The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement

Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg


The Wisdom of Nature and the Special Problem of Enhancement

We marvel at the complexity of the human organism how its various parts have evolved to solve intricate problems: the eye to collect and preprocess visual information, the immune system to fight infection and cancer, and the lungs to oxygenate the blood. The human brain—the focus of many of the most alluring proposed enhancements—is arguably the most complex thing in the known universe. Given how rudimentary is our understanding of the human organism, particularly the brain, how could we have any realistic hope of enhancing such a system?

To enhance even a system like a car or a motorcycle—whose complexity is trivial in comparison to that of the human organism—requires a fair bit of understanding of how the thing works. Isn’t the challenge we face in trying to enhance human beings so difficult as to be hopelessly beyond our reach, at least until the biological sciences and the general level of human abilities have advanced vastly beyond their present state?

It is easier to see how therapeutic medicine should be feasible. Intuitively, the explanation would go as follows: even a very excellently designed system will occasionally break. We might then be able to figure out what has broken and how to fix it. This seems much less daunting than to take a very excellently designed, unbroken system, and enhance it beyond its normal functioning.

N. Bostrom • A. Sandberg (*)

Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

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D. Ho (ed.), Philosophical Issues in Pharmaceutics, Philosophy and Medicine 122, DOI 10.1007/978-94-024-0979-6_12

Yet we know that even therapeutic medicine is very difficult. It has been claimed that until circa 1900, medicine did more harm than good (McKeown and Lowe 1974). And various recent studies suggest that even much of contemporary medicine is ineffectual or outright harmful (Newhouse and Group TIE 1993; Frech and Miller 1996; Kirsch et al. 2002). Iatrogenic deaths account for 2-4% of all deaths in the USA (the third leading cause of death according to one accounting (Starfield

  • 2000) ) and may correspond to a loss of life expectancy by 6-12 months (Bunker
  • 2001) . We are all familiar with nutritional advice, drugs, and therapies that were promoted by health authorities but later found to be damaging to health. In many cases, the initial recommendations were informed by large clinical trials. When even therapeutic medicine, based on fairly good data from large clinical trials, is so hard to get right, it seems that a prudent person has much reason to be wary of purported enhancements, especially as the case for such enhancements is often based on much weaker data. Evolution is a process powerful enough to have led to the development of systems—such as human brains—that are far more complex and capable than anything that human scientists or engineers have managed to design.

Surely it would be foolish, absent strong supporting evidence, to suppose that we are currently likely to be able to do better than evolution, especially when so far we have not even managed to understand the systems that evolution has designed and when our attempts even just to repair what evolution has built so often misfire!

We believe that these informal considerations contain a grain of truth. Nonetheless, in many particular cases we believe it is practically feasible to improve human nature. The evolution heuristic is our explanation of why this is so. If the evolution heuristic works as we suggest, it shows that there is some validity to the widespread intuition that nature often knows best, especially in relation to proposals for human enhancement. But the heuristic also demonstrates that the validity of this intuition is limited, by revealing important exceptional cases in which we can hope to improve on nature using even our present or near-future science and technology.

The evolution heuristic might be useful for scientists working to develop enhancement technologies. It might also be useful in evaluating beliefs and arguments about the ethics of human enhancement. This is because intuitions about the wisdom of nature appear to play an important role in the cognitive ecology of many anti-enhancement advocates. While sophisticated bioconservatives (aware of the distinction between “is” and “ought”) may not explicitly base their arguments on the alleged wisdom in nature, we believe that such intuitions influence their evaluation of the plausibility of various empirical assumptions and mid-level moral principles that are invoked in the enhancement discourse, just as the opinions and practical judgments of the pro-enhancement transhumanists look more plausible if one assumes that nature is generally unwise. Addressing such hidden empirical backgrounds, assumptions may therefore help illuminate important questions in applied ethics.[1]

  • [1] On the role of mid-level principles in one area of applied ethics, see Beauchamp and Childress1979.
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