Politics and Evolution

A dispatch from the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences


The Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS), is dedicated to the proposition that analyzing politics and philosophy without reference to human biology and evolutionary history would be like deliberately ignoring general relativity and quantum mechanics when discussing physics. Nevertheless, injecting human biology into political discussions still makes most political scientists come down with the vapors.

This past week, the APLS gathered for a conference in Philadelphia, where I participated on a couple of panels on the social and political implications of human cloning and life-extension research. The discussions were wide-ranging, and of course I couldn't attend all the sessions, so what follows are some brief notes on what I heard at the conference.

In a session on "BioPolitics and the Concept of Human Nature," Alin Fumurescu, a political scientist from the University of Missouri, discussed "The Neuroendocrinology of the Pleasure-Pain Calculus." According to Fumurescu, the nerve pathways for transmitting sensations of pain and pleasure are largely identical, like two sides of the same coin. He believes that this biological find in some way undermines utilitarianism, in which the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are seen as the goal of moral action. Instead, Fumurescu argues, the neurobiology confirms an insight about pain and pleasure made by Plato in Gorgias, in which the pain of thirst is satisfied by the pleasure of drinking. (Actually, the point Socrates was making in Gorgias is that pleasure is not equal to the good, and pain is not the same as evil.)

Fumurescu also noted in passing that, contrary to folklore, research shows women are more sensitive to pain than men.

The panel discussion on life extension featured telomere researcher Brad Johnson from the University of Pennsylvania, Editor Eric Cohen of the new neoconservative journal The New Atlantis, University of Minnesota-Duluth Philosophy Professor James Fetzer, and me. Johnson noted that aging appears to be not just the accumulation of physical insults, but an intrinsic underlying process that makes people more susceptible to disease and dying. That means that intervening to slow it down may be possible. Johnson pointed out that there aren't any known therapies to slow down aging yet, but he insisted that there are reasons for optimism. Research has shown how to lengthen the lifespans of organisms like yeast, nematode worms and mice. "If it can be done in model organisms, there is no reason it can't be done in people," he said.

No research thus far has stopped aging in any organism. Johnson said that he was skeptical of anti-aging researcher Michael Fossel's claim that, "We will be able to prevent, even reverse, aging within two decades. At the same time, and as part of the same process, we will also cure most of the diseases that now frighten and destroy us." However, Johnson cited recent work on compounds called sirtuins, which exhibit strong anti-aging effects in the lab. Such research, MIT anti-aging researcher Leonard Guarente suggested, might make it possible to develop a pill that could increase the life expectancy of a 50-year-old by a decade.

Fetzer pointed out that immortality is not in the cards, because even if aging were conquered, people would still die of things like accidents and infectious diseases. He also worried about who would obtain access to anti-aging technologies. Cohen was by far the most skeptical about the benefits of lifespan extension. He worried that extending life would create a planetary nursing home filled with sick elderly people. Or, on the other hand, it could mean that people would be adolescents until age 40, exacerbating the social problems caused by youthful recklessness. Such manipulations may undermine the meaning of human life, Cohen worries. He insisted that "aging is inherent to being human," and that "to be human is to be mortal." Change these givens, and our very humanity is at risk. Just how, he did not make clear. Cohen argued that extending human lives would entail a loss of wisdom that come from the lessons we learn as we age, and may require trade-offs, e.g., a longer life might come at the expense of fertility.

My responses mostly focused on Cohen's concerns about successful life extension. First, the point of longevity research is not to make people older longer, it's to make them younger longer. As for extended adolescence, it might work out that way, but most likely researchers will be trying to find a treatment that arrests aging after one has achieved adulthood. Also, wisdom comes from the accumulation of life experiences, not increasing decrepitude. With regard to undermining the meaning of human life, of course the meaning of life is quintessentially in the realm of the individual's conscience. It seems to me that leaving the choice of increasing one's lifespan up to individuals is a kind of referendum on that question. If a person chooses life extension, that choice would mean that he believes life has enough meaning for him to want to continue. Of course, dramatically extending human lives would require many changes in how society functions, but I suspect that if biotechnology is offering an extra 100 years of healthy life, most people will be happy to engage in the hard work of figuring out how to deal with any problems that may arise.

