Society & Environment

The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference): Session Six


Series: Pardee Center Conference Series
Dates: April 10, 11, and 12, 2003
Location: Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, Boston University, Boston, MA

Session Six

Roger Shattuck

A Tale of Two Species

Steven Pinker quoted Ortega y Gasset that “Man has no nature.” But the quote continues. “What he has is history.” I would like to discuss one of the most striking early thought experiments in human nature, which has not been mentioned at this conference. It makes use of the commanding position occupied in the eighteenth century by voyages of discovery to unknown lands to discover and describe unknown flora, fauna, and exotic human societies. A similar position is occupied today by research in molecular biology. Gulliver’s Travels appeared in 1726, and its veracity was vouched for by its publisher. It is a classic work of literature and a clever hoax. It is also an experiment on human life.

In the fourth book, Gulliver is cast ashore on an island where human nature has been passed through a prism. A society of horse-like creatures, the Houyhnhnms, has received reason and language and lives in peace, while bands of apelike Yahoos get the rest and live like quarrelsome brutes. Gulliver spurns the humanoid Yahoos, and in one uproarious episode a naked rutting female Yahoo goes after him as an attractive representative of her own species. Gulliver works himself up into a rant against both species and goes mad, rescued finally by a humane Portuguese sea captain.

In Swift’s day, the satire was taken to be a complex political and philosophical warning against going too far in favoring reason above all other faculties and feelings. For us today, Swift’s tale of an island where humans have evolved or regressed into two separate species is a double dystopia, a warning against tampering with our nature, lest we cause ourselves grief and diminishment. The monstrosity of both the bestial Yahoos and the haughty Houyhnhnms unhinges Gulliver to the point of insanity.

A second work, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, was written in 1895 and appropriates Swift’s device of a traveler marooned in a land inhabited by two species descended from humans. The vacuous doll-like Eloi, descended from wealthy landowners, live without toil. Driven underground long ago, the working classes have turned into Morlocks, machine-making savages who feed on the Eloi like livestock. For Wells, the future reveals the social and biological decadence of mankind brought about by our incorrigible selfishness.

Now, a century later, in Lee Silver’s Remaking Eden, we find yet another traveler to a society in which humankind has evolved into two distinct species: the gene-rich, favored by every medical, genetic, and scientific cure and enhancement, and the naturals, left behind in the dust of unimproved humanity. It is a giddily optimistic book, promoting reproductive genetics and germ-line enhancements of every kind. Silver names Wells twice, but neglects Swift, although he is our Gulliver more than he knows. He endorses and justifies the genetic measures available to improve ourselves and our offspring, unrestrained in the open marketplace by any special scruple or limit other than potential individual harm. Like Gulliver fawning over the reasonable Houyhnhnms, Silver revels in the “unimaginable extensions of human capacities available to favored children.” Only in the epilogue does he express some misgivings. A fictional Dr. Varship of the future surveys the results of genetic enhancements and wonders if we have gone wrong. But he recognizes that it is too late to do anything at all. He expresses a regretful resignation over the division of human nature into two incompatible and stunted species. But there is no satire here, no spoof, only muffled sorrow. I have rarely read a book so deeply ambivalent trying to put on a brave face.

One last point, one of the most desired human enhancements is healthy longevity, culminating in immortality. Silver’s long list of enhancements in the last chapter, including cognitive attributes, moral character improvements and radio telephathy, cries out for longevity and immortality as the culminating offerings. But Silver has avoided the big question: Is genetically programmed death one of the defining characteristics of human nature? He therefore missed the opportunity to carry Swift’s and Wells’s story to the further challenge of mortality and human nature. Is life without death worth living?

I’d like to add that I respect Silver’s book very much and was deeply stirred by it. This is the result.

George Annas

I would like to ask two questions. The first is: What kind of humans do we want in the future and how would we like to change them? The second is: How do we create a world where differences are respected and not a grounds for extermination. To explore these questions I want to look at the most well-known cautionary tales of our time, Brave New World and 1984.

Brave New World shows a society based on conditioning and drugs. There, you are born into pods of 96 identical embryos and assigned a specific class, which defined you for life—what job you’d do, what you’d wear, etc. Not only were you conditioned to be that way, but if you were found to be dysfunctional, or needed to maintain your functioning, you were administered slogans or heavy-duty drugs, which many people point out are already available. This view of society, in which we dehumanize ourselves and take away the freedom and creativity that we think defines us as humans, is, by the way, essentially the view adopted by the President’s bioethics council. They think that the only way to stop dehumanization and the commodification of humans is to prohibit things like human cloning and germ-line genetic engineering and to worry a lot about embryo research, organ and egg sales, etc. I think their next step will be trying to regulate Lee Silver’s reproductive technology. They would be horrified by the word reprogenetics, and they will try to stop it.

