism each person is responsible for their own karma which, taken care of properly, can bring one to a state of nirvana, which is the cessation of suffering. Buddhists, he explained, already embrace the idea of radical life extension because it "gives you more time to attain wisdom and advance spirituality." Essentially, it gives you more time in this life to improve your karma so you can reach nirvana.
Why is "toward what end" a religious question? Can't we make plans without invoking the supernatural?

And again, I don't think the Buddhist answer here has clarified anything at all. It has simply posited some more vague terminology about karma and wisdom and enlightenment and spiritual advancement. Most telling, though, is the notion of "cessation of suffering" in this context. Who says that someone who lives forever wouldn't suffer? Clearly, we are quite capable of experiencing suffering without it killing us, and death itself is an end to an individual's suffering. Immortality tells us nothing about pain. If I were immortal, I might simply have an unendingly miserable existence, or I might amass enough resources to never experience suffering again. One condition doesn't imply the other. In fact, people die without suffering all the time, so even death is not a guarantee of discomfort let alone agony. I don't see how the Buddhist scholar's assertions about nirvana are, in terms of meaningful content, any clearer than the Catholic theologians assertions about the threat of imminent death.

And I still don't see how any of this ties in with knowledge of the changing rate of human evolution over the past 50,000 years. Having read the article, I can only conclude that either the author saw a blurb about the study somewhere and thought it would be interesting to tie it to a purely religious debate about one aspect of bioethics without understanding the study itself, or else these theologians had a debate about it and they didn't bother to attempt understanding the study, or both. Still, the theologians managed to do what such people generally wind up doing; they gave us a bunch of opinions and reiterated the doctrinal positions of their respective religions. Good for them.

The rest of us, I take it, will undoubtedly get on with the business of understanding the real world.

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