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Darwin Day and it’s relevance

Tuesday, 12 February, 2008

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the birth of one of the 19th centuries most influential naturalists, Charles Darwin. The works of Darwin, like the works of Galileo before him, served to knock humans off another pedestal. Galileo showed that humans were not the centre of the universe, and Darwin’s work showed that humans were not the pinnacle of the biological world. It is perhaps for that reason that evolution of humans is not as accepted as the evolution of animals (despite the fact that since Linnaeus, humans have been part of the animal kingdom). But one’s acceptance of evolution can have consequences for the acceptance of human modification.

The majority of people who do not accept evolution do so for religious reasons. As a result, many choose to believe the more exciting view that humans are not just another ape species but are the divine work of God (some, such as theistic evolutionists, are happy to believe both are true).

The Qu’ran, Surat Al-i-Imran (3:59) tells of the story of the first man, Adam:

Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust, then He said unto him: Be! and he is”

This is much the same the idea in Genesis 1:27 – that humans are made in the image of God. Therefore, it can be considered to be an unwise move to tamper with the work of a Creator, who is far wiser than any scientist.

Ecclesiastes 7:13 (which incidentally was used in the opening scene of the movie Gattaca) reads:

“Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?”

If we ignore for the moment the effect this verse may have on the practice of medicine (except for faith healing), it is a nice summary of the idea espoused by many. Humans are the work of God, and a good work at that, and so we can only bring things back to His standard, and cannot make ourselves better.

As is common in the debate of human enhancement, this argument has a secular counterpart among the political Greens and other environmentally minded secularists (whether the Gaians are secular is matter of debate). Basically, it is the argument that the current natural state of humankind is the best we can have.

All of these arguments can be demolished quickly by just accepting (or in the case of the Greens, remembering) that evolution happens. And if humans evolve, and are currently evolving, then any idea of an ‘ideal state’ comes with many problems. If one desires to preserve the current human genome or current human nature, then one must not only work to prevent technological interventions but also the ongoing process of mutation and natural selection that Darwin uncovered (actually, co-uncovered along with Alfred Russell Wallace).

This is summarised by John Harris in his recent work, Enhancing Evolution (p16):

If our ape ancestor had thought about it, she might have taken the view espoused by many of our contemporary gurus, Leon Kass, Michael Sandel, George Annas, Francis Fukuyama, and many others, that there is something special about themselves and that their particular sort of being is not only worth preserving in perpetuity, but that there is a duty to not only ensure that preservation, but to make sure that neither natural selection nor deliberate choice permit the development of any better sort of being.

As we can see, the acceptance of evolution should completely demolish any ‘fetish of a particular evolutionary stage’. However, evolution is not accepted by many people for a variety of reasons, and even if it is, the full consequences of the idea are not recognised. Therefore, doing your part to promote evolutionary theory today (or any other day) will do wonders for the cause of transhumanists around the world.

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