1984 is Orwell’s vision of a government that does not rely on conditioning and drugs to dehumanize its people, but on fear, surveillance, and a strategy of perpetual war to convince its citizens that they should surrender their humanity and submit to a regime that observes and controls them. Since September 11th, Big Brother has emerged as a much more likely scenario than a Brave New World. John Ashcroft says he’s going to protect our civil rights by doing away with the need for warrants for searches and wiretaps, putting people in jail without habeas corpus, sticking people on Guantanamo, removed from constitutional rights, and countenancing torture. We will have to start taking very seriously a society based on perpetual war, especially in light of developments in nanotechnology and some of the genetic technologies we have heard about. Any powerful technology in the wrong hands reverses its potential for good into one for evil.

Eric Fromm asked if it was possible to change human nature so that we would forget our longing for freedom, dignity, integrity, and love. In other words, can man be made to forget that he is human? I do not know the answer to this question, but I would like to remind you that there are at least two other life forms on the planet that will have a lot to say about our future. One is the corporation. The other is the nongovernmental organization.

Corporate life forms are potentially immortal. They have no natural life span. Since they can also acquire wealth forever, they can grow to be very, very powerful over decades and centuries. They can control large segments of our society and our technology. They are also already running most of the governments of the world.

Nongovernemntal organizations are a life form that people have very ambivalent feelings about. They have grown in numbers almost exponentially in the past decade, as a counterbalancing force both to governments and, most importantly, to corporations. Some people look to them as the best hope for preserving the planet and humanity. In the last thirty or forty years, most of the degradation of the planet has been caused by corporations doing whatever they want in order to extract resources from the earth. Environmentalists have tried to plead with governments, with very little success. Now nongovernmental organizations are trying to find new strategies, like renting rain forests or buying land and keeping it for purposes of biodiversity and conservation.

When we ask how we can create a world where differences are respected and not grounds for extermination, we may talk about governments and self-regulation, but we should also recognize the existence of two other life forms that have enormous power for good and for evil—the corporation and the nongovernmental agency.

Anthony Gottlieb

When I first starting thinking about the subject of this conference, I remembered a book by David Bolter, Turing’s Man, which deals with the impact of the computer on the way we think about ourselves. It argues that the current conception most of us hold regarding human nature has been significantly affected by the development of the digital computer. One of the things I’d like to talk about today is the concept of a defining technology for an era. A defining technology is a way of doing things that is so successful and impressive that people say, “Everything works like that, even ourselves. It’s the key to the universe.”

The first defining technology we know about is from the Greeks. It is the idea of the craftsman—in particular the potter—who fashions form out of raw matter. Plato’s divine master craftsman who fashioned the world out of raw matter, imposing form on it the way a potter does, is an example of this. His theory of Ideas is, in effect, a consequence of this image in the way it sees physical reality as the imposition of form on matter.

The next informing technology was the machine—in particular the clock. People thought the whole universe was a clock and the human body a machine. That was Descartes’ thesis, although he thought the mind could not be handled satisfactorily that way. His implausible and unconvincing attempt to relate mind and body led people to conceptualize the mind itself as a machine. The conception of scientific knowledge was also informed by that defining technology. According to Locke, if we could ever understand all the bits of the world in the way that a clockmaker understands the clock he has manufactured, we would really understand nature. Most of us probably still think of nature that way.

The third great defining technology is, of course, the digital computer. It is related to the mechanical world picture and builds on and extends, rather than obliterating it. We think of our minds as if there were computers and regard our memories and even our characters as software running on the hardware of the brain. In science fiction we wonder whether we will be able to transport ourselves vast distances by downloading ourselves, either by transmitting matter or simply information. There are also people who speak of the whole universe as if it were a computer. That is our own defining technology.

An important question to ask is: Is this the end of the road? Is this the real defining technology? Is this what the universe is really like? It is impossible to answer that question because, by definition, the defining technology is the one we think of as really embodying the truth. But if we adopt the point of view of the intellectual historian, we see that in the past people thought that they really possessed the truth. Are we any different? Will there be other technologies that will lead us to think of the universe and ourselves in an entirely different way?

Part of the answer to that question depends on whether another technology will come along that works sufficiently impressively. I’ve thought of a few possibilities. One is nonclassical quantum computers. We may start to think of ourselves as being sometimes in superpositions or states. We may borrow the language of quantum mechanics to understand our own human nature. Another possibility is string theory, which might affect the ways we think about ourselves, although it is difficult to say just how. A third possibility is somatic engineering, including prosthetics, pharmacology, and nanotechnology. Will we start to think of human nature as a set of states that we can manipulate with drugs, for example?

