The human animal: Evolution and transhumanist enhancements

Prairie vole (Wikimedia Commons)

My previous blog post looked at the suggestion by Savulescu and Sandberg to introduce hormonal reinforcements to make marriages and romantic partnerships more durable. Two transhumanist thinkers looked at two species of voles, one monogamous (prairie voles), one polygamous (montane voles), then broke this difference down to their hormonal economy, and finally concluded that the human hormonal economy could be altered to resemble that of the monogamous voles even more clearly, in contrast to the polygamous voles: we need more oxytocin, which could be administered with a nasal spray.

That post dealt primarily with a specific question concerning enhancements: hormonal reinforcement yes or no? But I am picking the question up again as the issue raises the interesting question what views about humanity are operative in the enhancement discourse. The article by Sandberg and Savulescu opens with the words, “It’s easy to forget that we humans are animals, too”.

Indeed it is, and there’s no doubt that we humans share strong evolutionary ties with other animals (even if voles are not necessarily very close to us in the evolutionary family tree). In a sense we truly are animals. But it’s not at all clear what that means in ethics.

Take the example at hand. Monogamous voles have more oxytocin, so if we increase our own oxytocin level, we might be more monogamous – animals here, animals there. But then one commentator remarked on the nasal spray:

“But … if you know that that feeling arose at about the time you started taking oxytocin … well, might it get in the way of the feeling?  Would a person who knew himself to have taken the chemicals ever really be able to take his feelings seriously?  That’s not at all obvious.”

Humans seem a bit more complicated than your average vole. The way we conduct ourselves in meaningful relationships is more subtle and nuanced than the nasal spray folks think. In comparison with a renewed commitment to a (human) relationship or the decision to break up, the hormone solution seems mechanical, whereas my own activity hinges on meaning making.

Sometimes it might not be as easy as Ella Fitzgerald thought: birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it (fall in love, that is…) (Wikimedia Commons)

The nasal spray proponents indeed draw on mechanical imagery. They write, “If human and vole brains share similar wiring, as research suggests, we might be able to modify our mating behaviour biologically as well”. Nasal spray yes or no, continuing a relationship or breaking up must make sense to me, rather than simply ‘happen’ or be ‘induced’. Along the same lines, human sexuality has a deep dimension of meaning. Hyper-reflexivity might well kill the romance, but something seems wrong in describing human sexuality as “our mating behaviour.” The analogy between humans and voles goes only so far.

For one thing, human sexuality cannot be reduced to “behaviour”. Behaviour is unthinking comportment, while what we perform, guided at least by a little reflection and sense, are acts rather than behaviour. It is difficult to imagine that a human person will be willing to continue, say, certain sexual practices unless at some point he or she has the impression that it’s worth it, that this is a good thing.

With a hormone boost, then, I might essentially try to circumvent my own human meaning making. But I find it unrealistic that we will consider fooling ourselves with a nasal spray (or at least trying to) a good thing. I will not be able to out-vole those monogamous voles by artificial endocrinological means. This is to insist on the irreducibility of human meaning making.

Jacob Moleschott (Wikimedia Commons)

By contrast, a 19th century physiologist, Jacob Moleschott, argued that “the brain secretes thought like the kidney secretes urine”. In this scenario, human meaning making is restricted to enjoying a certain physical setup that leads to pleasurable feelings and thoughts, and perhaps to pursuing a certain sort of physical setup that results in even more pleasurable thoughts. The difference between this sort of human and the monogamous vole is that the person might regulate his or her hormonal economy up or down, but both voles and humans are united, in this scenario, in that mind follows matter, in life being regulated by pleasures and the experience of reward.We might even say that this vole-person engages in meaning making as well, except that this meaning making is strictly reducible to pleasure.

These experiences of pleasure are then assumed to have evolved to reward adaptive behaviour, to result in a “mating behaviour” that scores high in Darwinian fitness and produces a lot of offspring. In human evolution, all of these regulations are still in place, except that we do not necessarily want to reproduce in the same numbers as voles do. Apart from the reproductive numbers, we’re essentially extra-smart voles following the promise of pleasure. As E. O. Wilson memorably put it, “The genes hold culture on a leash”.

The assumption in this context is that our pleasure responses are genetically hardwired, that the genes in our primate lineage have evolved to find certain things pleasurable, just as the genes of the monogamous prairie voles have evolved to make them find monogamy pleasurable, while the polygamous montane genes have not. Human behaviour does not stray far beyond what the genes allow for.

Mind, however, that such an evolutionary scheme leaves little room for irreducible moral categories such as right or meaningful. Rather than being extra smart voles, we make some choices because we think they are inherently right, not because they are pleasurable, or because the perception of rightness is a pleasurable sensation.

A caricature of Darwin’s insight into the human descent from an ape-like creature (Wikimedia Commons)

So are we humans not animals after all? This is a peculiar question as probably there is not one simple thing that being an animal is like (and for the philosophically minded, neither is “that what being an x is like” an illusion, a mere epiphenomenon, or a negligible quantity). There are the most varied kind of animals. We will find the kind of life one could lead in a chimpanzee colony more interesting than that of a sponge.

That does not mean, however, that the reality of human experience is that of an overly smart chimpanzee rather than that of an extra smart vole. Might an animal have the sense that it is doing something because it is right rather than because it feels pleasurable? I have long been intrigued by an episode Frans de Waal narrates in his book Chimpanzee Politics, in which a female witnessed an “unfair” lethal attack by two chimps on another one and then, seemingly quite outraged, chased one of the culprits up a tree. But who knows. Not even de Waal thinks that chimpanzees are moral agents who would critically scrutinise their own behaviour.

But I do take his work to indicate that sometimes, in some way, we would find the question of meaningfulness, of consistence in what that animal does, popping up even in a chimp’s mind. Further, in the last few years, an increasing number of studies on “chimp thanatology” have been published (for example, here, here, and here, in addition to this book). This is the contentious question if chimps feel some inkling of grief when confronted with dead family members.

It would not seem that feeling some sense of awe (if not grief) when faced with a dead relative is particularly pleasant. Given how close the ties between a chimp relatives can be, it is difficult to argue that a chimp would just be confused when feeling some sense of awe before a dead relative. Neither does such a feeling increase a chimp’s Darwinian fitness. So we should keep an open mind to the idea that not only are humans a particular kind of animal, but that the lives of some other animals may also include perceptions of meaningfulness, rather than being simply dictated by a drive to maximise Darwinian fitness and pleasure.

Meanwhile, the idea that humans are animals isn’t really very helpful in ethics. Instead, the tendency to modify human nature in order to maximise pleasure tends to lose sight of more profound dimensions in human life.