The panel on Biotechnology and the Concept of Human Nature also addressed questions about the future of a technologically transformed humanity. David Wasserman, from the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, delivered a talk on "The Natural Human Body and the Genetic Baseline," in which he demolished the notion that the human genome might be thought of as an object for historic and cultural preservation. An article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy offered two arguments in favor of such a project: (1) the traditional shape of the human body is like a natural landscape which ought to be preserved, and (2) changes to the genome by means of genetic engineering would damage the human genetic heritage.

Wasserman suggested that the latter argument reflects a commitment to natural evolution or the will of a creative god. Wasserman points out that cultural and historic preservation is not about "types" of buildings, or paintings, or landscapes, but about specific places and things. We preserve Mount Vernon and would be dissatisfied with a house that just looked like Mount Vernon. Wasserman also questions whether people do feel a need to preserve the traditional appearance of the human body, and points out that all cultures have modified bodies, often in drastic ways. Do we really need a "Human Morphologic Preservation Agency" to restrain the ways people might want to use biotechnology to modify their bodies?

Wasserman then asks, "Is the human genome a relic?" If so, he concludes, then its veneration is a recent product. After all, humanity didn't even know it had a genome until 50 years ago. Why is it important to maintain a biological and genetic connection to forebears? Instead, most of us feel that it is more important to maintain a connection to the historic past rather than to the biological past. Genetic engineering would not cut off that connection to history.

Wasserman's colleague, Mark Sagoff asked, "Are Human Beings Co-Creators of Nature?" To answer this question, Sagoff offered three different concepts: (1) Homo sapiens as a biological species, (2) persons as an ethical and moral concept; and (3) human beings, which entail a connection to both (1) and (2), because to be human one must possess the emotional capacities that are characteristic of our species. Manipulating the human genome in such a way that greatly alters these capacities threatens the concept of human beings. Human beings use the emotions that arise from their bodies to make particular judgments about the world. If biotechnological manipulations removed our ability to feel anger, hate or violence, "we would in an important sense not be human beings," declared Sagoff. We'd still be homo sapiens and we would still be moral beings, but not human beings as understood in previous ages, he argued.

But let's say that future genetic engineers discover that there is a gene for suicidal depression and that they can fix it. Would fixing it make subsequent generations non-human beings? After all, most people today do not fall into suicidal depressions, and those happy people are no less human than, say, Sylvia Plath. Sagoff may be right, but his notion seems more like a population concept than one that applies to individual human beings. Most of us may already be incapable of berserker rage or religious ecstasy, yet we are human beings too.

The final member of the panel was Richard Sherlock, a professor of philosophy at Utah State University. Sherlock noted that the Enlightenment project that spawned modern liberal democracies began by trying to keep certain questions about the transcendent out of the public sphere. The questions of the ultimate meaning and destiny of humanity are private concerns. However, Sherlock believes that contemporary advances in genetics are calling that project into question, as people like Francis Fukuyama on the right and Richard Hayes on the left see biotechnological choices as subject to public scrutiny and regulation. The right believes that biotechnology threatens long-held meanings of what it is to be human, and the left fears that the use of biotechnology will increase inequalities among people. However, it seems to me that it is possible, and in fact desperately important, for biotechnology not to breach the Enlightenment understanding of what belongs in the private sphere and what belongs in the public. Technologies dealing with the birth, death and the meaning of life need protection from meddling by others who would use them to force their visions of the transcendent on the rest of us.

As the APLS made quite clear, all future political theory and philosophy must take the findings of human biology, neuroscience and evolutionary theory into account.