I should also mention that the main technology we have been discussing at this conference has also been affected by the digital computer. We speak of the genetic code and try to explain it almost completely in terms of the digital computer. Will that change if another defining technology evolves?

The last issue I would like to raise comes from an essay on nature written in the 1850s by John Stuart Mill. In it, he refutes the idea that there is a coherent objection to what we might do technologically by claiming that it interferes with nature. Objections like this, in fact, are based on a systematic ambiguity in the way we use the term nature. If by nature we mean “everything that happens,” then we do not have to worry. If nature is everything that happens, we can never change what happens. If, on the other hand, we mean by nature what happens without human intervention, then the only way we can avoid interfering with nature is by doing absolutely nothing. So I do not think that the notion of interfering with nature is even remotely useful or interesting. If we want to evaluate a project, we should instead look at the consequences and the harms that might ensue.

Evelyn Fox Keller

I originally thought I would speak against the idea of human nature, but I decided not to, primarily because I believe in it, or in something like it. I believe that we are biologically determined. There are, however, several problems with this position. First, I don’t think we are determined solely by individual biology. Second, talk about human nature usually involves us in all sorts of difficulties that keep us going in circles. It ends up only encouraging those opposed to the idea of human nature. Let me try to specify some of the difficulties we often get into.

Several people at this conference defined human nature as something that is universal to the human species. There are several problems with this notion. First of all, it is almost inevitably a normative notion. What counts as a human being if we demand that human nature be universal? Human beings are bipedal, erect animals. Does that mean that people without legs are not human? Is the desire to have children an essential and universal part of human nature? What does that stricture do to people who don’t want children? So one of the first things to stress about human nature is that, if indeed there is such a thing, it is necessarily variable in the species.

Another difficulty with most talk about human nature is the problem of location. Where is human nature? For most of the speakers at this conference, it resides inside of our bodies. The brain makes up the mind. But I could argue that all our brains together collectively make up the individual mind. The individual human mind is a product of sociality. It is our sociality that is distinctively human about us. Many people argue that what distinguishes us from apes is our capacity for mimicry and imitation. They establish a social world that enables the process of cultural evolution, which in turn changes our brains. It changes it in two ways: the culture in which we live rewires our brains; but the blueprint of who we are includes more than our DNA. DNA itself changes in response to cultural evolution. The Baldwin effect states that when we change human nature, we necessarily change the conditions under which natural selection operates.

Take, for example, the arrival of literacy. Literacy did not arise in individual brains, but out of a social community. But the fact of literacy changes our brains. It enhances our memory, our capacity and rewires us in important ways. Literacy is still not a universal trait, but the time will come when we can say that literacy is an essential part of human nature. But where will it reside? That will partly depend on the stage of our evolutionary process. We may have become biologically adapted to literacy in important ways, and in the process changed our human nature.

Yet another problem that has surfaced in these discussion is the assumption that if a trait is universal, it must be genetic. The example of literacy shows that this is not so. A trait can be universal without being genetic. It is important to see that traits that are universal cannot a priori be distinguished on the basis of whether they are genetically determined or the products of particular social and cultural forms.

How do we know what is universal? We labor under an almost irresistible tendency to extrapolate from our own cultural expectations to the species as a whole. For example, we have been told that it is wired into our human nature to maximize our self-interest. Recent studies, however, show that not all people pursue their lives according to the principle of rational economic man. Similarly, the desire to have our own genetic offspring is important in this culture, but not in others. So let us be very wary about talking about human nature as a universal characteristic.

Finally, there has been very little discussion at this conference about changing species-wide characteristics. Most of it had to do with changing the nature of some humans. Two questions immediately arise. Which humans are we going to change, and how are we going to change them? Right now we are particularly infatuated with the possibilities of change presented by genetics. But there are all sorts of nongenetic ways of approaching this project. One of the most important ways is changing the cultural, economic situation of people, a mode of changing human nature that has been little talked about in this community.

If we want to talk about changing the nature of some human beings, then we should be explicit about the various ways in which we can do it. We must then envisage the results, compare them and assess risks, cost, and their implications for future generations. What is so special about genetically manipulating the nature of some humans?



This is a chapter from The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference).
Previous: Session Five  |  Table of Contents  |  Next: Participants’ Biographies and Contact Information




Longer-Range, F. (2014). The Future of Human Nature: A Symposium on the Promises and Challenges of the Revolutions in Genomics and Computer Science (Conference): Session Six. Retrieved from


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