Metaphors choking Sam Harris’s thought

* Insert tedious rant* This piece by Sam Harris was brought to my attention as being a hot topic on transhumanist sites. As far as I can make out, Harris is arguing for challenging nature’s limitations through the use of all available technology, including genetic modification.

His conclusion is:

Considering humanity as a whole, there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design. We are probably not even optimized for the Paleolithic, much less for life in the 21st century. And yet, we are now acquiring the tools that will enable us to attempt our own optimization. Many people think this project is fraught with risk. But is it riskier than doing nothing? There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve, at our current level of intelligence. Could any rational strategy be more dangerous than following the whims of Nature? This is not to say that our growing capacity to meddle with the human genome couldn’t present some moments of Faustian over-reach. But our fears on this front must be tempered by a sober understanding of how we got here. Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us.

Well yes and no. I am all for progressing humanity through any possible means. However, like some of the commenters (such as Diacanu) , I don’t put very much faith in our capacity to avoid making our existence worse, unless we can manage to evolve whole new ways of thinking and producing and consuming and relating to each other and fitting into our environment.

I was more struck by this piece as an example of how insidious religious ways of thinking can be. Sam Harris has been led by his own use of metaphors into drawing conclusions that depend on forgettiing that metaphors are just that.

Mother Nature is a metaphor. We pretty well all know this. There are currently almost no cults that really worship a female Nature deity, unlike the many cults that seriously worship a male sky-god-of-Abraham.

So, to say that Mother Nature is not our friend is obviously also a metaphor. There is no Mother Nature. So Mother Nature is not our invisible friend. Nor is Mother Nature our invisible enemy. Metaphors are fine for helping to enhance our understanding but they can easily develop a life of their own. That way lies religion …..

We are part of the natural world. We can’t pit a notional human development against a notional nature.

Harris says “there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design. We are probably not even optimized for the Paleolithic, much less for life in the 21st century.” This is well out of synch with my limited understanding of evolution. Evolution doesn’t optimise things, like some giant Intelligent Designer surely. So why fall into the stupid theist trap of seeing humans as facing external forces?

We aren’t “optimised” for anything or any era.. The Paleolithic era and the 21st century are not objective facts. They are human constructs, created to describe our cultural world at various stages of development.

We survived as species precisely as a result of being best equipped to win in the normal processes of natural selection. This includes the human capacities for communication and thinking that have allowed us to dominate the planet. We could hardly be more “optimised” for successful species survival. Well, unless we were rats or cockroaches.
Species can easily grow too populous for their environment then run out of the necessities for life support and become extinct. We are well past the point at which the earth can easily absorb our crap.

Tiger Woods’ golf swing (as referred to by Harris) is remarkable. Envying any gifted person their capacities to the point at which one feels that lacking their gifts is a disability is the road to madness. By all means, use technology to implant fantastic golf skills in your brain, if you want to, Sam (I would have to start by implanting an interest in golf in mine) but don’t put that enhancement in place of that part of the brain where the capacity for clear thought should be.

It’s not some external Nature that sets bounds on human development. Our development is a part of Nature – it shapes and is shaped by the rest of the natural world. We can only rely on human knowledge and intelligence to find ways to continue to prosper as a species without completely fucking it up.