Homo optimus and the God is Dead Morality
The saying goes that “truth is stranger than fiction” and there are some days when I firmly believe it. Just prior to writing this article, I came across two headlines out of Britain that sounded like science fiction but were presented as much more real than that.
The first article, published by the sensationalistic Daily Mail, blared the headline: “Is technology causing us to ‘evolve’ into a new SPECIES? Expert believes super humans called Homo optimus will talk to machines and be ‘digitally immortal’ by 2050.” [i] The article discusses the futuristic predictions of futurologist Dr. Ian Pearson who claimed that trans-humanism will be the norm by 2050. He is quoted as saying that “with optimised genomes and bodies enhanced by links to external technology, people could be more beautiful, more intelligent, more emotionally sophisticated, more physically able, more socially connected, generally healthier and happier all around.”
This optimistic description reminds me of the introduction to the old 1970s television show, Six Million Dollar Man, starring Lee Majors as “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive.” The intro continued: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.”
Granted, all this does sound like science fiction and perhaps a bit far-fetched but much more realistic is the news “British scientists granted permission to genetically modify human embryos.” [ii] According to the more respectable news agency, Telegraph, “the Francis Crick Institute could begin the controversial experiments as early as March after the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) gave the green light this morning.” This development is nothing new as reports out of China indicate that they started carrying out the same experiments last year. While the Institute insists that the reason for the experiment is to determine what causes failure to implant or miscarriage it is obvious that the door is also opened for genetically engineering designer babies. Brave New World, indeed!
Many people are familiar with Charles Darwin and his two major publications: Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. The topic of both Darwin and evolution has been part and parcel of Western thought for the last two hundred years, creating a great deal of controversy along the way. My intent is not to debate the “truth” of evolution, since I am not a scientist, but rather to point out the moral consequences that result from the idea.
The concept of evolution predated Darwin for between one and two hundred years. For several decades prior to Darwin, the concept was most associated with political radicals. Darwin was aiming for a more mainstream audience and so his Origin of Species left out any reference to human beings. It was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, that introduced the human element into the theory, writing first for Macmillan’s Magazine in 1865 and then publishing a book entitled Hereditary Genius in 1869. Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. [iii]
While Origin of Species was focused on hereditary and historical development The Descent of Man was more an exercise in applying the ideas and concepts to future humanity. As such, eugenics, the science of breeding, was introduced into the human arena, so that human beings could be bred much in the same way as dogs and racehorses were.
The key element to Darwin’s theory was “the survival of the fittest” and when applied to human beings it meant that only the fit should breed while the unfit should not. For Darwin, humanity’s care for the sick, weak and stupid, along with the practice of allowing them to reproduce, meant that humanity was headed for a decline and ultimate downfall. Darwin wrote that:
If … various checks … do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. [iv]
To be fair to Darwin he did not advocate direct extermination since human beings had evolved in such a way as to develop charity and mercy as an “incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts.”[v] However, two points need to be made here. Firstly, sympathy was not a moral virtue for Darwin, it was simply a process of social evolution, and secondly, this ‘sympathy’ factor could become as serious disadvantage in the long run. Benjamin Wiker points out that:
But we must remember that the trait of sympathy is not essentially good. It came from indifferent random genetic variations. It is no more moral than, say, red hair, blue eyes, or the Habsburg jaw. On Darwin’s account, the things we call “moral” are simply traits that somehow contributed to our ancestors’ survival. Oddly enough, Darwin asserted that we could not “check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” The evolutionary development of sympathy as a trait was, so to speak, worth the cost. I say “oddly enough” because evolution doesn’t aim at any goal, such as nobility. Evolution aims at utility, that is, at the usefulness of particular traits under particular circumstances. When circumstances change, these same traits might actually prove harmful. Thus, even though sympathy may have helped one set of people cohere, it could actually become harmful to them when the load of “unfit” becomes so heavy that it weighs them down when they come into conflict with another set of people unburdened by the sympathy trait. [vi]
Darwin was not willing to abandon the sympathy principle writing that “hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind,” while at the same time suggesting that “the weaker and inferior members of society” might keep from “marrying so freely as the sound,” or better, “refrain from marriage” altogether. [vii]
As history shows us, the sympathy principle was quickly dismissed for a more calculated and pragmatic approach.
Ideas Have Consequences
When we speak of eugenics today it is mostly associated with Nazi Germany. It was the Nazis that took eugenics to its most logical conclusion with their proclamation of the “master race” and after World War II eugenics was, for a time, vilified and renounced. But it wasn’t only the Nazis who were proponents of eugenics. Eugenics was widely espoused throughout the early 1900s throughout Europe and North America for the idea had caught on like wildfire. In Canada, a former National Democratic Party (NDP) leader, dubbed “The Greatest Canadian” for having been the father of universal socialized medical care, wrote in defence of eugenics. His Master’s thesis was entitled The Problems of the Subnormal Family and was published in 1933. To his credit he did not advocate nor support the idea of eugenic sterilization. [viii]
Forced sterilization was already legalized in the Canadian province of Alberta (1928) and occurred among the indigenous population as late as 1974. [ix] In the United States, Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was a zealous and outspoken advocate for abortion, the licensing of procreation, forced sterilization and aggressive birth control. Some of her comments include: “Give dysgenic groups [people with “bad genes”] in our population their choice of segregation or [compulsory] sterilization” and “Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.” [x]
Now that we know much more about DNA and the human genome a whole new vista has been opened up to the proponents of eugenics. In a June 2003 article entitled 21st Century Eugenics, the authors wrote about well respected scientists who were making disturbing comments:
The foremost example is Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, who is also an outspoken proponent of using genetic engineering to “redesign” future children and “improve” the human species. During the recent “DNA at 50” celebrations, The London Times reports, Watson repeated some of the ideas he has voiced many times before: “If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease…. So I’d like to get rid of that…. Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world…. People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great.”[xi]
When all is said and done we cannot accuse people who hold these eugenic views of being illogical. If we accept their first premise, namely that all life is simply the result of random evolution, then everything else that follows makes perfect sense. Since we are not created in God’s image, nor do we have a fixed nature, neither then can we say we have a set purpose in life laid out by any religious or moral standard. Coldly put, life is survival of the fittest and if we allow our sympathies to get the better of us then we are depriving our species of its proper evolutionary impulse. The weak, infirm, immoral, genetically disadvantaged, stupid and less desirables (read non-Caucasian) must be segregated, weeded out, prevented from breeding and, if need be, actively eliminated so as to free up much needed resources for those who are superior.
Of course it does, and that leads us to our next philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche and his Ubermensch (superman).