There is an argument favored by some fans of evolutionary psychology that goes something like this:
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future.
That is the major premise. The minor premise is: “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates.”
The rollocking conclusion is:
Moral Bioenhancement…Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals…Our knowledge of human biology — in particular of genetics and neurobiology — is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process.
That was a lot of words, so let me simplify. (1) Evolution made us exactly and everything that we are. (2) Through evolution we learned to create many things. (3) We are now beyond evolution. (4) So we must use our evolutionarily gained skills to create things to catch back up to where we would have evolved to if we evolved along with our inventions.
David Stove called this approach the Cave Man way: “you admit that human life is not now what it would be if Darwin’s theory were true, but also insist that it used to be like that.”
In the olden days (so the story goes), human populations [were subject to evolution]…But our species…escaped long ago from the brutal régime of natural selection. We developed a thousand forms of attachment, loyalty, cooperation, and unforced subordination, every one of them quite incompatible with a constant and merciless competition to survive…
The Cave Man story, however implausible, is at any rate not inconsistent with itself. But the combination of it with Darwin’s theory of evolution is inconsistent. That theory is a universal generalization about all terrestrial species at any time. Hence, if the theory says something which is not true now of our own species (or another), then it is not true—finish…
If Darwin’s theory of evolution is true, no species can ever escape from the process of natural selection.
In short, we cannot evolve beyond ourselves.
Paradoxically, purveyors of the Cave Man argument are split on whether ancient mankind was peaceful, coexisting with nature as in a James Cameron fantasy and that he is now hyper-competitive and a positive harm to himself, or that mankind was then brutal, leading nasty, violent existences and that he is now on the verge of New Consciousness, Utopia is within his reach if only he would do X.
X for the authors—the ever-appalling Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson—of the current incarnation of the Cave Man is jiggering with genes, i.e. “moral bioenhancement.” Something like: Stop the badness in the womb before it escapes and pollutes the world.
Savulescu, in the manner of our president asking if he has any faults and his retorting “I care too much,” offers three “criticisms” of his theory.
Objection #1: We may be too late to apply our panacea. “Moral educators have existed within societies across the world for thousands of years — Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, to name only three — yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised.” The omission is noted.
Objection #2: Who can evolve beyond evolution and discover the way out of being human? Moral gene replacement therapies “will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them.” And how can this be if those who will do the developing are stuck in the pre-enlightened evolutionary state? Savulescu has no answer save to say it “is possible for humankind to improve morally to the extent that we can use our new and overwhelming powers of action for the better.”
Objection #3: Some people might actually vote for Mitt Romney against their better judgment. (Just kidding!) “[T]here is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right.” All we need do is stop “Powerful business interests” from holding us back from voting the proper way.
Rarely do we come across a man who argues so badly and yet reaches such a lofty position as Savulescu has. The only explanation is indeed evolutionary: many people like to have power over other people and will say anything to get it.
Note: the appalling Savulescu with Persson has written a book entitled Unfit for the future: The urgent need for moral enhancement. Has anybody a copy they would like to lend? I’m averse to putting money in that man’s pocket.